Why Nickelback (yes!) means so much to Jimmy Butler and the Miami Heat's title run

There are few NBA superstars who exert wider, broader influence on their team than Jimmy Butler. Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

IT'S AN HOUR after the Miami Heat shocked the basketball world, taking a 2-0 lead over the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. And Jimmy Butler, who just scored 27 points in 41 grueling minutes is ... singing. As he walks to the postgame podium, inside a makeshift conference room in the belly of Boston's TD Garden, country music singer Morgan Wallen's "Somebody's problem" blares from a speaker attached to the Heat star's phone.

Somebody's problem, but that ain't minnnnnne, Butler croons.

As he breaks down the game, and his heated, forehead-to-forehead exchange with Celtics forward Grant Williams, after which he led the Heat on a game-winning 22-9 run, Butler pivots, and acknowledges the unique song playing from his phone.

"I'm kind of like the DJ, so I get to pick and choose what we listen to."

It's an acknowledgement as much as it is a truism the Heat have long known and embraced: Butler is unequivocally the center of what the Heat do on the floor -- as evidenced by arguably the most dominant postseason run by any player in franchise history. But he's also their cultural nucleus off it -- and that extends to everything, even including the control of an eclectic playlist that vibrates into his teammates' ears pre- and postgame.

And no one dares to challenge it -- or him.

"Usually when you hear the music blasting you know it's him," Heat guard Duncan Robinson tells ESPN. "Regardless of what's playing."

Nikola Jovic, a 19-year-old rookie, admits there are times he sits at his locker and pulls out his phone to find out what Butler is playing.

"I'm not gonna lie," Jovic tells ESPN. "Sometimes when he plays something in the locker room and I like the song and I don't know it, I will put the app -- Shazam, so I find out what song it is ... either you love it or you don't and that's all."

Does Jovic ever ask Butler about his selections?

"No," he is quick to say. "I'm not asking questions. No. No questions."

ROUGHLY 13 HOURS before his star teammate played Wallen's song, Cody Zeller sits in a black-padded chair inside TD Garden and smiles when asked if any of Butler's musical choices have resonated with him.

"I've heard more country here than I have probably in my other nine years in the league combined," Zeller tells ESPN. "So I actually enjoy when he's the DJ."

As a proud native of Tomball, Texas, Butler has blazed his own unique path in the NBA. Dating back to his early days with the Chicago Bulls -- the team that drafted him No. 30 overall in 2011 -- Butler has never hid his love for country music.

Butler has always taken pride in his country roots -- even as a rookie, when he would, at times, wear cowboy boots into the Bulls' locker room and get razzed for it. A decade-plus later, Butler's loyalty to those roots has opened up his teammates' eyes to this genre of music. Udonis Haslem, a 20-year Heat veteran, doesn't hesitate when asked which of Butler's musical tastes have given him a new perspective.

"Country," Haslem tells ESPN. "Country music. It's the first time I actually took time to actually listen."

Butler's connection to country music, while questioned at times by teammates during his various stops around the league, offers a reminder that Butler will always march to the tune of his own drum on -- and off -- the floor.

Heat guard Gabe Vincent, who notes he started listening to country music more while the Heat were in the Orlando, Florida, bubble in 2020, has a different type of appreciation for his teammate.

"He listens to just about everything," Vincent tells ESPN. "While some people may, a lot of them aren't bold enough to put it on the speaker in the locker room."

THERE ARE ABOUT 55 minutes until Game 2, and Haslem is lacing up his red shoes and trying to remember the lyrics to a Nickelback song. And there's a reason.

The room is quiet -- Butler hasn't commandeered the speaker system quite yet -- as players and staff members walk in and out, the pregame tension simmering inside the arena.

At 42 years old, Haslem is the oldest player in the league, and plans to retire at season's end. He has seen plenty of team DJs come and go over two decades, but not one like Butler.

"Got to have good versatility as a DJ. You got to be able to please different crowds," Haslem tells ESPN.

Consider a March 11 game in Orlando. The Heat had just lost in overtime to a 28-40 Magic team that would eventually miss the playoffs. Butler, who had just poured in 38 points in 39 minutes, had walked off the floor with 17 seconds left on the clock. In the postgame locker room, Butler, with seemingly little care in the world, plays -- and sings along to -- a collection of Nickelback songs at his locker as teammates and staffers quietly eat a postgame pizza spread.

At one point, Butler turns to Haslem to describe the postgame tunes.

"He's just explaining the song to me," Haslem said. "A lot of times the reason why people might diss or whatever is 'cause they don't understand the song or they don't even give it a chance to listen. They just immediately s--- on it. Once he started telling me what [Nickelback lead singer Chad Kroeger] was saying and I started listening to it, then it all made sense."

