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4/11/2011
A CHICAGO SPORTS DAY TO REMEMBER

1-4

It was maddening. It was frustrating. It was sublime, glorious, and exciting.

I can’t ever recall spending a day glued to the TV watching 4 sporting events that were as riveting, satisfying, and just plain fun as Sunday’s incredible line up of Chicago sports teams - and the most mesmerizing Masters in years.

Beginning at 11:30 AM, the Blackhawks took to the ice at a raucous United Center, playing for their playoff lives in a do or die game. At noon, the Bulls began their quest for a 60th victory and their effort to keep hope alive for best record in the NBA. At 1:00 PM, Masters coverage began while at the same time, the White Sox took the field against the Devil Rays.

Forget the DVR. Even the White Sox, who are off to a decent start to the young season, deserved to be watched live. Besides, since the Masters was going to last until 6:00 pm, there wouldn’t be time to watch the other games (unless I wanted to pull an all-nighter).

So I set right down in my TV chair and my face assumed a TV stare. Goodbye world. Goodbye Zsu-Zsu. It was time to OD on sports.

I don’t watch cable news anymore. I don’t watch any of the silly, stupid sit coms, over wrought dramas, or reality shows on over the air TV. When I watch television these days, I will watch sports and the occasional movie (preferably a classic on TCM, FMC, or AMC). Television - the great, empty maw of a cultural wasteland and unnecessary information - is best seen as a portal to observe the “human drama of athletic competition” as ABC’s old Wide World of Sports used to put it.

It don’t hurt to watch those competitions on a Vizio 55 inch HD TV with Bose Cinemate Series II sound system neither.

At first, I tried to approach my problem scientifically. I thought I could allot 5 minutes of viewing time to each event, thus keeping track of what was happening.

1-11

The first hour and a half wasn’t very complicated with only the Bulls and Hawks to follow. The Hawks game was more important but I really like the Bulls so I would catch myself being entranced by D-Rose drives to the hoop rather than Patrick Kane’s wizardry with the puck. I was hoping for a Bulls blowout so I could devote most of my time to watching the Hawks.

Alas, it was not to be. The Bulls-Magic contest tightened considerably in the second quarter, just as the Hawks fell behind. Torn as I was at that point, I had no idea the enormous problems that were about to overwhelm me.

At 1:00 PM all hell broke loose. Tiger Woods began a charge at the Masters. The Magic were giving the Bulls all they could handle - despite being Dwight Howardless. The Blackhawks were falling further behind Detroit and watching as their playoff chances slipped away. And the conditions at US Cellular Park promised a home run derby with the wind blowing out and the Tampa pitcher hanging sliders as if they were Christmas ornaments. He gave up dingers to Gordon Beckam and Paul Konerko in the White Sox half of the first inning.

1-2

I don’t remember much from the next two hours. The Tiger narrative was most compelling to me but thankfully, there are several minutes between golf shots so I could track the Bulls, Sox, and Hawks, keeping mostly up to date with what was going on. But as the Hawks went into their death spiral with just a couple of minutes to go and down by a goal, I lingered on NBC watching as their season appeared to disappear. I was almost grateful that one event was over and I could concentrate on the other three.

I missed some of the 4th quarter of the Bulls game, but managed to catch Tiger’s birdies on 2 and 3. This was at the expense of the White Sox who were up 2-0 and Gavin Floyd already showing he was “on” by dropping the hammer on Tampa Bay hitters with regularity. It was then I made a painful choice; I would only watch the White Sox when they were at bat.

This move paid immediate dividends as I was able to catch the last few minutes of an exciting Bulls game. D-Rose slashed to the bucket time and time again, forcing the Magic to foul him or throwing up one of his impossible lay ups for scores carried the Bulls for the rest of the way. To their credit, the Magic almost pulled off a tie as time expired when Greer threw up a 3-pointer that swished through the basket, only to see time run out a heartbeat before the ball left his hand. The Bulls had their 60th victory - an improbable feat considering that most experts figured they’d have a tough time winning 50.

1-3

At 2:48 pm, Tiger dropped in that eagle on 8 that gave him a share of the lead. At 3:05 pm, Paulie hit his second homer of the game, giving the Sox a 6-0 lead. With only two events to follow, I was able to relax a little - the frenzy of the previous two hours a memory.

