June 13 – Volume 14, #6
“An Ode to the Chicago Bulls”
“I’m going to live my life like the Chicago Bulls. I’m going to stay in character. I’m going to always stay the course. And I’m not going to panic. If you live your life like the Chicago Bulls, you’ll have a good life. Win, lose, or draw.” –Kenny Smith, May 15, 2013
The winter of 2011 was one of the more difficult periods of my life. Professional and personal strife had mounted to where there were moments where I wasn’t sure that things would ever get any better.
Those who know me well know that I have been known to take something as trivial as a baseball or football game so seriously to where I have been crestfallen for days on end. The day after the Bartman game I could barely get out of bed. I’m still scarred from that shit. I’ll probably need to get therapy at some point.
But the turmoil that consumed me nearly a decade after Steve Bartman ruined Christmas was far more significant than the results of a child’s game.
But make no mistake; it was a child’s game that was instrumental in helping to pull me through those doldrums.
I had long embraced the larger lessons that come from participating in, and being a fan of, sport. One of the more important ones is that things go in cycles. The Cowboy Super Bowls in the 90s were so, so sweet because I sat through a 1-15 season just a few years earlier where my team was mocked almost as much as Tony Romo is now. Almost.
And I nearly cried with Mike when he won the first of six titles for my beloved Bulls because the whole city had invested so much emotional energy in getting past the Pistons for several years. We had literally seen Mike grow up before our eyes. You’d have to be Dick Cheney to have lived in Chicago at that time and not have developed an emotional attachment to MJ and his teammates.
Living through that dynasty at a time when I was coming of age made it hard to fathom that any team could instill as much passion in me as that one. But there is no team; in all of my years of driving myself crazy as a sports fan, that I have felt as emotionally connected to as this current incarnation of the Chicago Bulls.
That’s because in the winter of 2011 the Chicago Bulls helped to save my life.
This resurrection certainly wasn’t expected. I didn’t expect them to have this kind of transcendental effect of me. And no one expected the Bulls to soar to the heights that they did that season. I thought the Bulls would be better than the experts prognosticated. And I genuinely felt that we’d have a good chance to beat the punk-ass Miami Heat, who everyone had already anointed as champions the previous summer. This wasn’t just blind optimism. I’ve always been honest with myself about where my teams stand. I felt like the Bulls had added some nice pieces over that summer, even if it wasn’t the pieces that they most coveted. I didn’t know yet that Derrick Rose was as good as he is, but I had seen enough by the fall of 2010 to know that he was a top-10 talent that we could build around. Plus I felt like LeBron was a soft, effeminate, rapidly-balding metrosexual. (I don’t think he’s soft now) And as a Yankee fan I had seen many a team look better on paper than they ended up looking in reality. But even I must confess to being surprised that the 2010-11 Chicago Bulls ended up with the NBA’s best record, and even made the Miami Heat cry after one game, which is one of the best days of my whole life.
But I was used to seeing excellence in Chicago basketball. I could live to be 1,000 and never again see the greatness demonstrated during the Jordan Dynasty. But it is not at all hyperbole to say that this team, in this season, touched me spiritually at a time where I was finding inspiration in very few things on God’s green earth.
But those Bulls gave me belief, they gave me hope. For this, there is no team in all of my years of watching sports that I have fallen in love with quite like I did this collection of Bulls.
What I loved about this team is that they embodied so many of the traits that are found so severely lacking in our society today. They were committed to something bigger than themselves. They were loyal to one another and to their city. They played selflessly, working to get everyone involved in the offense. Hell, they barely cared about offense. They were more vested in the dirty work of rebounding and defending on every single possession like it was game 7 of The Finals. That’s because like most of us, no one was going to hand these Bulls anything. So they couldn’t afford to take anything for granted and had to scrap for everything. They never made excuses for their shortcomings. They worked their asses off every single second in a league where most teams full of millionaires don’t start playing hard until a few weeks after the all-star break. If then. The Bulls were both physically and mentally tough in a country that is becoming more pussified by the day. Too many of us are so caught up on the destination, that we don’t enjoy the journey. And there is no one who this is more true of than me. The Bulls, on the other hand, not only accepted the monotonous minutia of training camp, film sessions and the regular season as integral parts of the ultimate destination, but actually seemed to embrace it. They always stayed focused on the big picture even while everyone around them was suffering from tunnel vision. And they’re lead by a superstar who just wants to get better at his craft and could give a damn about celebrity, which makes him quite different from the LeBron’s, D-Wade’s, Melo’s, Dwight Howard’s and Blake Griffin’s of the world. Even though it seemed like a whole lot of Chicagoans forgot that this past winter. (*PLEASE SEE EXTENDED FOOTNOTE ABOUT D-ROSE AND HIS INJURY BELOW)
All of these traits that my Bulls possessed in spades were particularly admirable when compared to their arch enemies, the Miami Heat; a team based more on style than substance. A team whose core would rather take shortcuts by teaming up rather than trudging the long, hard road to immortality like Doc did, like Mike did, or even a bitch-ass no regard ass pussy like Isiah Thomas did. I felt like a lot of my fellow Chicagoans were over-the-top in their criticism of D-Rose this year. But I am proud that I am from a city where sports actually matters and people are passionate about their teams, as opposed to living in a bourgeois tourist mecca where faux people are so self-involved that they can’t bother to show up for the games on time. A city where sometimes many fans don’t bother to show up at all…..for playoff games. And no, Pat Riley, nobody is fooled by your placing white T-shirts over the empty red seats. Plus, tell me a fan that you know outside of Miami that started rooting for them before 2010. The one thing that even dook Blue Devil and North Carolina Tar Heel fans can agree on is that the only thing worse than a fan of the rival team, is a bandwagon fan who hitches on to whatever team is winning in the moment. Fans like that don’t deserve a parade, they deserve their team moving to another city.
