The following article was contributed by John WIlmes. As you’ll see, he is a huge fan of the Chicago Bulls. Currently, you can can find John’s basketball writings at red94.com, a member of ESPN’s TrueHoop Network.
I was just eleven, when Michael won his sixth. I have only the most ephemeral, only the blurriest of recollections of John Paxson’s shot, when I was seven—but I’d certainly say I prefer it that way. You all had to watch Hoosiers, and pretend the whole thing happened for you, when you were my age. By the time I was ten, Paxson had morphed into Steve Kerr.
I grew up in Bullsdom — my formative memories are slathered in their tinges of triumph. I was privy to the some of the greatest basketball ever played; I was privy to the force it creates, to the favorable sense of gravity and confidence that such a mind-blowing form of awesomeness grants to the land around it, as if it were an earthquake of good will.
But the most fun I’ve ever had as a Bulls fan was when I was twenty-two, and living beyond the rim of that glory, hours west in Iowa City.
Derrick Rose wasn’t Derrick Rose then. Joakim Noah? Not yet Joakim Noah. The Bulls weren’t yet anywhere near their current place among the NBA crème. Vinny Del Negro was their coach, and in fact, they were lucky to have made the playoffs that year—to even be here.
The Boston Celtics were coming off their first title in twenty-two years (yes, it was just before I was born that they’d won their penultimate trophy) and, despite having lost Kevin Garnett for the season, they carried themselves like a hammer. They behaved as if their dynasty of yore had never ended, and we believed them in the Midwest. We believed we had no chance.
But then Derrick Rose, in game one: he was Derrick Rose. In Boston he shot rain drops over towering multi-man walls. He moved past green monsters at will, performing graduate dissertations in lane-dicing too quickly to be appreciated by the human eye. ‘He’s not a rookie,’ they said on SportsCenter — but he was, in fact, a rookie. The Bulls took game one in overtime, and it was hard for any fan not to YouTube the clips of Michael in my birth year, bouncing it between his legs so showily, so defiantly in the face of Larry Legend, and it was hard not to chuckle mercilessly at what might be of our newest hero.
But for the Bulls, the rest of this series in the clutch was more about a forgotten Chicago hero than it was about Rose.
This was Ben Gordon’s swan song. Before Gordon was maligned for being overpaid and stalling out in Detroit’s basketball hell, he was the jaegerbomb to nearly every big game he played in. Undersized and ill-advised, he was a gunner on the cusp of the gunner’s decline; how I miss those days, when I didn’t know any better. When I considered the sloppy flamethrower the ultimate of player forms; when I loved Gordon’s unchecked moxie—after hitting one of his countless phase-shifting three’s in one of the series’ seven overtimes, my hero of the day grabbed his nutsack for the cameras—nearly as much as he did.
Gordon scored forty-two points in the second game—another thriller, but one the Bulls lost in its waning moments, at the hands of Ray Allen’s euthanasia-like shooting in the clutch.
The Celtics took the next game, too, and it was as unceremonious as all had originally planned. I might even stop watching the series, I told myself, if the next game started out as dismally.
That would’ve been one of the worst decisions of my life, because game four was when this series exploded into myth. The matchup ceased to be like any I’d seen as a near-adult, as a developed obsessive of the usually predictable game: the following games took shape as a preposterously swelling opera, each act more overdone than the last. An occasion on which all of the talent in the world (none of the league’s five best players, perhaps not even any of its ten best were present) couldn’t have trumped the rare chemistry between these Bulls and these Celtics. It was as if they were built to fight each other, it was as if their conflict was the rarest of harmonies.
Two more overtimes came that night. Three more were to follow, in game six. People who couldn’t tell a pick and roll from a knuckleball started talking to me about the games. They asked about Garnett, who still stood out more than any Celtic, from his spot on the bench—you could still see his id all over the court, in the Celtics ease with the dagger, in their almost sociopathic defense of the rim. You could see Rajon Rondo becoming the future of the Celtics, finding open men who weren’t open men, wizarding up holes to the lane that weren’t holes to the lane.
You could see Joakim Noah become himself, too. Once he got everyone watching like they watched him as rowdily as they did when he did his towel-twirling in college, he was suddenly able to convert his daft gazelle-ism into something terrifying and disruptive. It was only here, in this carnal display of theatric absurdity—only in this land where Brad Miller could hit so many game-tilting three’s—that Noah, the comic hustle wolf of his generation, could swell so swiftly.
But in the end the transformations and revelations and the heart palpitations eventually ceased, and the result was the same as we’d all expected. In the end, the score was seven games and seven overtimes, with the Celtics taking it home; the series was numbered and solid as all of the other box scores of the world, despite how infinite it would appear to us in history.
Ed. note: this was a truly crazy series. Refresh yourself on the madness John described.