Chris Herro didn’t want to send the text, didn’t even want to pick up the phone. But he was the father of a 19-year-old, worried and couldn’t stop himself.
It was 11:30 on a summer night, and his son, Tyler Herro, had been drafted a few weeks earlier by the Miami Heat. Tyler had driven down from his home near Milwaukee to Chicago after getting an invitation from new teammate Jimmy Butler, a 29-year-old NBA All-Star, and they were having their first night on the town. And, well, Chris wasn’t quite sure about all this.
“As a parent, you hear stories about Jimmy and you just want to make sure he’s OK,” Tyler’s father recalled about that night in July 2019. “He snapped back at me, ‘Dad, you gotta stop texting me. Jimmy is a good dude.'”
By the end of that week together, it was Butler who was telling stories about Herro.
“Obviously, he’s a rookie. But I tell you, whenever he’s out there on the floor, the swag that he plays with, the moves that he makes, you’d think he’s been in the league for 10-plus [years],” Butler said.
The Tyler Herro story that is developing is now well known. He is having one of the most prolific rookie playoff performances in NBA history. The Heat guard exploded onto the scene with a 37-point outburst in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals and then an 11-point fourth quarter in Game 6 to finish off the Boston Celtics. On Sunday, he delivered a sneer seen around the basketball world when his 3-point play finished off a 17-point performance and Game 3 of the NBA Finals.
Herro has gained attention because of his skills, but even more because of the jarring mix of his baby face with his confidence. When he made that driving basket against the Los Angeles Lakers, curling his lip as he glared at the Heat’s family section, he was just 6-of-18 shooting and had blown an easy layup a few minutes earlier. These are just not the typical actions of a young man on the biggest stage in a grown man’s league.
To know Herro, though, is to know that he does not care what he’s supposed to be doing.
He did not care when he had a miserable Game 1 of the Finals and came back and had a strong Game 2. Then, even though he was 3-of-13 shooting through three quarters of Game 3, he scored eight vital points by making 3 of 5 shots in the fourth to help the Heat close it out and climb back into the series, now down 2-1.
“My confidence is just, that’s just who I am,” Herro said. “You can’t survive in this league if you don’t have confidence.”
Herro is the first rookie to start in the Finals since Courtney Lee in 2009 and the youngest player to start a Finals game in league history. And according to ESPN Stats & Information data, Herro is on pace to average the most points (16) and minutes (36.7) per game as a rookie in the Finals since Magic Johnson in 1980. None of this fazes him. Trace back Herro’s confidence and glimpses could be found when he was 12 years old.
“It was a 3-on-3 tournament. And there were these three sixth-graders who come and sign up for the eighth-grade division,” recalled Andy Monfre, a youth basketball coach who was running the event. “I asked them, ‘Are you guys sure you entered the right bracket here?’ They were like, ‘Yeah, we’re sure.'”
It turned out one of the sixth graders was Tyrese Haliburton, who later went on to star at Iowa State and in November will be a first-round draft pick, and another was Herro. They won the tournament.
This has been a recurring theme during Herro’s basketball journey. Big ambitions and being underestimated forced him to respond with hard work and confidence.
It happened when he was in grade school, high school and when he decommitted from nearby Wisconsin and switched to Kentucky when he was 17. And it’s still happening as he takes his NBA peers by surprise.
His dad and his coaches lost count of the number of times he’d show up at a camp or an AAU tournament and no one would look twice at him. Then they’d see how fast he was, how he could change directions and manipulate the ball and that quick, sweet release on those jumpers.
“What people don’t get is you have to be confident in yourself to play at a high level,” Herro’s father said. “You can tell them, ‘You’re good,’ but if [they] don’t believe in that it doesn’t matter. Ty always believed in himself.”
There is a litany of Herro gym rat stories out there. Monfre, who started coaching him after he torched the eighth graders in that tournament, lived nearby and would pick him up for workouts at 6 a.m. in the summer before going to his day job as an attorney. When Monfre came back to the community center to work with other kids at night, Herro would still be there.
