May 4, 2005
“Would you have been happier had they lost by twenty?”
I’m sitting in my basement, having just watched one of the great gut-wrenching Bulls games of all-time, and all I can think is that I finally know what this feels like. Gilbert Arenas gave the Wizards the win and a 3-2 series lead with a buzzer beating jumper not ten minutes ago, and as he was mobbed in celebration by his teammates while the United Center faithful stood in shock and disappointment, all I could do was think of Cleveland. And Utah. And New York. And Phoenix.
I racked my brain, trying desperately to locate a game in my vast ocean of Bulls memories in which my team had lost at the hands of a last second shot, and for the life of me I could not come up with one. Certainly in all my years as a Bulls fan, I must have at some point watched a game in which the other team won with a game-winner, but obviously it was not a game that mattered. All I could think of was MJ over Russell, and Pax in Phoenix, and MJ over Ehlo, and Kerr against the Jazz, and Ben Gordon’s floater over the Knicks, and MJ over Gerald Wilkins, and always Jordan, again and again and again, until you get to the point where it’s not even dramatic.
I remember Michael’s last shot so vividly…Bulls down three, Jordan gets a layup, Bulls down one, Jordan gets a steal, and then down the court he comes and we’re all just waiting for it, everybody’s waiting for it, and then he pulls up and hits like we all knew he would. I didn’t jump up and down in excitement. I didn’t high five anyone. I clapped my hands and smiled. “Good ol’ Mike. Always hittin’ game-winners.” This was a shot that had just given us a championship. It may as well have been a first quarter free throw. We all had a pretty good sense that this might be it, and so did Jordan, as he stood with his arm raised after the shot swished through so that everyone could take in the moment, so that the photographers could get their picture. When all you do is win, your thinking becomes skewed. We were excited for the shot, not because it gave us the lead, but because it was such a perfect image and because it ended the dynasty “the right way.” We were excited for another Bulls title, not because we won a championship, but because it provided symmetry. Two three-peats evenly spaced out over eight years. How perfect.
But then there’s the other side, the part that always gets lost, because you can’t have a winner without a loser, and you can’t have elation for some without dejection for others. What was so routine for us Bulls fans was tragic for the Jazz fans. There you are, a Jazz fan in your own arena for Game 6 of the NBA Finals. A minute earlier, you were up three points and heading to Game 7. Now it’s over. Now you realize that in the end, the only purpose your lead served was to make the game more memorable…for us. You’ll remember this Jazz team for the rest of your life. Stockton and Malone, Hornacek, Russell, and Ostertag, a smart feisty team led by a coach of the same vain, Jerry Sloan. The Jazz have already retired Stockton’s number 12. It won’t be long before Malone’s 32 is hanging beside it. To you, those guys were legends, but to us, they were just another in a long line of teams that did nothing more than provide the Bulls with an opponent. That’s all. Different teams, same result. Bulls win. Bulls win. Bulls win.
After that shot, Sports Illustrated ran a cover photo of Jordan’s game-winning pose from the front, face towards the camera, no one else in the frame. That’s how it was for us. But the better picture is the one from behind, because it’s that picture that shows the full truth: Utah fans behind the basket, their hands on their heads and their mouths dropped to the floor and an empty look in their eyes that screams with pain. It’s like the realistic side to an action movie. As a viewer, your concern is John McClane, and at the end of Die Hard Bruce Willis limps off the screen, wife in his arms, a hero to all. Cue happy music, the credits roll, and everyone leaves the theater having had a rip-roaring good time. But what about the innocent people killed along the way? Sure, they don’t matter to us, the viewer, because we understand that an action movie requires some innocent people to be killed, because bad guys kill innocent people, because if they don’t then they’re not bad guys and then John McClane need not worry about them and he can instead spend his Christmas kicking back by the fire drinking and having a good time with his family. But then we wouldn’t have a movie, would we? So for the good of the movie, innocent people must be sacrificed. The front desk man shot in the head at the start of the first movie, or the people on the plane that crashes and explodes in the second movie, or all of the cops who are mowed down by bad guys before Bruce saves the day. Aren’t their families devastated? Do they care that McClane is OK when they’ll never see their loved ones again?
Of course, it’s an action movie, so we don’t ask those kinds of questions. They’re totally irrelevant. But you see my point. As Bulls fans, we expect Michael to hit his shot and we expect the Bulls to be victorious, and that’s all that matters to us, just as we expect John McClane to limp away laughing at the end of each movie. McClane wins. His wife survives. And all under two and a half hours. Perfect.
So now here I am sitting in my basement, and now I know what it feels like. My throat is still quite sore from yelling during the Bulls twenty-two point comeback, a comeback that accomplished nothing more than to give Gilbert Arenas a stage for a dramatic shot. The fourth quarter threes from Pargo, Kirk, and Ben—five in all—and the put backs and rebounds from Tyson and all of the cheering from the Bulls bench and the fans at the United Center, all of it led to one thing: Washington fans were treated with a memorable victory. And so my dad, with whom I watched the game, posed an interesting question to me, one I’ve yet been able to answer: “Would you have been happier had they lost by twenty?”
