To be a Chicago Bulls fan over the past two decades is to somewhat know the true pain of injuring a strong knee or a healthy hand. It takes time to adjust to the idea that the body could be anything less than perfect. And when the mind eventually catches up, alas, it’s beyond frustrating.
The Bulls I grew up rooting for were so able. They were led by the shrewdest coach, the finest sidekick and the best player who ever lived. They beat back the Bad Boy Pistons, outran the Showtime Lakers and abused the New York Knicks while distinguishing themselves as the preeminent sports dynasty. As the Last Dance docuseries explicitly showed, the Bulls were a cultural force – one that not only put my overlooked hometown on the map, but made basketball the global game it is today.
But after the 1998 NBA championship, their sixth title in eight seasons, the Bulls’ decline came swiftly. Jerry Krause, the reviled general manager, blew up the team, and over the next five years this once-enviable franchise became one of the league’s worst. Some fight returned in the mid-aughts when hero marksman John Paxson took over as GM and more hope of a return to glory with it when Paxson selected future league MVP Derrick Rose with the top pick in the 2008 draft. But those teams were never as good as LeBron James’s Cavs and Heat teams. And then after 2017, the Bulls weren’t good at all.
This season, however, feels different. Familiar. Tingly. It began with modest expectations, and then four victories on the trot – albeit against teams that, like Chicago, missed the postseason a year ago. But then the Bulls’ streak extended to seven in 10 games. After a 10-point drubbing of Dallas for win No 8, Mavericks guard Tim Hardaway Jr finally called it. “All I can say is, the Bulls are back, man,” he asserted after the game.
The declaration, while flattering, was also a bit delusional. That the players on the other side of this compliment recognized as much was oddly steadying. “Eleven games into the season I don’t think you can say anybody’s back,” retorted Bulls guard Alex Caruso, “especially for the prestige of the Bulls. They won three championships in a row twice. Being back, that’s a big statement.”
But now almost halfway through the season it’s hard not to be carried away by the sight of the Bulls perched atop the Eastern Conference standings after nearly surpassing their win total from last year. What’s more, some of these victories have come at the expense of the Super Nets and the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks. Until a Sunday night loss to Dallas, Chicago were riding a nine-game winning streak– their longest in a decade. Two of those victories would come courtesy of consecutive DeMar DeRozan buzzer-beaters.
He hit the second one on New Year’s Day versus Washington, a game that proved to be quite the character study. Here was a Bulls team playing its third game in four on the road, with key players out with injuries or Covid scares, facing a Wizards team that was as hot as they’ve been all season. It was a classic Pack It In game, and it looked as if the Bulls would do just that as Bradley Beal and Kyle Kuzma shot Washington out to a double-digit lead.
Chicago never fell too far behind, though. Not with Zach LaVine sinking in buckets from deep, Nikola Vučević controlling the boards and Coby White (filling in for Caruso and starting point guard Lonzo Ball) setting the tempo at both ends. Come the fourth quarter, it was DeRozan’s time to shine. And watching him puncture the Wizards defense with his devastating mid-range game, it was hard not to be reminded of another clutch Bulls shooting guard. After Kuzma knocked down a three-ball to put the Wizards up 119-117 with three second left, the capacity crowd at Capital One Arena crowd was delirious.
But there was no panic on the Chicago bench; this was déjà vu, after all. The Bulls coaching staff, missing head man Billy Donovan to the Covid protocol, could’ve angled for overtime. But stunningly and to their immense credit they schemed for the win. They drew up a three-point play for DeRozan, and he sunk it over two defenders in front of his own bench on the way to becoming the first player in history to drill game-winning buzzer-beaters on consecutive days.
For as surprising as this Bulls season has unfolded, to say that success has snuck up on them wouldn’t exactly be fair. The first encouraging move came in April 2020 when the organization jettisoned the braindead trust of Paxson and Gar Forman and handed over basketball ops to Artuas Karnisovas, the towering bygone Lithuanian hooper who built Denver into a title threat. Five months later Karnisovas unloaded tarrying interim Jim Boylen for Donovan, a repeat NCAA title winner at Florida who kept Oklahoma City in contention after Kevin Durant bolted to the Bay. A year later the Bulls traded for Vučević, one of the league’s most talented bigs. And while the swap didn’t happen in time for the Bulls to realize a playoff run, still, that was the moment we knew they were serious.
Over the summer the Bulls “won” the offseason with their additions of Ball, Caruso and Ayo Dosunmu – a clever rookie guard who’s already paying dividends. But the pièce de résistance has been DeRozan, a 32-year-old former All-Star and Toronto Raptors stalwart whose midrange game was thought to be too retro for today’s three-and-D NBA. Not only has that game and his much-improved three-point stroke proven an ideal complement to LaVine’s slash-and-splash attack, it’s marked DeRozan (originally bound for the Lakers in the offseason) as an early MVP candidate, if not the alpha closer the team had been needing to take things personally. After clinching another win against Orlando despite an uncharacteristically poor free-throw shooting night, DeRozan returned to the United Center floor after the game to heave 250 more shots from the charity stripe. “I was mad,” he explained to ESPN’s NBA Today. “I hate missing free throws. I hate it with a passion. I wasn’t going to feel comfortable leaving the arena until I got some extra shots up.”
Bonded and determined, it seems there’s nothing these Next Gen Bulls can’t do or be. “To me, the ceiling is the finals,” former NBA tough guy Matt Barnes said on NBA Today. On his podcast ex-sharpshooter JJ Redick compared this year’s Bulls to last year’s Suns. Just to be clear: no Bulls fan is ready to go all the way here just yet. There’s still so much to figure out – whether the Bulls can bang with the Sixers’ Joel Embiid (who was undeniable in their early November matchups), if they can shoot with the Suns or the Warriors – who just got Klay Thompson back. And then of course no team becomes an NBA champion without having their heart broken first.
In Chicago, a once-noble title town, sports now leave locals colder than a lake-effect gale. Apart from the WNBA championship-winning Sky, it’s a bleak landscape. The Cubs have reverted to being losers, minus the lovable part. The White Sox have disappointed. The Bears are a dumpster fire, and the NHL’s Blackhawks remains an off-ice embarrassment.
But the Bulls have brought that old, warm prideful feeling back. At this point I imagine many Bulls fans are like me: more than content to root for a team that is talented and trying hard while debating whether to risk seeing them live during the pandemic. And, well, all things being Covid, maybe this feeling is no fluke. Maybe this squad is finally strong enough to inspire turn thoughts from The Last Dance to, now – The Next Chance. “The goal is the championship,” DeRozan told NBA Today. “We’re not gonna cut ourselves short.”