Running with the Bulls (Part 1 of 2)

This is gonna end up being sort of long, so bear with me. (Bear, Bull, get it?) And I’m also writing it as I go, so at points it may be sense-challenged. But if you manage to follow along, I believe you’ll have a better sense of what the Chicago Bulls are all about.

Basically, these are the interviews I did (with some additional observations) for the feature (“BULL FIGHT”) I wrote in SLAM 108. Initially I thought I could do it over the phone with the help of League Pass. After all, it was only 2,000 words, and who wants to go to Chi in February? But when the Bulls PR department received my lengthy interview request list, it became readily apparent that I needed to book some flights and pack some warm clothes.

I was there for less than four days, but that time covered a shootaround, two games, and a practice. More than enough opportunity for observation and interviewing—if anything, as those who are familiar with my writing process will tell you, too much opportunity. Factor in that I’m an unabashed Bulls fan, and have been since Michael Jordan was trying to turn Brad Sellers into a viable NBA player, this was gonna be a good trip.

The first game was the same night I landed, against the Golden State Warriors. I don’t sleep well—if at all—the night before a morning flight, so when I got into town I wound up crashing for a while. And before I knew it, I’d missed the pre-game media session. With most teams that doesn’t matter. But the Bulls are generally media-friendly, so this was an opportunity lost. I got to the arena on Madison in plenty of time for the game, however, so all wasn’t lost.

The last time I attended a Bulls game in Chicago was during the Jordan era. A Finals game against the Jazz. Things done changed. The introductions are eerily similar, but end quite differently—with the longest-tenured Bull, fourth-year guard Kirk Hinrich.

Jump shooters may not win championships, but they sure win this game. Led by Ben Gordon and Luol Deng, the Bulls run out to a 30-point fourth quarter lead that makes for plenty of garbage time. And not only do the Bulls not have a post player, they don’t even have a single go-to guy. Instead, they have three equal-opportunity shooters in Gordon, Deng and Hinrich. Gordon is usually the key down the stretch, but it’s not “his” team by any stretch of the imagination. And everyone seems to understand that.

After the game, it’s Gordon I approach first. I’m curious about his take on the Bulls’s team-first approach.

ME: You guys really play as a team, is that from the top down, or just the way it works?

BG: I mean, both. That’s the way that we know we can be successful, everybody playing off each other, playing together, that’s when we’re at our best. So we’re just tryin’ to stick to that. And when we do that, along with playing our team defense, usually we win.

My teammates kept finding me, they were lookin’ for me, I was hot, so that’s how we play. Somebody’s hot we try and get ‘em the ball, they cool off we try and spread it around a little bit and get other people involved, so…

ME: Did it feel different at the start of this season with Ben Wallace coming in?

BG: Yeah, it definitely felt different. We were no longer ‘the baby Bulls,’ or the youthful team that didn’t have any experience. Now we’d added some veteran guys that had done some things in the League, and we were no longer off the radar, you know? People knew when they came to play us that it’s gonna be a tough game.

Next I catch up with the two rookies, Swiss forward Thabo Sefolosha and jumping jack Tyrus Thomas (who averages one absurd block and dunk per game, and has tattoos scrawled up the back of his upper arms reading “NO STRUGGLE” on one and “NO PROGRESS” on the other). Thomas, at least, has a lot to say.

ME: Do you feel like things are starting to come together?

TT: For myself, yes, for the team, yes as well. We’re starting to finally put ‘em together, and hopefully we can continue to do this throughout the rest of the season and carry it on to the postseason.

ME: How has it been for you so far?

TT: Oh it’s been fun, it’s been fun. A lot of learnin’, getting’ better. I can feel myself getting’ better. My floor IQ is getting’ better. That’s my main thing, just to get better every year. Every day.

ME: What’s been the toughest thing for you this year?

TT: (Right away) The weather. That’s—the weather. That’s been my toughest.

OTHER REPORTER: Do you feel like you’ve hit a wall?

TT: Me and Scott [Skiles] talked about it the other day, he asked me how my body was holding up, and I think if you are mentally tough, if you tell your body you’re gonna keep going, if you take care of your body, cold tub, hot tub, ice your body, get your treatments, then you really won’t hit that wall. A lot of rookies don’t really know how to take care of their bodies for that long a time. So I just go in, I watch the other guys—I see somebody get in the cold tub, I’m gonna go get in it too. Because obviously they know what they’re doing, like P.J. [Brown], he’s been in the League all these years. So when I see him icing, I just ice. If nothin’ hurts, I still just ice.