In the end, Floyd pitched a brilliant game and the Sox won 6-1. At 3:28: pm, I turned my full attention to the Masters - just in time to watch a dizzying array of players climb up and down the leaderboard with such rapidity that you had to feel sorry for the CBS director in the truck. Whose shots do we cover? Do we keep our focus on young Rory’s embarrassing collapse? Which of the 5 guys at -10 do we slight?

The last hour of the tournament was like that, with incredible drama playing on in the last 5 holes as group after group ground their way home. At the finish, it was refreshing to see someone actually step forward and take a major golf tournament rather than having it handed to them by someone else’s collapse. South African Charl Schwartzel birdied the last 4 holes and seized the day and the green jacket.

Later that night, the Stars lost to the Wild and the Hawks backed into the 8th and final playoff spot. A good end to a great day.

Thinking about it, I would prefer not going through another day like this one. But upon further review, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

By: Rick Moran at 12:03 pm | Permalink | Comments & Trackbacks (0)

4/1/2011
HOMETOWN KID LEADS THE CHICAGO BULLS BACK TO GLORY
CATEGORY: Chicago Bulls

1-1

He is a quiet, unassuming young man away from the basketball court — polite, respectful, humble, a genuinely nice guy. He’s the kind of young man you hope your daughter brings home some day to announce her engagement. He carries himself with a dignity and grace that you wish more professional athletes would emulate.

But when this nice kid gets on a basketball court, he becomes a gargoyle, a demon, a whirling blur of power, motion, and speed that makes opposing players appear that they are standing in quick drying cement as he streaks by them on his way to another jaw-dropping finish at the rim.

Derrick Rose is not the best NBA player. There are better shooters, better rebounders, better passers. There are better 3-point shooters, players better at dealing out assists or stealing the ball, and better shot blockers.

But only 2 or three players besides Rose feature the entire package. And none, in my estimation can match the burning intensity of his will to win by doing what ever it takes, including sacrificing his body, to carry his team to victory.

Lebron James is, at this point, the best all-around player in the NBA followed closely by his Miami teammate Dwyane Wade. Both of those superstars feature the same kind of speed, power, and leaping ability of Rose. And both may be slightly better defenders than Rose at this point in his career.

That’s because at the ripe old age of 22, Rose has only been in the Big Show for 2 years. But his willingness to accept the coaching of first year skipper Tom Thibideau — a defensive wiz who has turned the Bulls into legitimate contenders virtually overnight — presages future years where the native Chicagoan will no doubt be a perennial first team all-NBA defensive team selection.

A former “Mr. Basketball” in Illinois, Rose’s path to the NBA was a difficult one. Growing up on the mean streets of the South Side of Chicago in the drug and gang ingested Englewood neighborhood, Rose’s father walked out on the family when Derrrick was very young. His mother, a strong willed woman with a determined sense of family, raised the youngster with the help of his three brothers who kept Rose off the streets and away from gangs.

As Rose became a teenager, the brothers shielded the young man from the worst that the basketball culture has to offer. There are so many charlatans, shoe salesmen, scouts, and hangers on for a talented young kid like Rose to avoid on the way up and his brothers performed that function magnificently. Most of us are unaware of the pressures that many of these African American kids from the inner cities of America are under if they have even modest basketball talent. Rose not only avoided scandal and controversy, he thrived in the structured environment offered by both his brothers, and his high school coach.

Winning two state championships with Simeon Academy, Rose went on to win a national championship with Memphis where after only one year, he entered the NBA draft.

Becoming the improbable 1st pick of the Bulls in the 2008 draft (the Bulls, the last lottery team in, had only a 1.7% chance of getting the first pick), he was named Rookie of the Year and followed that season up with a solid second.

Determined to improve his jump shooting, Rose spent the summer of 2010 in the gym practicing. Results of his hard work became immediately apparent as teams that had once dropped off the young star and clogged the middle to prevent his drives to the basket now discovered that Rose would simply rise up and drain 15, 18, foot jumpers. He has even improved his shooting beyond the arc although he has had long dry spells when trying to shoot the three.

