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A Pack of Homers

Chicago sportswriters turned the Bulls-Pistons series into a drama fit for the gods.

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Set in a unique space-time continuum in which hours are as long as you need them to be and no two points in Los Angeles are more than 15 minutes apart, 24 manages to squeeze a TV season's worth of thrills and chills into a single day. Sometimes I wonder if sportswriters do the plotting. They're the miracle workers who just stuffed two weeks of basketball with enough drama for the Iliad.

Some years ago I happened to enter the clubhouse of a baseball team minutes after it had lost the seventh game of a World Series it earlier led three games to one. I expected the players to feel more or less like the fans, poleaxed with disbelief and despair. Instead they were sitting by their lockers dragging on cigarettes and quietly talking things over. They'd lost the Series. The year before they'd won it. In April another season would start. They were professional athletes.

The duty of the sportswriter is to invoke for the fan's benefit all the emotional highs and lows the professional athlete is too grown up to indulge in. On May 4, if you can remember back that far, Chicago was innocent and happy. "Nocioni is confident his team will beat the Pistons, as he should be," wrote Rick Morrissey. Nocioni's Bulls had just swept the Miami Heat, the defending NBA champs, in four games. The lark was on the wing. All was right with the world.

But on May 5 the Bulls lost to the Pistons in Detroit, 95-69. The Bulls played like a team, wrote Morrissey, "that looks like it knows it's out of its league. . . . The Bulls were scared, they were flat or the Pistons are that much better. All of the above is also a possibility."

Jay Mariotti put it this way: "Paris Hilton will be more prepared for jail than [the Bulls] were for the opening bell of the Eastern Conference semifinals." Rick Telander called the final score "stunning and emasculating." Perversely, the Tribune's Sam Smith tried to explain the loss in terms of X's and O's. "Basically," he wrote, Detroit is "challenging the Bulls to find someone [Ben] Gordon can defend. Whomever you put him on, that's whom we're going to. See if you can stop it." But Smith's clinical analysis was a sorry response to emasculating defeat. After giving himself a day to reflect on the catastrophe, Telander wrote again. Did a "silver lining" glisten from within the "smoldering wreckage that is the Bulls? . . . I'm here to say, uh, well, sort of, pretty much, no."

Good teams sometimes play bad games, but on May 7 the Bulls lost again in Detroit, this time 108-87. Smith observed, "Just about everything the Bulls tried--the changes they made, the adjustments, the substitutions--none of it worked." But we'll hear no more from Smith. He's incurably committed to the proposition that tactics and talent, rather than the heart of the warrior and the whims of the gods, determine victory and defeat. Telander began his account, "The Bulls have been exposed. When they play like slugs, when they play out of control or stupidly or timidly, they are as bad as they were during the magic reign of Tim 'Tums' Floyd." Mariotti asserted, "The Bulls are stinking out the NBA playoffs--.. . . [They're] tinkling on the Michael Jordan era." Said Morrissey, "The only thing [the Bulls] have proved is that they don't belong in this playoff series. . . . The Bulls can't match up against this team."

Having disgraced themselves in Detroit, the Bulls came home. As it was now time for hope to spring eternal, the Tribune's Mike Downey turned his attention to the series and gave the team a little cheer. "I wish you rats would wait at least 48 more hours before jumping ship," he wrote on May 9. "Too many yellow deserters have bailed on the Bulls. . . . Can't anybody here keep the faith? Is it impossible to believe the Bulls could snap back to win Games 3 and 4 on their home floor?"

This stouthearted appeal, imploring righteous fans to screw their courage to the sticking point, struck a familiar note. To be technical, it struck Note B. As Note A, "All is lost," was the first response to the debacle in Detroit, "All is not yet lost" had to be the second. But on May 10 the Bulls blew a 19-point third-quarter lead at the United Center. The Pistons tore through them in the fourth quarter like a tornado at the cottage cheese depository and won the game, 81-74. Detroit now led the series three games to none. Morrissey: "This Eastern Conference semifinal is as over as World War I." Mariotti: "Not much was at stake. . . . Only the credibility of John Paxson's master plan and community trust in the Bulls' future. But all they did was expose themselves as a brittle, sloppy, skittish team of erratic jumpshooters who weren't ready for prime time." Telander: "It all fell apart. It is over."

These comments appeared in a Friday paper. The fourth game in the series wouldn't be held until Sunday afternoon, so it was necessary for all hands to compose one more piece--something on the thinkish side--for that day's paper despite having nothing to anticipate but extinction. Mariotti singled out Ben Wallace--a "$60 million letdown"--as the chief culprit in the disaster. Morrissey worked on his one- and two-liners: "In a matter of days, Kirk Hinrich has gone from unflappable to exceedingly flappable. A chicken without the benefit of a head doesn't flap as much as Hinrich has"; "The Bulls and success are having major avoidance issues at the moment"; "If you're going out, you might as well go out fighting. If not, get it over with quickly. There are other, more pressing issues. Sock drawers need organizing."

Unaccountably, the Bulls won game four easily, 102-87. Whatever, said the sportswriters, to whom the victory meant no more than a last pathetic counterattack by Trojan remnants would have to Hecuba, what with Priam already dead on the altar of Zeus. Telander: "Smell the flowers, yes. Then get real. Did the Pistons really care if they won this game?" Morrissey: "At least the Pistons are a little more aware of the Bulls' existence now. That's an upgrade." Mariotti: "Not to be cynical, but Sunday's result was so predictable, so NBA in May." In proper Greek epic style, Downey cursed the fates: "Rewind the clock on that accursed Game 3 and we would have ourselves a series."

But then the Bulls went back to Detroit and clobbered the Pistons, 108-92. It was time to wonder--which team did the gods actually favor? Downey: "There are games that you expect your team to win, but there are other games that you go into assuming your team is toast. This one was the latter." Mariotti: "'Die! Why won't you die?' [Detroit columnist] Mitch Albom said to some of us in the Chicago media corps." Telander: "Who are these Bulls? I confess, I'm mystified." Surely the Bulls would win game six at home and draw even, setting the stage for a game seven that would be for the ages. They didn't. "Whatever victory smells like, the Pistons smelled it in the fourth quarter Thursday night," Morrissey wrote Friday morning about Detroit's 95-85 win. "They look the part of champions." Telander said a "worthy team" would never have blown game three. Mariotti wondered, "Was it part of the maturation process? Or were the Bulls exposed as flawed?" He said the Pistons "seemed to toy with them and awaken when necessary."

And so, as the series ended, it was said of the Pistons as it was said so long ago of the army of Agamemnon: the side that was better at winning won, thereby demonstrating it was better. The sly gods have given us a world in which this often turns out to be the case, and the Bulls now have the summer to think about how to propitiate them. Or as Sam Smith, the local writer who covers basketball games as if they were lab experiments instead of bursts of Homeric combat, might say--who do we trade?

News Bite

a As the season of 24 drew to a close with the Conrad Black trial in full swing, the two dramas started to blur together in my mind. A Black movie needs to be made simply so that Powers Boothe, aka Vice President Daniels, can play him. It's the role Boothe was born for. David Adler might be a little trickier, but Gregory Itzin, aka President Logan, could pull him off nicely.

For more, see Michael Miner's blog at chicagoreader.com.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration by Godfrey Carmona.

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