The Interviewing of the Bulls (Part II)
In which Russ Bengtson gives you more raw material from the SLAM 108 feature, starring Pete Myers and Johnny “Red” Kerr.
So I wanted to post the second part of this Bulls stuff before the second round starts, and seeing that Game One kicks off in less than 24 hours, I suppose there’s no time like the present.
To recap, I went to Chicago over the last week in February to do a feature on the team for SLAM 108. It was a cold and windy weekend (of course), but the Bulls were heating up. They won both games while I was out there by double digits (a laugher over the Warriors and a slightly closer one over the Hornets), and were starting to show signs of what they could do.
This was pretty soon after the trade deadline, and I—as a long-time Bulls fan (20-plus years, yikes)—was disappointed that they hadn’t been able to bring in a low-post scorer to complement Ben Wallace in the paint. My thinking was that Wallace only got them halfway to where they wanted to be. Bringing him in heightened expectations drastically, and said to me (and the rest of the League) that they were planning on winning a title within the next three seasons or so. And when they didn’t convert P.J. Brown’s expiring contract or any of their other assets into Pau Gasol or Kevin Garnett, I thought John Paxson and Scott Skiles had made a mistake.
Then I got up there and saw how things worked. They didn’t have a primary scorer—they had three. Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and Ben Gordon were all capable of doing damage from the outside, and none of them seemed to have a pressing need to be THE man. Whoever was hot got the ball. No arguments, no egos. And while they didn’t have a seven-footer in the post, Wallace and Brown were both adept at redirecting the ball to the open man. Even the rookies, Thabo Sefolosha and Tyrus Thomas, were coming around. This was a team in every sense of the word.
To pick up where I left off, brings us back to the Sheri Berto Center, the Bulls suburban practice facility in Deerfield, IL. Practice. Everyone’s hit the showers by now except for Ben Gordon—whose routine has him taking 600 to 650 jumpers a day, even on game days. Skiles has already talked, other guys have been corralled by local news crews, so I take the opportunity to catch up with assistant coach Pete Myers. Myers, a hard-nosed guard who replaced Michael Jordan when he retired the first time, doesn’t have his name on any of those championship banners ringing the practice facility, but he still knows what it takes. And, as a former player not too far removed from the game, he’s a pretty good judge of team play.
ME: What do you make of this bunch?
PM: I know it’s March, but I still think when you actually look at us, I still think there’s a lot of growth we can get to in terms of as a team, of being a complete team. With Noc out it doesn’t help. In the past, this moment here has been really good to us. February going into March has been really good to us as a team, we’ve been successful the last two years at making a good run at the end of the year. But because of Noc’s injuries we kind of juggled things in the second unit and it’s hurting us in a sense.”
ME: Adding Big Ben means you guys are no longer a “young” team.
PM: Well, I think anytime you can keep your core guys together and continue to add pieces, I think it’s a positive for your team. I know during trade deadline there was a lot of speculation over who was going where. But if you look at Detroit, how they did things with adding Rasheed, this year they added Chris Webber, but they didn’t really take the core guys away from each other. That helped them to continue to win and stay on top of the league, being like one of the top five teams in the League. And I like our guys, I like all our guys. I like the fact that I can come to work and really feel comfortable with the people I work with. A lot of times, people and fans don’t understand this, when you start coaching, you actually adopt a family. [Laughs] It’s a lot of personalities within that family. You travel with those 21 guys for about six months. If you got a guy with a bad personality, bad character flaws, it becomes a real problem. But fortunately enough, we haven’t had that here. We got guys that is willing to work, got a great understanding of what it actually take to win games, they’re good at taking criticism, they know what coaching is, they know what coaching’s about [I laugh] No, that’s supposed to be a given up here, you talk about being a professional, but that’s something that we struggle with up here because the money is so lucrative. Sometimes guys don’t want to listen. So now when you find guys that—we got guys coming from good foundations—but when you find guys that wanna conform or wanna be part of something, that helps.”
ME: So different from the Jordan/Pippen teams. From one or two guys to five.
PM: Yes, and I think that’s a good thing. Those guys, I’m talkin’ about our core guys, they really enjoy one another. There’s no bickerin’ about who the best player is, or who’s the leading scorer—right now, to me, Ben Gordon and Luol Deng are havin’ the best years in terms of the Bulls. But it’s not takin’ anything away from Kirk and Nocioni. You know? Hey, trust me, nowadays you need three or four guys when you’re talkin’ about winnin’. You need a team to win. I don’t think you can actually go out and win with just two—or one—main guys anymore. When you look at Detroit, when you look at Miami, when you look at Dallas, when you look at Phoenix—Phoenix got Nash, Stoudemire, Shawn Marion, Diaw. It’s a unit. And I like that, because when I first came in to this league, it wasn’t really like—you played the Bulls against the Boston Celtics. And because Magic and Larry and Michael were so phenomenal, those guys were so good individually, they started saying Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls against Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics. It’ll be great to get back to the places where you just have Chicago Bulls—rivalries!—against the Miami Heat. Team rivalries instead of individual rivalries.”
