AS JIMMY BUTLER and Max Strus prepare for each Miami Heat game in the 2023 NBA Finals, they have a ritual. It’s one that Butler has gone out of his way to cultivate with all his teammates. Sometimes, it’s a handshake, sometimes it’s a series of handshakes — but in Strus’ case, it’s just one finger.
As Butler and Strus cross paths with one another on the floor, they fake like they’re going to shake hands — and then each raise their middle finger quickly, conveying, believe it or not, their mutual admiration. Like many others on the Heat, Strus has an origin story for the gesture.
“My first year here we played one-on-one a lot and it would get intense and we just started saying ‘F You’ to each other a lot,” Strus told ESPN. “One time, he just didn’t shake my hand and I flicked him off.”
As he walked away after his loss, Butler turned back and witnessed the one-finger salute.
He loved it.
On a team full of players who are wired just like him, Strus earned even more of Butler’s respect.
“Then that was our handshake,” Strus said. “It’s just our thing.”
Not everyone was thrilled with such repeated obscenity.
“My agent [Mark Bartelstein] wasn’t very keen of it,” Strus said. “He was like, ‘If you get fined for this, I’m not helping you out at all.’ But nah, it’s jokes. Everybody knows it’s just our thing. My parents don’t care, they were all right with it, but Mark wasn’t too fond of it at first, but he gets it now.”
They all do. Butler’s meaningful routines with his teammates have built a deep camaraderie within the Heat — a team-wide trust that will be put to the ultimate test, down 3-1, entering Monday’s Game 5 in Denver (8:30 p.m. ET, ABC).
BUTLER IS A man of routine, especially before games. He goes through a carefully constructed ritual that includes personalized moments for almost everyone. Coaches and staff members usually get double fist pounds and a quick hug. Veterans Kevin Love and Kyle Lowry get a more formal handshake.
“We’re all business,” Love told ESPN. “It’s like a straight-up contract shake.”
Lowry, who landed with the Heat in 2021 in large part because of his relationship with Butler, echoed a similar story.
“It’s me,” Lowry told ESPN, while describing how the pair came up with their routine. “I’m just the professional. I’m the consummate professional. Just a handshake. Go out there and be professionals. I’m not cool enough to have a [more involved type of] handshake — I don’t have the memory like that.”
Heat guard Gabe Vincent isn’t sure exactly when he came up with his handshake with Butler.
“I think it was my rookie year,” Vincent said. “It just kind of organically came to us.”
When Butler sees Vincent, both men extend their right index and middle fingers and then touch them together for a couple seconds before bringing their fingers under their noses and then pounding their chests.
“It’s kind of one of those things it just kind of clicks,” Vincent said. “It just kind of happens. You’re like, ‘Oh, I guess we’ll just keep doing this.’ And here it is, some are more planned, some are more deliberate in that manner, but I don’t think ours was.”
Each interaction, no matter the time or effort involved, is another way for Butler to connect with his teammates.
“You’re talking about the journeys that I’ve had with so many different guys,” Butler told ESPN. “It’s all about making us smile, keeping it free flowing, no pressure, you’re not worried about nothing. Just two human beings, two brothers, two teammates, two guys that’s in the trenches together and you just come up with something out of nowhere, but it’s us.”
TO MANY WITHIN the Heat locker room, Butler embodies all the characteristics that have come to define the organization’s renowned Heat culture.
“I’ve learned so much from him,” Heat guard Caleb Martin told ESPN. “More than anything how to go about and navigate my journey since I’ve been here, especially since I came on a two-way and — with him it’s crazy because he’s just a reminder of where you can be at, even through the struggles.”
Like some of the older veterans, guard Duncan Robinson gets a firm handshake from Butler on his way to the floor, but Martin’s moment comes with a little more pizazz: A right-hand handshake, then a left-hand handshake and a nod — with some words exchanged.
“We were just playing around, making some s— up,” Martin said. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, that’s gonna be our s— now.’ It just ended up being like that. It was just random.”
Martin said the pair practiced the routine in the locker room and over time it stuck. To Martin, the handshake represents the journey he’s been on to get to this moment, a similar one Butler originally blazed a path for over 12 years ago that many of his younger teammates are trying to follow.
“A lot of it has to do with heart with us,” Martin said of what his handshake with Butler represents. “He says all the time, guys like me, Gabe, Max, obviously everybody down the line, but those undrafted guys for sure, you got to be the heart. You got to be the heartbeat of the team. And so we always tap twice and then dap up, so a lot of it, we’re just tapping our heart.”
NO PLAYER HAS more heart on the Heat than Udonis Haslem. The 43-year-old, 20-year Heat lifer has poured his professional soul into the organization and is usually the last person in line for Butler to connect with before he hits the floor for tipoff. Justifiably, he also has the most coordinated exchange with the Heat star.
It’s a series of six handshakes, with some motivational words in between, words that Haslem wanted to keep between the pair.
“One, one-two, one-two-three taps,” Haslem told ESPN. “It’s just something we say with it. What we say matches the hand clap. It’s in rhythm. I can’t tell you what we say but what we say matches.”
Heat center Bam Adebayo‘s handshake, for his part, comes with a unique reason why the pair chose their quick exchange.
“If you watch ‘Finding Nemo’ you’ll figure it out,” Adebayo told ESPN.
In the popular Disney movie, Crush the sea turtle tells his son, Squirt, to “give me some fin!” after the young turtle excitedly asks if his dad saw what he just did. Then Crush says, “Noggin” and points his head at the young turtle so they can bump heads in celebration.
Before each game, Butler and Adebayo mimic the celebration, slap the front of their forearms together and then touch heads. “You do it once,” Adebayo said. “And then after a while it becomes a routine.”
Love, who signed with the Heat in February and has been in the league for 15 seasons, knows it means something when a handshake sticks with Butler.
“When he got here he understood very quickly that it was all about one thing,” Love said. “So for me it’s an understanding of like he knows that he has to set the tone and lead us and if you see us, it’s like OK, it’s just that eye-to-eye understanding. Unspoken language.”
HOURS BEFORE GAME 2 of the Eastern Conference finals and yet another one-finger salute with one of the players he grew up cheering for in the Chicago suburbs, Strus described what it felt like playing with Butler.
“He feeds us all confidence,” Strus said. “The way he’s been approaching every day, every game. We have all the confidence in the world we can win any game with him going like that. He’s one of, if not the best player in the world right now and we’re just happy to be a part of it.”
Veteran center Cody Zeller, another member of the handshake team, summed things up in a similar fashion.
“It’s a lot of fun,” Zeller told ESPN of playing with Butler. “You just let him go to work. You just enjoy the show.”
And that show begins well before tip.
“It’s huge,” Love explained of Butler’s routine. “It’s that common ground. I think for what we have within our locker room and how special the locker room has become, I think having that with every single player goes a long way because you want to have that extra effort, you want to go that extra mile for that teammate and you want to sacrifice for ’em.”
“He’s one of the most selfless stars I’ve ever been around,” Vincent added. “I think in general. On the court, off the court, I think just the way that he’s selfless — he has a lot of belief in his teammates. He has no problem swinging an extra pass or just making the right read. I think he has a great respect for the game of basketball and wants to see it played purely.”
He also wants the ties that bind the Heat to be pure. It’s why he has spent the time cultivating the handshakes that define his routine — and a new pillar of Heat culture.
“It’s us through and through,” Butler said of the handshakes. “And we’re not worried about nobody like I always say. If some of our handshakes bother people, it is what it is, man, we smile and we’re having fun with it.”
ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk contributed to this story.