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The Greatest Bullfighters

  • Jun 3, 2012
There are very few teams anywhere whose history can be so evenly split down the middle. I can name the Chicago Bulls and their citymate baseball team, the Cubs, but that's just off the top of my head. Anyway, basketball is becoming a bigtime global sport. I get the sense that the NBA will one day be America's response to the English Premier League: The largest, most popular league for a sport which has many respected leagues and teams around the world because it's so accessible to anyone. The Bulls are currently one of the most popular teams in the league, and one of its respected worldwide faces. But of all the NBA teams that can be called ambassadors, the Bulls are probably the team the fewest people expected to reach their world franchise status. The NBA's other bigtime teams, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, earned their status through being good from the very beginning of the league - the NBA traces its founding back to the BAA in 1946, and the Celtics and Lakers were there from the start and have won a combined total of around half the NBA's championships. The New York Knicks get that status because they're The New York Team, and pretty much everyone alive associates the United States with New York City. But the Bulls? You would think a team positioned in America's third-largest city would be poised for world ambassadorship from the very beginning, but...

No one was sure of professional basketball in Chicago when the Bulls were created in 1966. Lord knows, there had been a few attempts at it: In the 30's, the god king of Chicago football, George Halas, created the Chicago Bruins with the hope they would do for basketball what the Bears were doing for football. The Bruins played in the short-lived American Basketball League, which went from 1925 to 1931. Halas tried again in 1939 with the National Basketball League, and that time they only went until 1942. When the Basketball Association of America was formed in 1946, the Chicago Stags debuted in 1946 as a charter member, but they folded just before the BAA merged with the NBL to form the NBA. The struggling NBA tried its luck again when it created the Chicago Packers in 1961, but it was probably a mistake to take the name of the Bears' biggest rival, so they changed their name to the Zephyrs in 1963 before bolting to Baltimore the same year. Third time proved to be the charm, with a logo designed by noted American sports artist Theodore Drake, one of the great icons of professional sports anywhere: Red, black, with a truly mean face and blood on the tips of its horns, the logo has never been changed.

The Bulls themselves hit the ground running with Red Kerr as head coach. (What is it with the NBA and old-school coaches named Red? Red Kerr, Red Holzman, Red Auerbach...) They secured a 33-48 record in their inaugural year, not good but still the best ever by an expansion team. Somehow it managed to get them into the playoffs (the NBA was really small back then) where they were promptly eliminated by the Saint Louis Hawks in the first round. The next year, they did something outrageously stupid: They traded their best player, Guy Rodgers, to the Cincinnati Royals, and suprise surprise! Their promise of their first year went straight down the crapper! Their second year, they started 1-15 and finished 29-53 and got waxed in the playoffs (you know, early NBA, a 29-53 team in the playoffs is just pathetic) by the Lakers. After that year, Jerry Colangelo, who ran the front office, took up that position with the newly-created Phoenix Suns. Kerr went with him, and he was replaced by Dick Motta, who won three Big Sky Conference Championships at Weber State. He was an unlikely choice, but he was the one who forged the original identity of the Bulls: Defensive, tough, didn't take any shit, and always ready to fight the other team to the death even if they weren't as talented.

The 1970 Bulls were the highest-scoring squad in team history - they averaged 114 points a game. With defensive stalwart Jerry Sloan and leading scorer Bob Boozer, the Bulls acquired Bob Love by trading with the Milwaukee Bucks and started playing like a competitive team in the 70's. In 1971, they posted a 51-31 record through rugged, intimidating physicality, going to the playoffs and getting drubbed by the Lakers again. The Bulls then reeled off a stretch of 50-win seasons and made the Western Conference Finals in 1974. The next few years saw them slipping, posting good but not great records except for a 50-loss 1976 season when Sloan was hurt. Then, as the downward spiral points, the Bulls sucked again, except for a 45-37 record in 1981 when they eliminated the New York Knicks from the playoffs. Those later years had stellar performances from Artis Gilmore, Scott May, and Norm Van Lier, but they were just a bad team by then, and a revolving door of coaches eventually saw the Bulls finishing 1984 with a 27-55 record - second-worst in team history at the time - and the Bulls' flagging fanbase crying to the fates for a miracle.