There isn’t much that Chicagoans universally agree on. We part company during baseball season. We claim Vice Lords, Latin King or Gangster Disciples at an early age. We go back and forth on whether we prefer Leon’s, Kenny’s or Harold’s. We’re at odds over whether or not the construction, the property taxes or the 8-month-long winter is the worst part of living in Chicago. But the city was nearly perfectly unified in our hatred of the Heat for all that they represented. And it warms my heart to no end to know that the Bulls’ players actually hate them as much as the fans do. But we were far from alone in Chicago.
In a way that has never been seen in professional sports outside of the Yankees & Cowboys, everyone mobilized against the Heat in every city in the country. That’s because the Heat symbolized something so much bigger than sport. In early 21st century America, it seemed like everything was rigged against the little guy. It used to seem that hard work and good character could allow you to move on up in America. But the people who work the hardest, who make the biggest sacrifices were getting the short end of the stick at every turn. The fix was in. It was bad enough that lazy morons like Paris Hilton, George W. Bush and Mitt Romney; who never had to struggle for anything, won in the game of life. But I had to be subjected to this same shit when I tried to escape from the real world? What would it say about modern sport if a team like the Heat -that actively chose the path of not just least resistance, but no resistance- is supposed to win? What would it say about the world outside of basketball?
The Bulls were willing to take the long road with a bunch of blue collar guys. Guys who didn’t feel entitled to anything. This mindset stood in stark contrast to a team that was talking about winning seven titles before they played one fucking game.
People can talk that “it’s just a game” shit all they want. But for me, when the Bulls played the Heat there was nothing short of the balance of the universe at stake. And while it is plausible that this might be a bit of an overstatement, there is no overstating how much this edition of the Bulls helped me to re-learn a lot of valuable life lessons.
I was going through a lot of drama that I couldn’t quite rationalize at the time that the 2011 season began. But as bad as shit was, I had been through rough times before. And I surely will go through them again. But for the first time not only was I losing hope, I wasn’t certain if there was a larger purpose to this struggle. The Bulls not only gave me something to hitch my beleaguered hope to, they also reminded me that it’s the journey that’s the reward, not the destination. And the best part of the destination is the fulfillment gained from fighting through struggle and adversity to get there. This is a lesson that had been lost on Queen James and the Miami Heat. And for a while, it had been lost on me too. The Bulls helped to remind me. And I wanted them to remind the Miami Heat almost as badly as I’ve wanted anything.
It’s hard to fully enjoy seasons where your team is expected to contend for a championship. That’s how the Bulls will be next season. I’ll enjoy the 2014 campaign. I’ll be excited to see how D-Rose is moving. I’m anxious to see if the Bulls are going to go out and get the 2nd scorer they so obviously need. But for the most part, nothing that happens from this November to next May will matter. The Bulls can go 82-0 and it’ll all be meaningless if they don’t bring the Larry O’Brien Trophy back to its rightful home next June. That’s fucked up, but it’s the truth.
But just like in life, some of the best experiences are those that are unexpected. And so it was with the 2011 Chicago Bulls. If the Bulls do go on to win the (not one, not two, not three….) championships that we all hope, it will be this year that we’ll all point to that started the ride. That was a really fun season that fans could truly savior because of its unexpected nature. But I’ll always point to the 2011 season for different reasons too.
That’s because; like my all-time favorite Tar Heel, Kenny Smith said of my Bulls, I got back to the fundamentals of who I am over those months. In their own small way, the Bulls emboldened me to stay the course when it came to my most deeply held principles in spite of the world telling me time and time again that I had it all wrong. And even though false friends, lovers and even family members were revealing themselves not to be who I thought they were, I was going to stay true to my character. And in spite of there being many moments during this winter of my discontent where I felt like my entire world had been pulled from underneath me, leaving me off balance in a way that was utterly unfamiliar, I was going to respond like the Bulls did when they were faced with adversity: I wouldn’t panic.