A lot of these guys stay close by each other. And it’s a good thing, don’t get me wrong. I think it helps. Do you have to be best of friends with your teammates? No, no you don’t. But I think it helps when things start going bad guys really feel like, ‘you know what, this guy next to me really got my best interest at heart. This is somebody I can sit down and talk with outside the game, and he really got my best interest.’ I think it have a carryover onto the floor.”
ME: Do you think this is a championship base like Detroit?
PM: Well, I hope so. I think our management have done a good job of getting Scott the players he can coach. Getting the players in here that this town would really be excited about in terms of watching, the fans. I mean, I think all those things are important, you talk about putting a team on the floor, and I think John and this guy have done an outstanding job of puttin’ the right guys on this team.”
ME: I noticed a lot of current jerseys in the stands instead of Jordan.
PM: On Madison, that’s a big stage down there. And when I say big stage, there’s some pressure down there. Because the fans are not naïve, in a sense. They went through six championships here. So people know what hard work and being a team is about. So you’re not foolin’ ‘em, you know what I mean? And on the other hand of that, I think it’s some pressure for free agent guys to come in here and play, and to sign here because they kind of know that ‘I’ve gotta bring it.’ Because this team has been down a winnin’ path for six years. So they know, I can’t come in here and not show up some nights. Every night I step on that floor on Madison, I gotta bring it. I’m just sayin’ I think sometimes that’s some pressure. That’s why I give Ben Wallace the nod, now. He wasn’t afraid of that. Some guys kind of shy away from that.
When you actually look at our team, man, I’m thrilled about bein’ around these guys everyday. Because when you look at these young guys—when I talk about these guys I’m talking about our core guys, Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng, Ben Gordon, Nocioni, Chris Duhon, now it’s Tyrus and Sefolsha—these guys, our core guys, these guys got a will to work it. I know from my position as a player, I felt like I overachieved. And to me, that’s not like embarrassing to me, because I felt like I maxed out as a player. [Laughs] A lot of times people don’t like to hear that. Guys that are talented. But I think anytime you can max out, and you got the will to work, you got a better chance of maxin’ out as a player. And that’s why I’m so proud of Lu and Ben this year, because the work that they put in this summer is payin off. So now when we sit down and talk to Thabo and talk to Tyrus about—just look around. Look around at these guys that came in three years ago that was kinda unsure if they could play up here. Now they’re having great years and making nice contracts for themselves. But they worked. Don’t take it for grated, they worked. And they can see them guys. Look at Ben now. He’s in here workin, gettin his shots up. So I think it’s important for us to keep those guys and keep that work. Hard work is a talent—[laughs] people don’t think that, they don’t look at it like that, but to me, hard work, that’s a talent. That’s like a guy who can shoot like Ben Gordon, or a guy that can jump as high as Tyrus Thomas. Hard work is a talent.”
If you can max out your ability, I think that’s a beautiful thing as a player. For me, I tell the guys—because you know, sometimes you’re dealing with different time periods. When I came in, rules was different, guys was different. And now all of a sudden, guys are comin in at 18. When I came into this League, most of the guys were 22, 23. Rookies, right? Now you’re dealin with guys 18, 19. And I just tell guys, keep an open mind when you talk to people. Understand that anybody can help you. It don’t have to be Michael Jordan coming in here for one day to talk with you and all of a sudden you feel good about yourself. Just think about the guys who are around you on a day-to-day basis. Listen to ‘em, take advice from ‘em. Because you know what? I played in this League. And I know for a fact—it was a great League for me, I didn’t take it for granted, I felt like I was blessed. I can help any kid that come along, I can help ‘em with his game. But what I’m tryin’ to say is. I made more money than Wilt Chamberlain. In terms of as a player. I could never do what Wilt Chamberlain did up here on this level, you understand? [Laughs] So don’t think because you’re makin a ton of money that can’t nobody tell you anything. Don’t let that go to your head because of the money. People can help you up here.