Incredibly, the fates were listening.

NBA fans know the 1984 draft may have been the most important one in history. It gave the league a lot of new faces and personalities. Among the draftees that year was a young North Carolina player named Michael. Now, Michael was packing some SERIOUS talent, and everyone knew it - he was a projected superstar. The Houston Rockets, going first, picked Hakeem Olajuwon. The Portland Trail Blazers were second, and drafting for the need of a low-post scorer, they picked up a Kentucky product named Sam Bowie who had an injury-riddled past. Michael seethed - after all, it was him who Bobby Knight, after seeing him, called the Blazers (their GM was a friend of Knight's) and begged them to take him. (When the GM, Stu Inman, said the Blazers were in need of a center, Knight reportedly screamed in response "WELL, PLAY HIM AT CENTER, THEN!") Chicago, unable to hide their disbelief, made Michael the next selection. And so Michael reported to Chicago, where he selected the number 23 (because he believed that no matter how good he got, he would only ever be half as good as his brother, who wore 45) to wear under the felt letter embossing the surname J-O-R-D-A-N.

Some players are extremely competitive, and hard workers. Larry Bird and Magic Johnson always fought with each other in their competitiveness, raising each other to greater heights and eight rings between them. Bill Russell was competitive - his motivation was to get the Celtics to win, and he rode that to eleven rings. Jordan, though.... Jordan was a form of competitive that no one else would ever really want to be. The stories are legendary: He used every slight against him, real or imagined, for motivation. Upon losing a Ping-Pong match to a teammate, Jordan bought his own table and became the best Ping-Pong player on the team. He bribed airport luggage carriers to put his baggage first, then bet teammates his luggage would be the first out. He destroyed Clyde Drexler in game one of the 1992 Finals because the press got stupid and started comparing the two, and when Portland said they would beat the Bulls by making them shoot threes, that's exactly what Jordan did - and he set a record doing it. By the 90's, in a league where everyone talked smack, Jordan was off-limits because teams playing him didn't want the damage to be worse. When Jordan contemplated his return with the Washington Wizards and was at a tryout, Paul Pierce said he better not return and was chided by his coach for it - this was after Jordan was out for three years! When Jordan made his Hall of Fame speech, he used it to counter every slight and talk smack to everyone. In other words, Jordan was competitive to the point of pathological destruction.

With Michael Jordan destroying the league with the intensity of a level five tornado, Chicago got busy surrounding him with some indomitable talent like Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen. In 1989, Phil Jackson was given head coaching duties in Chicago, where he introduced the triangle offense. Now all the pieces were in places, and in 1991, the Bulls charged off to the first of three titles before Jordan retired to try his hand at baseball. When that washed out, Jordan returned for 1995, and with a new supporting cast which included Dennis Rodman, Luc Longley, and the best bench in the NBA, the Bulls reeled off three more championships. In six Finals appearances, they never lost. In the process, they enjoyed several 60-win seasons, set the record for regular season victories in 1996 by going 72-10, and established themselves as one of the league's premier teams. The Bulls, originally doomed to the kind of small-market feel shared by the Chicago White Sox, had risen to the top of the NBA and won more titles than any other team except the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. They also became one of the league's true global teams as Jordan established himself as a brand of his own and, once Magic Johnson and Larry Bird retired, became the face of the NBA.