With a 40″ vertical leap and a solid 195 lbs on his 6′3″ frame, the strength of this kid is incredible. His body control while in the air is amazing and more than once he has dunked the ball over much taller competitors.

But it is when the game is on the line that Derrick Rose shows his worth. Every great team needs a closer — a guy who can take the ball and put the team on his back, willing it to win. Since most NBA games are close affairs, the last 3 minutes of a game usually determines the outcome. This season, Rose has made sure that if the Bulls are ahead, they stay ahead, and if they are down, they more often than not catch up and surpass the opposing team in those final, vital minutes. He’s not the best closer in the game - yet. But in a year or two, the Bulls will lose few close games with Derrick Rose on the court.

What Rose has meant to the Chicago Bulls this year is incalculable. With the team missing players like Carlos Boozer (21 games) and Joachim Noah (31 games), the Bulls nevertheless have the best record in the Eastern Conference and a shot at the number one seed for the playoffs and home court advantage throughout. It has been Rose who has kept the team together, urging it on to greater effort, and supplying that killer instinct that all great teams need in order to prevail.

The Bulls will probably not win an NBA championship this year. They may not even get to the Eastern Conference finals. But there is no doubt that the league must once again reckon with the Chicago Bulls. For the first time since the Michael Jordan era, Bulls fans are delirious with excitement over their team.

And most of all, they are delirious over the hometown kid with the shy smile and the heart of a lion.

By: Rick Moran at 10:10 am | Permalink | Comments & Trackbacks (0)

5/2/2009
7th HEAVEN

1-11
The Bull’s Joakim Noah dunks in the face of Boston’s Paul Pierce in Game 6 at the United Center on Thursday night. Noah’s steal and 3-point play in the 3rd overtime proved the game winner.

I am taking a break from my self-imposed hiatus from writing not to talk about politics but something equally near and dear to my heart; Chicago sports. Specifically, the rebirth of the Chicago Bull’s franchise and what it means to a city that for all it’s beauty and architectural splendor, still feels pangs of inferiority when measured against its rivals on the east coast.

Any discussion about the growth of American cities over the last century cannot ignore the contribution made by professional sports teams as a uniting expedient that has given residents powerful icons with which to identify and take pride in. It helps that these teams generate tens of millions of tax dollars these days (as well as most cities taking a healthy cut of parking and vending concessions at the various stadiums and ballparks around the country).

It remains a source of civic pride for a city to possess a major sports franchise, a signal to potential residents and businesses that relocating has other advantages than dollars and cents. For this reason, some cities have financed the building of sparkling new venues where the sports teams play their games.

It is a controversial use of tax money and while I tend to frown on such expenditures (and curse the owners who literally hold up cities for such structures by issuing ultimatums to build them or they will leave ), I understand the impulse behind them. Professional sports franchises are gold mines and serve the chauvinistic purpose of generating a sense of belonging to something greater than oneself, united with other residents in a common love of “the team.”

For residents of Chicago, the success or failure of its major sports franchises has always been colored by the feeling deep down that as a city, we just don’t measure up to Boston, Philadelphia, or especially, New York when it comes to the cultural pursuits or the kind of cynical sophistication exhibited by residents of those burgs. But rivalries in professional sports have a way of evening things up for some and that’s where the Bulls come in.

Of course, no Chicago sports team can match the football Bears in fan loyalty or intensity. This is a Bears town and probably always will be. And the North Side/South Side divide in baseball with the Cubs and Sox defines the yin and yang of the city to it’s very core. The Cubs - a team for women, children, and hopeless romantics versus a Sox team with much more of a working class appeal. In the modern, wall to wall sports age we live in, the Bears have one championship (1987) since 1963 while the Sox have one World Series win (2005) since 1917.

It has been 100 years since the Cubs tasted success and nearly 40 years since hockey’s Blackhawks have gotten drunk by sloshing champagne from the Stanley Cup. In short, triumph for Chicago sports teams has been doled out by the sports gods in quite the niggardly fashion.

Except for the Bulls. Winners of six World Championships in the 1990’s, the team’s fortunes during that magnificent run rose and fell on the health (and retirement plans) of perhaps the greatest athlete of the 20th century: Michael Jordan.