One time at 5 a.m., Chris Herro got up to use the bathroom and found Tyler about to leave to go to the gym. Tyler had gotten frustrated because the high school coach’s key fob wouldn’t open the gym before 6 a.m., so he opted to go to a 24-hour club, where he could start earlier before school.
“He holds himself to such a high standard,” said Travis Riesop, Tyler’s coach at Whitnall High School. “He’s so meticulous about workouts, [Tyler] expects himself to have game speed on a move by the third try.”
“When he was 12, he would learn things in a week that took other kids his age a month,” Mondre said.
“Tyler has worked hard since he was a little kid,” Haliburton said. “[What he’s doing now] is what we’ve dreamt of since we were kids, and it doesn’t come as a surprise to me.”
Herro was not an early bloomer; he didn’t hit the growth spurt that took him to 6-foot-5 until his sophomore year in high school. His formative years were spent surprising people and then — when his name started getting out and opponents started coming after him and opposing fans started heckling — shutting people up.
“I’m just going to bet on myself. I’ve been doing that my whole life,” Herro said. “I went from a small town in Milwaukee to Kentucky, and nobody thought I would survive there, and nobody thought I would survive [in the NBA].”
There’s some hurt behind Herro’s words. He has some scars. Most high-level players endure criticism and doubt; it’s part of the journey. Many of Herro’s relate to his choice to decommit from Wisconsin after his junior year of high school and instead go to play for John Calipari.
The Badgers made the Final Four when Herro was in eighth grade. They beat undefeated Kentucky in the Final Four in 2015, when Herro was a freshman in high school. The next year, as a sophomore, he showed up in Madison for a camp.
“That was my introduction to the legend of Tyler Herro,” said Nigel Hayes, a Wisconsin star from 2013 to 2017. “Everyone was talking about this other kid. I’m watching the kids and I see Tyler. And I started telling people, ‘I don’t know who this white boy is, but he’s something special. You might want to keep an eye on him.'”
Herro committed to the Badgers at the start of his junior year. But that legend indeed kept growing, and he had an explosive AAU season before his senior year. Big-name coaches started calling, and 13 months after making his pledge, Herro backed out. Within weeks, he was locked on Kentucky, a place he had dreamed about going to for years.
Herro received major backlash at home; he was crushed on social media and jeered relentlessly by fans when he went on the road. Then he got two big snubs — from the committee picking McDonald’s All Americans and from the Wisconsin panel that didn’t give him the state’s Mr. Basketball award, even though he averaged 33 points, 7 rebounds, 4 assists and 3 steals a game.
“This is going to make some people mad. I was one of the ones who advised him not to go to Wisconsin with the talent he has,” said Hayes, who finished his career third on the Badgers’ all-time scoring list. “I told him the only people who are upset with him are the ones who are selfish. Only way he can thrive is not walking around thinking he’s less than. He’s a growing seed.”
Hayes mentored Herro through those challenges, making a statement by showing up at Herro’s senior night in full Badgers gear to show support. That mantle has been picked up by Heat players this season, particularly Butler. Herro’s intensity and belief in himself showed up quickly once he arrived in the NBA, and he immediately carved himself a role on a team with lots of veterans.
“He is relentless with his work ethic,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He has a great competitive humility about him. He has a confidence. He has a fearlessness that is uncommon. But he’s humble enough to work, to be coachable, to take the mentorship from the veteran players that we have on our team.”
Butler has become an adjunct member of Herro’s family. When they all got together for the first time at a breakfast last year, Butler charmed Herro’s younger brothers, Austin and Myles. Chris Herro watched as Butler, knowing Tyler’s brothers admire him so much, built up the rookie in front of them.
People around the team will tell you it was Butler who reined Tyler in during the season when South Beach got tempting. And it was Butler who helped keep Herro’s spirits up when a foot injury in February shut down his season for 15 games — and could have hampered Herro longer had the pandemic not given him time to heal.
That support from teammates and Herro’s natural drive paved the way for his play. And that has gotten the Heat excited about what is in his future — for the Finals and beyond.
“You know, at the end of the day, all you can do is work at it, perfect your craft, come in with a great attitude and just respect everybody in the building,” Herro said. “Good things will happen from there. It’s just about putting in the work and really putting in time and effort to something you love.”