Three weeks into the 2004-2005 basketball season, ESPN.com ranked the Chicago Bulls at the very bottom of all NBA teams. “This is just a hunch,” wrote Marc Stein, “but we don’t see Bulls following the Miami blueprint and turning their own 0-7 start into a 42-40 Cinderella story like Heat did last season. Do you?”
In fact, the Bulls would lose the first nine games of the season, a dismal beginning for the franchise that claimed six NBA titles in the 1990s. After the last, in 1998, and the near-complete departure of that championship team—including Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and coach Phil Jackson—the Bulls pinned their hopes on a succession of young draft picks, such as Elton Brand, Eddy Curry, and Jay Williams. In six seasons, the best these “Baby Bulls” could manage was a 30-52 record in 2002-2003, a year that saw them lose all but three of their 41 road games. But this season was shaping up to be their worst yet.
Then something strange happened: The Bulls started winning. Entering 2005 with a 9-17 record, they finished the month of January up 22-20. “There’s a reason why, in Week 3, we questioned Bulls’ ability to rally from an 0-9 start,” Stein wrote. “Reason being: Chicago is the first team ever to open 0-8 (or worse) and then surpass .500.” Led by coach Scott Skiles, the Bulls would end the regular season 47-35, the third-best record in the Eastern conference, earning not just a playoff berth, but home court advantage in the first round.
Ken Nordine is the creator and high priest of Word Jazz, as well as a lifetime Chicagoan, the Chicago Blackhawks’ voice of “cold steel on ice,” and an enthusiastic Bulls fan. He graciously agreed to share his thoughts throughout the Bulls postseason, the team’s first since Jordan.—Matt Sharkey
I am giddy glad with hope that basketball on the highest level looks as if it’s come back to cheer us up. The 0-9 start must have done something horrifying to the Bulls that we don’t know anything about. They must have looked at each other, with a very deep no looking away look, right down deep into the bottom of each other’s souls… and in unison said, “Hey man what gives? How come we don’t win?” You don’t go zero nine unless you’re doing something terribly wrong, something against nature. Instinctively, in ways that are just below the surface, each of the players knows what the other players can do. Shame could have done it. Sins of omission. I don’t know. But as fans we do know that a “team” with a big ego is much bigger than the sum of all the egos. And there’s some pretty tall egos in the game. Yup… that could’ve been it. Could be that giving each other the penetrating eye and then the nod… maybe that’s what’s doing it for the Bulls. And for you and me and the city that loves winning.
The getting bigger crowds who need winners. So whatever you’re doing right, don’t stop.
Late season injuries leave the Bulls without rookie Luol Deng and Eddy Curry, the team’s top-scorer, as they meet the Washington Wizards in Chicago for the first game of the playoff series. Washington's big three—Gilbert Arenas, Larry Hughes, and Antwan Jamison—have the Bulls down five points after three quarters, but Chicago pulls away in the fourth, largely on the performances of two rookies. A big finish is expected from Ben Gordon, who had 21 double-digit fourth quarters in the regular season, but the real surprise is Andres Nocioni, who scores 25 points and snags 18 rebounds, the most ever by a rookie in a postseason game. Bulls win, 103-94.
Nip and tuck all the way until oh no you don’t… Both teams in a blur of desire, throwing themselves into the back and forth, amazing burns of energy and a fury of will flashing to and fro, could have gone either way, 53-52 at half time, the commentators give Whiz the edge, hah, the goofy sex guy who shall be nameless pontificates only to forget how wrong his flip wisdom turns out to be, the third quarter becomes a frantic overture to the fabulous run at the end, the winner hungry crowd explodes, humility with passion takes over, the wizard of odds frowns, no catching ‘em, Nocioni has an aura of look out I’m here, saint rookie, where’d he come from? See what happens when players decide how to play together, hug each other wins the first… the big playoff first… in the after words, when the TV questions come, they don’t brag, they each look to Endsday and oh boy maybe two in a row is where they want to be. Won’t be easy, Hughes’ll be a huge problem but they’ll get ready, study the tapes, all like one they’ll be as ready as ready gets, meanwhile the crash register goes crazy, cynics lose their cynic ways, ticket master starts singing happy days are here again, the fingers of hope are crossed, could be could be could be, hope I see you in the kingdom of wow whee double pancake…
Down 14-2 after six minutes—the Wizards’ lead would reach 13 points—the Bulls surge in the second quarter, ending the half up 57-50. Scoreless in the first quarter, eight for 23 in Game 1, sophomore guard Kirk Hinrich ends Game 2 with 34 points, including five three-point shots in five attempts. Bulls win, 113-103.
