With Elton Brand back in the L, and Metta World Peace (or is it Ron Artest?) still getting checks from the Lakers, now seemed like the perfect time to revisit this story from SLAM 43, which featured Shaq and Kobe on the cover. That dynamic duo in Los Angeles had started a new era in the NBA—they won the second post-Jordan title and were poised to become the new Phil Jackson-led-dynasty. While things were rosy out in LA, Brand and Artest were trying to pick up the pieces MJ and all them had left behind in the Chi. Back in early 2000, Ben Osborne made his way to Chicago to see a pair of young rookies from New York adjusting to the big-time. Read his piece below.—Ed.
March 13, 2000, Bulls vs. Jazz. The last time I was in Chicago was Sunday, June 7, ’98. Game 3, Bulls vs. Jazz. You remember that night, when the Bulls absolutely humiliated the Jazz, 96-54, a still-record NBA Finals performance. Michael, Scottie and crew made the United Center a special place, but by the end of that week—after a Bulls’ win in Game 4 and a Jazz miracle in Game 5—the excitement at UC was over. Like the excitement and myself, Utah was out of Chi-Town, aided by a lockout in not returning until tonight.
“I don’t think we even care about being back here,” Utah’s Byron Russell says in an attitude-laced statement in the pregame locker room. “It ain’t even like it’s the same arena if it ain’t have the same personnel.”
Out by the court, Russell’s opinion is hard to argue with. People may be filing into the seats (the Bulls are still selling out games), but there’s little buzz other than the one generated by geeky Jazz fans snapping photos of their aging heroes. This is not what I remember from my last Bulls’ game. “F— them,” I thought of those damn Jerrys, who ruined all the fun and apparently signed a long-term lease in Lotto-land for the once-dynastic Bulls.
Twenty-four hours later, however, having interviewed many of the key witnesses and investigated the case, I had a much different outlook on the killing of the Jordan Bulls. This Chicago situation is actually far different from the ones taking place in Oakland (the Warriors), Los Angeles (the Clippers) or the Great White North (the Grizzlies). The Bulls have a plan, and thanks to a pair of rookies from New York, things are off to a great start. That .200 winning percentage the Bulls lugged into April? You won’t be seeing a number like that out of Chicago again for many years. Ron Artest and Elton Brand won’t let that happen.
“People laugh too much when they play against us, like it’s a game,” Artest says before the Jazz game (which he sits out with a sprained ankle). “But it is not going to be a game for long. Soon we’re going to start just murdering people. Word up.”
If Artest, the 20-year-old Queensbridge native who spent the last two years at St. John’s before being picked 16th by the Bulls in last year’s Draft, is the erratic and fiery ball of potential in the Bulls’ future, then Brand represents the molten rock that can assure it glows.
Tim Floyd, the Bulls’ friendly second-year coach, is positively ebullient when you bring up his two key rooks (seldom-used Michael Ruffin also debuted with Chicago this year, but there are no guarantees that he’ll be there for long). When asked what Brand has done to enter the home stretch of the season as the Rookie of the Year favorite over the inconsistently spectacular duo of Steve Francis and Lamar Odom, Floyd’s down-home demeanor does little to diminish the confidence of his answer. “Oh, Elton had a couple of games at the beginning of the season that weren’t all that spiffy. But I think [his consistency] is because his motor is always on. Elton is a guy’s who’s very prideful, who wants to be the very best at his position in the NBA. He knows he doesn’t have every answer right now, but he has the willingness to work, to watch films and stay around when everyone else heads home. If he keeps it up, this is a guy who’s got a chance to be an All-Star in this League for 10 years.”
Against Karl Malone, the greatest PF of all time and a player many observers feel Brand can approximate nicely, the 6-8, 260-pound student more than holds his own. Keeping pretty much with his post-All-Star-break numbers, and battering his season averages of 19.4 ppg, 10 rpg and 1.6 bpg, Elton goes for 26, 12 and 4 in an 87-79 Chicago loss. His game is rudimentary, based on offensive rebounding, perfectly squared-up jump shots and a soft touch around the basket. It’s more than enough—especially when combined with Elton’s decent size, long arms and “some of the biggest hands ever seen on a basketball player,” according to Krause—to see that less than a year after being taken No. 1, the former two-year Duke star is for real.
