Since I’ve written so much about YOUR WORLD CHAMPION CHICAGO BULLS! (don’t you still love hearing that?), I figured I would create one page with all of my best Bulls work. Essays from Bear Down and On the Johns from 2006 to the present.
I will also post the best Bulls-related youtube vids, links to other people’s Bulls writing, and whatever else seems appropriate.
Learning the Hard Way–The Tale of Jordan’s Bulls vs. the Bad Boy Pistons
It got to a point where it wasn’t even about basketball anymore. The Bulls-Pistons rivalry obtained legendary status in all of our imaginations. In my mind, Bill Laimbeer was not a basketball player. He didn’t even seem human. He was a supervillain, the Devil himself, a life force of pure evil sent to this planet to destroy our heroes, the Chicago Bulls. There were two supervillains in my childhood (and I say this with zero hyperbole): one was Saddam Hussein, and the other was Bill Laimbeer.
(And frankly, I was much more terrified of Laimbeer. Two reasons. A. We had an entire army dedicated to stopping Saddam. Who was going to stop Laimbeer? Dave Corzine? Brad Sellers? A pre-goggles Horace Grant? And B. Saddam lived way off in Iraq. When you’re nine, who the hell knows where Iraq is? On the other hand, as far as I knew, Laimbeer could make the drive west on 94 at any moment and, in about four hours, be here in person to terrorize us.)
Determined to Win–The Tale of the 1993 Chicago Bulls
As the Knicks looked to finish off Chicago and maintain their home court advantage, Starks moved slyly to his right before surging down the baseline, leaping for a sideways tomahawk jam right over Jordan and Grant, with B.J. looking on. As the crowd at Madison Square Garden exploded in celebration, Starks stuffed the ball through the rim, spun down towards the court on his hands like Barry Sanders breaking a tackle, and then shot up to run down the court and high five his teammates.
It was a statement play, one that announced the Knicks as a true force in the NBA and in the East. Had the Knicks won the championship, that play would have been the moment that Knick fans harkened back to as the spot in which their beloved Knicks went from runner-up to champion. But the Bulls were still the Bulls, and as much as the professionals seemed to ignore that, I knew the full weight of what it meant.
Moving On–The Tale of Scottie Pippen’s 1994 Chicago Bulls
There are some events that have an immediate impact, even while we attempt to sort the meaning and make sense of our emotions. This wasn’t like Jordan’s second retirement in January of 1999; that was expected. He was 35 by then, the NBA was in the midst of its lockout, and everyone had a pretty good feeling that 1998 would be his final year. No, this retirement was a shock. It was a blindside tackle. It was your girlfriend dumping you on Valentine’s Day, or going in for a promotion and getting fired instead. A month before the season, the Bulls looking stronger than ever, fans wondering if we would become the first “Four-Peat” since the Celtics finished off their run of eight straight in 1966, and the greatest player the city has ever seen walks away.
When something like this happens, it makes you question everything; your universe is fundamentally changed. It’d be like waking up one morning and finding gravity obsolete. Michael Jordan’s first retirement felt like an alteration of our basic, Earthly laws. Life would continue, the world would go on, and basketball would still be played, but in Chicago we wondered what the three would be without Michael Jordan. What did it mean? Is nothing guaranteed? With this in the books, what other mind-blowing events would take place? Perhaps we’d go to the ballgame one day and find the Cubs now playing at ’69 Mets Field, or Comiskey Park II. In a world where Michael Jordan plays for the Chicago Bulls, that could never happen. In a world where Michael Jordan retires one month before the season starts despite the fact that he’s only 30 and is still quite clearly the best player in the L, the impossible is possible and reality is faulty and everything we know as sports fans, and dare I say, human beings, is suspect.
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.
In a way, these details are all inconsequential. This isn’t like Illinois losing to North Carolina, where they had a chance to win a championship. I didn’t expect the Bulls to get out of the second round, and I’m not that upset that we lost to the Wizards. Washington is a very good team, and they played great basketball for four straight games. It would’ve been great to see this team advance to the second round, but losing in the first in no way detracts from what we did all year. This season is still a huge success, any way you cut it.
No, the loss that I feel right now, that I feel throughout my body, is from knowing that there are no more games to be played for the 2004-2005 Chicago Bulls. That’s what sucks the most. I’d love it if we could go out and play Miami, but really I’d just love it if we could go out and play tomorrow. Any time. Any gym. Any opponent. They can scrimmage against the Charlotte Bobcats for all I care. I just want to see them play again.
From the archives of On the John
Oh, how I would love to see KG decked out in a Bulls uni. Imagine it. Close your eyes and imagine it. Duhon brings the ball up. Steady. He gets past mid-court. Captain Kirk and Luol are in constant motion—keep moving, keep moving—looking for an opening. Big Ben stands under the basket, always looming. And on the low left block, earning the opposition’s top interior defender, is Kevin Garnett, who sails his hand up into the air, calling for the ball. Du swings it to Kirk, who dribbles to his left before bouncing it inside to Garnett.
