Chicago Bulls: The Teamwork Engine That Could

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ESPN.com Illustration

I am hoping there is a tavern in heaven, there has just got to be, right?  And, I am even more convinced last night the big screen was tuned into the Cubs (even the angels and saints are suckers for the lovable losers) game as St. Armand served up an extra dry beefeaters on the rocks to the recent regular on the stool at the end of the bar.

With almost certainty I can bet the man requesting the extra dry "martin" greased the palm of the patron saint of bartenders in hopes he would change the channel to the biggest game of the night; Game Five in the Bulls/Pacers series.

Something tells me as the guy stirred the ice cubes around in the martini glass and then popped an olive or two in his mouth, he was grinning from ear to ear as he elbowed the guy next to him and said, "I told you, the Bulls are the real deal."  He had predicted such greatness last summer watching as "the three kings" pulled a fast one on the NBA.

I have had many regrets since my dad passed away last December.  Nights like last night make me miss him the most.  I wish he was still sitting in his recliner with the volume blaring from his family room TV instead of enjoying such a game perched on a heavenly bar stool.  Because that recliner is where he would be when I called to ask him "are you watching THIS?"

My dad loved the Bulls, and even more importantly, loved the game of basketball itself.  Loved it.  He was a fan when the rest of Chicago wasn't.  Dad watched every game of every season when he lived here.  When he wasn't watching on TV, he was comfortably seated on the floor at the Stadium; right behind the players.  Our season seats were so close we wiped the sweat of the players off of our faces.

As kids we would complain.  "Why do we have to go to another game, Dad?  They're just going to lose again."  Years went by before Michael Jordan came to town in the mid-eighties.

Then dad complained.  "He's a ball hog", "he's not a team player", "there is no I in team", he would say over and over to any of us who hadn't already tuned him out.

The 1991 Championship was a bittersweet victory for him.  His beloved Bulls had finally realized the big prize and I got a front row seat to watch him enjoy it from his recliner in Arizona.  He had recently moved out west and only had the opportunity to watch them play during a nationally televisied game.  Dad no longer had the luxury of enjoying them in person from a seat where he could literally reach out and touch one of the champions.

Years later when Jordan realized the prize a nod to the Hall of Fame would provide, my phone rang from the 602 area code.  Dad asked, "are you watching this shit?".  He spoke of Jordan's acceptance speech.  While disappointed in what the man was saying, he was clearly gleeful as he watched the "egomaniac" toss his former teamates/coaches under the bus, saying, "see, I told you, this guy has always been about number one."

He didn't understand why Jordan was not humble enough to realize that the only reason he had six rings on his hands was because during those six years he had a team that surrounded him.  Dad never disputed Jordan's talent ("ah, for Christ sake" he would say, "this guy isn't human") but he did question his integrity and the motive in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech. 

Years passed after the last championship in 1998.  And every year as the calendar moved from October to November I could count on a call from out west requesting info regarding the upcoming season.  "What are the papers saying?" he would ask.  "How do they look this year?"

The last time dad and I spoke of his Bulls was last summer.  I was convinced Lebron James was headed to Chi-town from Cleveland.  He was convinced James was yanking the Bulls chain.  He was right.

It seems like yesterday I listened over the phone line as he said "the three kings are everything that is wrong with this sport, three ball hogs don't equal a team--the Heat will not survive a championship season with two-too-many-egos."

I should have known my dad's health was failing when he never called to ask about the upcoming Bulls season in late October/early November.  Instead we had another conversation in which he shared a story. 

One afternoon we were talking about my youngest son who wanted to try out for the school basketball team.  I was adamantly against it.  "Why?" he asked.  My reasons were simple.  The kid is too short and couldn't make a shot to save his life.  Why set him up for inevitible failure.  It just seemed cruel.

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Dad in his recliner with my youngest (wearing a Cubs shirt), my father the ultimate Sox fan, absolutely mortified it was worn in his presence.

"Let me tell you a story", he said.  He told me about his first tryout for the high school basketball team.  At 5'7, he was not blessed with height.  My Granddad, his father, had hoped against hope my dad would become a shortstop for the school's baseball team.  Granddad had spent hours out in the yard teaching him the proper stance.  Dad was convinced that his father was living his dream of being a short stop through the promise of my dad.

He laughed as he told me how furious my grandfather was at the thought my father would even consider going out for the Leo High School Basketball team.  As he recounted the story I imagined my Granddad yelling at dad.  It was almost as if I could hear his voice shouting.

Dad said his dad was literally shaking as he shouted, "look at you, you're only five foot seven for Christ Sake, now take a good look at me!" As he pounded his chest, he screamed, "I'm barely five foot six with my shoes on", and as he pointed at my Grandma getting dinner ready by the kitchen counter dad mentioned that his voice cracked as he screamed, "look at her, just look at her, she's not even five feet tall."  "You will never be a basketball player, you're too damn short!"

 

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Dad and Granddad in the backyard on Bishop Street in 1948 practicing a proper short stop stance.

While the retelling of the story was funny, Dad's message to me was serious.  In so many words he told me we cannot impose our wishes on our kids.  He encouraged me to let the kid try out for the team.  If it was in the cards, he would make the team.  And, if he didn't he encouraged me to let the kid practice and try out again next season.

"Sometimes", he said, "it is not so important to be the star of the team."  "Sometimes", he continued, "it is more important to be part of something~being part of the team is where you learn the greatest lessons."

We hung up shortly after without any talk of the upcoming Bulls season, as he mentioned he was pretty tired lately, but did manage to remind me that he did make the basketball team, and while he was not a star player, even the guys on the bench were part of the '56 Leo High School Championship season. 

I signed the permission slip for the kid to try out for the team with the promise of a new pair of high tops should he get a call back.  He did not.

The kid taught me a lesson that day.  Instead of crying about being one of the eighty kids not garnering a coveted position on the twelve-man roster, he grabbed his basketball and headed off to the park.  "Mom, I need to practice my shot if I want to have a chance next year."

We headed to the mall shortly after to get a new pair of high tops.

Basketball is a team sport, and our Baby Bulls have proved that this season.  Just by making the playoffs, the team has gone farther than any "expert" gave them credit for in the preseason.

The Three Kings in Miami tried to convince the world that padding a team would bring them instant success and the championship ring.  I am not so sure.

My fingers are crossed the Bulls make it to the final round meeting the Heat before heading onto a Championship Series against the winner of the Western Conference.  Following a victorious run against Miami, something tells me LeBron James might rethink his reasoning in re-locating to Florida instead of Illinois.

He dissed Chicago saying, "I'm going to go where I think I can win, Miami is the best chance I have in getting a ring."  He should have considered the "team" he was passing up.  I am glad he sent the UHaul to the Sunshine State, I'll bet our Baby Bulls would not have had the same team dynamic had they signed on the self-proclaimed "king".

The little engine that could is chugging into the station with a little bit of luck and a whole lot of teamwork.  I've never been a fan of basketball, but I watch this team with amazement.  They teach me another lesson, with a little bit of determination they have done the unbelievable this season.

They also have their greatest fan up above calling the shots by whispering in the Big Guy's ear.  I only wish my Sprint Service could reach up beyond the heavenly gates.  If it did you better believe I'd be dialing and asking the guy at the bar, "are you watching THIS?"

Go Bulls!

 

 

 

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