Bulls' Team Chemistry Much More Than Newspeak

Bulls' Team Chemistry Much More Than Newspeak

There's a feel-good, too-good-to-be-true bunch of stories about the Bulls that are impossible to ignore. It isn't the quantity of noise, but the consistency and ingenuity of the players that this is a team with a very tight personal bond.

bulls victory heat.jpg

manlove. don't leave the locker room without it.

Chemistry is an intangible sports meme, usually used to explain things that analysts are too lazy to actually investigate to find relevant conclusions. But that doesn't devalue the existential positive of the enjoyable relationships between plays on a roster, Henry Abbott noted in a post at the ESPN "TrueHoop" blog:
Athletes forever talk teamwork, chemistry and selflessness. 
Most of the time it's a crock -- things to say into the tape recorders to make the writers happy. 
The economics of major professional sports just aren't set up like that. The youngsters really are trying to take the veterans' minutes, touches and -- by extension -- money. The veterans' families would be more secure if the rookies simply evaporated. If you can't count on a guy to be on your team six months from now, and if you know the best thing for his career would be an injury to you, and if at all times players and coaches are coming and going through the revolving door ... it's no real wonder why a lot of teams lack the team vibe. 
Something is up, however, with the 2010-11 Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls' chemistry indeed isn't Newspeak. It's eerie in a campy sort of way that can induce vomiting or a greater appreciation for flowers, puppies, and kittens.
C.J. Watson said in an interview posted Mar. 10 at Dime Magazine: Luol [Deng] is probably the most vocal player in the locker room, though everyone pretty much talks, from Boozer to D-Rose [Derrick Rose] to Jo [Joakim Noah] to Kurt [Thomas]... I mean Scal [Brian Scalabrine] is like our coach on the bench, he makes sure everyone's in the right play and the right coverages. I mean pretty much everyone's vocal. We're a team who - even though we're very close to each other - can get on each other in hard times and good times, so it's pretty good to have a team like that."
He later added that he hangs out with "pretty much everyone" on the team and, "Sometimes we all go out and eat as a team."
This began to mark some thoughts that maybe the feel-good movie atmosphere about which we constantly hear and see isn't a mind-over-matter show. These guys genuinely feel close personal bonds with one another. That reality is reinforced in Abbott's post, as a systemic approach of Tom Thibodeau's philosophy in action:
[Taj] Gibson says Tom Thibodeau is a "military-style" coach who is incredibly demanding, for instance calling in half the roster for extra work on rare days off. But even through all the demands, it's not a cold relationship: "Everybody's real cordial. The coaching staff. The front office. They just did a great job picking the right guys for our team," says Gibson. 
Even the taskmaster Thibodeau admits that the team's family approach -- the emotional bonds on the team -- are part of the core mission. 
"That's characteristic of a winning team. When you look at the teams that do well, they're well balanced, they share, they're committed to each other and have respect for each other," he says. "I think it comes from the work they put in from the start of the season. They're committed to playing for each other. They're committed to winning. And they're committed to playing together. I think it's important that they have respect for each other. I think commitment to play together and to share is important. It's how you win in this league." 
[...]
How the Bulls talk about each other can seem a little like they're reading straight from the "talking to the press" brochure. It all makes a lot more sense, however, when you consider that the players are instead using the media to inspire each other. 
Past the never-sitting, constant in-game hollering, and theatrics of Thibs is a man more complex than his inaccurate authoritarian image, Adrian Wojnarowski highlighted in a weekend article at Yahoo! Sports on the coach's relationship with his superstar:

Perhaps none of these Bulls were sure about Thibodeau upon his arrival because they had never seen such single-mindedness, such an obsessive, 24-7 grind out of a coach. Truth be told, few have ever witnessed anyone like Thibodeau. His reputation had been that he would be hard to talk to, dictatorial, but they found something else: A lot of humanity, and hardly any hubris.
[...]
Rose loves Thibodeau's grind, admires it and shares so much of his disposition. "I can call him no matter what time it is," Rose said, "and we can talk."
He's called as late as 1 a.m. after a game just to go through things, to talk about the team, about the next step.
Noah and Scalabrine won't stop talking about Omer Asik when he has a big game, Abbott noted, while everyone on the team is hyping Derrick Rose for MVP.
Watson was a pretty high-volume player in Golden State, even with phenoms Monta Ellis and Stephen Curry on the roster. He expressed content with his role as a backup with limited playing time behind one of the best players in The Association while being candid of his personal struggles to commingle being accustomed to higher volumes of play with his lesser role being more conducive to the team's success. In the end, his will to win is shaping his outlook toward his current situation -- and, all in all, he loves it.
"It's fun!" Watson said of playing behind Rose. "I'm probably backing up the MVP in the league so... it's tough in some ways, but it's also good because he's one of the best point guards, if not the best point guard, in the game right now. And he's making my job a lot easier."
He later added of his role shift form the Warriors to the Bulls: "It's a little different," It's hard at first to get used to it. I'm still trying to get used to it as far as coming off the bench, playing five minutes, start getting into a rhythm then getting subbed out. I'm trying to get used to it and trying to get started a little more quickly as far as getting into the game, getting into the rhythm of the game faster and stuff like that. It's difficult but I'd rather win 60 games and play a reduced role than lose 60."
Sure, his coach in Golden State, Don Nelson, gave him more playing time in an offensive-based system, but Watson credits Thibs for keeping him interested on the court. Thibs wants Watson and Rose to pick as many spots as possible to raise the pace in efficient manners and grants the two more freedom than you're generally going to see from a coach as strict and meticulous as Thibs. Actually, it's no secret that the point guard has a general free reign to read defenses and control the offense on the court.
"It's different, but I've had coaches like Thib before in college and high school so it wasn't that big of an adjustment," Watson said. "He's real big on defense, which wasn't that big of a problem either, but he still lets me play on offense and lets me do what I do as long as I play defense hard. He doesn't really complain about offensive shots or any sets that I call. It's still fun out there."
Watson was encouraged as high as the pro level to be a me-first, gotta-get-mine guy in a system where if everyone feels that way, but still respects their teammates similar approach, you score a lot of points. He's a great example of a guy faced with a very human conflict of adjustment that's with competitive entertainers like talented athletes.
There's clearly a dual cultural dynamic of: (1) inclusion -- as noted by Abbott, in Watson's rhetoric, and Monday by Doug Thonus at Chicago Bulls Confidential to how this has translated on the court; and (2) a non-hierarchal method of leadership -- as reported recently by Fred Mitchell at the Chicago Tribune -- among the Bulls players. With all of the sports narratives on leadership that include "He needs to be the guy," They need someone to step up and be the guy," "Who's gonna be the guy," it's refreshing to see the Bulls thumb their nose at that and be an example of cooperative leadership. That this model can be successful among people with common goals, interests, and objectives because they genuinely recognize the value of one another contributing to the 'sum of all their parts,' Abbott added:

Scalabrine feels the team is living by those words every day. "We understand the severity of the situation. It's not every year you get to do something special. To win a championship, to compete at that level, you know you've got to make sacrifices. 
"And guys know that. At the end of the day, someone on this team is going to help us win a playoff game. You push him down now, you're not going to get him later. So we pull him up."
I'm a little nervous that all of this isn't making me vomit a little in my mouth. But it's good type of fear -- the sports equivalent of when you begin to feel comfortable being vulnerable with someone you're dating and how it's very natural for that to kinda' scare the hell out of you. Scares the hell out of you because you're still very aware of the worst case scenario and how highly possible that is.
I make the dating analogy because The Individual is a component of being human that sets us as unique from one another, as well the consciousness of it unique in humanity from all other existing organisms. That we're social animals co-dependent on one another for external success and intrinsic satisfaction and motivation proves chemistry as a crucial element of achieving common objectives of an ensemble; whether at the Second City, in a sports locker room, or -- dare I say it -- a family.
I'm beginning to buy into this team's ceiling as a NBA champion this year, as the group of people on this Bulls team have taken high risks to be vulnerable with each other to co-exist and continue to trend upward in the process.

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  • Awesome article Alex!

    Thanks for the behind the scenes quotes and letting us know what we as sports fans can only see so little of watching on TV or going to a game! The Bulls are a very fun team to watch and it came together so fast! Who would of that they would be even close to this good with the 1st year head coach, all these new players, let alone their awesome chemistry! :-)

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