Can you see it? The floor is spread. Shooters and slashers all around. Garnett is underneath, ball in his hands and back to the basket. His defender leans, taking a step back. Cautious. And then it happens. KG…
…kicks it out to an open shooter for a three.
…turns suddenly—fast—and rises up for a turn-around J, MJ-style.
…takes one dribble towards the middle of the court before spinning hard towards the baseline and ripping off a vicious two-handed dunk that shakes the court.
…faces up square to the basket, and with his man nervous and backing Garnett stutter-steps to his left before taking one mondo-dribble right and then raising up one-handed, exploding into the lane and up to the rim like Dominique in ’87.
(You can pick. I’ll wait here.)
I loved what Duhon did for the Bulls. Loved his game, his passion, loved that we won nearly 59% of our contests when he started compared to only 48% when he did not. You can never actually know an athlete simply from watching him play. Rasheed Wallace is probably nicer than he seems on the court, and perhaps Grant Hill is more prickly than he lets on. I can’t miss Duhon the person; I never knew him. If I did, maybe I’d be glad he was leaving town. Maybe Du felt underappreciated and underused in the red and black. Maybe he celebrated, knowing he would be given the starting job he’d earned time and again in Chicago. If he is happier in New York, then I am happy for him, Chris Duhon, fellow human being. For now though, all I can speak to is the basketball player, the guy who busted his ass for my team, who handled his continued demotion like a professional (until perhaps the very end).
Jerry Seinfeld once said that we’re only cheering for laundry. He may have a point. But the longer somebody occupies your preferred laundry, the more you feel connected to him, indebted to him, stuck with him, proud of him, happy for him, sick of him. You can appreciate guys on other teams, but at an emotional distance. They aren’t yours to have and to hold. The guys wearing your laundry though, they are yours, and pathetic as it may seem they hold your happiness in their hands, in their jump shots and touchdowns. You root for them when nobody else will, hold out hope when they give you none, feel grateful when they make you feel a part of something you had nothing to do with. It’s not so much rooting for laundry; it’s rooting for people who make your laundry successful.
Saturday was an off night for the man “From Chicago.” But more than the numbers or the wins, I’m watching for those wonderful moments that only the best athletic competitors provide. Like midway through the opening quarter, when Rose kicked himself into a second and then third gear on a routine drive to the hoop. At the top of the key he was covered. One blink later: uncontested layup.
For me, that’s enough. That one moment where greatness seems inspired, not assumed. Where the man who has done it all does it again in such a way that even his most weathered fans drop a “He just did what??!!!” at their highest pitch.
And that’s the thing about Derrick Rose: he’s full of ‘em. Full of those moments that make posters and youtube clips and give columns to the columnists. Wins and losses? They still matter, but not like they once did. I was seven turning eight in 1989. At that age, players aren’t players. They’re superheros and villains, mythical beings that exist in trading cards and video games and in each one of us every time we picked up a ball.
It must be a weird thing, being traded. Especially for a guy like Salmons. Shaq gets sent to Miami: The Heat have landed Shaquille O’Neal! The Bulls send Brand to the Clippers: What??!!! We’re trading away Elton Brand? But did Sacramento fans have any emotion about Salmons leaving? Were they heartbroken? Were they thrilled? And did Bulls fans know anything about this guy? Brad Miller and Tim Thomas were returning, Noce, Gooden, Hughes, and Thabo Sefolosha were out. Meanwhile, at 18 points a game, Salmons was quietly having the best season of any of them.
But did we know? We were still learning how to pronounce his name, grappling with the fact that Deng was hurt and having a lousy season, and now here was this Salmons guy taking his starting job, and the first Bulls memory we have of him is getting the ball swiped by Dwyane Wade for Wade’s game-winning three on March 9th. Salmons knew what kind of player he was, but now he was playing for home fans who didn’t even know he was on the home team.
Well, now we know.
Bulls 127. Celtics 121. The St. Paddy’s Day win over the defending champs. The night John Salmons became a Chicago Bull.
First, he was the replacement. Jay Williams crashed his motorcycle a week before the draft, and suddenly the Bulls needed a point guard. Had Williams not hopped on that bike, maybe Pax would have nabbed Mike Sweetney or Jarvis Hayes or Nick Collison. Instead, it was Kirk Hinrich.
Next, he was the surprise. Williams was done, gone. The progress the Bulls made in 2003, a 30-win season that prompted the 2003-04 slogan “History In the Making,” was fading. They fired their coach, traded their star, and may have slumped over and died once and for all. And yet here was Hinrich, this floppy-haired kid from Kansas, rising above the chaos of that particular Bulls season and giving them a face. And when the all-rookie 1st team was announced, it was James, Anthony, Wade, Bosh…and our man Hinrich.
That next season, he became the captain. Captain Kirk. Captain of an oh and nine, going nowhere, too many rookies and young guys squad…but then they started winning, winning, winning, and soon the Bulls had gone from a 4-15 cellar-dweller to a 22-19 playoff hopeful. The four rooks, the two baby Bulls, Antonio Davis and the veterans, and Kirk, the leader of the pack.
He got better as they got better. And then a contract extension on Halloween of ’06 finalized it: Captain Kirk was officially a cornerstone.
