The Bulls' media guide this season is bound with a trompe l'oeil cover that gives it the frayed appearance of an aged tome, in keeping with the team's new slogan, "History in the making." After all, this was to be the year when phenoms Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler matured and carried the franchise back to the playoffs for the first time since the Michael Jordan era. It was a concept emphasized in a TV ad campaign set to the hip-hop refrain, "Everything can change in the blink of an eye."
Unfortunately, when the Bulls broke poorly out of the gate, this pitch left them open to ridicule. The Bulls were prone to laggardly, one-sided losses at home, and when they dropped all five games on their annual west-coast swing while the circus occupied the United Center, their record fell to 4-12. At that point a better slogan for the Bull's season would have been, "We're history." Bill Cartwright, the normally placid and statesmanlike former center from the Bulls' first three championships, was replaced as coach by fiery Scott Skiles, and Jalen Rose and Donyell Marshall followed Cartwright out of town in a trade. They were all history now, and so, it seemed, were the Bulls' playoff hopes.
Though the Bulls' often listless play was a cause for concern, Cartwright hardly deserved to be the scapegoat. Injuries cost him two of his top players. Chandler, the splinter-thin seven-footer who'd established himself as the team's most gifted and versatile performer by the end of last season, was limited early on by a balky back. Scottie Pippen, a prodigal son who'd returneth to provide much-needed court smarts and veteran composure, saw one of his 38-year-old knees go out and talked of retiring as he recovered from arthroscopic surgery. Nor was general manager John Paxson to blame; he was simply building on the foundation constructed by Jerry Krause, who likewise was history after stepping down last season. If anyone deserved blame for the Bulls' sorry straits, it was Krause--if not for drafting Curry, Chandler, and guard Jamal Crawford, all of them promises largely unfulfilled going into this season, then for calling the gods and fates down upon the franchise by the hubris of stating, in the waning days of the Jordan dynasty, that it was organizations and not players that made great teams. Paxson and Skiles had to pull together a team from young talent that under both Cartwright and his predecessor, Tim Floyd, had proved resistant to coaching.
Last Friday I finally got around to catching up with the Bulls in a home game against Pippen's old Portland Trail Blazers. Skiles stood outside the Bulls' locker room fielding questions from the beat writers, and the conversation soon came around to the sloppy, stupid play afflicting the entire NBA. Skiles pointed to the youth of the players, many of whom came to the league with little college experience, like Crawford, or none at all, like Curry and Chandler. "It's the nature of what's happened," he said. Emphasizing his makeover as teacher from strict disciplinarian (a reputation that contributed to his leaving his previous coaching job, in Phoenix, after compiling a 116-79 record with the Suns), he said the Bulls were proving receptive to his methods, some of which involved stricter conditioning and additional practice for players like Curry, as well as fourth-quarter benchings for the often brilliant but erratic Crawford. "It's not like you've got this young generation of guys who don't care," he said.
Skiles started a backcourt of Crawford and Kirk Hinrich, who's the team's top rookie and was a four-year player at the University of Kansas. In his first season, jug-eared and sporting a straight-bangs haircut a seventh-grade dweeb might reject as too nerdy, he was nevertheless older than both Curry and Chandler and only a year younger than Crawford. Though prone to rookie miscues, he'd made a fairly smooth transition to the pro game. Crawford and Hinrich, who was drafted last summer after Jay Williams's career ended in a motorcycle crash, both consider themselves point guards, and it's been a challenge to get them on the court together. But Skiles appeared to have hit on a potential solution. Crawford typically positioned himself with the ball at the top of the circle, with Hinrich running screens along the baseline to pop open on the wings in the new "motion" offense Skiles has instituted. (Tex Winter's triangle is history in Chicago.) Hinrich hit a three-pointer on a pass from Crawford for the first points of the game, and then the Bulls played good team defense against the Blazers, a miserable road team coming off a loss the previous night, to take a 20-18 first-quarter lead.
The lead had little to do with Curry, who entered the game late in the quarter, missed his first shot, a short open jumper, and then got stuffed twice under the basket. When he missed a bunny of a layup, there were murmured boos from the crowd of 19,491. Curry ran the floor on a fast break to score through traffic and tie the game at 29, but he just didn't seem in the action. When Portland pulled down two straight offensive rebounds, a fan in the front rows yelled, "Get the board, bitch!" Hinrich swept through to steal the ball from Curry's man, but when he fed Curry on the ensuing fast break Curry muffed the pass, resulting in more murmured boos. But led by Hinrich's nine points, all on threes, the Bulls held a 41-37 lead at the half.
