Sometimes in sports we lose sight of the fact that the measure of success is not only winning championships. There are around 30 teams in every league and one championship for each year. The vast majority of teams and players will never achieve that ultimate goal.
In the NBA, in particular, there is a tendency for repeat winners, as well. For every Larry Selke trophy that Kobe Bryant takes home, another 600 players have only what-ifs to ponder.
Are they all failures?
Should more modest levels of success be forgotten because there’s no hardware on the mantle to remind us?
Of course not. Sometimes in the cutthroat business of professional sports, players, teams, and even eras get swept under the rug, never to be appreciated fully. Let’s take a moment to remember Chicago basketball in the years before Derrick Rose took the helm.
The Ben Gordon-Kirk Hinrich Bulls have almost moved on completely. There is only one player left from those early days: Luol Deng. When he is gone, their will be no trace.
The preceding Bulls teams were so bad and nondescript that they threatened to change the entire legacy of the franchise. That is clearly saying something, considering that the Michael Jordan-led teams had not too long before won an incredible six championships. Oh yes, we definitely had some suffering to endure in the aftermath.
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But then (and not a moment too soon) our spirits were lifted by a blue-collar, hardworking group that had a seemingly unlimited upside. Suddenly, it seemed as if we could possibly become a team of destiny once again.
Kirk Hinrich seemed to only be scratching the surface of what experts thought he could become. A smart, vocal, and scrappy player that played stingy defense and threw his body into the game. Ben Gordon, the undersized guard, with oversized shooting skills and a flair for the dramatic. I think we all remember those games where he just could not be stopped. Though we also remember those games where someone should have yanked him off the court and told him it just wasn’t happening.
How about Andres Nocioni, the Argentinian sharpshooter with an assortment of skills unique to most players in the league and an undying passion for falling all over the place? This was the team that led the Bulls out of the darkness.
In hindsight, it wasn’t the most talented team in the league. But, if I recall correctly, we were all stretching our imaginations to consider them that way.
If Hinrich continued to improve, the whole team would take a giant step forward. Nocioni would obviously grow by leaps and bounds considering the relatively short amount of time he had spent in the States. Ben Gordon would improve his defense, and make even more clutch shots. Add a Joe Smith here, maybe a Brad Miller there, and we had a team that might be able to compete.
And this is not even taking into account our true emerging star, Luol Deng. This guy could play defense, hit the jumper, and would do all the little things as well as big things in order to take this team into the stratosphere someday. Always a year or two away, mind you, but always on the horizon.
Just one more piece, right?
And then came Ben Wallace. We all thought we were set. Sounds kind of silly now, doesn’t it?
Maybe even ludicrous.
And now, all that’s left from those days are Deng and his huge hangover of a contract. That’s all we have to remind us of all that potential we used to convince ourselves we owned.
Don’t get me wrong, there was a decent measure of success. Each year we would fight admirably to secure a playoff spot somewhere near the bottom of the conference seeding. I don’t think anyone can forget about the dominating performance against the defending champion Heat. We took all four games of that series. We also put up a hell of a fight against a much better Detroit Pistons team in that next round.
Alas, it was not to be.
Years passed, reality set in, and players moved their separate ways in a slow procession.
And then one day, Derrick Rose burst onto the scene amongst a barrage of hype. He had been preceded the year before by a hidden gem in Joakim Noah. At this point the entire team had undergone a facelift. New talent, new attitude, new players, yet the same high expectations we once had for the group before. But now Luol Deng merely serves to remind us of what once was.
Sometimes when I go through the roster in my mind, I forget that he is even on the team. It’s not a knock on him, or his above-average skills, it’s just that he does not embody the spirit of this new, younger team anymore. He is a holdover from the past. No longer are we waiting for that breakout season we once assumed would occur. He is just a supporting piece to this team led by the current young guns.
But I think we should look back fondly on the pre-Rose years. They were a pretty good team, emerging from a horrific one. There were highs and lows. We all remember those embarrassing flareups in the media over Gordon coming off the bench. And Ben Wallace with his Headband-Gate distraction.
Two rookie coaches in Scott Skiles and Vinny Del Negro eventually lost their battle with management, but that really didn’t define the times. They were simply a competitive basketball team. We could always see them making a trade that would suddenly skyrocket them to the top of the league.
It was just a matter of time. There always seemed to be a level of potential that could be realized if they just had another year. But most importantly, at the time they were better than most of the other teams in the league.
What more could you ask for?
I guess the combination of Fall weather and lack of sports has contributed to a level of seasonal nostalgia. Hopefully, that group has paved the way for a level of success in this current squad that will dwarf them in comparison. And maybe this group will be able to show off that success with rings on their fingers.
Whatever the case, thanks Kirk, Ben, Noc, Deng, Scott Skiles, and all the other players who came and went during that period. You guys weren’t great, but you were pretty good. And there is nothing wrong with that.