Some researcher should do a study of depression among Chicago sports reporters over the next few months. Or, for that matter, among Chicago sports fans.
From the disassem-Bulls to the rebuilding White Sox (rebuilding just what exactly?) to the decaying Blackhawks to the Bears in disarray--on field and off--to Walter Payton's health watch, the sports news in this town has been dreary. Chicago is in trouble when the Cubs are its only hope in a major sport. For any fan not prepared to stoop to minor-league hockey, college basketball, or high school hoops, the local landscape is a wasteland.
Yet the postchampionship sadness surrounding the Bulls is something else. Personally, I thought I was over it; I thought I had it in hand. Yet the Bulls' home opener two weeks ago reopened the wounds and freshened the pain. A single, obligatory klieg light swept back and forth across the sky from the United Center roof as I approached the stadium--a symbol of the Bulls' diminished expectations. Inside, the atmosphere seemed deflated as well, whether compared with memories of last year's playoffs or home openers of the recent past. The perfunctory ceremony unveiling the Bulls' sixth championship banner was deliberately low-key and unsatisfying. During the game, there were vacant seats at every level of the arena.
It wasn't just me who was falling back into a funk. Although the beat writers and others covering the Bulls on a daily basis are giddy to have actual news to concentrate on (not to mention the month of June suddenly open for vacations), others in the media less involved with the day-to-day operations and more devoted to basketball aesthetics soon became despondent. At halftime of the home opener, with the Bulls trailing 46-39 and lucky to be that close, someone came up to a group of us in the press box and said, "Can you believe only months ago we were watching the greatest basketball team in the world?" A week ago last Sunday, while the Bulls were missing their first six shots from the field against the San Antonio Spurs, I overheard one person on press row turn to another and say, "If I want to watch bad basketball, I can watch my daughter's sixth-grade team play. That's better. At least I give a shit."
There are fans in this town, some of them good friends of mine, who have actually had their interest piqued by the rebuild-a-Bulls. It's the thrill of the new, getting in on the ground floor--the idea that they might actually be able to get tickets now--that has them excited. Yet I think even they are apt to be disillusioned when they see the Bulls in person. Although general manager Jerry Krause has done a fine job of burning the roster down to the nubs, painful vestiges of the glory years remain--and not just as banners in the rafters. The public-address crew continues to play the same old music at the same old times--"They're playing our songs," a disheartened fan wants to moan--as well as the same old "Only the Bulls" music video. Who is the most beautiful, exciting team in all of sports? the songs asks, as Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen fly and jam and laugh uncontrollably on the sidelines. "Only the Bulls, only the Bulls, only the one and only Chicago Bulls!" And these guys now wearing the uniform ain't them. You'd think that somebody would have felt a little sensitivity about subjecting the new players--and the old fans--to fresh memories of the good old days. Yet the team even has a new highlight reel featuring shots from the six championships that plays right before the pregame introductions. To watch Michael Jordan highlights as a way of introducing these Bulls is like looking at pictures of old lovers and then having your dog go down on you.
These Bulls offer a basketball illustration of the old tennis adage that a bad player will drag a good player down to his or her level, resulting in a game that makes everyone miserable. Combine that principle with my own observation that the only thing uglier than November basketball is October hockey, and further worsen the result by starting the NBA season not in November but in February, after less than two weeks of training camp, and you end up with a product that makes even October hockey look good (except, of course, as played by the Blackhawks).
Even so, the Bulls instilled some hope at the outset by going to Utah and playing the Jazz tough, then traveling to Los Angeles and beating the Clippers. That win, however, turned out to be the Bulls' one and only before this week, and a piss-poor victory it was, for the Clippers entered the week the only winless team in the league. When the Bulls returned home for the UC opener, a not-quite-packed house showed its loyalty by working up a lusty boo when Pippen's old nemesis, referee Hue Hollins, was announced. (Hollins responded in typically diplomatic fashion by giving the "raise-the-roof" sign.) Yet why bother? Within minutes the Bulls were down 11-2 to the Atlanta Hawks and had revealed themselves as inept. No referees are going to be costing them games this season.