Ben Wallace is one of the last guys to appear, moving slowly. It’s not arrogance or anything—he just moves at his own pace. Ever since the headband incident at the beginning of the year (Skiles has forbidden the team from wearing them), people have questioned the wisdom of paying $60 million for Wallace, who is undersized, offensively challenged, and arguably on the downside of his most unlikely career. Factor in the success that Tyson Chandler, whom he replaced, is having in New Orleans—and the fact that he’s four inches taller and nearly a decade younger—and the concerns are given even more credence. But Wallace wasn’t brought in just for the regular season. He finally sits down in his locker, twisting a grey State Property skully between his huge hands. (Questions came from many people, so I won’t take credit for any of them).

Are you feeling pressure to live up to the contract?

BW: No, no pressure. You know, I always say, coming into this League regardless of how much money you’re making it’s a blessing, to have an opportunity to play in this League. All you owe anybody, all you owe yourself, is to go out there every night and play as hard as you can possibly play, regardless of how much money they payin’ you. You know, this is what I love to do. If you go out there and play as hard as you can possibly play, you fulfill every contract that you get. So it’s no pressure as far as to go out and live up to this or that but the only pressure that I feel is pressure I put on myself, is to go out there and do whatever I can do to help this team win.

Detroit would have been giving you a big contract for what you’d done in the past, come here and you haven’t done anything for the Bulls until you got here in the beginning of the season.

BW: Yeah, but like I told Scott and Pax when we was negotiating or we was talking or whatever, it wasn’t about the money for me anymore, you know. I wanted to come into a situation where I would have the opportunity to maximize my talent. I feel like I wasn’t given that opportunity the last year in Detroit. All I was looking for was an opportunity, it wasn’t about the money. The money just was the icing on the cake, you know, that was just a deal I couldn’t turn down, but we had already talked about opportunity, that’s what I was looking for, an opportunity, and you know, coming here it just felt like I got a new start.

Do you feel like you’re turning it up for the stretch run? People say you turn it up for the playoffs…

BW: That’s where you get your money! (Laughs)

Is there anything to that?

BW: I mean, you know, some guys come to play in big situations, crunch-time, we like to call it. Right now I’m just goin’ out, playin’ hard, but come playoffs you know it’s a different beast, man. You get a chance to face one team three-four times, and then it’s not about plays, there’s no secrets. There’s nothing the opposing team gonna do to catch you off-guard and there’s nothing you can do to catch them off-guard, so it’s just about who want it the most. And I think I live for those situations where it’s just about the ball goin’ up, and whoever want it go get it. I think those are one of my strengths.

BW: Yeah, you know, I been there. I know what it feel like to be swept, I know what it feel like to win a championship, I know what it feel like to have a championship within your grasp and lose it. You know, I been in all types of tough situations. You name it, I been there. So I think that’s a situation where I can definitely help this team, help these guys grow as players and as young men. But before we start talking about playoffs we just gotta keep rollin’ and make sure we get there and give ourself that opportunity to go through those ups and downs.

Has it been kind of what you envisioned?

BW: Yeah, you know, when I looked at this roster, the one thing that stood out to me was the fact that they was a team. They didn’t have one guy going out trying to lead the team every night. They had a number of guys that was capable of stepping up and leadin this team. I looked at that, and that was one of the things that attracted me—to have an opportunity to play with a group of guys who’s gonna come out and play hard regardless of who get the big numbers or whatever, everybody was gonna be happy with wins. We just gotta stay focused continue to go out and do what we do.

Your numbers are a little down from Detroit, not as many of those big rebounding games. How would you evaluate yourself?

BW: That’s how this League go. That’s how—you play so many games, some nights you’re gonna come out and get big rebound numbers, and some nights it’s just not gonna happen for you. So you know, when the opportunity was there for me to get in there and get rebounds and do those things, I did it. The one thing about me, I don’t really get concerned about my numbers as far as rebounds and this and that. This team don’t necessarily need me to go out and get 17-18 rebounds a night because we got other guys that can step up and hit the boards and get it done. It’s all about chipping in where you can and playing as a team.

The next day, at practice, Skiles speaks first. He’s blunt, to put it as simply as possible. He doesn’t use three words when two will do. Nor does he praise the team lavishly for their blowout win the previous night. They just did what they were supposed to do. Skiles seems like the perfect coach for a team this young—we’ll see what happens as time goes on.

