Thursday, June 23, 2016

Derrick Rose's Sad Limp To Basketball Oblivion

You can see it on the grainy videos online.  Tyrus Thomas grabs a rebound, lopes down the court, and feeds a streaking Derrick Rose who two-hand jams it on a hapless Goran Dragic. The Bulls' bench players theatrically pretend to hold themselves back from storming the court while Stacey King admonishes Dragic for trying to block the shot, for futilely exposing himself to posterization, for daring to exist in the same basketball universe as Derrick Rose.

It's the 2015 playoffs.  The Bulls, going toe-to-toe with a Cavs team expected to roll through the Eastern Conference like a monster truck over a pile of broken sedans, give the ball to Rose. Somehow, he gets off an awful, off-balance three and banks it in as the clock expires.  And, as the United Center explodes into rapturous anarchy and his teammates mob him and hold him aloft, Derrick Rose stares out into nothingness, no expression on his face, not even a cool, studied walking away from an explosion in slow-motion like this is a thing that is normal to me, the guy who blows up Apache helicopters full of drugs and counterfeit money and illegal reptiles expression, but almost like he has been disconnected from reality around him.  It is a blank mug.  It was less a catharsis than an exorcism from the unending series of catastrophic knee injuries and comebacks and hot takes and Bulls' front office skulduggery brought about by the deafening scream of 20,000 people who wanted nothing more than to believe in him again.

Derrick Rose's time with the Bulls reads less like a basketball career and more like a litany.  His knees, once a pair of pistons that pinballed him through defenders and powered his circus layups and soaring dunks, exploded into loosely-packed bags of ligaments.  The constant rehabs and battles with the media and a front office filled with Magoo Machiavellis brought an element of melancholy to his game.  Rose never again played only against other basketball teams, but against the ghost of his own self; watching Rose for the past three years was like watching a cash-in reunion tour Derrick Rose on the county fair and riverboat casino circuit.

Chicago's relationship with Derrick Rose came closer to a religious experience than basketball fandom.  Bulls fans became swept up in a cult preaching an endless cycle of Back and Not Back.  Rose's transition layups turned into prophesies.  One day, he would be Back, floating into the United Center in gilded robes, levitating over the hoop, teaching his teammates the Way of the Back, mastering the three point shot, and because this is a religious scenario he would also suddenly be good at defense too and he would vanquish all of the apostates who did not believe he was Back out of the Eastern Conference like so many febrile Karl Malones and then, he would lead the Bulls Back, he would lead the Bulls fans, his disciples of the Way of the Back into Grant Park and the fountain would turn from water into an ethereal light that would flow through him and turn him into Michael Jordan, which is what we all wanted him to be in the first place.

There is no other professional basketball player who could inspire an 
ironic shrine art installation unless there's a guy in the Adriatic League 
who starts an Ancient Order of the Trapezoidal Key

Derrick Rose's constant barrage of injuries (for fuck's sake, he broke his goddamn face last season and then spent months wearing a clear plastic mask that had "I am wearing an overwrought symbol of my transformation into a simulacrum of Derrick Rose" written on it) destroyed the Bulls' hopes of breaking through the Eastern Conference's LeBron hegemony.  Instead, his absences liberated fans from expectations, and the Bulls turned into an enjoyably scrappy outfit of hard-nosed defenders, tiny shoot-first point guards, and Carlos Boozer, who spent four consecutive years refusing to close his mouth for a single second and once got so excited screaming AND ONE that he punched Danny Crawford in the testicles. 

I will remember the horrified expression on the woman's face after witnessing Boozer's 
brutal testicular assault on my deathbed

Now, Rose joins Luol Deng, Kirk Hinrich, Tom Thibodeau, most likely Joakim Noah and possibly Taj Gibson in exile as the front office molds the Bulls into Fred Hoiberg's brand of draft lottery basketball.

Rose leaves the Bulls for the equally languid and dysfunctional New York Knicks.  The Knicks, bereft of draft picks, reliant on the maligned Carmelo Anthony, and owned by a monomaniac obsessed with his corporate retreat blues music, will subject Rose to an even more unforgiving and unhinged basketball media.  He has gone from the Lusitania to the Titanic.  The Bulls will be terrible next year with or without Derrick Rose.  But he takes with him a brief hope for resurrection, for an unstoppable drive and one of those looping layups, when Stacey King half-heartedly warns some hapless bench player about the futility of standing in the way of Derrick Rose and invokes the holy cry of Back, when you can see the MVP Derrick Rose straining to break free from his body sarcophagus.  But Derrick Rose is not back; he will never be back; that is, until the first Knicks game when he comes back, knees and the Good Lord permitting. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Futile, Asinine Task of Determining The Greatest Team of All Time

A championship has returned to Cleveland.  The Oracle Arena, described by the press and the Warriors' ownership as a virtual reality laboratory for the development of New Age basketball by players wearing those ping pong ball motion capture suits, may already lie in smoking ruins.  The Warriors capped off a historical run, won 73 games, and nearly clinched their second straight title. Instead, LeBron James did the one thing more impressive than that by actually winning a Cleveland sports championship.  The effort required a mythical performance; when James somehow outraced every player in the history of organized basketball to impale an Iguodala layup against the backboard, he all but came down from an ancient frieze.  The win capped off the Coming Home chapter for our most narrative athlete, embodied the hopes and dreams of American sports' most loudly martyred fanbase, and vanquished a team considered the greatest ever with an unprecedented comeback.  So let's talk about the Chicago Bulls.

