As the Bulls were introduced, flames flickered on the thin scoreboard video screens that encircle the upper tiers of the United Center. But for me, in the moments before last Saturday’s game, they ignited nothing so much as memories of Johnny Cash singing, “Down, down, down and the flames went higher, and it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire.”
Bulls general manager Jerry Krause burned his first post-Michael Jordan rebuilding project to the ground over the off-season and like a Stalin proclaimed a new five-year plan. In a draft day deal, he traded Elton Brand, the team’s solid if unspectacular 20-points-and-10-rebounds-a-game star of the first rebuilding project two years ago, to the Los Angeles Clippers for Tyson Chandler, a seven-foot 18-year-old out of southern California. Krause added Chandler to the Bulls’ own lottery draft pick, the 18-year-old, 300-pound south-suburban center Eddy Curry. The draft was a sign of the times. The NBA’s open-door draft policy has forced rebuilding teams to risk all on promising but undeveloped high school talents. The days when a team could take the top graduating college player and expect him to turn a franchise around are long gone. And since the bum’s rush out of town that Krause and owner Jerry Reinsdorf gave Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and coach Phil Jackson after their sixth NBA championship in 1998 has made free agents squeamish about coming to Chicago, Krause had no other option. If he couldn’t lure the top-echelon players who’d convert Brand from the star of a losing team into a role player on a championship-caliber team, he had to risk all on the chance that Curry and Chandler would turn into Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, and not go the way of Leon Smith, the King High School product who crashed and burned with the Dallas Mavericks.
One gamble leads to others, as any desperate gambler knows. To the entrenched starters–center Brad Miller and swingman Ron Mercer–he added the promising but unproven second-tier (or third) free agent Eddie Robinson, and as a role model for the kids he brought back Charles Oakley to the place where he began his career. Yet Krause’s luck continued to run bad. Defensive specialist Ron Artest, drafted with Brand two years ago, required surgery on the ring finger of his shooting hand and was lost until midseason. Jamal Crawford, the raw Michigan point guard who ended last season on the upswing, tore a knee ligament and disappeared from this year’s equation. Finally, Robinson broke his big toe shortly before the season began and was lost for at least the first five games.
The team that took the floor Saturday against the New York Knicks looked like the worst Bulls starting lineup of the post-Jordan era. And that’s saying something–coach Tim Floyd has averaged a measly 15 wins a season for the past three years. The Bulls had already lost two games, self-destructing in the fourth quarter of the Halloween home opener against the Indiana Pacers and losing almost as badly to the Celtics in Boston, and at the outset the Knicks dominated them at both ends of the court, even without injured forward Marcus Camby. The opener had drawn a fairly full house, but on this night there were vast tracts of empty seats in the upper deck, as well as empty skyboxes. The “official” attendance cracked 18,000, but if that was the ticket count there were thousands of no-shows.
The Bulls stumbled out of the gate, falling behind 9-2. The referees were calling a tight game, and halfway through the first quarter the Bulls were in the penalty and Miller and Croatian backup center Dalibor Bagaric were in early foul trouble. Well, at least that meant the fans would get an ample introduction to Curry. Floyd had sheltered him the first two games, giving him an average of eight and a half minutes a night. Now he’d get a chance to show something.
To tell the truth, I was anxious about Curry. In warm-ups, surrounded not by other kids but by NBA veterans, he looked nowhere near as big as he had last year playing for Thornwood High School. Listed at seven feet and 300 pounds back then, he turned out to be shorter, almost small for an NBA center. While his conditioning effort before the draft convinced Krause he was worth the risk, it made him smaller still. The Bulls listed him at 6-11 and 285. Curry has sleepy eyes and droopy shoulders–anyone seeing him for the first time might question his athletic ability and desire–and I watched him intently, wondering, “What’s it going to be, another Shaq or another Thomas Hamilton?” (Hamilton’s the King behemoth who’s still struggling to catch on at the fringes of big-league basketball.)
Then Curry got the ball. He came down, went right to the post, fought Othella Harrington for his spot, took a pass, yanked Harrington into the air with a pump fake that worked like a pulley, and hit the shot when Harrington came down. When he lost weight he added quickness, and he’s surprisingly agile for a big man, his soft hands accepting the ball like it was a baby. The team around Curry responded immediately, and the Bulls went up 19-14. Curry floundered on defense, with no instinctive feel for the caroms of a rebound and a noticeable lack of savvy for positioning himself under the boards. But these skills could–should–come with time. The Knicks rallied to reclaim a 25-21 lead at the quarter, but Curry had made a favorable impression.
