Saturday, November 30, 2013

Are the Bulls really going to quit now?


A. Bartlett Giamatti, the late Renaissance scholar, Yale president, and commissioner of major league baseball, was correct when he said that the sport was "designed to break your heart." Unlike baseball, in basketball, the heartbreak is more of an accident, an afterthought, a by-product. Maybe because basketball is too fast-paced, or too recently popular, to evoke the deep soul-sickness that baseball can. But it comes close. Even if basketball can't break your heart, it sure can put a few deep cracks in it.

     Life is a long line at a snack shop. You finally get to the front, order your Coke and they hand you a pretzel. Enjoy your pretzel. Life is buying a ticket to Las Vegas and being flown to Dubuque. Change of plans. Explore Dubuque.
     Sports is not life, of course, but a concentrated simulacra of life: thrill, hope, triumph and, yes, disappointment, all packed into one maddening, chaotic, endless enterprise.
     I ignored sports most of my life because I was no good at them, and my father didn’t know a baseball from a basement. But occasionally my interest was sparked. In the 1970s, the Indians. In the 1990s, the Bulls. My wife loved ’em, the city loved ’em, and I tried to love ’em too, though Michael Jordan, excellent as he was, flubbed the hero test for me by being a jerk. He seemed mean, up close, taunting his teammates. Maybe to glory, yes. But nobody wanted to be Scottie Pippen.
     Frankly, I like the current crop of Bulls far better. Derrick Rose is not a jerk. The MVP with the extra gear to the basket. With a quirky supporting crew. Passionate Joakim Noah, scowling Carlos Boozer. And the rest: Gibson. Hinrich. Deng. Not to forget my kid's hero, Jimmy Butler, whom he was cheering from the start for reasons I plumbed but never fathomed. He loves Jimmy Butler because Jimmy is the best.
We went to a preseason game, yelled our hearts out, then settled in for something new to me: a season where I knew the team, knew the players, knew what was going on.
     Then Rose blew out his knee. Again.
     My first reaction was selfish. Oh, great, I finally surrender to this stuff, reach a point where my question at breakfast is, "Are they playing tonight?" Where tipoff finds me on the sofa, ready to savor the action. Little Neil, a sports fan at last. Now this.
     That lasted 10 seconds. Then I thought of Rose, not the player, but the person. The poor man. How awful this must be. How hard he worked this past year, getting healthy, absorbing the tsk-tsks of the entire city. He's back, not even a dozen games.
     "He looks fragile," I kept saying, watching Rose play. Turns out I was right; the one time I would have preferred being wrong.
     My 16-year-old, whose grasp of sports is more "Moneyball" than athletics, explained why the team will now be broken up so that the Bulls can lose and get better draft picks.
     Can that be true? I'm naive, yes. But that can't be the plan. It feels like surrender. "A seasonlong wake" as my colleague put it. Why can't the team that's left rise to the occasion? Why can't Jimmy Butler become the star my kid thinks he is? They almost did it last year. What are fans supposed to do while waiting for the draft? Watch a lousy scrub team lose? That doesn't sound fun.
     And what's Rose supposed to do now? An outsider would say he's already won, beat the odds, grabbed the brass ring. If he doesn't squander his money, he can own car dealerships and have a happy life.
     Or can he? The road back is even more fraught. Not only is there the pain and struggle of recovery, but once he gets into shape there will always be fear, every time he puts his foot down, it could happen again. It's already happened twice. Einmal ist keinmal, as the Germans say, und zweimal ist immer. "Once is never and twice is always."
     Those are the stakes. Still, I don't see a choice. Rose, like each of us, can't dictate outcomes, only effort. Fall down, get up, maybe shake your fist at the sky and start again. "It's called trying," I tell my boys.
     Last season, without Rose, was still fun to watch. I would rather see Noah and Butler and Boozer flail against better teams and lose than have them shipped to other teams and watch some temporary cast of new nobodies - The Chicago Generals - rack up the losses we need to maybe, maybe, draft a star player. Who'd enjoy that?
     The team can't wait, cargo-cult like, scanning the skies for Rose to return, or for a new draft-pick hero. It has to play hard now.
     My apologies for caring. It is a change, I know, and against character. I've never met Derrick Rose, but he seems a fine young man dealt a bad hand. There are a lot of those. I am confident he will play that hand, best he can. You don't have to win a championship to be a hero. Sometimes your big play occurs when you blow out your knee, again, and are counted out. I do not expect him to quit. He has his job to do, the Bulls have their job to do, and fans have a job, too. "I will be conquered," the great Samuel Johnson, no stranger to adversity, said. "I will not capitulate." That sounds like a game plan. Disappointment comes, adversity arises, yet you somehow overcome. Is that not what sports, and life, is all about?



3 comments:

  1. Good thoughts. Hope Rose and the rest of the Bulls read this column.

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  2. Rose's latest injury was devastating to the Bulls, heartbreaking for the fans, and I can only imagine how difficult it must be for Derrick. I hope the fans don't give up hope, though it's not going to be easy to win even the first round of the playoffs if Rose is out. Coach Thibodeau seems to be the type to get the most out of his players, though, and being professionals I assume they'll give it their all. But lurking in the back of my mind -- and most others if they're realistic -- is the feeling that the window for a championship is fast closing, and at the end of this season there will be changes. I hope Rose comes back strong next year and proves his doubters wrong, and I think he has the will to give it his best shot. But it's got to be tough now after this second injury. Very unfortunate and sad indeed.

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  3. Rose was a lazy, self serving, greedy bum. Glad he's gone.

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