It's Jordan's shadow which hangs over the team, which is understandable because he played a huge role in turning the NBA from a blip league which had been in serious danger of going under just a few years before his arrival into one of the most popular and respected professional sports leagues in the world. When the team moved from Chicago Stadium to the United Center, United Center became known as - and still is known as, and in my first tour of Chicago as a resident, was introduced to me as - The House that Michael Built. Naturally this necessitated the retirement of Jordan's number 23, which now hangs alongside the numbers 4 (Sloan), 10 (Love), 33 (Pippen), 545-193 (Phil Jackson's record as coach), and Jerry Krause, the GM who built the Jordan teams. LeBron James, who donned 23 when he first entered the NBA with Cleveland, switched when he moved to Miami and believes everyone wearing 23 should give it up. (The list of players currently wearing it is considerable, and none of the current 23-wearers are worthy of carrying Jordan's jockstrap.) Unfortunately, Jordan's legacy has come under fire recently due to some revelations about his character, but despite his gambling, hedonism, and shitty basketball acumen as an executive, nothing will ever diminish what he did for the Bulls and the NBA. And to top it all off, Jordan was one of the focal points of The Jordan Rules, one of the first adult sports books I ever read, and one of the best. Its author, Sam Smith, is the Chicago Tribune's beat writer for the Bulls. It exposes Jordan in a way a lot of people hated, but still, awesome book, and I highly recommend it.

When the Bulls dynasty took its final title out of Utah in 1998, they were running on fumes and were worn and decrepit. From there, it was either suffer a slow decline or implode the team and rebuild from scratch. Neither option looked good, and Krause went with the second, trading and refusing to bring back a lot of the dynasty's big names. Krause still had an eye for talent - he brought Elton Brand aboard, as well as Ron Artest, the successor to Dennis Rodman as the league psycho freak. They began finishing with their worst records ever, not even winning 20 games for two straight seasons. They didn't go back to the playoffs until 2005, with the assistance of, Tyson Chandler, Ben Gordon and Luol Deng. In the 2007 season, they signed Ben Wallace, overcame a 3-9 start, won 49 games, and went back to the playoffs. They beat the defending champion Miami Heat in the playoffs, then faced the Detroit Pistons in the second round. Detroit took a 3-0 series lead, but the Bulls forced a sixth game and for a minute, looked like they would be the first-ever basketball team to win a series after falling behind 3-0. This was my first full-season Bulls team in Chicago, so they have a special piece of my heart for displaying such toughness. Being from a non-basketball city, that was the first basketball team I could truly call my team.

While the Bulls missed the playoffs the next couple of years, in 2008 they were eligible for the draft lottery. They had a meager 1.7 percent chance of winning it too, which is why they sent some very low-level executive to the lottery whose name was misspelled and mispronounced on national TV. But nevertheless, a 1.7 percent chance is still a chance, and when the Bulls won the first pick, it sped up their recovery exponentially when they took Derrick Rose with the first pick, not only a good choice but a seminal one because Rose is a Chicago native. They went 41-41 that year, which locked them into an eighth-seed playoff seed and a mortal battle against the Boston Celtics. The Bulls further won my over in that series, one of the league's all-time classics, a hard-fought fight which contained seven overtimes and went the seven-game distance. The Bulls have since returned to prominence, and although they haven't yet gone the distance again, it doesn't look like the wait will be much longer.

Among the cooler traditions in Bulls lore is the use of songs like "Sirius," which became famous while the dynasty was playing. "Sirius" is accompanied by a jumbotron graphic of a herd of bulls charging down Madison Street into United Center, and culminates with the player introductions. The visiting team introductions are accompanied usually by Pink Floyd's "On the Run" or "The Imperial March" from Star Wars. One of the team's unofficial traditions is wearing black socks during the playoffs, and at one point in their season, the Barnum and Bailey Circus visits United Center, so the team is forced to play all its games during that time on the road, a tradition known as the Circus Trip in Chicagoese as well as something the city's NHL team, the Blackhawks, shares. In 2006, the Bulls were one of the first three teams to partake the league's Saint Patrick's Day uniform program, along with the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks. They also honor Chicago's hispanic heritage by wearing slightly altered red uniforms with the words "Los Bulls," one of many teams to do that. But it's that powerful, intimidating logo that people identify the most with the Bulls, an icon which the team's followers are proud to don.

