19/04/2024

Meet Jimmy Butler’s personal defensive specialist and how a trail from Africa delivered him to the Heat

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Meet Jimmy Butler’s personal defensive specialist and how a trail from Africa delivered him to the Heat

Remy Ndiaye has taken a most unique path to the Miami Heat from his roots in Africa, holding the unique job description of being Jimmy Butler's personal one-on-one defender during drill work by the Heat forward.

Remy Ndiaye has taken a most unique path to the Miami Heat from his roots in Africa, holding the unique job description of being Jimmy Butler's personal one-on-one defender during drill work by the Heat forward.

DENVER — Amid what has been an uneven ride to the finish line for Jimmy Butler has been the relentless pursuit of something better, a truer jumper, a quicker first step, an addition to his offensive repertoire.

Amid that relentless pursuit has been his own personal defensive specialist, one who blazed a trail from Africa to the NBA Finals.

Listen to Butler over these past months and years with the Miami Heat, particularly during the best of times, and one name has flowed as much as any other.

“Remy can’t stop me.”

“If I can score on Remy, I can score on anyone.”

“Remy thinks he can stop me, but he can’t.”

Each time offered with both smile and respect.

That’s Remy as in Remy Ndiaye, whose formal title in the Heat staff directory is “video specialist,” but is so much more.

To go back to the genesis of the relationship with the native of Senegal is to go back to Butler’s Nov. 12, 2018 trade from the Minnesota Timberwolves to the Philadelphia 76ers.

At the time, Butler had come to be viewed by some as a pariah, having also been part of a trade from the Chicago Bulls 17 months earlier.

But upon his arrival to the 76ers’ training facility, Butler found a kindred spirit, one with an equal passion for the game and for creating excellence.

“He’s the first person that we met when Jimmy got traded to Philadelphia,” Bernie Lee, Butler’s agent, said amid the NBA Finals. “Jimmy went at 5 o’clock in the morning to do his physical and Remy was in the building, and from the day he met him until today, his energy has never changed. He’s just always smiling, a good, genuine person that you can always rely on.”

Julius Erving talks with Remy Ndiaye during the Julius Erving Youth Basketball Clinic at Sixers Practice Facility on September 8, 2018 in Camden, New Jersey. (Photo by Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Julius Erving Golf Classic (PGD Global Event))
Julius Erving talks with Remy Ndiaye during the Julius Erving Youth Basketball Clinic at Sixers Practice Facility on September 8, 2018 in Camden, New Jersey. (Photo by Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Julius Erving Golf Classic (PGD Global Event))

To Ndiaye, there was no preconception.

“A lot of people don’t know this, until you’re around him, you realize this dude has a big heart,” Ndiaye told the South Florida Sun Sentinel ahead of Monday night’s Game 5 of the Finals against the Denver Nuggets at Ball Arena. “He does everything for his people. And that’s what connects me with him from the beginning. He really cares about people. Until you’re around him, and he comes to know who you are, it’s hard to understand it.

“But me being around him, just the first day we met, I knew this dude is a great dude. He came in and started asking about family, ‘Where you from?’ and stuff like that. Those little things matter. And that’s the main thing that connected me with him. He has a big heart.”

Little did Ndiaye know, but at that moment, Butler also was sizing him up.

At 6 feet 6 and with considerable length, Ndiaye set up as the perfect practice partner, having taken a defensive bent during his playing days at Northern Oklahoma and Dallas Baptist.

Basically, he stood as defense on demand.

Remy Ndiaye, player development specialist for the Philadelphia 76ers, visits Goree Island on July 27, 2019 in Dakar, Senegal. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)
Remy Ndiaye, player development specialist for the Philadelphia 76ers, visits Goree Island on July 27, 2019 in Dakar, Senegal. (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

“It’s all about getting him ready before the game,” Ndiaye said of their drill work that can come at the break of dawn, the stroke of midnight, on the Heat practice court, at the University of Miami, the University of Colorado during the NBA Finals, or whenever the workout whim suits Butler.

