Saturday, December 18, 2010

Love and Basketball

I accidentally clicked on a story when visiting the Daily Herald's web-site earlier this week and read two sentences before realizing that it was another affected rant by Barry Rozner, who, not surprisingly, was blowing hot air in an overwrought tone about the Cubs' need to get rid of Carlos Zambrano. Rozner's bogus angry fan schtick is more than compensated for by the tremendous work from Herald columnist Bruce Miles. But Miles is exceptional amongst Chicago sportswriters, as he avoids sanctimonious hectoring of the subjects of his reporting. The constant barrage of negative opinion and concocted controversy is a blight on Chicago sports and a fraud upon the great history of sportswriting that the city had developed prior to the arrival of hacks like Skip Bayless and Jay Mariotti.

For this reason, its nice to see Michael Wilbon writing for ESPN. Wilbon's recent essay on his admiration for this year's version of the Bulls struck a particular chord with me because the most remarkable quality of the squad is its inherent charisma as a unit. The Bulls are a very likable team -- even accepting that Noah is a lightning rod who is vilified by opposing squads.

I'm not particularly objective about the Bulls and have eventually, during the course of the season, fallen in love with each of the iterations of the team since 2004-2005. But it generally took a little time and it would always be an affection with caveats -- about the limitations of the team's coaching, about the inherent value of certain underperforming players (e.g., Ty Thomas and Tyson Chandler) and, most often, my persistent doubts about Captain Kirk.

But with this team, the love was immediate and has been unwavering. I'm tapping this out while watching the Clippers handle the Bulls in impressive fashion, but am still greatly enjoying the game. Everything about this team flows from Derrick Rose, who is the most charismatic player that the Bulls have had since Jerry Krause destroyed the team. Rose's rookie season clearly earned the respect and admiration of Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, and James Johnson. After nearly every tremendous play that Rose has made this season, the film of the reaction of his teammates -- particularly the returning Bulls -- has been priceless. Similarly, the drawn breath and deep concern registered on the faces of Bulls' players whenever Rose goes down hard is also remarkable.

Carlos Boozer slots in well as a veteran free agent power and the Bulls' front office seems to have finally pulled together pieces that complement one another without tremendous friction. This may, again, be more due to Rose's presence on the team rather than management expertise; either way, the result is a squad that is gelling and is raising expectations in Chicago.

Maybe not just Chicago. We've been going to see the Bulls on their visits to DC since 1998 and, outside of the playoffs, I cannot recall a time when resale ticket prices for a Wizards-Bulls game are as high as they are for this Wednesday's fixture. (Chicago just fell short on an improbably comeback attempt against the Clippers, losing the game when Rose missed a free throw that would have tied the game at the end of regulation. No tears -- it may have been a loss, but that was a hell of a valiant run at the end -- the team could easily have packed it in, but they really do not like losing).

Just as I've had no problems falling for the Bulls of the last seven years, I've also been smitten with JTIII's Georgetown teams over that same period. This year is, of course, no different.

My daughter was gifted free tickets to today's game against Loyola as part of her membership in the Hoya's Kids Club (which is, by the way, awesome). Up until our little girl decided it was time to go with five minutes left and the Hoyas' focus slipping, we were treated to a beautiful demonstration of Georgetown's strengths and possibilities going into a tough non-conference test against Memphis.

The Hoyas started out the game a bit flat and the first four minutes made it seem like Loyola would give Georgetown all it could handle but... well, that was only 10% of the game and the balance was quickly swung by substitutions that brought in Henry Sims, Nate Lubick, and Markel Starks. Four minutes later, Georgetown was up nine and the rout was on.

The fans have raucously celebrated the addition of Moses Ayegba to the Georgetown rotation in the last two games, but as promising as Ayegba is, I am enjoying Henry Sims' development into a force in the post. Since his introduction as a freshman, we've taken particular notice of Sims whenever he was on the court. He always seemed frustrated by his limitations and his inability to keep up with the speed and skill of players bearing down on him. No more. In his fifteen minutes on the floor, Sims was an impressive force -- going five for five from the field, with two strong slams through defensive pressure, and five assists.

Jerrelle Benimon was also impressive -- although I can't claim to have previously paid that much attention to his game. Benimon is a guy I've taken for granted, but he made a distinct impact this afternoon, scoring the most points he's put up in a game (nine) so far in his short Georgetown career. Benimon appeared to be as comfortable on the perimeter as he was in the paint. And, along with freshmen Aaron Bowen, Benimon's progress gives the Hoyas a potentially potent pair of swing players going into Big East conference play.

But as much as I enjoyed watching Sims, Benimon, and Bowen play, they'll have, at best, a limited impact on the team's fortunes this season. The core of the team -- Chris Wright, Austin Freeman, Jason Clark, Markel Starks, Vee Sanford, Hollis Thompson, Julian Vaughn, and Nate Lubick -- is solid. One thing that we did not anticipate was Wright's development as a passer. In each of the three games we've gone to this season, Wright has made at least one pass that has roused the crowd out of their seats.

Regardless of how the next two tough away tests -- against Memphis and Notre Dame -- shake out, we're planning on spending New Year's Day at Verizon welcoming the Hoyas home.

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