Like every other Chicago sports team, the Bulls hate Detroit, and a visit to United Center will frequently include the shout "Detroit sucks!" Bulls/Pistons is the main rivalry, and it hit a very nasty apex while both teams were powers in the late 80's and early 90's. The Detroit Pistons won two titles in the 80's, with the Isiah Thomas Pistons always getting the better of Jordan and the Bulls. There was a real hatred there - the Pistons bragged about a super-secret set of defenses called the "Jordan Rules." When Sam Smith wrote his book of that very name, he exposed Detroit's "Jordan Rules" for what the Pistons from those days later claimed them to truly be: A term meant to screw with the league psychologically. It was a code name for a set of simple defenses meant to funnel Jordan away from the paint, but the term tricked everyone into believing they were some sort of government nuclear secret which only the Pistons could deploy. There's no way to understate this: The Bulls and Pistons HATED each other, and when the power balance between them shifted to Chicago in 1991, the Pistons exited the arena without shaking hands after the Bulls swept them in the Eastern Conference Finals. The rivalry was dormant, but has been slightly renewed with Detroit's 2004 title, 2005 conference title, Ben Wallace's defection, and the teams playing against each other in the 2007 playoffs. The Knicks are also a huge Bulls rival - the Knicks fought the Bulls hard in the playoffs but never got the better of Jordan; when they finally won the Eastern Conference Championship in 1994, Patrick Ewing and his gang needed Jordan to play baseball in order to do it. The Miami Heat are also perennial Bullfighters, but they aren't very successful. The Heat did take the series in 2006, eventually winning the Championship, but the Bulls got even the next year by sweeping them in the first round. Miami answered by beating Chicago in last year's Eastern Conference Finals. They've met in six playoff series, with Chicago having a 4-2 edge but Miami taking two of the last three.

I said in my Knicks review that I'm a Knicks fan, and that's the truth. But here's a bit of my background following basketball: I got into it to follow a schoolmate who was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 2002. The NBA was playing slow back then, and so the primary reason I followed the league was for word on him, but I was otherwise bored by the sheer volume of play stoppages. So for my first few years of basketball watching, I didn't attach myself to any team in particular. It wasn't until the league eased up its rules and I moved to Chicago that I finally had a team to really latch onto. I adopted the Knicks just before returning to Buffalo in order to show my hometown connection. But overall, it's the Bulls I'm more attached to, because Chicago had a basketball team and Buffalo didn't really care. (Kind of like my baseball situation.) Ever since I saw them play in Chicago and regularly watched, I've been a proud Bulls fan. Especially after that Boston series in 2009. And I admire their ethic of toughness, and the way they rose up from perennial underdog to a force and a real ambassador for the league and sport. Unlike the Knicks, they didn't have that status bestowed on them by virtue of being in the team's headquarters, something I truly love about them.

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June 04, 2012
Great review!
More Chicago Bulls reviews
review by . May 08, 2009
I've been a big-time Bulls' fan since the days of Bob Love, Chet Walker, and Norm Van Leir (back in the 70s). The current team is good but not great, and like most NBA teams, needs one superstar to go with a strong supporting cast.    I am doubtful that the Bulls' will re-sign Ben Gordon. If they did, it likely would be a sign-and-trade deal. Here's what I'd like to see: sign-and-trade Gordon, plus Tyrus Thomas, and one of their two 1st round draft picks for Amare Stoudemire.  &nb …
review by . March 02, 2009
As a big-time Bulls fan, I must say I'm a little disappointed in where the team is going.  I do like Derrick Rose and think he'll be a solid pro.  But I don't think he's necessarily a team centerpiece like LeBron or Kobe.    Too many "complimentary" players like Luol Deng, Ben Gordon, and Tyrus Thomas.  They added some vets in Brad Miller and Tim Thomas, but I think those are just short-term fixes.    It'll be interesting to see where they go …
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Nicholas Croston ()
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Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial.      Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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