The rules are clear. Ndiaye never plays offense. If he stops Butler, he gets a point. If Butler scores, Butler gets to gloat (and a point).

“I do the best I can to be very careful with him,” Ndiaye said of the sessions. “I’ll play good defense. I’ll contest. I’m right there like everybody else is contesting. But it’s all about getting you ready for the game. He’s been very good. I’m not letting him score all the time. I try to get stops, too.”

Because of the relationship, the sessions can be heated without becoming contentious.

For  Ndiaye, 33, it is just another step in a journey from Dakar, Senegal, that included the influence of his uncle Makhtar Ndiaye, the former NBA forward, work with NBA Africa, and eventually his path to the 76ers.

Butler grew so taken with Ndiaye and his story that he has traveled to Africa to visit with Ndiaye’s family.

“Every time he came in the morning, I’m there just to help him rebounding and that’s how it started,” Ndiaye said of their time in Philadelphia. “And since then, he ended up going to Senegal, seeing the family, seeing the kids, playing basketball with the kids and all that. That was huge. And since then, that’s the relationship that we have. And everyone in Senegal right now, they just love him.”

When Butler moved on to the Heat in 2019, he asked Ndiaye to come along, just as Butler has had personal trainer Armando Rivas along at each NBA stop.

For Ndiaye, it has meant working with Butler on demand, but also being a presence with the rest of the roster, often jumping into NBA Finals pregame scrimmages with Heat neophytes such as Orlando Robinson, Jamal Cain and Nikola Jovic.

“He’s in the video room,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, “which is the best training I think in the league, to learn about scouting and tendencies, strengths and weaknesses of teams. And then he’s fully immersed in our player-development program. And, yeah, he spends a lot of time with Jimmy, but he helps everywhere.

“Any time Jimmy wants to get up extra shots or play one-on-one, Remy’s a perfect guy for that, because he’s played college basketball and he knows how to push Jimmy to give him some game reps.”

All done with an effervescent passion of someone grateful for the opportunity.

“I think the most important thing is he’s just a great human being to be around, always has a smile on his face,” Spoelstra said. “He brightens up every single room. You get in the middle of a long NBA season, travel, pressure, and all that stuff, you just love interacting with a guy like Remy. He brings a brightness to the day.”

And added an extra body to practices when the months of the season took their toll.

“He’s definitely more defensively minded than offensive minded,” Spoelstra said with a smile. “But he’s spent so much time with player development, he’s gotten better offensively, as well. He’s definitely in the Swiss Army Knife mold. I can slot him in in a bunch of different positions defensively.”

To some, having a personal defender might stand as a height of hubris.

To Butler, it is a means to an end of the relentless pursuit of an NBA title.

“I think there’s a skill and an art to it,” Lee said of Ndiaye’s work, “to have guys that are of certain length, and understand the movements of the players that are trying to sharpen things, and make things difficult without making them hard, if that makes sense, competitive without it being over the top. Remy’s done this for so long, especially with Jimmy, that he really understands what exactly it is that Jimmy’s going to need.”

Seasons end, but the work continues.

“He works hard and that’s what passion is made of,” Ndiaye said of Butler. “And for me, coming from Senegal, this is just the same thing from back home. My parents put me in the same situation, to help everybody — help my grandparents, help my aunt, everybody. And that’s still is what it is right now.”

A passion to make Butler better.

A passion to make basketball better.

A passion to broaden basketball borders.

“My main goal, as every single African kid, I wanted to play in the NBA, which didn’t happen,” Ndiaye said with a laugh. “But now, my goal is to be the first Senegalese coach in the NBA. But I also wouldn’t mind being an international scout, because I love helping the kids. There’s a lot of talent back home that I want to bring here.

“I’m also planning on, hopefully, getting other players to see not just what Senegal is about, but see what Africa is about, see where their roots are.”

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