March 12, 2011
The United Center was thick with the air of nostalgia on Saturday night, and that's a haze that usually tends to blur vision. But on a night where Chicago celebrated the 20th anniversary of its city's first NBA championship, the parallels between the 1991 Chicago Bulls, and their 2011 counterparts were striking.
First, you had to remind the fans of what was. The Utah Jazz, that noted Western combatant of Chicago's during the 1990s, was in town to play on a nationally televised, WGN-TV game. And the old voice of WGN, current ESPN radio broadcaster Jim Durham, was in town to lead a halftime celebration of the 20th anniversary of Chicago's first NBA championship.
This wasn't your typical Jumbotron-led affair. Each player on that year's playoff roster -- save for Bill Cartwright (now coaching in Phoenix) and B.J. Armstrong (his player representative duties gone into hyperdrive with this week's NCAA action) -- was led out to center court individually to raucous cheers. Scottie Pippen and Michael Jordan both addressed the crowd, after the players were handed a commemorative plaque.
Phil Jackson, stuck with coaching duties in with his Lakers in Dallas on Saturday night, was the lone speaker who couldn't have been influenced by first half play of these current Bulls, and it showed as he sent a video-taped message in which he referred to "all of us  Bulls." And though the scoreboard featured reel after reel of 1991-era highlights for the fans (which stood throughout) to bask in, it was Jordan himself (speaking to the sold-out crowd) that brought things all the way up to 2011.
"You guys," he said to the fans, "are in for a lot more championships. At least six more are coming."
It didn't seem to be pandering, either, even if it was. After the ceremony, Jordan wasn't done.
"I don't think it's going to take [the current Bulls] seven years to win," referring to the time between Jordan's first appearance as a Bull in 1984 and the team's first title in 1991. "They've got a good, balanced team."
While this might seem like overkill, nostalgia run wild (Jordan also mentioned wishing he could "turn back the clock, and do it again" following the halftime show), you can't blame the Hall of Famer (and current Charlotte Bobcats owner) for getting all giddy with the prospects of his former team.
Not after they ran out to an 11-0 start to begin the game, pushing the lead to 20 after 10 minutes and 30 after 20 minutes of play. Not when the Bulls trampled all over these Utah Jazz on their way to a dominant 118-100. Sure, the Jazz have been struggling, but Chicago's ascension from .500 team in both 2009 and 2010 to a group tied for the top seed in its Conference after 65 games of play has been downright astonishing.
You couldn't say the same about Jordan's Bulls, despite that team's success. The slow climb that started with a pair of playoff appearances as a sub-.500 team following MJ's acquisition, the easy storyline of the 1987 draft as Jordan's long-awaited helpers in Pippen and Horace Grant were added to the mix, and the slow and excruciating work it had to undergo in dispatching the team's too-obvious big brothers in the Detroit Pistons in playoff series in both 1988, 1989, and 1990. By the time Chicago earned the 1991 championship that was celebrated tonight, it seemed like a coronation.
These current Bulls, despite recognizable faces in Derrick Rose(notes) and Joakim Noah(notes), are a surprise. They shot from an above average defensive crew last season to an outright dominant defensive force in 2011, first in overall defensive efficiency. For followers of advanced statistics, Rose doesn't boast the same sort of jaw-dropping stats of a LeBron James(notes), Dwyane Wade(notes), or Dwight Howard(notes), but he does seem to have everything to do with just about every Chicago win, clearly a better leader than the players mentioned above. Beyond that, you've just got a team that loves playing alongside each other, while playing over its collective heads.
The issue with that last observation is the idea that the balloon has to burst, at some point. That Chicago has to fall back to earth. Instead, they get better in every game.
Before their legs betrayed them during the last two quarters of the second game of a back-to-back on Saturday, the Bulls had outscored both the Jazz and Atlanta Hawks by a 114-67 margin over the previous four periods. And though the Celtics and Heat seem to lap the Bulls in terms of star power, Chicago famously downed the Heat in three close games this season, and might not even have to play the Celtics in a playoff series if Orlando and Boston battle it out again.
So while that 1991 team had the luxury of just trying to bide its time in making the playoffs, and seeing if the fourth time against Detroit would be the charm, these Bulls have been thrust into prominence by way of their ever-improving play. Teams are aware of this year's Bulls model, but that hasn't stopped Chicago from beating them.
And when things get hairy, as it nearly did in a competitive second half on Saturday, Chicago can rely on its co-MVPs. Guard Derrick Rose, and rookie coach Tom Thibodeau.
Rose was the first Bull out of the pen after the halftime celebration. He watched the tail end of it, but he also couldn't wait to hit the court, ball in hand in order to get his handle back after what was a longer-than-usual break during the half. While the rest of the Bulls milled around after warm-ups ended, and before the second half started, Rose was working an honest-to-goodness Mikan drill underneath the Chicago hoop. Getting that sweat back. Ready to finish the job.
And late in the third quarter, with the Bulls up 29 points, Thibodeau and Rose were chatting a mile-a-minute on the sideline as the Jazz shot free throws. The Bulls were comfortably ahead, but if you weren't aware of the score, you'd have no choice in assuming Chicago was locked in a one-possession game with just seconds to spare.
"I just want us to improve every game," Thibodeau pointed out following what he called a "tough" 18-point win. And while you hear that from just about every coach, something in the way his team plays every night seems just seems to end his words an air of credibility among most other coaches. It's too easy a cop-out to point to these Bulls as the feel-good alternative to those Miami Heat, of which much has been promised. But even if you don't have to make these Bulls an alternative to anything, they should already have earned your respect.
Actually, much has been promised of these Bulls. Last week, their owner thought four championships was in the offing. On Saturday, the best player in the franchise and this league's history thought that Chicago fans had "six more coming." But while Michael Jordan has been known to stay strong things at podiums for effect, he had no real ulterior motive in this one. These fans were already on his side, standing throughout. This was a man in awe of a mismatched group of defenders that had just raced out to a 30-point lead on Utah before Jordan could make his way down from his skybox and up to his soapbox.
The 2011 version of the Chicago Bulls doesn't belong in the same breath, heave, Lamaze class or whatever burst of air popped out of Houdini's lungs as he lunged above the watermark. But on Saturday night, the team played as if it wanted a place in that stratum. And for one night, that's all this sellout crowd could ask.
Plus however many championships Jordan mentioned. That'd be nice.