I can’t help but think that Pete is gonna be a good head coach someday. I don’t know where he is on X’s and O’s, but he seems like the perfect candidate—a player who made it as far as he did on hard work alone, who took more away from the game that just a bunch of oversized paychecks. He obviously loves what he does, and truly believes in his guys.
I had to wonder, though. Do you NEED conflict to win? That’s great that these guys all get along, but look back at championship teams—hell, look back at the Bulls championship teams. It’s safe to say that Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen weren’t going out for dinner after games. But they WON. Do you maybe need a little bit of conflict to have success?
And I also worried about how much everyone—from the coaches and GM all the way to the fans—thought of the team as a family. Isn’t that dangerous? You hear all the time about how the League is a business—how someone like Mark Cuban, as much as he loved Steve Nash, could crunch the numbers and impassionately decide that he couldn’t keep him around (um, bad example maybe, but still). Would sentimentality win out over logic? Would it be impossible for Pax to trade guys like Deng, Gordon or Hinrich simply because they were part of a family?
I had to talk to someone else. So, before the Hornets game I sought out Johnny “Red” Kerr, the Bulls long-time color (and colorful) analyst. A former All-American and All-Star center, Kerr served as the Bulls’s first-ever head coach and has been their TV guy since 1974. He’s nothing if not candid (you’d never hear answers like this from an MSG employee):
ME: How are these guys measuring up?
RK: Well, there’s no closeness to the ‘90s. Those six championship teams were really something. And even the two years that Michael was gone they were a very good team. This team doesn’t have that kind of talent. We do not have a post-up player on our club. And we had all kinds in those days. You had Toni Kukoc who could post up, you had Stacey King that could post up, Luc Longley—a bunch of different guys. Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan. But we don’t have that. It’s a different type team, but it’s a very exciting team. They play hard, they’re a very good defensive ballclub, and they’re fun to watch.”
ME: They’re put together so differently.
RK: Yeah, we don’t have that one personality anymore. We don’t really have a go-to guy—I guess you could say Ben Gordon would be our go-to guy, or Luol Deng is working on getting to that point, but right now I don’t feel like we’ve got a guy like a Paul Pierce or like a Gilbert Arenas or Kobe, a guy who could just chuck up 30, 35 every night.”
ME: Are they on the right track?
RK: I don’t know if this team is gonna bring ‘em a championship, but I think they can make the playoffs with this ballclub. They’ve got a great core. They need to get Nocioni healthy—he’s a very valuable part of this team, and you’ve got the other guys that have played well, Ben Gordon and Luol Deng as I mentioned, and Ben Wallace is giving you some good defense and rebounds, and Hinrich and you got the two rookies that have finally stepped up a little bit after getting their feet wet this season. So it’s good.”
ME: It’s hard to believe that Hinrich is the guy with the longest tenure.
RK: Well, you knew John Paxson was gonna make some switches and get his kind of people in there, and that’s just what he did.”
ME: Were you surprised there were no deals at the deadline?
RK: No, not for what they wanted. They wanted to disrupt Deng or Gordon, I’m glad John didn’t do anything.
I don’t think—maybe there’s someone you can go for in free agency or the draft. You never know what the Knicks are gonna end up with their draft choice. You got a lot of good things goin’.
ME: What are your thoughts on Ben Wallace so far?
RK: Ben has been fine. It’s not easy comin’ to a club that you didn’t play for and now you’re their key, and you’re their key director on defense. This team is a pretty good defensive team and Ben is working very well with them.”
ME: Do you feel like there’s more pressure to win here than in other cities?
RK: I think there always is. I think there always is pressure for the Bulls to come up big. They play pretty good here at home, they’ve fallen down a couple times against Western teams and now a couple Eastern teams, but I like what I see here from this team. I think they’re gonna be held together for quite a while.
“I think they can make the playoffs”? Way to be confident, Johnny. But he too seemed content to roll the dice with what they had. Well, they wiped out New Orleans that night—ruining Tyson Chandler’s return to the United Center (he was booed relentlessly—even cruelly, I thought)—and went on the predicted roll through March and April, falling just one game short of their 50-win goal. They drew Miami in the first round and wiped them out too, setting up the second-round matchup with Ben Wallace’s team, the Detroit Pistons.
So I suppose it’s appropriate I give him the last word here. As usual, he was the last player out of the showers following the New Orleans win, and after slowly getting dressed, he was ready for questions. I only had one, and his answer reflected his demeanor.
ME: Do you feel a particular sense of urgency here?
BW: You know, we definitely playin’ with a little different sense of urgency, but as far as anything else, it is what it is. As long as we continue to go out and find ways to win games, then everything else have a way of taking care of itself.