It’s such a different feeling, getting blown out and losing at the end. I may be an intense sports fan, but in no way do I actually equate a basketball game to actual life and death matters. That being said, the best way I can describe what these kinds of losses feel like is with life and death matters. Getting blown out is like having an old family member die of cancer. It’s horrible, certainly, but it gives you time to prepare for the end, because it’s only a matter of time until the clock runs out. You get time to come to terms with the end and what it means long before it happens. Losing a game not in a blowout but just because the other guys were clearly the better team is like losing a family member to old age. It’s easier to accept because there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s “just the way things are.”
Then there’s losing a game the way we lost today. When you lose a game at the buzzer after battling back from a twenty two point blow out, it’s like having a family member get cancer, then having that person fight until the cancer is in remission, having them get out of the hospital, and then having them get hit by a bus the next day. Things are bleak, and then you’re given just enough good to get your hopes all the way up, and then they’re dashed cruelly and quickly, and a part of you is left wondering why fate had to mock you in such a nasty manner. “If only Washington had just pulled away, I wouldn’t have to feel quite so terrible now.”
My dad, on the other hand, did not go through what I went through, because he wrote this team off long before the final buzzer sounded. He wrote them off at halftime when we went into the locker room down 63-49, and again with a minute to play in the third when we were trailing 86-68, and again with eight and a half to go in the game down 94-82, and again with just under four to play down 102-90, and finally with 42 seconds to play down 108-98. My dad wasn’t giving up necessarily; he was just being realistic and accessing the facts. What my dad saw was a feisty yet clearly undermanned Bulls team that didn’t have the fire power to hang with the Wizards. He saw a team that didn’t look like it had much of a spark in the first half, just as they didn’t have much of a spark in the two losses in Washington. While I was fired up and ready for a comeback built on desperate threes that were finding ways to drop through, my dad, ever the realist, knew that games can be won on one or two desperate threes, but not on six or seven or eight of them.
So my dad wasn’t out of breath when Arenas took his game-winner, and he wasn’t in shock when the ball dropped through, and he wasn’t depressed by the final score. The facts pointed to a Washington victory, facts like their 56.1% shooting mark or their 49-36 rebounding edge or their two (and if Hughes had been healthy all year, three) All-Stars compared to our team of role players. Having measured up the facts, and having seen the way both teams had played for the first three quarters—as well as since the start of Game 3—my dad was sure that a Washington victory was in the stars. How we got there was not important, because he knew that every Bulls spurt and every Tyson dunk and every Pargo three was just delaying the inevitable. The movie will provide good drama and shocking twists and an outcome that’s in the balance until the final scene, but John McClane will live and Hans Gruber will die because that’s the way these things go, and having watched the Bulls for three quarters, it was clear to my dad that on this night, they were John McClane and we were Hans Gruber.
But then why rent the movie? What’s the point of watching? Of course we know how it’s going to end, but knowing that the ship would sink didn’t stop Titanic from grossing over 600 million dollars in the U.S. box office, and knowing that John McClane will live and Hans Gruber will die does not stop people from enjoying Die Hard. I get excited when McClane falls down the elevator shaft, and I get excited when he has to run barefoot across a floor covered in broken glass, and I get excited when all of his options seem to be gone and yet he finds a way to win, because the movie is well made, and because I’m not watching it to see Bruce Willis happily limp off screen. I’m watching it to see why he’s limping, and why he’s happy. I’m a smart guy, and a reasonable guy, and I know as well as my dad does that the Wizards have more basketball talent than do the Bulls and that you can’t win games with nothing but lucky shots. But maybe you can, and so I put my heart into the game and cheer throughout, even when things get bleak, even when we’re playing poorly, even when I know that the Bulls will need to get awfully lucky to win this game. Sometimes that kind of hope and emotion pays off with a win, like it did when Illinois beat Arizona. And sometimes it doesn’t. But you watch and you cheer and you enjoy every moment, because otherwise there’s really no point.
The Bulls closed the third quarter on an 11-2 run to cut the Wizard lead to thirteen, and when the horn sounded my dad stood up to refill his water. “Well,” he said, as he walked to the sink, “it’s on to Game 6.”
“Oh come on! What’s a matter with you? We’re coming back.”
“We’ve been coming back the whole game. The Bulls just don’t have it tonight. I wish they did, but they don’t.”
“It’s down to thirteen. We’ve had some big fourth quarters this year.”
“Well, we’ll see who’s right.”
He was right. But I had more fun.
So now we head back to Washington, where we’ve lost ten in a row and two straight playoff games and where our season might come to an end in Game 6. Things aren’t looking good for the Bulls right now. The losses of Curry and Deng are starting to show, and with Washington getting All-Star contributions from their All-Stars and solid games from their role players, the Bulls look like they might be in trouble. After dominating Games 1 and 2, talent may have caught up with the Bulls. It could be what Rick Telander called it yesterday on the Score: a delayed sweep. But then again, maybe it’s not. Game 6 is Friday, and a win in Washington brings the series home for Game 7. Can the Bulls rebound and even the series? I don’t know, but I’ll be watching.