Chandler followed him in the second quarter and was more impressive at first glance–a tall, thin presence whose uniform hung like a dress on a clothesline. Where Curry typically looks bored–he sat on the bench with his fist pressed against his cheek–Chandler was exuberant. Yet the Bulls didn’t seem to know what to do with him. Playing small forward–he looks like what Krause once dreamed Brad Sellers would be–he had a serious height advantage over his opponent, and the Bulls kept posting him up. But Chandler seemed uncomfortable in the thick of things. He was fouled his first time down the floor and bricked the first free throw, then lucked out by banking the second one in. Still, he ran the floor well, and trailing a Knicks fast break he made a nice two-handed snuff of a block. The Bulls’ other rookie, shooting guard Trenton Hassell from little Austin Peay, came on to make a nice, floating, almost spin-free three-pointer, but the Knicks claimed a 45-43 lead at halftime.
Plainly put, the Bulls didn’t seem to have any chemistry. Mercer made a lovely play, driving the baseline, curling up the lane into traffic, and making a blind over-the-shoulder shot while going away from the hoop. But Mercer’s a player who only makes himself look better, not his teammates. Miller, who with Mercer had shouldered the Bulls’ scoring load in the first two games, looked utterly ineffective on this night. Early in the second half he put up a short-range turnaround jumper with all the touch of someone blasting a flight of ducks with a shotgun. Curry came back in at the end of the third quarter, and though he again looked uncomfortable at the defensive end, where the journeymen who play center in the NBA are most apt to exploit his short-term weaknesses, he made a nice basket at the buzzer on a feed from Hassell to make it 63-59 Knicks going into the final frame.
Then the Bulls’ rookies exploded. Curry ran the baseline to intimidate a New York player taking a three-point shot, and the Bulls ran out with the long rebound. At the other end, Hassell drove the baseline and got hacked, but he hung in the air, the ball in his complete control, and put it in. He made the free throw too. The next time down, Curry passed out of the post to Mercer for a three that put the Bulls in front 65-63 with just over ten minutes to go. Soon after, the hustling Curry made a nice lay-in trailing a fast break, hanging in the air at the end as long as a 285-pound man can. He immediately blew an assignment on defense to allow the Knicks back within a basket at 67-65, and when the Knicks tied it at 67, Floyd sat him down. But again he’d produced a net plus for the Bulls during his time on the floor.
The veterans would have to carry the team home, and oddly enough on this night they did. Miller passed out of a double team to pickup Kevin Ollie, whose basket made it 75-74 Bulls with four minutes to go. By the Bulls’ standards, Marcus Fizer would have to be considered a veteran too. Back for his second season, challenging Oakley for playing time and eager to replace Brand, Fizer looked clumsy at times, but he was eager for action. He performed most of the hustle plays for the Bulls as the two teams fought back and forth to a tie at 76 with three minutes to play. Fizer was trapped once under his own basket trying to do too much with the ball, but the Bulls weathered the mistake. And moments later Greg Anthony, the old New York nuisance from the Jordan era who still looks like a punk and who joined the Bulls after Crawford went down, hit an open three, giving him a quiet 17 points on the night and putting the Bulls up 79-76. On the Knicks’ next trip down, point guard Mark Jackson missed a three but got the ball back after an offensive rebound, and Fizer leaped out and stripped him, taking the ball downcourt for a dunk. Surviving some erratic foul shooting in the final minute, the Bulls broke the Knicks’ full-court press and Miller’s dunk made the final score 84-79.
Looking up at the scoreboard TV and around me in the stands, I saw kids–actual kids–celebrating as if the Bulls had won something important, instead of merely getting the winless monkey off their back sooner than anyone expected. Kids were absent in the Jordan years, when rich adults hogged the tickets, but with tickets now more available–though no less dear–they seem to be making a comeback at Bulls games, and the Bulls seem determined to reward them. Before the game started, when Fizer was the only Chicago player on the floor practicing shooting, he took on a ball boy about half his height in a game of one-on-one. Fizer let the kid steal the ball away and drive past him for a lay-in. At least, I think he let the kid do it; with these baby Bulls you can never be sure.