In the heart of the Bulls
March, 18, 2011
By Henry Abbott
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe Chicago Bulls are the No. 1 team in the Eastern Conference, with the emphasis on the word team.Athletes forever talk teamwork, chemistry and selflessness.
Most of the time it's a crock -- things to say into the tape recorders to make the writers happy.
The economics of major professional sports just aren't set up like that. The youngsters really are trying to take the veterans' minutes, touches and -- by extension -- money. The veterans' families would be more secure if the rookies simply evaporated. If you can't count on a guy to be on your team six months from now, and if you know the best thing for his career would be an injury to you, and if at all times players and coaches are coming and going through the revolving door ... it's no real wonder why a lot of teams lack the team vibe.
Something is up, however, with the 2010-11 Chicago Bulls.
Omer Asik has a big game, and Brian Scalabrine and Joakim Noah are falling all over themselves to make sure everyone knows about it. The idea that Derrick Rose is the MVP originated with his teammates, who repeat it like a mantra.
Taj Gibson says dinners with the whole team are incredibly common and adds: "you wouldn't believe how much we text each other."
And Scalabrine is livid at the suggestion this lovefest might be for show.
"Has anybody told you different? If everybody agrees ... what's it going to take to convince you?"
A few weeks ago, some of sports' sharpest minds gathered in Boston. They are on the cutting edge of sports analysis, and based on insight from NBA front offices, the world of psychology, and elite training, they were in unison on the point that just about nothing beats love of the game. The challenges of getting to the top are so great, the work required is so extensive, that -- people like Malcolm Gladwell, Jeff Van Gundy and Daryl Morey agree -- a deep and lasting love of the work is nearly a requirement. And a lack of that is an almost impossible to overcome.
As soon as I heard them say that, I thought immediately of the Bulls. Most NBA teams, and most professional athletes, are simply not effusive in how they celebrate and support each other. The Bulls have a different approach.
Gibson says Tom Thibodeau is a "military-style" coach who is incredibly demanding, for instance calling in half the roster for extra work on rare days off. But even through all the demands, it's not a cold relationship: "Everybody's real cordial. The coaching staff. The front office. They just did a great job picking the right guys for our team," says Gibson.
Even the taskmaster Thibodeau admits that the team's family approach -- the emotional bonds on the team -- are part of the core mission.
"That's characteristic of a winning team. When you look at the teams that do well, they're well balanced, they share, they're committed to each other and have respect for each other," he says. "I think it comes from the work they put in from the start of the season. They're committed to playing for each other. They're committed to winning. And they're committed to playing together. I think it's important that they have respect for each other. I think commitment to play together and to share is important. It's how you win in this league."
Deng says that the team "likes what coach is trying to do. We play hard every night." Deng has been on Bulls teams where it wasn't like that and says this approach, which has been coming with wins galore, is "a lot more fun."
"I know," says Deng, "that I still love the game."
How the Bulls talk about each other can seem a little like they're reading straight from the "talking to the press" brochure. It all makes a lot more sense, however, when you consider that the players are instead using the media to inspire each other.
Consider Joakim Noah. After a game in which the Bulls struggled to beat the lowly Nets, and when the team's starting power forward Carlos Boozer was out injured again, and on a day when Noah himself had received intravenous fluids to ward off flu symptoms, and the hallway outside was choked with friends and family from his nearby childhood home, he would have had every right to go through the motions of postgame interviews. Instead, he was asked run-of-the-mill postgame reporter questions, and responded with a mini-speech that seemed tailor-made to inspire every last guy on the roster:
We've dealt with a lot of adversity. We've dealt with it great. We're fighters. At the end of the day, that's what matters. We know that everybody brings something different to the team, and everybody respects what that person brings to the team. And we know that everybody's very important. Hopefully we'll all be healthy by the time the playoffs start, and then we'll really see how good we are.
I'm doing something that I've been dreaming about since I was a little kid. Playing for the Chicago Bulls. Playing for a team that people are now talking about being a contender. A coach who's very passionate about what he does. Great teacher. MVP player on my team. Those are all things that I'll never take for granted. I'm not worried about what happens in the future, or what happened in the past.
I've been very lucky. Very blessed. I feel very fortunate to be in the situations I've been in. I've had a lot of great experiences in my life so far. I feel like there's just so much potential on this team and we're not getting caught up in expectations or all that. It's just enjoying playing basketball. Enjoying the moment. Not worried about what's going to happen next month. Just really focus on enjoying playing the game the right way.
Things are looking up for the Chicago Bulls. And I've been here when things weren't.
It's exciting. We're all about the right things. Just focus on one thing, and that's winning a 'chip. And to do that you've got to stay focused on the moment. Enjoy. Get better. Not get caught up.
Noah's high school coach -- Bill McNally of Poly Prep -- says he sees special things happening on this Bulls team: "I was just talking to [Bulls assistant] Ed Pinckney. Ed's a high-character guy. That's why I think they are doing very well. Obviously they're very talented, but when you have the right mix of personalities and you can do this on that level, I think that's really what the Celtics had a couple years ago. One of my friends is an assistant coach there, and they became a team. In pro sports, it's very hard to become a team. And they're a team. Those guys like each other. They play hard, They're not caught up in who's doing what, and they're happy for each other's success.
"That's a rare thing in the NBA. Or anywhere!
"You win with good people, especially when it really gets down to the end. Everyone in the league is great, so what separates you at the end, hopefully, is who you are and how hard you play."
Scalabrine feels the team is living by those words every day. "We understand the severity of the situation. It's not every year you get to do something special. To win a championship, to compete at that level, you know you've got to make sacrifices.
"And guys know that. At the end of the day, someone on this team is going to help us win a playoff game. You push him down now, you're not going to get him later. So we pull him up."