At the end of the day, basketball is still entertainment. So I won’t pretend that there were major epiphanies occurring in my living room during a February game against the Sacramento Kings. But even on non-descript nights, even during one of the rare nights that year where my Bulls faced defeat, this pastime of my youth provided me a joyful diversion. During that hazy shade of winter it was hard to escape from the storm going on inside of me. Sometimes even sleep didn’t allow me a respite from my demons. But for about 3 hours, each time the Bulls played, nothing else existed. Not my bullshit job. Not my cowardly business partners who could learn a thing or two (or 40) about the loyalty that the Bulls showed towards one another. For at least a few hours, I was far more preoccupied with the Bulls second-chance points than I was estranged family members or failed relationships.
It was disappointing how the 2011 season ended. And disappointing doesn’t even begin to describe how me and all of Chicago felt the following season when I was absolutely convinced that we were the best team in the NBA. Absolutely convinced. And then this happened. I was beyond distraught that night. But not as much as I would have been had the Bulls not helped me to relearn the power of resiliency. Just like me, the Bulls have faced, head-on, any challenge thrown before them. So the career-threatening injury to their star is just one more hurdle for them to jump over, even if it’s taken a little longer than everyone would have liked. No one more than Derrick Rose himself.
So even though my lust for a championship has yet to be satisfied, nothing can taint the excitement that the Bulls have stirred in Chicago the past few years. And nothing can diminish how vital of a role that they played in helping me get back to myself again.
So save your speeches about this being just a game. And don’t tell me to calm down after I literally lose my voice screaming at the TV. This isn’t basketball, this shit is a crusade.
As I write this piece, people in Oklahoma are sifting through rubble in search of their loved ones after a devastating tornado. So, to be sure, there are far more important things in life than the game of basketball. And even a handful of things that are more important than football. But if all you get out of sports is entertainment, athleticism and the final score then, frankly, you’re missing a whole lot.
Win, lose or draw I will be forever grateful for this running of the Bulls that helped me to see the big picture again.
Peace and God bless,
*Other than game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series, there is nothing that has depressed me more than seeing Derrick Rose clutching at his knee late in the opening game of the 2012 NBA Playoffs. As bad as that was, it only slightly outpaces the sight of Rose sitting all alone in a United Center suite before game 2. As bad as D-Rose not playing made me feel, you could see all in his face just how devastated he was that his guys were in the mix of action and he was rendered helpless in affecting the outcome. But I didn’t need that lasting image to let me know how much Derrick Rose loved the game of basketball, his teammates or the city of his birth. Although apparently many Chicagoans missed this, I had already saw just how committed he was to all of those things throughout the regular season where he was never fully healthy. I saw it when he came back early from an ailing toe, which lead to him compensating so much to where he hurt his back. Then with the number one seed in the playoffs in sight, he came back again only to injure his hamstrings. Had it been a regular season game, he surely would have sat out on that fateful day against the Philadelphia 76ers as none of those injuries had fully healed. But it was the playoffs and his team and his city needed him. So he laced ‘em up and was playing great until a freak injury ended his season and any hopes the Bulls had at winning a title in 2012.
Had D-Rose run for mayor of Chicago that following Tuesday he would have won in a landslide. But now only a year later, some of these same people view Derrick Rose as a pariah. But those people calling dude soft (and often far worse) would be wise to revisit his endeavors from last season. And seasons before that. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone this side of Kobe Bryant that put his body on the line more for the game.
Look, I want D-Rose back too. I fully expected his competitive spirit to force him back on the floor the moment that his doctors said it was cool. Still, not only do I trust Derrick Rose because I don’t question his unbridled love for the game; but I also think the fact that he’s played hurt several times before and has been such a great teammate and ambassador for the city has earned him more than a little equity. People want to point to Iman Shumpert and Adrian Peterson in trying to say Rose should return. But better examples might be Gilbert Arenas, Tracy McGrady, Antonio McDyess, Barron Davis and Penny Hardaway as guys who had knee problems and were never ever the same player. If Derrick Rose feels even the slightest uncertainty, it’s more than worth it for him to chill, Chi Ill.
If you want to make comparisons, RGIII is a better example in football. Adrian Peterson isn’t really a human being, regardless of what the Vikings might try and say. He’s some kind of futuristic cyborg-hybrid or something. The Obama administration probably already has an army of cyborg-Adrian Petersons fighting in Afghanistan. So he doesn’t count. RGIIII came back for a game that they probably could have won without him, as my boy Tony Romo helped the Deadskins, I mean the Redskins, more than RGIIII did that night. And really, like the Bulls this year, the Redskins could have won a title if everything broke just right. But most likely they were a year or two away from being serious contenders. And yet RGIIII played anyway and potentially pushed the window of contention back. People saw this and still were clamoring for D Rose to come back in the middle of the Miami series. I mean, how ridiculous can you be?
Let that man get right rather than risking ten years of contending for titles for one (long) shot a title. I don’t want a tentative, uncertain Derrick Rose out there. I want the reckless warrior of an MVP who wasn’t afraid to go crashing into the lane with no regard for his body that we had before the ACL tear. And if he doesn’t feel like he’s that dude yet, I trust him. You should too. Especially when most of you motherfuckers talking shit take a week off of work when you get a runny nose.