My true basketball loyalties are to the Indiana Pacers, the Boston Celtics, and the Utah Jazz (in that order). This type of loyalty isn't always easy to maintain, since two of the teams are wayward and didn't make the playoffs, and the other team is hanging on by a fingernail. But living in Chicago, it's hard not to be a Bulls fan. Actually, scratch that. What I meant to say was: It's hard not to be a Bulls fan now. In the years immediately following Michael Jordan's second retirement, the team became worst than a laughingstock. Dumb moves begat dumber moves begat dumberer moves, and the team became an ongoing travesty, like New Coke, Greedo shooting first, and anything else you want to mention.
But John Paxson and Scott Skiles have successfully rebuilt the team using a group of hustling, hard-working, team-first players. They scrap, they play tough defense, and they give their all almost every single night. If you enjoy basketball in it's purest form, you should enjoy watching the Bulls play. They don't have a superstar, or even a certified all-star, but they compete and they -- !!CLICHE ALERT!! -- play the game the way it's supposed to be played. There are a lot of reasons to love this team. Here are my top seven.
Number 7 - The Paxson/Skiles Combo: John Paxson and Scott Skiles must have been assembled at the same basketball player factory, because, as players, they were mirror images. Not in terms of skills; Paxson was a more gifted shooter and Skiles had a greater knack for distributing the ball. But they were both tough-as-nails guards who clawed and scratched their way into league, and then held on with everything they had. Paxson was eventually rewarded with three championship rings, and Skiles made a relatively quick entry into the ranks of NBA head coaches. They personify the spirit of this team. Their leadership is the key element in the team's resurgence.
Number 6 - The Knicks' Number 1 Draft Pick: John Paxson stood firm last summer and did what he thought was right: trading the team's best (and only) low-post scorer to the Knicks for Tim Thomas, their number one draft pick, and some old Garbage Pail Kid cards. It was a gamble. If Eddy's heart condition didn't, you know, kill him, and he went on to become a great player (coughEltonBrandcough), Paxson would look like a fool. Well, Eddy lived through the season, but he didn't really lift his level of play. Better yet, the Knicks were by far the worst team in the league. Sure, the Bulls regressed a little bit in the win column owing to the fact that they don't have a reliable low-post game, but the trade will ultimately benefit them. They have more cap room (since they didn't have to give Curry a close-to-max contract) and they'll have one of the top five picks in this year's draft.
Number 5 - Ben Gordon's Heroics: Ben has been favorably compared to Andrew Toney, once known as "The Boston Strangler" for single-handedly shooting down the mighty Celtics teams of the early 80s. The comparisons are warranted. Like Toney, Gordon is a lightning quick guard who, although undersized, can take over a game at any time with a combination of heady drives and pinpoint shooting. Ben is a spark plug, capable of bringing the Bulls back to life with his explosive offense. He isn't a great defensive player, and he tends to sulk when he doesn't get enough shot attempts or is asked to come off the bench, but he accepts his role (however grudgingly) and, more importantly, excels at it.
Number 4 - No Fear: These Bulls don't back down to anyone. They may be a .500 team, but they've stood up to the league's elite on more than one occasion. If they had a go-to guy, or even if they got enough respect to warrant a few more calls here and there, they could have won 45 or 50 games this season. Going into the last month of the season, the team looked like a long shot to even make the playoffs. But they never gave up, and the won 11 of their last 13 to take the seventh seed in the East. They never backed down to the Detroits and San Antonios of the league, and they aren't backing down to the Heat now. Maybe they're too young to know better, or maybe Coach Skiles has a magic ring that bends them to his iron will. Whatever the case, I think they'll push Miami to the full seven games.
Number 3 - Kirk Heinrich's Goofy Goodness: Captain Kirk looks like someone who should still be in college, getting beaten up and thrown out of his dorm room window by guys with names like "Ogre" and "Biff." He looks so frail, so unathletic, so very white, that you simply can't imagine how he could possibly go toe-to-toe with someone like Dwayne Wade. But he's doing it, there's no question of that. He's a decent outside shooter and a vastly underrated defender who gives you 40 minutes of solid effort. I'm not ready to put him in that John Stockton/Mark Price/Steve Nash category yet, but he has the tools to get there.
Number 2 - Michael Jordan's Fatness: Remember when Michael Jordan was the epitome of athletic prowess and GQ style? Well, that Jordan must have been kidnapped by aliens and replaced by Fat Albert. Jordan showed up to Game 3 to cheer his old team on from one of the expensive luxury boxes in the United Center. Not only did he look very, ahem, puffy, but he was also dressed like a circus clown. His ensemble included a puke yellow turtleneck covered by a sweater vest that was tucked into his billowy pants. I never liked Jordan, and I've never actually felt sorry for him before, but I did that night. Can we arrange some sort of intervention? Does Weight Watchers also provide fashion consultation? Did anyone else notice this?
Number 1 - Andres Nocioni's Toughguyness: Nocioni is the latest in that long line of hard-nosed players that opposing teams love to hate, right up there with M.L. Carr, Danny Ainge, and, you know, all those other guys. He is not, as some people (like crybaby Antione Walker) claim, a dirty player. Nocioni doesn't fall into the "Bill Laimbeer Memorial Asshole" category. He plays hard, he harasses his opponents on defense, he rebounds in the trenches, and he never stops hustling. Yes, he draws a lot of charges, but he doesn't use the Gratuitous Flop Method popularized by Vlade Divac. When Noc draws a charge, he gets into position and waits for the oncoming player to bowl him over. He doesn't fall over every time he gets caught by a stray elbow or a random hip check. I especially like him because he is that rare foreign player that exhibits toughness and doesn't shrink away from a challenge.
"I love you, man."