Running with the Bulls
A report from the Chicago Bulls media day.
by Bryan Crawford
An NBA media day event can quickly turn your day into a non-productive one if you go in without a plan. Covering the Chicago Bulls annual media day last Friday at the team’s practice facility, the Sheri L. Berto center in suburban Deerfield, IL, my plan was simple. While some reporters and members of various media outlets looked for stories regarding the departure of Ben Gordon, the health of Luol Deng and John Salmons, Tyrus Thomas’ contract situation, or if Derrick Rose actually took his SAT test or not, the only story I was after was a basketball one.
I wanted to know and see for myself how Rose had grown from last season going into this one? On a team who just two months earlier lost its leading scorer to the archrival Detroit Pistons, as a second year player, with a second year head coach on a still relatively young team, success or failure of the Bulls this season rests squarely on his 20-year-old shoulders now, more than it ever did. And I wanted to know how he was going to handle the pressure.
With the balance of power in the NBA shifting from west to east and considering that the Bulls made no significant moves to improve their team during the offseason, it’s going to take a lot for them to compete and remain relevant in the Eastern Conference. The days of sneaking up and surprising teams like they did last season are long gone. But if looks mean anything, then teams going up against this year’s squad had better be ready for a fight. The Eastern Conference has always been known as the more physical of the two and the Bulls look ready to live up to the nature of the east.
As a whole, the team looks good physically. Brad Miller looks svelte. Kirk Hinrich, Luol Deng and John Salmons are now healthy. Deng, Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah have all added upper body strength. In fact, Noah’s arms look as if he’s ready to invite everyone to a gun show. The all energy, all heart and all hustle Noah appears ready, willing and able to bang with the big boys all season long.
All in all, every player on the team looks as if they’d worked hard all summer and appears to be ready to go. First year GM, Gar Forman attests to the player’s work ethic. Said Foreman, “Our players had a terrific summer.” Head coach Vinny Del Negro added, “I’m excited about the work players put in this summer… It gives us a chance to be more successful.”
Even the rookies look good (pause). Taj Gibson from USC is a lot longer than I expected, but he’s also not as thin as I thought he’d be either. And James Johnson out of Wake Forest is a lot bigger and a lot stronger physically than you’d a expect a rookie to be coming into their first season in the L. More so than Gibson, Johnson looks ready to contribute right away and makes the Bulls without a doubt the toughest team in the League. And not just because he’s 6-9 and 245 pounds either.
How many other squads can say that they have a player who’s a black belt in karate, trained in MMA, holds a 20-0 amateur kick boxing record, seven world karate titles, nine national titles, and in his one and only MMA fight as a junior in high school, beat a 31-year-old guy (who now fights professionally), in 90 seconds. Oh, and did I mention his mother and father are both black belts and in a family of nine children, his 10-year-old younger sister is the only one who isn’t a black belt. Yet. Said Johnson, “I’ve got a fighting attitude… I back up my teammates.” To the other 29 teams in the League, you don’t want it with Chicago. Consider yourselves warned.
But while all of these things are good, everything begins and ends with Derrick Rose. He’s now the face of the franchise, the cornerstone, and the future of the Chicago Bulls. With Ben Gordon gone, along with a year of NBA experience under his belt and also being the team’s most talented player now, whether he’s ready for it or not, there’s no question that he’s the leader of this young Bulls squad. As he goes, they’ll go. That sort of thing happens when you have a rookie season like his capped with a ROY award and leading his team to within a game of knocking off the defending world champs in the playoffs last year. But as he moved around the Berto center, there was a quiet confidence emanating from Rose that made you feel good about the team’s chances this season.
He was more than willing to stop and chat and answer any question thrown at him as he rotated between photo stations and the media interview table. It was very easy to tell that he understands how important he is to the success or failure of this year’s team and he was very open and honest about his performance last year and what he’s learned so far from playing the playing the most critical position in basketball. “You’ve just got to have patience, and don’t be scared to make mistakes. As a point guard you’re going to make mistakes and coming in, I made a lot of them. You’ve just got to learn from them and I think that I have.”
Underneath his soft spoken nature and quiet demeanor which people always seem to misinterpret, as a Chicagoan born and raised in Englewood like Rose, I could see the south side Chicago blood pumping through his veins. Scared of nothing and intimidated by no one, it was easy to see why he had such a successful rookie campaign.
“I didn’t think about just being a rookie (last season),” said Rose, “I’m an NBA player, I’m going to compete against the best,” He added, “I want to win everything, no matter what it is I want to win. No matter how many years I’ve been in the League or whatever, I want to win….The goal of playing this sport is to get a championship.”
He also seems very conscious of his newfound stardom in the NBA and he wants to build on that and somewhat re-build his image. After taking a slight PR hit over the summer when a photo of him throwing up gang signs circulated the internet along with allegations of him not taking his SAT test before enrolling at Memphis, Rose addressed it all with an unfazed attitude and you could tell that he’d already moved on from it.
“You’re always going to have controversy. I just took it for it what it was. It was a dumb mistake that I did in the past.” He went on to say, “It (the negativity) made me work harder. I’m happy that it came to me at a young age. I’m only 20 and I’m seeing this stuff already so in the future if anything occurs, I know how to deal with it because it’s already happened to me before.” And on the allegations that he didn’t take his SAT test, Rose calmly answered, “I took it… I wasn’t worried about anybody saying I didn’t take it.” Case closed.
Going into this season, Rose also made it very clear what he wants to accomplish and the other players in the League, PGs especially, should be on notice. Derrick Rose is gunnin’ for that No. 1 spot. “I want to be MVP, I want to make the All-Star team, I want to be the best player at my position. All of my goals are high and hopefully I’ll be able to reach them [this season].”
On paper, this team may not look as good as some of the other squads in the NBA, but barring the injuries that they suffered last year along with a renewed commitment from the team on the defensive side of the ball which will lead to a more physical style of play, this team could shock everyone just like they did last year.
After losing Ben Gordon, it was hard for Bulls fans to feel good about the team’s success going into this season. In fact, as a fan myself going in to cover the team I’ve cheered for as long as I can remember, even I had my doubts. But after spending a day with the players, coaches and front office staff and especially after reflecting on my time with Derrick Rose, I felt a lot better. Adorning his left hand is a tattoo of the Chicago skyline, with a basketball appearing like a rising sun behind it. I walked away from the Berto Center feeling good about my team again because no matter what happens this season, I know that professional basketball in this town will be in good hands for a long time.