Malone always plays hard, but I swear he’s extra fired up against Elton (of whom, when asked before the game if he saw similarities in their games, Malone said curtly, “We’re both black”). Malone barely wins the personal duel with 31 and 13, smartly converting fast-break opportunities provided by John Stockton that Elton has never even seen in practice. After the game, Mail sings a different tune about his follower. “I just tell him to hang in there,” he says. “By playing on this team now, it’s going to help him out later in life…He’s on a losing team now, but if a guy can play this hard every night on a losing team, think about how much better he’ll be on a winning team.”
Across the lower room from the original, NBA classmate and former college rival Scott Padgett is also impressed with Elton. “I think I respected him a lot more than other people diid going into the Draft because I saw what he could do when I played against him. He’s a lot like Karl, where he doesn’t do anything fancy, but you look up at the end of the night, and he’s got 20 and 10. I think he shows you can be a very, very good player without all the highlights.
It was just that lack of flair that many NBA observers (myself included) confused for a lack of superstar talent, and led to questions about the Bulls selection of Brand. Elton never doubted himself, however, and has played with the confidence of a man who knows his style of play is a great fit for the Bulls’ franchise. “Of course I’d like to dunk five times a game and get all the highlights, but that’s totally not my game,” Brand says. “My job is about doing the work and staying consistent. I think by doing this over the course of the season, I’ve proven that I was deserving of the pick.”
Brand, whose collection of mostly old and mildly talented teammates kept him off the airwaves much of the season, finally opened some eyes with his MVP performance in the Rookie Game. Brand’s 14 points and 21 rebounds in a 92-83 “freshman” victory earned Elton some well-deserved love, even from a ROY rival. “Look at the guy, he got 20 rebounds tonight,” Odom said with admiration. “He’s strong like an ox, man. His strength allows him to play center if you need it, but if you try to guard him with a big guy, Elton will just take him outside and break him down.”
Brand’s strength, consistency and will allowed him to barrel right through the so-called “Rookie Wall” like it was just another hopeless four man trying to stop him on the way to the rack. “Yeah, I’ve never really gotten that tired this season or hit that wall,” Brand says in his even-tempered, slightly high-pitched voice. “I had a couple 2- or 4-point games at the beginning of the season, but that was when I was adjusting to this level. Once I adjusted, I just flowed from there.”
Growing up in Peekskill, NY, a Hudson River town about an hour north of NYC, the last thing a ball player can be expected to do is “flow” into the League. Playing against tiny high schools with tiny centers, Brand dominated in prep ball, leading his team to state titles as a sophomore and junior, and winning New York State’s “Mr. Basketball” award as a senior. But as much as Brand names his high school coach, Lou Panzanaro, his older brother, Artie McGriff, and the grandparents who mainly raised him, John and Clara Timms, as inspirations, you don’t make the NBA on love and support alone. Enter Riverside Church. In the summer after his freshman year in high school, Brand began to play with the legendary, Harlem-based AAU program, where he was introduced to a new level of competition, and started to realize he could star with the big boys, too. “[That’s when] I started to figure things out,” Brand told the Washington Post last year. “It was like, ‘This guy is going to Villanova. This kid, he’s going to Georgetown next year. This guy’s going to Florida. And I’m playing with this guys. I’m holding my own. If these guys are going there, I can play at that level, too.’”
One of the guys Brand played with on Riverside was Artest. They came from vastly different places on the New York map, but their hearts were in the same place—devoted to making it on the strength of desire, if not the anomalous athleticism some of their contemporaries possessed. “I actually met Elton the summer before he joined Riverside, after the eighth grade, at Five-Star Camp,” recalls Artest. “I remember playing against E, and he was really, really competitive. He was developing his jump shot like crazy, and king of doing the same thing he does now. Just killin’ with that basic game.”
