There’s No More Us: Death of a Bulls Fan

I remember crying over missed free throws. Ron Harper stepped up to the line in Denver at the end of a close game. He bricked the first, he air-balled the second. I knew it was over.

The team was en-route to winning 72 games, but I was 10 and had to do what I had to do: I locked myself in the bathroom and didn’t come out until the sadness (and ensuing embarrassment) subsided.

A year later during the deciding Game 6 of the NBA Finals, I nervously chain-ate Dorritos. By celebration time, I was puking a mish-mash of orange, cheese-flavored pulp. To this day, I still look at a bag of Dorritos with a mixed feeling of celebration and terror.

When Derrick Rose tore his ACL, it felt like a family member had died. The same punch-in-the-gut sickness. The same feeling of dread. The same worries that life might never be the same.

Turns out that was true for basketball life.

***

I was a Chicago Bulls Fan, capital F. I don’t think I can consider myself one anymore.

Last month’s trade of Rose to the New York Knicks killed the little part of me that still truly enjoyed watching Bulls games. There wasn’t much left. Jimmy Butler’s explosive, yet controversy-filled, year aside, the 2015-16 season was a chore to experience. It was sheer, blade-under-the-nail punishment for anyone who had grown accustomed to the grind-it-out-and-win Tom Thibodeau era.

Last year, we started a new era, one led on the floor by former Iowa State University coach Fred Hoiberg. The native Iowan was sold to fans as something of an offensive virtuoso, a basketball wunderkind. I bought it. I wanted to believe. I wanted his beautiful offense to translate. I still do.

We all hoped for something good to happen. By midseason, we’d take anything good. A fleeting moment of hustle or positivity, maybe? We got those moments here and there, but they were snuffed out by an equally awful moment soon after nearly every time. An injury. A 30-point blowout. A first-half lead given away within a five-minute run.

The season was an almost-perfect wash; 42 wins, 40 losses. No playoffs, 25th ranked offensive efficiency.

***

I wonder how I can ever come back to fandom. When the Bulls won the first pick in the 2008 draft lottery to draft Rose, I walked on air for weeks. My brain kicked out all the free dopamine I could handle, my head tingling whenever I remembered the lucky 1.7 percent chance at the top pick had actually happened. Pure luck! You couldn’t punch that smile off my face.

It was almost enough to help me disregard the difficult decade prior, the one just after Michael Jordan’s retirement. I got used to watching players with potential fizzle out, get traded, or disappoint. Sky-high expectations created by six titles and years of competitive play were always satiated just enough to keep watching, to hold out and fetishize hope: Hell, maybe these young kids could put it together! But they never did, not really, not enough to satisfy the hunger a basketball fan spoiled by greatness.

But then, we had him. We had a Chicago kid who could jump out of the gym, stop on a dime, fire precision passes off one left, hit clutch floaters, and seemingly will the team to victory. It was so familiar, but new and almost-terrifyingly exciting. My friend Dave Matthews said it perfectly last week: “I thought we’d be building statues for Derrick.”

So having written all that, it’s admittedly somewhat of an emotional issue. A loyalty issue. Rose is a Chicago man who, despite the criticism, worked hard through one catastrophic injury after another. He was the kid who made it out of Englewood, the man who paid for funerals and cried openly when talking about the hardships of his neighborhood and city.

For me, it was an issue of “Hey, why not give it another year?” After all, post all-star break, Rose’s points-per-game were above 20 and his field goal percentage was above 50 percent. His speed still betrayed the kind of player he could be, if the health was there all the time. Fair enough; the health simply wasn’t there, but hope and fandom are sicknesses.

Sure, there won’t be statues, but what the hell will there be? This seems to be, as it seemed for years prior to Rose, a directionless team. Free agency and trades have been churning across the league but are, save for the newly-acquired Rajon Rondo, quiet in Chicago. Other long-time, heavily-respected Bulls are gone or rumored to be on the trading block, including Joakim Noah (one of my all time favorite Bulls), who will join Rose on the New York Knicks.

Going back to the friend-take bin, my dude Pat Kelly told me earlier today that this was the first time he saw no bright spots with the team since the late 90’s, early 2000’s. I have to agree, and I place the blame squarely on on the front office: Bulls General Manager Gar Forman, a product of the Tim Floyd years, and Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson.

***

Now that the Rose trade has given into the acquisition of Rondo, one of the Bulls’ most fierce (and hated) rival players of the last decade, Forman’s assertion that the team wanted to “younger, more athletic” is revealed as bullshit line of PR.