Damn damn damn… I couldn’t see game two in real time. Commitment to perform as a plain clothes poet had me doing my stuff in the Claudia Cassidy Theater at The Chicago Cultural Center from 7 to 9 PM. Soon as the bowing and applausing died down, I hurried home and watched the hour replay and commentary on ESPN…what a wonder Hinrich is. Can he be the reincarnation of Jordan? Two statues looking east outside of the United Center. Watching the replays of Kirk’s fantastic curve ball swishing thru the hoop without ever touching the rim gave me the spooky feeling I was inside a basketball dream. Slow motion grace all over the place. And the same feeling I used to have watching hockey… imaging in my mind’s eye (where else?) the pure awe and wonder, within which all the flash and filigree of the action is slowed way way down, choreographed into a team of rather tall Fred Astaires, as graceful as glide, transcending the rules we klutzes are limited by, giving us the feeling… “see how easy it is” and as one we roar with yelling applause… and we even become gracious and begin to feel sorry for the downer looks on the other team. Jesus loves losers… but when no one’s looking He’s all smiles when the faithful win.
The series moves to Washington, where the Wizards’ big three score a combined 75 points before their hometown crowd. The foul troubles that threatened the Bulls in both previous games finally catch up to them, leaving the team without Antonio Davis and Tyson Chandler for the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Bulls lose, 99-117.
TV guide didn’t list Game 3, it wasn’t on the air to see, not even TNT where RCN or whoever controls access decides what’s on. I had to see the game in my imagination by getting as close as I could to the cable that connects me, close enough so like a shaman of old I could reach into spurious guru powers and see the unseen. Wonders were happening. The first half was a breeze. Up 20 points we were. The second half only the bench played. Skiles was all smiles. Unbeknownst to anyone, nefarious ways had taken over. Whenever the Wizards had the ball, the bouncing floor immediately tilted up 30 degrees, you could see Wizard sweat making the floor so slippery that Hughes fell down and slid out of the arena. We won by 40 points. There was a protest. Unfair. Chicanery was afoot. My old pal Wally the carpenter was called on to check the floor with a level. The cops were called. This was bigger than steroids. Tilting the floor is against the laws of gravity. But but but but but…
We lost… 117 to 99. Not good Lotto numbers. The wily Wizards did it, they were too much for us. It was a mistake having the “lovabulls” fly in and compete with them there “washing women” cheerleaders with their Washington ways. Erase the memory. Tonight’s game 4… and it’s on at 7 PM.
Let’s get real. And win one for the Gipper.
The Wizards keep the momentum going in Game 4, and hold a 61-37 lead at halftime. The Bulls rally in the second half, closing what was once a 28-point Wizard lead to seven points, but with 30 seconds to go and not a hot hand to be found, the Bulls cannot get any closer. Bulls lose, 99-106.
The series returns to Chicago, tied 2-2. Before Game 5, Scottie Pippen presents Ben Gordon with the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year Award, the first ever given to a rookie player. As they had in each game, the Wizards come out strong, with a 17-3 run in the first quarter and a double-digit lead at halftime. They continue to dominate the Bulls in the second half, and lead Chicago 108-98 with 40 seconds left to play. Missed foul shots by Washington’s Big Three combine with four consecutive Bulls three-pointers—including three by bench player and Chicago native Jannero Pargo—to tie the game at 110-110 with five seconds remaining. The fan noise within the United Center is at a lethal pitch until Gilbert Arenas sinks a 14-foot jumper as time expires. Bulls lose, 110-112.
Almost a winner. The last minute you could see the brilliant flash of almost. The Bull Boys frantic in a scramble to get back in the game. The crowd everywhere… in the United Center, in going crazy sports bars, in my tiny corner of the universe where hope swings eternal… the TV screen watches irreversible time blink closer to 00:00. Foxholes are filled with prayers. The unbelievable rise from 0-9 to this big… this very big playoff has all of us screaming don’t fall down on, get the ball, you can do it… it’s miracle time… the toss from the floor to the guy in the blur who arcs in the 3 with only 5.4 seconds left… and whammo 110 meets 110… and everybody goes happy crazy… 18,000 high fives… I can’t go on. It’s too sad. Buy a paper, read about it, newspapers are having troubles of their own. But if you gamble, now’s a chance to get lots of points on Game Six.
The numbers don’t look good for the Bulls. They’ve lost their last 10 games in Washington, including the two playoff losses that started the Wizards’ three-game comeback surge. Each time this season that Washington has lost four consecutive games, they’ve won the next four. Their loss to Chicago in Game 2? Their fourth in a row.
For most of the game, all that looks to change, and a Game 7 showdown in Chicago seems likely. The Bulls hold leads, though slim, after each of the first three quarters, including a four-point lead with less than three minutes left to play. But after baskets by Hughes and Jamison tie the game at 91 with two minutes remaining, the Bulls shut down. Hinrich’s inbound pass bounces off the back of an unprepared Chris Duhon, and results in a Jared Jeffries dunk. Needing first a two, then a three-point shot to tie the game, the Bulls fail to score in their last two possessions. They lose, 91-94.
It’s no fun to write about losing when you want the team to win. Nothing is as perishable as a loss, part of a healthy attitude is forgetting about it. Six and half point dogs, they won with the spread. Remember the good part. We made it to the playoffs. What I try to do is think ahead to next season and from what we saw, even though it was fall apart in the last 5.4 seconds, the Bulls have the stuff to do. Next time I don’t see a 0-9 beginning. I live by presumptions.
Copyright 2005, Ken Nordine
Photos: Copyright 2005, Amber Creger
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