Crawford began to look for his own shot in the second half, and it paid off. He drove the lane and floated in a runner for a 48-43 lead, then followed with an outside jump shot to make it 50-45. The Bulls were up 56-50 when Curry returned to action, and he immediately threw up an air ball trying to make a move in the low post. The boos came with less hesitation after that, but the Bulls managed to lead 58-56 going into the final quarter.
Then the Blazers, playing without star center Rasheed Wallace, turned up the intensity and the Bulls couldn't match it. As Skiles said later, "We went to the bench, and just in a matter of minutes we were down." They got beat on the boards, and with the Blazers taking the ball to the hoop while the Bulls fired errant jump shots, they got beat at the free throw line as well. The fans who remained booed as the Blazers dribbled out the clock for an 87-78 victory.
As reporters waited for Skiles's postgame media conference, one wag in the back row muttered, "You're watching history in the making."
"Everything can change in the blink of an eye--and it did," replied another.
Skiles looked as confounded as his predecessors, especially when asked what was wrong with Curry, who led the league in shooting percentage last season while averaging 10.5 points a game. "I don't know," Skiles said. "When you're seven foot tall and miss layups, maybe your confidence is affected."
In the locker room, Kendall Gill, a south-suburban Rich Central product and University of Illinois alumnus, said in no uncertain terms that what Curry lacked was the experience that comes with playing in college.
"I didn't play well, for whatever reason," Curry said. Reporters asked if Skiles's more rigorous training regimen drained him, and though Curry didn't say yes his ambivalence did. "You gotta work to get better," he said. "I know in the long run it's the best thing for me. I just gotta find a way to spread it out"--meaning the extra work.
Maybe the work paid dividends the following night; maybe it was just Curry's evening. The Bulls welcomed former coach Floyd and the New Orleans Hornets, and Curry came off the bench to spark a second-quarter explosion. Toward the end of a sluggish first quarter for both teams, Crawford hit a three to break a tie at 13 and lead the Bulls to a 20-16 advantage at the buzzer. Crawford hit another three before taking a break, and Hinrich kept the momentum going with a three of his own. When Crawford came back and hit another three, it was 46-29 Bulls. Curry entered the game and hit two straight shots, the first on a nice pass from Crawford, the second on a jump hook in the lane, to put the Bulls up 50-29. They held a 58-38 lead at intermission and a 75-57 advantage going into the final quarter.
Then this young team, which still hasn't learned how to win, began to self-destruct. When the Bulls turned the ball over on a 24-second violation Skiles looked worried, even though his team led 79-62. When Curry went weakly to the hoop finishing a fast break and his shot was blocked, resulting in a fast break the other way, the Hornets closed to 79-67. Curry finally halted the Hornets' streak with a basket that made it 81-72, but New Orleans's Baron Davis started hitting everything, even with Hinrich in his face, and the lead continued to dwindle. At one point Skiles called a time-out and set up an alley-oop play for Curry, but Crawford threw the pass wildly off the backboard. Hornets veteran Stacey Augmon had a chance to tie the game at the line in the final minute, but he missed the second shot. At the other end, Crawford went one-on-one with his defender and hit a difficult fadeaway jumper from just left of the free throw line to put the Bulls up 87-84. It wasn't good team basketball, but it preserved the Bulls' win. On the Hornets' next possession, Hinrich got clobbered on a screen, but Curry switched off to cover Davis and forced a high trajectory on the three-pointer that would have tied the game. The ball caromed off the backboard and Crawford got it. Fouled, he made two free throws for the 89-84 final. The Bulls were now 12-25--8-13 under Skiles--a long way from the playoffs. But the victory was an encouraging sign and an important one.
More than anything else, Skiles needs wins to instill the team with confidence that his methods work. Without them, his attempts to drive Curry and rein in Crawford figure to produce only resentment. One can picture the Bulls with Curry, Crawford, and Hinrich on the floor, with Chandler switching between small forward and power forward, with veterans Pippen, Gill, Antonio Davis, and Jerome Williams augmenting this core as tactics dictate. It's a picture of a fine team--so long as everyone's playing up to his potential. And that's just it. The team has so little to show for its potential. For the Bulls, as for Stephen Dedalus, history remains a nightmare from which they are trying to awake.