The Chicago Bulls have cast a dunkman-shaped shadow over this NBA season.  The Warriors not only broke the Bulls' wins record, but did so with a freewheeling style utilizing absurdly long jumpshots that directly refuted the theology of 90s basketball.  All season long, the old players made their pilgrimages to television and radio studios to talk about how the Warriors were soft, how magical basketball sprite Stephen Curry would have been drawn and quartered by Antonio and Dale Davis, and how Michael Jordan would have broken into the Warriors' hotel and poisoned them because that is the type of competitor he was and then while they were bent over vomiting they would have been roughed up by Bill Wennington and Dickie Simpkins.  There is nothing a retired basketball player loves more than shitting on current players by threatening them with hypothetical violence.  But as the Warriors demolished all comers, the howling from the veterans of the Pat Riley Wars sounded like what it always had been: the anguished shriek of man against his own mortality and the diminished use of post moves.

Then the Warriors made history as the first team to squander a 3-1 lead in the Finals.  Their effortless shooting ground to a halt against a lineup featuring the mummified remains of Richard Jefferson. Basketblogger punching bag Kyrie Irving outplayed Steph Curry. Draymond Green became the Icarus of penis clobbering.  Their wins record is for naught.

Joe Lacob, the Warriors' swaggering tech-goblin owner made it easy to root 
against them when he said “The great, great venture capitalists who built 
company after company, that’s not an accident. And none of this is an accident, 
either...We’re light-years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in 
planning, in how we’re going to go about things," embodying the irritating hubris 
of Silicon Valley's aspirational App-Warlords. This feeling will last exactly as long as 
the first appearance of the Cavaliers' swaggering mortgage-goblin Dan Gilbert 
when he tries to take credit for James's unprecedented investment in the civic 
identity of Northeast Ohio even after Gilbert attacked him in the world's dumbest 
Corenlius Vanderbilt letter written in Crayola

As the Warriors closed in on the record, I was surprised by how much I became invested in their failure.  Nothing the Warriors did could rip those banners from the United Center. Nothing they did could take away their six championships.  They could not make Jud Buechler fade from those hideous '90s caricature shirts like a McFly sibling.

Phil Jackson looks like a generic evil businessman, all grace and manners and you and me 
we're not so different speeches until Dolph Lundren threatens his production of 
Cocaine II: The World's Most Potent drug.  Scottie Pippen is about to burst forth from 
someone's chest cavity

My own desire to see the Bulls' 1995-6 season enshrined at the top of an arbitrary hierarchy has no basis in any sort of value system.  I have nothing to offer to the Michael Jordan Take Industrial Complex or manifestos on the superiority of hand checks and apostate illegal defenses.  I only want the team I like to remain garlanded in whatever accolades I can cling to, and one of them is a claim to the nebulous title of the Greatest Team of All Time.

The decision to anoint the Greatest Team of All Time is such a fool's errand that we throw our most foolish hot take jesters at it.  Teams from past generations cannot play each other without folding space-time against itself.  Sports grow and evolve with new strategies and rules and, as movies and television tell us, into inevitable future death sports.  The whole enterprise devolves into hypothetical games of ghosts against ghosts.  It rests on a the deployment of numbers stripped of context and an-almost religious fervor.  There is no Greatest Team of All Time.

For Bulls fans, though, it is all we have.  Twenty years ago, they obliterated all comers, an overpriced sneaker stamping on the forehead of Karl Malone, forever.  Now, they remain, like their nemesis Eastern Conference Teams from the '90s, trapped in irrelevance because of a single dominant player. The same LeBron James who safeguarded the '96 Bulls' claim to Greatest of All Time status has simultaneously ruined any hope the current Bulls have of contending.  Chicago's great hometown hope has been strangled by his own knee ligaments.  They now have fallen into the pits of NBA despair: lottery picks, trade rumors, and a uniquely Bulls tendency to coat all of those things with a thick layer of unnecessary back-biting and soap-opera intrigue.  So forgive me if I forgo reading another article about whether or not Jimmy Butler is a leader to argue about Michael Jordan hand-checking Steph Curry down to mouthpiece and goatee particles.  The Bulls have been organizationally posterized, now only capable of reflecting the greatness of today's champions.