Peppers to the Rescue?
What Julius Peppers could do for the Bulls.
by Peter A. Coclanis
Although I live in North Carolina and teach at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, I’m a native Chicagoan and try to get up to the Windy City a couple of times a year. While in town, I usually try to take in a game or two—Bears, Cubs, Bulls, etc.—depending on the season. Just before Christmas I was in Chicago and had the dubious honor of taking in the Bulls-Kings game, the infamous contest the Bulls lost 102-98, blowing a 79-44 lead with 8:50 left in the third quarter. Just after the devastating loss, as my son and I were walking east on Madison toward our hotel in the Loop, a handful of disgruntled Bulls’ fans started chanting “Fire (Bulls GM Gar Forman), Fire Forman.” After about 30 seconds, one other person started chiming in, quite hilariously, “And (Bears GM) Jerry Angelo too!”
Anyway, with the Bears’ signing on March 5 of Julius Peppers, there may be a way to redeem Angelo (and maybe even Forman) in Bulls’ fans’ minds: Get the Bears’ GM to allow Peppers to suit up this spring for the Bulls. With the Bulls’ playoff chances slipping away by the day, the team could do a lot worse than to get Peppers in uniform and onto the court for the remainder of the regular season.
As everyone knows, the trade of Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah’s nagging foot injury have left the Bulls painfully thin in the front court. Looking back at what Peppers did in his two seasons on the hard wood at UNC in ‘99-00 and ‘00-01, he might look very good on the floor in the United Center right now. In ‘99-00, despite limited practice time, Peppers played in 31 games on a good (22-14) Tar Heels’ team, averaging just under 16 minutes a game. He played tough defense, set awesome screens, pulled down 3.5 rebounds per game, and averaged 4.5 points, shooting almost 60 percent from the field. The next season—as a redshirt sophomore—Peppers played in 25 games for a much better team (28-7), averaging almost 18 minutes per. He averaged 4 rebounds and 7.1 points per game, and raised his field goal percentage for the season to over 67 percent.
He had some truly big games during the latter season, chalking up 13 points and 9 boards in only 21 minutes in a win over Marquette, scoring 14 points in 22 minutes in a victory against Georgia Tech, and 18 in 26 minutes in a win over Maryland (going 7-10 from the field). He was even better in the NCAA Tourney, ringing up 12 points and 5 boards in 33 minutes in UNC’s 70-48 rout of Princeton, and in his last game—an 82-74 upset loss to Penn State—again in 33 minutes, he scored 21 points (going an ungodly 8-9 from the floor) and snared 10 rebounds. He didn’t rejoin the team in ’01-02, preferring instead to prepare for the pro football draft.
Although Peppers hasn’t played organized ball in a decade, he is at 6-7, 283, still a magnificent specimen with outrageous athletic ability. He was a star tailback in high school in North Carolina, an excellent basketball player, and a state champion both as a sprinter (4 x 200 relay) and in the triple jump. I served on an athletics committee at UNC for a time, and I recall John Bunting, one-time UNC football coach, saying before the 2001 season that he wouldn’t bet against Peppers in a footrace against starting QB (and starting UNC point guard) Ronald Curry, himself a phenomenal athlete, later an NFL wide receiver, who as a senior in high school in Hampton, VA in 1997 was considered the best football player and the best basketball player in the U.S. (Curry also won the slam dunk contest and was named MVP in the McDonald’s All-American game that year).
In retrospect, I think Bunting was right. And even nine years after Peppers’ last college basketball game and even after his comment at a press conference on March 5 that his basketball career was on hold, I’d wager that, with two weeks or so to get into basketball shape, he could help the Bulls in their playoff run. At the very least, he’s Chris Richard—with a good 12-15 foot jump shot. The fact that on March 9 the WNBA’s Tulsa Shock signed 34-year-old Marion Jones–a similarly talented two-sport star at UNC, who hasn’t played organized basketball since the ‘93-94 season—is suggestive enough to give at least one Bulls’ fan hope.
Peter A. Coclanis is Albert R. Newsome Distinguished Professor of History at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he also directs the Global Research Institute.