Forman is known for this line of PR bullshit, a want to control the storyline. He takes credit for small losses and attributes big losses to someone else. Never himself. After firing Thibodeau, now coach and GM of the Minnesota Timberwolves, Forman acknowledged the Bulls had “some success” with Thibs at the helm. In reality, the fiery coach’s record was 255-139 in five years as Bulls head coach, coming 116 wins shy of the 12 prior years of Bulls wins. This even with Rose, his star player, missing 210 of those games.

The front office has been slow to capitalize on expiring contracts. When asked in February 2016 why Forman didn’t trade current Spurs center Pau Gasol, who had about three months left on his contract, at last year’s trade deadline, Forman told the Chicago Tribune that the 36-year-old Gasol was seen as “part of the core.”

When firing Thibodeau’s top assistant coach Ron Adams, who went on to win a title with the Golden State Warriors in 2015, Forman said he did what he thought was right for the team. When pressed, he gave an inspired quote that would make any corporate America executive proud, displaying the I’m-the-decision-maker-so-don’t-ask-questions bluster we’ve all come to love:

“We make tens if not hundreds of decisions every year. I don’t think we want to evaluate every decision, who’s on board. We communicate about every decision, and at the end of the day, I’ve got to make the decisions I feel are best for this organization moving forward. We’ll unite and we’ll move forward. Tom makes the decisions on the floor. He’s our head coach. I think he’s as good a coach as there is in the NBA. He does a great job.”

Forman’s defenders may tell you that he’s had a great draft record over the years, snagging players such as Jimmy Butler, Taj Gibson, and Nikola Mirotic with mid-to-late round picks. However, after former Bulls Director of College Scouting Matt Lloyd left for a larger role in Orlando as assistant general manager in 2011, Bulls’ draft nights gave dismal results.

The brilliant late-round picks of the Lloyd era gave way to drafting wash-outs such as Marquis Teague, whom the Bulls did not work out prior to the draft, per KC Johnson. Later in that draft, The Golden State Warriors selected Draymond Green in the second round, a player Adams later told ESPN’s Zach Lowe the Bulls’ coaching staff were “very disappointed” they didn’t get. Green is now an NBA all-star. The un-scouted Teague averaged 2.3 points during his two-season career.

Draft nights after 2012 weren’t much better. Forman went with what he knew, drafting Tony Snell of New Mexico (where Forman used to be an assistant coach), Cameron Bairstow (also University of New Mexico), and Doug McDerrmott (an Iowa high school legend; Forman previously worked as an assistant coach under Tim Floyd at Iowa State). Lloyd’s presence has clearly been missed.

Nightmarish draft nights aside, the Bulls weren’t any better at retaining or economically trading on-court talent. Bulls legend Luol Deng, who nearly died during a routine spinal tap at the hands of the Bulls’ team doctors, was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for what amounted to a handful of nothing. The Bulls lost promising center Omer Asik in free agency after turning down high draft picks the year prior. That same offseason, the Bulls lost sharpshooter Kyle Korver for nothing as he was given away to the Atlanta Hawks and soon after became an all-star.

Now, Forman and Paxson have pulled another great scam: Rebuilding. Trust us, they say, we’ll get younger and more athletic.

But have they earned this trust? Not from me. Little on their record, save the picks under Lloyd and the wins under Thibodeau, show they deserve a new opportunity to build another team. They’ve showed an acidic touch with anyone who challenges their ideas and a willingness to leak rumors to the press. In Thibodeau’s final year, an unnamed assistant coach once even openly expressed worry  to Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski of being bugged by the front office.

Much of the proof will be in the proverbial pudding over the next few years, but I am confident that Thibodeau’s Minnesota team will be competing in the Western Conference Finals while the Bulls will languish on the NBA treadmill; 35 wins here, 41 wins there. Ho hum.

I can’t do it anymore. I can’t take year-after-year of promised signings or “high-level” contention, all to be explained away by Forman in a mid-February press conference going into depth on why they just couldn’t make any moves at this time.

Where do I stand as a Bulls’ fan now? I’ll always follow the team in some way. I live in Chicago. I love the players. Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson are two of my favorite Bulls of all time. I even enjoy the zany antics of newly-acquired, slow-footed center Robin “Brook” Lopez and have a soft spot for Hoiberg, a hope that his offense will somehow start to click after a disastrous year.

But until Forman and Paxson are out, I’m out. This is something I’m supposed to enjoy watching; why support a front office I feel is hellbent on getting their way politically, win or lose?

I quit as a fan of the organization. Call me fairweather. Call me a player-fan. Call me whatever you want. Just don’t ever call me someone that supports megalomaniacal, no-talent, no-research bullshitters. To make it United Center ready: BULLshitters.

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