Haslem pauses and puts his head down, trying to pull the Nickelback lyrics back from his memory. He's trying to sing through the verse to remember.

"Oh man," Haslem said. "I can't remember, but it's something about it's like, 'Just give it your all,' or 'stuck between, rock and a hard plaaaace. It's like rock and a hard plaaaace.' Something like that."

As Butler continues putting together one of the most memorable postseasons in recent memory, Heat guard Max Strus expresses what many within the Heat locker room feel: Butler can play whatever songs he wants as long as he keeps playing like this.

"He plays anything and everything," Strus tells ESPN. "It honestly surprises me that whatever he plays before the game gets him going. Sometimes it's Miley Cyrus, sometimes it's Justin Bieber, sometimes it's Rick Ross. You just never know what it's going to be."

Strus laughs.

"Whatever he needs to keep doing what he's doing," Strus said. "We're all here for it."

BACK AT TD GARDEN, as Butler says his goodbyes to arena staffers and makes his way through the tunnel that leads to the bus that will take the Heat to the airport, a new Wallen song, "865," blares from his speaker.

So how does he decide which songs he's going to play?

"Honestly, it don't matter," Butler tells ESPN. "Because I'm going to go out there and be the best player any way you look at it. But you can play gospel, you can play country, you can play hip-hop, I can be silent. Now's the time, man. Ain't no stopping what we got going. Get on the train! Get on the bandwagon!"

The Heat, now just one game from their second NBA Finals appearance in four seasons, are hoping to ride the momentum Butler has created on the floor. The versatility within his game matched only by the diversity within his playlist.

"He has a pretty broad taste," Vincent said. "So you never really know what he's going to put on. But I feel like I have a pretty broad taste as well, so it doesn't surprise me. It's just like, 'It must be Jimmy on the aux.'"

Love echoes a similar sentiment.

"More than anything," Love said, "what it does is just keeps us loose."

The job of team DJ has long been a sacred one inside an NBA locker room. While the prestige can fluctuate from team to team, it's usually a role saved for an organization's star player or trusted veteran. The Heat are no exception. It's a one-man DJ booth.

While Haslem gets some occasional time as the musical conductor, it's Butler, whose phone is connected via Bluetooth to a portable speaker, who regularly runs the show. If he hears someone turn the music down, he turns it up on his way out just to leave his mark -- and send a message. "It's all him," Zeller said. "He's making all decisions. I don't think he takes any feedback."

"It's his music," Strus said. "When he's on the aux, it's his show and we just let it ride and go with the flow."

AS THE HEAT wrap up their shootaround prior to Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, a small media horde walks onto the Boston parquet floor as music from a nearby speaker floats in the air. Butler, who walks off the court as the media descends upon it, still has sway over the choices even on the rare occasions when he doesn't pick out what is played.

The responsibility for this shootaround playlist falls on Remy Ndiaye, a video specialist on the Heat's coaching staff. The lyrics to one of Ndiaye's picks are unmistakable as the rest of Butler's teammates get shots up in advance of a game that few, besides them, ever thought they would make.

"Jimmy," Martha Reeves and the Vandellas begin to sing. "Jimmmmmy."

In the classic song released in 1966, Reeves and the Vandellas describe the love she feels for Jimmy Mack, an old flame, whom she hopes returns soon as new suitors come calling.

In 2023, the Heat have their own Jimmy, the type of player the rest of the league's teams wishes they had.

Strus, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs cheering for Butler and the Bulls, says his teammate is the most confident player he has ever been around.

"He's a unique individual," Strus said. "And I've learned a lot from him. He's phenomenal in the way he carries himself. And it works. It shows that he's confident in himself, he takes over games, he does whatever he wants to do."

Including nearly daily music appreciation class. For as much pride as Butler takes in leading the Heat on this unexpected playoff run as the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, he takes almost as much in broadening his teammates' musical palette -- and creating new relationships for them -- along the way.

Bam Adebayo and Vincent, for their parts, have gotten to know Irish singer Dermot Kennedy after initially being introduced to his music by Butler.

"He's the one artist that Jimmy started playing that I gravitated toward," Adebayo tells ESPN. "Yeah, Dermot Kennedy. ... That's one I'll give Jimmy."

Same goes for Haslem, who struck up a friendship with country singer Matt Steele after initially hearing his music on one of Butler's playlist.

"It means a lot," Butler said. "Because I get to introduce them to my friends. Those are people that I have relationships with outside of the music, so I'm always going to support them. And at the end of the day good music is good music. All good people need to hear good music. And it's a big reason why we're winning, because we're listening to my friends."