Toni Kukoc has moved into the starting lineup, but he is the Bulls' lone holdover with the ability to consistently create his own shot off the dribble. All the offense flows through him, and midway through the first half there was a lovely little flashback to better days, when Kukoc drove around a Bill Wennington screen, attracted a double team, then passed back to Wennington for an open jump shot that got the Bulls back within five points at 35-30. Yet when Kukoc goes dry so do the Bulls, and on this night he never really found his shot. In what would soon become a pattern, the Bulls lulled the opponent to sleep and scrambled back into the game when it became what Phil Jackson used to call a mud-wrestling meet, but the Hawks snapped to and reasserted their superiority in convincing fashion toward the end. The ugliest moment came when Brent Barry (Double B, for bird beak and bird brain), the shooting guard who has "replaced" Jordan, stole the ball in the backcourt and passed to a wide-open Andrew Lang under the basket. Lang, the 6-foot-11, 275-pound center the Bulls have plugged the middle with, took off for a laborious slam dunk, but misjudged the pounds of thrust required and bounced the ball off the heel of the rim. The rebound dropped into his hands, but by the time he went up again the Atlanta defense had recovered and the shot was blocked. Then the Hawks took it the other way to score and reinstate a double-digit lead of 68-58. They coasted home to an 87-71 final.
It only got worse from there, as the Bulls lost a tight but even uglier game to the hated (yes, still, and forever) New York Knicks. The Bulls made barely more than a quarter of their shots from the field while the Knicks were making barely more than a third of theirs, resulting in a 73-68 New York victory. A week ago last Sunday the Bulls played host to San Antonio, and the player who got the loudest and most sustained applause was the dear departed Steve Kerr, now lining up three-point shots for the Spurs. Kerr was first cheered accepting his championship ring from Krause at center court before the game, then when he came off the bench, and finally--yes, I could hear some grudging "Oh, so that's what it feels like to be on this side of it" clapping--when he made a backbreaking pair of threes in the fourth quarter just after the suddenly revived Kukoc had pulled the Bulls within a point of the lead.
Kukoc--who had followed his 6-of-21 shooting performance against the Hawks with a 4-of-22 night against the Knicks--again had looked tentative. But he caught a pass and made a shot in rhythm, seemingly without thinking, to cut the Spurs' lead to 31-26, popped out and made a shot on the Bulls' next possession, then drew the double team with his back to the basket and delivered a Tom Boerwinkle over-the-shoulder pass to Mark Bryant, open under the net. So the Bulls kept the score respectable, 44-36, at the half. Kukoc looked beautiful throughout the third quarter, demanding the ball, scoring at will over Sean Elliott, and piloting the Bulls back into the game. Saving a ball going out of bounds, he passed to Randy Brown, who ran down the court and made the shot that tied the score at 55.
Yet with the pleasantly startled crowd as loud as it had been for any regular-season game in years, Kerr then made his threes. Concentrating on Kukoc, the Spurs shut down the Bulls in crunch time and won 89-76. The Bulls hadn't even managed to establish themselves as NBA-caliber players with the referees. The Spurs made 11 of 13 free throws going to the hoop in the fourth quarter; the Bulls made one of two while getting hammered in the lane.
Atlanta came back to town, again was lulled to sleep, and again woke up when it mattered. The Bulls went to Milwaukee and got beat by the Bucks, going almost the last six minutes without a basket. In Washington, against the newly renamed Wizards (why can't we separate ourselves from the championship days and rename the Bulls the Bullettes?), Barry had his first good game of the season, making eight of ten shots--until the potential game winner at the buzzer, that is, which he missed. In New York last Sunday, making their only scheduled appearance this season on national TV, the replace-a-Bulls again turned an ugly but close game into a rout by getting thrashed in the fourth quarter--going seven minutes without a point and missing 12 shots in a row, with a few turnovers thrown in for good measure. The Bulls entered the work week with a record of 1-8.
The sad thing is there is no one to blame for this turn of events but the players, who are overmatched. Krause meant to crash the franchise in order to get a good draft pick this summer, and he did a damn good job of it. It's impossible to judge Tim Floyd's coaching abilities when Krause has left him so little talent to coach and he has had so little time to teach. Floyd has displayed a remarkable openness and a disarming sense of humor in his dealings with the media so far. He even held a pregame media conference in his office before the home opener, which had reporters bumping into the doorjamb as they exchanged incredulous looks going in. One reporter said they weren't used to this sort of hospitality, and Floyd joked, "You want a beer or anything?" How long can he keep that up? After that opening home loss, when he came into the media room, one beat reporter felt compelled to admonish those ragging on the Bulls by saying, "OK, everybody, wipe the smiles off."
Wipe the smiles off, indeed--that's good advice for everyone--and while you're at it erase the memories if you intend to watch much of the Bulls this season.