Q: What are you looking for? 50 wins is something we’ve discussed…

SS: Well, you know, that’s something that we talked about when we were at Sacramento a while back—where we were, what our schedule was like, let’s try to get to 50. And in hindsight, our team might not be ready to think like that. On the other hand, we already have a 16-3 stretch behind us at one point in the season, there’s no reason to assume if we didn’t play very well we couldn’t get up there close and try to go for it. I’ve been saying along, much like I did the past two years, I think our best basketball’s ahead of us, I think we are gonna play very well comin’ down the stretch—what the stretch means, I don’t know. I hope I’m not sayin’ that with seven games to go, you know? The stretch is right now, we’re in the last quarter of the season, the last five-six weeks, it’s important to play well right now.

ME: How do you feel about the balance of the team?

SS: Our guys I think, inherently look to Lu and Ben, and to a certain extent Kirk and Andres to do much of the scoring. But we do, we’ve got guys who can come off the bench and score, we’ve got guys that can score in different ways. So that’s one of the things we tried to get in the summer, was to get a little more balance and a little deeper team, and I think we’ve done that.

It’s just the way we’re built right now. I mean, if you got a guy that can go out there and just routinely get 30 points on a given night I mean, he’s gonna be able to do that. It’s the nature of our team right now—teams take some things away from us and we’re able to go to other areas because we’ve got pretty good balance.

ME: Post trade deadline, are you about where you want to be?

SS: Yeah, we’re not far away, but I think our best basketball is still to be played, I think we’re gonna get better, coming down to the end of the season here, and I think when the playoffs come around we’re gonna be a club that’s gonna be tough to beat.

ME: How was the transition adding Ben? Seems like it would be fairly seamless.

SS: Yeah, he has. Ben is in the top 15 in blocks, top 15 in rebounding, top 15 in steals—he’s the only big man anywhere on the steals chart. I mean, he does a lot of things that may not be noticeable that help us win games, so we’re glad to have him.

ME: Is he one of the guys who’s a leader in the locker room?

SS: We’re still kind of searching for that. This is a team that’s still kind of working on its leadership from the players, we still have a lot of young guys.

ME: Is that the biggest challenge right now?

SS: That and just being consistent. We’ve had some great moments, some great games, we just have to be more consistent with ‘em.

ME: Is this another step from last year rather than a big jump?

SS: Well, we’ll see. I think it’s pretty clear the East is wide open, you know? And when it gets to playoff time, if Miami’s healthy and Detroit, those teams would have to be the favorites I think, regardless of Miami’s seed if they’re healthy, but other than that it’s wide open so it may come down to just who’s playing the best basketball at that time of year and who can get it rollin’ in the playoffs, and it could be us. Who knows?

After Skiles finishes his sessions (two of them), I grab Hinrich for a minute. The longest-tenured Bull—hard to believe as that is—he’s a true guard, not really a point of a two, but just a ballhandler and shooter.

ME: You guys have so many guys that can bring it, balance.

KH: Yeah, I think for any good team you have to have some balance. I think we have the ability—a lot of guys on this team have ability to step up on given nights, and it’s just a matter of spreading it out and playing as a team.

ME: Moreso for you guys than most. Is there a real vocal leader?

KH: You know, I think we look to different guys for leadership. A lot of guys lead by example, and I think the trust factor on this team—I trust that Ben’s gonna bring it, Lu’s gonna bring it. That guys are gonna bring it so I don’t feel like I have to be real vocal in their heads. I just trust that we got guys that on a consistent basis are gonna bring what they do for us.

ME: Is there a different tone with Big Ben?

KH: Yeah, I think that everybody expected a lot more. Before we had kind of always played an underdog role, and I feel that’s gone this year. The League expected us to be good, as a group we expected to be good, and we’ve just been trying to go out and do it more consistently.

ME: Do you feel more of a sense of urgency this season?

KH: Well, I think—yeah, I don’t know if you would call it urgency, but the time is now. I think we’ve got a good group of guys, and as an organization we made moves to try to move us toward the top, and that’s what we’re trying to get to.

Man. This is getting long. I’m gonna stop here for the night and pick back up tomorrow when I’m stuck in front of the TV anyway.

Tomorrow, Pete Myers and the aforepromised Johnny “Red” Kerr. Among others. And maybe even some actual analysis!