Artest was killin’ back in the day as well, both for Riverside and his LaSalle High team, with a unique combination of bravado and persistence that he too has brought with him to the NBA. “On offense, Ron has a real crude, effective way of finishing plays,” says Floyd after practice. “And on defense he’s very versatile. He’s been able to go out and guard a Gary Payton, an Allen Iverson, and then turn around and guard a Grant Hill or Jerry Stackhouse, and do it all effectively.”
Nodding over his shoulders at the 6-6, 244-pound Artest, who’s playing a spirited game of one-on-one with teammate Chris Carr while the rest of the team has left the floor, Floyd points out that he is equally happy with Ron’s off-court demeanor. “He’s another guy who’s a great listener. He’s serious about what he’s doing, he stays late every day, and I just think he’s gonna be a terrific player.”
The candid Artest gives a much tougher review of his play this season, showing that he’s out for much more than simply proving how un-Weis, er, wise the Knicks, er, any team that picked between 10-15, were. “I think I could be playing much, much better this season,” Ron-Ron says with a grimace that ignores the fact that many NBA people consider his per-game averages of 11.7 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.7 steals one of the biggest success stories of the season. “I’m not satisfied with my offense, my defense or my focus mentally. And the losing is definitely tough. It’s like, since you play for a losing team, then you’re a loser, basically. Even if you play hard and play like a winner, you’re on a losing team, and I do not want to be labeled as a loser for the rest of my career.”
Of course, neither Artest nor Brand need to cope with all the Ls alone. They, New York residents, AAU teammates, and two-year college stars alike, have each other. We go through rookie trials, and with the losing there’s obviously been some rough times, but we can talk to each other about that stuff,” Brand says. “If I have a problem I can go to him, and if he has a problem he can come to me.”
Brand refers mainly to off-court problems, but they can also help each other on the court. With Artest missing the Utah game, the double teams Elton faces remind me of Charles Barkley circa ’92. “Having Ron makes things easier,” Elton says after the game. “He’s a great slasher and a great scorer. Plus, his cutting ability—he cuts so hard and so fast—is something that the other team has to respect.”
Bulls’ assistant coach and former “man in the middle,” Bill Cartwright, has greatly enjoyed watching both of Chicago’s building blocks set a foundation. “The big thing to me is that they’ve both really come to find their own identity and what they can do in this League. Some guys struggle to find a way to score, a way to guard, but I think they’ve both found a way to do those things pretty quickly.”
Corey Benjamin (remember him?) was the Bulls’ first round pick in ’98, and his nailed-to-the-bench status is yet more reason to laud Ron and Elton. Because logic dictates that if the Bulls were playing the two youngsters only to “give them an opportunity,” then the young and athletic Benjamin would be out there too. As Artest says, “No one’s giving me anything. I’ve earned my minutes.” Benjamin agrees, saying, “They’re both doing real well, a lot better than your average rookies, and that’s why they’re getting so many minutes, so many reps. And Elton, he’s playing like he’s been in the League for 15 years, puttin’ up 30 and 12 some games just like Malone.”
As good as Ron-Ron and E have been, the Bulls’ unsightly record is proof that these two alone will not make the Bulls title contenders again (they’re the only two Bulls averaging double-digit points this season). But to the credit of Jerry Krause (it hurts to write that), the Bulls have enough cap money to further re-shape their team, and they also own, potentially, two of the top five picks in the Draft (their own and Washington’s as long as the Wiz don’t land the 1, 2 or 3). Having witnessed Jerry Krause and David Falk commiserating before this season’s Carolina at Duke game (“You’ve got the money, and I’ve got the product,” the agent extraordinaire said to Krause) and knowing the Sleuth’s scouting prowess, it’s not hard to imagine the Bulls running out a starting lineup next fall that reads something like: Erick Barkley, Ron, Tracy McGrady, Elton and Kenyon Martin. The names may change, but it’s pure fact that Elton and Ron will be joined by at least two or three blue chips next year.
And when, shortly after, the Bulls are again breathing the rare air that filled the United Center in June, ’98, and their players are laughing anew at the opposition instead of the other way around, fans will know that it all started with Ron Artest and Elton Brand.