Requiem For A Team: Three Hours Watching The Mess On Madison
The entire arena feels like a hangover. There’s the scent of stale beer and greasy food. The lights seem a little too bright and the music just a bit too loud. And of course, there’s the regret.
Regret for a season that passed by in a flash. A season that ended before it was supposed to begin. A lost year they couldn’t afford to lose.
It’s Wednesday night at the United Center, ten minutes to tipoff. It’s the last game of the season for the Bulls, a season that effectively ended 72 hours earlier when the Pacers beat the Nets and Chicago was eliminated from playoff contention for the first time in nine years.
But we gather one more time in the house that Michael built. We watch those CGI bulls rampage through the streets of Chicago. We let Benny dance around the stands. We wave for free t-shirts. Then we have to watch the Chicago Bulls play basketball.
How did we get here? How did this team– with two MVP-candidate point guards and two All-Star big men, plus Europeans and Nebraskans firing away from deep– ever fall this low?
Ask ten fans, get ten different answers. It’s Hoiberg’s fault– or actually, GarPax’s fault for hiring him. It’s LeBron’s fault, he broke this team down. Or maybe it’s still Boozer’s fault. Can we blame Vinny? Of course, there are the injuries too. We weren’t this bad before Jo went down! The most common refrain is some combination of Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose not playing well together and a defense that lost its identity.
In other words, it’s a team with a bad offense and a bad defense. A bad team.
It’s frustrating. Scarring. This team, The Derrick Rose Bulls, was supposed to rise from the concrete. So why are there only broken pedals?
It’s on the faces of the fans. No one bought tickets for the last regular season game thinking it would also be the last game of the year. It’s a personal betrayal. We spent our money on these tickets so we could offer a final sendoff before the playoffs began. At worst, we feared they’d bench the starters if the seeding was all locked up.
You hear the grumbling. Every turnover, amplified. Every missed shot, exaggerated. Every poor pass met with a See, that’s the problem stare. There is discontent on Madison and there’s venom in the stands tonight. I feel it. I spit it. Like the empty seats lining the 100-level, it can’t be missed.
We aren’t disappointed, just angry.
The stars are not out tonight. DRose is benched. So is Pau. Joakim hasn’t played in months. Only Jimmy, who reportedly had to fight for the right to play the last two games, is out there with Mirotic and McDermott and Portis.
We get it. I don’t hear anyone complaining about it. No need to risk injuries in the last meaningless game of a meaningless season. But what if this is Rose’s last game? If he’s gone in the offseason, will this be our last image of the man who once held a city’s heart? Sitting on the bench, face set in a stony grimace.
It doesn’t seem fair. He’s the MVP, or at least he was. There’s a part of Bulls fans that still view him as that kid holding the trophy high up in the air, waiting to take on LeBron. The kid who just wanted to higher. Where’d it all go?
It’s mid-way through the second quarter and the Bulls are down 42-18. Down by 24 to the worst team in the NBA. One of the worst teams of all time. A team whose general manager took over the team via skype, hired his son and ran away.
The Sixers dominance down low is almost overpowering. Mirotic is the only one hitting anything for the Bulls. If the problem was that Jimmy and Derrick can’t play together, why is he struggling to hit shots with DRose benched?
There’s not much sense to be made of it. And shit, beer’s $9 a bottle.
It’s impossible to avoid the Blackhawks at this game. Fans in bright red Indian-head sweaters stream through the turnstiles as banners celebrating the Hawks’ three championships in six years wave over the court. The Bulls’ banners seem sadder than ever, the 72 no longer the point of pride it was just days before. Another indignity would come hours later, this one at the hands of the Golden State Warriors.
And three hours away in St. Louis, the Blackhawks are beginning their defense of the Stanley Cup. Game 1. Playoffs. They did their job, got to the real season.
They’re another team full of stars, similarly saddled with expectations. And they’ve had injuries, too. Last year, Patrick Kane went down on the same night as Derrick Rose. One of them returned from injury to win a championship. The other is sitting on the bench in the UC tonight.
The Blackhawks are loved. Deeply, deeply loved. Feted with parades every few years. Showered with adoration wherever they go. The fans chant out the owner’s name unprompted. “Rock-y, Rock-y.”
There’s not much chanting for the Bulls on this evening. The screens light up with imploring graphics. “Let’s go Bulls! Let’s go Bulls!” Go where? We’re half a game from going home.
They’re coming back. A strong run to end the first half and an even stronger run to start the third quarter has them right back in it. It’s not just Jimmy either. Dougie McBuckets is slashing to the rim with ease. Portis is pulling down boards. Who’s this Holliday kid? And yes, Jimmy’s on pace for a triple-double.
It’s the Sixers, and it’s a game that doesn’t matter. But it’s fun. It’s freeing. At least they’re playing like a team for once. There’s some semblance of an offensive strategy. The cheers don’t seem quite as mocking when you’re on the comeback trail.
The season’s a lost cause but they could still finish with a winning record. That’s something. Right?
The question that hangs over everything: what’s next? Is this Derrick Rose’s last game in his city’s uniform? Do they blow it up and rebuild around Jimmy Butler and Bobby Portis? What happens to Pau? And Joakim?
After a few Bud Lights, everyone has an opinion. Wait for Joakim to come back, they were okay when he was playing. See if you can get a second rounder for Rose, if you eat half his contract (he’s never Derrick or DRose when we’re talking about trading him, only Rose). Could McDermott be the type of shooter you build around?
These aren’t real solutions. None of these will bring back the 2011 team. But hey, I heard Jimmy and Derrick are planning to practice together this offseason. Maybe that’ll work.
We got the free Big Macs. 100 points and a win, courtesy of a 64-point second half. More importantly, the Cubs and Sox won, and the Hawks are tied 0-0 early in Game 1.
They gave out more t-shirts than the fans knew what to do with, too. They flew in on parachutes during quarter breaks and by t-shirt cannon at timeouts. At some points, as the shirts rained down from the rafters, it seemed like everyone would leave the game with a hamburger and a new shirt. Prizes just for showing up. Participation trophies, because man the Bulls really did participate this year.
At least LeBron didn’t end them this time. He could have, though. It would have been five times in seven years that the season ended at the hands of that unworthy successor to His Airness. But the Bulls fought off elimination against the Cavs on Saturday. They bought themselves an extra 20 hours.
So it ends with the Sixers. It ends where the end began. The team that four years ago toppled the 1-seed Bulls in the first round. The team that sent Derrick crashing to the ground. It’s been a gradual decline since then, a slow-motion free fall that suddenly found an accelerator.
Maybe it’s not the end. Maybe everyone will be healthy next season. Or the front office will shake things up. Fred Hoiberg could be a real NBA coach yet. But watching the Mess on Madison on Wednesday night, it was not so ambiguous. This was how it ended. Not with a bang, and not with a whimper. It ended with a question: how did it all go so wrong?