I will no doubt get an argument from Jim Thorpe fans (Thorpe was AP’s “Athlete of the Half Century in 1950″) and supporters of other athletes like Bob Mathias or even Carl Lewis might also chime in with why those worthies should also be considered.

But if Jordan wasn’t the athlete of the 20th century, he can certainly be named the greatest athlete of the modern media era. He was untouchable, the greatest competitor I have ever seen. I understand Ty Cobb had the same burning, insatiable desire to win. And skills wise, there is always a good case that can be made for Bird or Magic, or even Jerry West.

But the total package — the razmatazz, inherent showmanship of the man helped him dominate the media in an age that he defined. His unrivaled power until Tiger Woods came along to sell anything while performing feats of legerdemain on the court proved a too much for his NBA opponents and too tempting for marketing moguls to pass up.

Jordan led Bulls teams were a phenomenon in a city that was used to more workmanlike athletic teams that were usually competitive but rarely able to grasp the brass ring of a championship. This proved valid when the Jordanless Bulls, forced to compete without their superstar in 1994 when he retired the first time to play pro baseball, failed to reach the finals against the hated New York Knicks. Jordan’s late season return the following year excited fans but also demonstrated that a rusty superstar was not enough to help the team climb the last mountain; they lost in the second round to Orlando.

It was the magical 1996 year in which even casual fans finally adopted a Bulls team that won an astonishing 72 out of 82 games and destroyed their playoff competition on route to the second of their “threepeat” championship runs. Jordan had reinvented himself as a player, changing from a slashing, driving, leaping, flying scoring machine into the best post-up guard who ever played the game. He could still drive to the hole but eschewed the pizazz for a role that left him free to dish the ball to his cutting, screening teammates. The results were incontestable. As was Jordan’s dominance.

The end of the Jordan era meant trouble; five long years of awfulness followed by a few middling years where it appeared the team was going to be competitive again, only to see that dream dashed by bad drafts, bad front office decisions, and bad coaching.

The Bulls had become something of an embarrassment to the city and unlike Bears or Cubs fans who will go to the games no matter how awful their team might be, Bulls fans proved to be a little more fair weather, with the cavernous new United Center half empty during many of these lean years.

This season started dismally with the Bulls playing very inconsistently and appearing as late as February that they would finish out of the playoffs. This despite the play of an exciting rookie, Chicago native Derrick Rose whose speed and quickness as well a developing basketball sense earned him Rookie of the Year honors. And then the trade deadline brought two important pieces to the team; John Salmons and Brad Miller from Sacramento. The team seemed to mesh quite well and they put on a very strong finish to end up at .500 and earn the seventh seed in the playoffs.

Unfortunately, thought everyone in the league, that meant playing defending champion Boston in the first round. But the Celtics looked beatable when superstar Kevin Garnett went down with a knee injury. Still, the chances that the young Bulls would be able to compete with the seasoned Celtics seemed more fantasy than practical reality.

The rest, if you’ve been following this titanic struggle, is history. The Bulls and Celtics will play the seventh game of a series for the ages tonight. And once again, Chicago has embraced their basketball franchise with something approximating the same abandon with which they adored the Jordan-led Bulls of the 1990’s.

They say that the United Center was never as loud for a basketball game as it was for that life draining, dramatic triple overtime victory for the Bulls on Thursday night. Indeed, the Jordan era, despite its success, never seemed to bring out the animal roars from spectators that used to intimidate opponents at the old Chicago Stadium. But the fans - finally - seem to have taken this team to heart and win or lose in Boston tonight, their efforts in this series will carry over into succeeding years and will no doubt elevate the team to its previous heights in the Chicago sports firmament.

As an aside, Thursday night’s game was the first pro basketball game I watched from beginning to end since that Game 6 in Utah a decade ago that saw Michael Jordan push off a Utah defender to get away the winning shot and bring the Bulls their last championship. The youngsters probably will fall far short of winning it all this year. I expect them to lose tonight or almost certainly in the second round against Orlando. But for me, they have become an interesting team again.

And no doubt, the city feels the same way.

By: Rick Moran at 9:42 am | Permalink | Comments & Trackbacks (8)