See? That is why you want to play the Celtics (or the Cavaliers) in the playoffs.
Not because your team might go bucket-for-bucket with the defending champs and steal Game 1 on the road. And certainly not because of some absurd reasoning that would have us believe Game 1 was proof of Boston being “the better matchup” for these young Bulls.
No, the reason you want to play the Celts or the Cavs is because it provides a young team with a more accurate reading of their development. Even if we don’t win another game, these playoffs will have been a more valuable experience than anything we might have gained playing Orlando.
When the Bulls dropped the season finale to the lowly Raptors, the critics came chomping. They lambasted our Bulls for losing their shot at the 6th seed and a date with the Magic, the idea being that they had a better chance of defeating Orlando than Boston or Cleveland.
This is the same Cocoa Puffs mindset that argued we would be lucky to have KG miss the entire series, (another preposterous decree). It is a narrow frame of thought that values advancement for advancement’s sake over true development, thus constricting the fan’s ability to best experience sports.
In the fabulously direct words of Bluto Blutarsky:
(I mean, seriously, is there any other way to begin this column?)
And speaking of beginnings, where to? To Ray Allen dropping 51 on a postseason record-tying nine treys? To Captain Kirk showing a never-before-seen rage, balling his fists and squaring up against the suddenly Laimbeerian Rondo? To Johnny Fishsticks flashing an “I’m dropping 40 tonight” grin after hitting his third three of the game’s first six minutes? To Allen and Eddie House each knocking down deuces that would have been game-tying triples had their toes been back just a touch? To Brad Miller redeeming his Game 5 layup/free-throw brick tandem by scoring the team’s final five of regulation and last two points of the second and third overtimes? To Boston’s entire starting frontcourt fouling out, and Ben Gordon as well? To Joakim Noah high-fiving every first-row fan after the game’s wild conclusion? To Salmons hitting a layup that bounced off the bottom of the rim before trickling up? To the Bulls blowing a 12-point lead in the 4th, followed by Boston blowing an eight-point lead…in the 4th? To Allen’s game-tying trey at the end of the second OT? To the Bulls’ failure to even get a shot off with 7.6 seconds remaining following that Allen three-pointer? To Derrick Rose’s game (almost) securing block on Rondo?
Yeah…that was all great.
But in telling the story of Game 6, in capturing the collective incredibleness of these first six games, there is only one starting point: Noah’s improbably coordinated steal, drive, and dunk (and foul shot) that broke the 123-123 tie with 35 seconds to play.
Memories. So many of ‘em. So many, in fact, that I had to do a complete game-by-game box score analysis yesterday just to recapture the finer points. We all know about Allen’s 51 on nine three pointers, about Rose’s 36-11, about Rondo’s triple double average. Since the broadcast focused in on it, we even know about Kendrick Perkins becoming the third player in NBA playoff history after Wilt and Russell to play 48 minutes without committing a single foul.
But there are plenty of little nuggets that have become obscured. Did you realize that despite Tony Allen’s gunner-reputation, he played 17 minutes in Game 5 without attempting a single shot? Do you remember Anthony Roberson pulling a Pargo in Game 3 with eight points in the final four minutes? How about Ray Allen shooting 47.2% on 53 attempted threes? Or Scalabrine becoming Boston’s top sub after only making the active roster following Leon Powe’s Game 2 injury? Or Rose missing a triple-dub of his own in Game 5 by a single assist?
Say what you will about Ben Gordon. It’s been said before. Too short to defend two guards, too undisciplined to defend the point, too one-dimensional to run the floor, too streaky a shooter, too careless a ballhandler, too many pull-up threes that killed too many possessions, too much of a wild card to build a team around. It’s not quite 22 two’s, but then Ben Gordon was never quite what anyone wanted.
But here’s what he was: a legit NBA scorer, a dude who could break you without breaking a sweat, a threat for 30 any time his sweet stroke was in rhythm, one of the most accurate three point shooters in the franchise’s 43 years, and as of last season, the franchise leader in three pointers made.
So yeah, he made big shots. He made late shots. He made a whole bunch of threes. Most of all though, he made memories. Ultimately, that is where Ben Gordon’s Bulls legacy will lie.
I called my boss to get his number, and at 5:40 p.m. Saturday night, standing on the United Center floor, I phoned B.J. Armstrong.
“Hello B.J. This is Jack Silverstein from TrueStar, calling about our interview. (Also, remember when you made the layup to close out the Charles Smith Game at MSG? That was monster! Bulls baby! Bulls!)”
“Was that right now? Because I thought it was at 6.”
“Not to worry. Why don’t you just call me when you arrive and let us know where to meet you. (Yeah, why don’t you just call me, B.J. Armstrong. Just give me a call on the ol’ cell phone and I’ll pick up and talk to you. To B.J. Armstrong. B.J. ARMSTRONG!) We’re on the court right now.”
“Sounds fine. I’m 20 minutes away.”
“Perfect. (You started the ’94 All-Star Game! I was 12! IT WAS SWEET!). See you then.”
And Professional Jack hung up.