As November rolled around, the most frustrating year in Chicago sports history was still finding new ways to aggravate. After the Bears had opened 2002 by losing their first playoff game, and the Blackhawks had likewise made the playoffs only to lose in the first round, and the Cubs and White Sox had both seen their entirely valid playoff hopes crushed early in the season, and the Bears had brought failure full circle by winning their first two this fall only to lose their next six, no other hopes were left to crush. But the Bulls–the lowly Bulls–won their first two games of the season for the first time since the Michael Jordan glory years of 1996-’97. Here was final proof that the Chicago sports world had been turned on its head. What was next, some boob of a Democrat being elected to the governor’s mansion?
The Bulls pulled off a stunning opening-night upset of the Celtics in Boston, and my old buddy Boom-Boom and I decided to head out to the home opener last Friday to see what the excitement was about. And yes, there was excitement in the air, both at the Billy Goat down the street, where many people were meeting before the game, and outside the United Center. I’d say there were even fewer fans than usual paying homage at the Jordan statue on the east side of the arena; they seemed eager to get inside and contemplate the new Bulls in the flesh (though the unseasonable early winter cold might have had something to do with that).
It remained to be seen how improved the Bulls really were. The Celtics had reached the Eastern Conference finals last season, but they’d made some dubious off-season moves, such as bringing in power forward Vin Baker, and after losing to the Bulls had been slaughtered by Jordan and the Washington Wizards. The Bulls played some utterly unexpected defense in the final quarter against the Celts, surviving four missed free throws down the stretch by ballyhooed rookie point guard Jay Williams. It was a typically ugly opening game, and the Bulls’ home opener against the Hornets, who’d relocated from Charlotte to New Orleans over the summer, didn’t figure to be a whole lot more beautiful.
During the brisk introductions of the starting lineups–whatever happened to the pageantry of opening night, with every player introduced?–I looked up at the flickering flames on the video screens circling the far reaches of the stadium and recalled how recent incarnations of the Bulls had me thinking, “Down, down, down in a burning ring of fire.” As the Boomer felt compelled to point out, “There will be no ring ceremony tonight.”
But there was excitement. The crowd was slow to arrive, but eventually only a smattering of seats in the lower levels and the higher rows and corners of the upper balcony were left vacant. Tyson Chandler won the tip, and after a few missed shots–as if to remind everyone this was November basketball–Williams glided into the clear to draw first blood. When center Eddy Curry, looking thinner and quicker than last year, spun down the lane for a slam dunk, the game was tied at eight. Moments later, Jalen Rose grabbed a rebound, dribbled out, and spotted Williams speeding down the sideline like a wide receiver. Rose hit Williams in stride, and Williams sliced through fast-break traffic for a lay-in like a sports car cutting across three lanes of the Dan Ryan to make an off-ramp. Now the Bulls were up 11-8. Clearly, this season’s team, unlike too many Bulls teams of the post-Jordan era, had what the kids–or, rather, the poseur editors of pandering niche newspapers–might call skillz.
Coach Bill Cartwright soon showed that unlike his predecessor, Tim Floyd, he’s a man with a plan. Borrowing a scheme from former Bulls coach Phil Jackson–who learned it at the hands of the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons of the late 80s and early 90s–Cartwright deployed a distinct second unit to back up the starters. This paid immediate dividends. The second unit quickly stretched the lead, and they looked reluctant to give the court back to the starters. Donyell Marshall, coming off a 16-point, nine-rebound game in Boston, was particularly impressive. He made a nice defensive rebound to start a break, then humped it down the court to earn his reward with a return pass and a nice cut for a layup. A couple of possessions later, he bounced outside to pop a three-pointer, putting the Bulls up 27-25. When the starters did begin to trickle back in, a Rose pass inside got deflected high in the air, and the seven-foot Chandler outleaped everyone to grab the ball and jam it through the hoop for a 35-32 lead. A lovely fan-pass sequence gave Fred Hoiberg an open shot, and his three made it 38-34. Despite the pair of free throws Chandler missed in the last few seconds, the Bulls led 42-39 at halftime.
The division of labor between the first and second units provided several benefits. Most obviously, it gave the status of starting roles to the players who, for better or worse, are the team’s future: Curry and Chandler, the high-school products now in their second year of on-the-job training, and Williams, the Duke product who was the second pick in the June draft. The other starters were Trenton Hassell, an Austin Peay shooter with what turned out to be untapped defensive resources, and Rose, the old “Fab Five” Michigan star. But at any time during the game, especially crunch time, Cartwright was apt to go to his more experienced bench players. Jamal Crawford isn’t so different from Curry and Chandler, as he had only a taste of college experience at Michigan before joining the Bulls, and he’s now trying to return from a knee injury and outplay Williams as point guard. But Marcus Fizer had already established himself as one of the league’s better sixth men. They were joined on the second unit by the sharpshooter Hoiberg and two veteran free agents signed by general manager Jerry Krause: Eddie Robinson, a streaky shooter trying to redeem himself after an injury-ridden first season with the Bulls, and Marshall, a sleepy-eyed but adept veteran. Marshall and Robinson sometimes seemed to be all elbows, knees, and braids out there on the court, and it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that both were brought in not just for their talents but to address rumors of Krause’s aversion to braided hair. That story made it around the league a couple of years ago.
The second half went much like the first. Early on, Curry plowed into a New Orleans player to pick up an offensive foul, his fourth overall, and left, never to return. With the Bulls offense out of sync, Rose–reveling in being the go-to guy for the first time in his career–took over and almost single-handedly maintained the lead, which was 61-56 through three quarters. Then the second unit came in, and taking advantage of New Orleans’s limited depth and early-season conditioning woes it all but put the game away. Marshall split a double team with a stutter-step change of pace for a layup that gave the Bulls a double-digit lead at 69-58, and Hoiberg pulled up to hit a nice short jumper off a fast break and it was 73-59. Again the second unit didn’t seem to want to leave the court, and give Cartwright credit for not forcing them to. He sent Rose back in, and he shuffled Williams and Crawford–whoever committed the more recent grievous error was on the bench–but the veterans pulled the Bulls home. (Chandler could be seen playing cheerleader on the front page of the next day’s Tribune sports section.) With 80 seconds left Rose made only one of two free throws to leave the Bulls’ lead in jeopardy at 81-73, but he quickly atoned, converting the rebound of his own miss to make it 83-74 with a minute to play. The Bulls coasted to an 84-79 win. Though they lost the following night in Atlanta after the Hawks jumped to an early lead, again the veterans took over at the end and made a game of it at 98-92.
The Bulls might win a few games early by surprising opponents expecting the same awful team the Bulls have been for years, and they might win a few more when their deep bench wears out other teams still trying to reach peak condition. But those victories won’t mean that at any given time the Bulls can play five on five with another starting lineup. Until Williams learns to run an NBA offense, Curry learns to use his quickness without committing fouls thanks to his bulk, and Chandler learns to find an open space on the floor and hit an outside jump shot–and those skills may take years to acquire, if they come at all–the Bulls won’t be an elite team. This season’s Bulls probably won’t settle down to their proper level until January or February.
Until that happens, they could be surprising. Boom-Boom and I put our prodigious hands of steel to work applauding the Bulls in the late moments, and we weren’t alone. The others at the back of the mezzanine weren’t exactly boisterous, but they were avid and involved, the woman in front of us urging on the Bulls with pleas of “Come on, Jay baby” and the like. If the Bulls’ 2-0 start was a mirage, given the wasteland of Chicago sports this year a mirage would do.