Injured Chicago Bulls players Cameron Payne, Zach LaVine and Nikola Mirotic sit on the bench during a game against the Phoenix Suns at the United Center on November 28, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.

Mirotic wants to get back to playing basketball

"I'm here and focused to play."

It doesn't seem likely Nikola Mirotic and Bobby Portis are going to be celebrating Christmas together. Of course, I don't think they ever had before. And I'm pretty sure it's not because neither is Jewish.

"I said I will not talk about what happened, but we both, Bobby and me and all the team, (are) doing what we're supposed to do, being professional," Mirotic told reporters Wednesday morning before the team left for Thursday's game in Denver. "I think, so far, we're doing good. We're in a good way. If I'm here, it means that my team needs me and I need my team, too, to be back and play.

"The only thing I can tell you is that I've been playing this game nine years professionally," said Mirotic. "I was always a good teammate, always professional to everybody, and I'm going to continue to do that. If I'm here, it's because I want to support the team. He's (Portis) part of the team. I'm going to support him, too. Obviously, I'm going to give him hands like he's going to give me hands, too." By hands, Mirotic meant fist bumps, which is sort of where this all started.

About that apology of Portis to you?

"You know, we are teammates," Mirotic veered off. "On the same team, fighting for the same team and we're both gonna do what we need to do to make it work. Yeah, I accept it (the apology)."

Did you tell him?

"I guess he will know now," Mirotic offered.

I was watching all the games from home and trying to help myself when I get back how I can help the team. It was hard. But now I'm here and focused to play.

Nikola Mirotic

And so went Mirotic's much anticipated first comments to media and public since his face was mashed in by a Portis punch just before the regular season opener. Portis received an eight-game suspension from the team and has been playing since, off the bench behind then surprise starter Lauri Markkanen. Mirotic sustained a concussion and was hospitalized with facial fractures.

He came back to practice with the team this week, though it still remains uncertain when he will return to play. He is scheduled to work with the Windy City Bulls this week and won't be available to play until Monday at the earliest. Mirotic said he is fully healed. He did not need surgery and doesn't intend to wear a mask for protection. "I was wearing a mask for a few days, just shooting," said the 6-10 fourth year forward. "But I didn't feel comfortable. The doctor said it's up to me. I don't need to wear it because I'm basically healed from my fractures. And so I don't think I'm gonna wear a mask. We had a few second opinions about the surgery, saw a few doctors and most of them, they said they recommend not to do surgery. Just with my age and where the fractures were, so they said let it heal by itself. That's a decision we made together, Bulls and I." Whether to speak with Portis is Mirotic's decision, and he apparently doesn't plan to.

That's been the big question in the media since the incident amid rumors and anonymous source reports that Mirotic either wanted to be traded or wanted Portis traded or wouldn't be on the court with him or the same continent.

That seemed to dissipate with the two on the same team at practice this week and even sharing a fist bump on the bench during the Tuesday loss to the Suns.

Nikola Mirotic #44 of the Chicago Bulls sits on the bench during a game against the Phoenix Suns at the United Center on November 28, 2017 in Chicago, Illinois.

Yes, they touched skin! Get me rewrite! Sorry, old reference.

Mirotic Wednesday declined to address the events of the incident or any of the rumored reports of an ultimatum.

"Before you guys ask me anything," Mirotic said in a brief statement before answering questions for almost 15 minutes, "I would like to say that I will not comment on anything that happened in the past. My only goal now is to focus on getting back stronger because the last thing the team needs from me now is talking about what happened. They need a good atmosphere, and I'm here now just to support them when I get back to them.

"We're (with Portis) practicing together and the team has been preparing the game for Denver. I'm happy. I've been feeling really good support through this time from my teammates, first of all, from the front office. Been in contact with John (Paxson), Gar (Forman), talked to Michael (Reinsdorf), too. Fred (Hoiberg) was in contact with me, and yeah I did feel support from them. I didn't remember the first day, but after a while, yes, I did remember after. It's all gone. Like I said, right now the only goal for me is to build my strength and condition and get back with the team.'I don't mean to minimize what occurred because it was serious. Mirotic sustained major injuries and apparently lost his chance to be the starting power forward in what could be a contract year. He signed a two-year deal with the Bulls before the season after negotiations stalled, but with a second year team option. He had been seeking three years.

I never saw the tape of the event or witnessed the altercation. But I've always suspected the circumstances played a part. It appeared like Mirotic was going to be the starter with Portis falling to a tertiary role with the team looking to work in prized draft pick Lauri Markkanen. Portis had worked seriously all summer at the Advocate Center as the team counsels. Mirotic had not, but players without signed contracts rarely work out with their team until there is a deal.

Bismack Biyombo #11 of the Orlando Magic shoots over Nikola Mirotic #44 and Bobby Portis #5 of the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on November 7, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.

Either Portis suspected or perhaps heard from associates of the pending rotation. The Bulls had not made any final decisions yet as Hoiberg made clear all through training camp only Robin Lopez was guaranteed a starting position. It still was two days until the opener. And the starters have changed frequently these first 19 games, though Markkanen has started every game. Hoiberg said he will remain the starter when Mirotic returns. Mirotic understood.

"The same way I lost my starting lineup in training camp, I could win it again," Mirotic said. "Obviously, it's different now. Lauri is playing great, which I'm very happy for him. But this is not very important now: If I'm going to be starting or not again. For me, it's important to be healthy, get stronger, and play basketball. I'm used to up and down. Obviously, you didn't expect this to happen. But just trying to get stronger. There's a few positives out of this happening, too. I'm always trying to find the good things after all this situation, so right now it's been how many games, close to 20 games. I want to get back stronger; that's all."

Portis back in preseason was probably feeling somewhat embittered, though he has declined speaking about the elements of the incident as well. There was general acknowledgement from the team and Portis that it was a competitive scrimmage environment, players battling for the starting job. Mirotic has not been known as a physical player since he came to the NBA. Since he was still trying to prove himself, it sounds reasonable that he might have been overaggressive in trying to show he was worth a larger investment and was an improving, physical player. Perhaps that merely clashed with Portis' building frustration, resulting in a flash of regret for both.

"I'm comfortable being on the team," Mirotic said in deflecting repeated questions regarding Portis specifically. "I've had a lot of support from my teammates, from everybody. Right now it's on me to relax and enjoy playing basketball again, to get my strength back. It's been a long time since I didn't play. I can tell I took the next step yesterday and it was a huge feeling for me; really excited just to be on the bench. Yeah, I'm excited." Mirotic did seem to make it clear he wasn't engaging with Portis. Which really is no big deal other than the fantasy many have of a sports team with all the parts in professional and personal unison pulling together for the same goal, this endless band of brothers fiction supported by those champagne soaked locker room celebrations.

I am sad to reveal they are the marketing product of team sports. Because the office of a sports team—yes, I know it's a game—is little different than any other work environment with jealousy, resentment and too many fake happy birthday singing events.

Nikola Mirotic #44 of the Chicago Bulls looks on during the game against the Dallas Mavericks on October 4, 2017 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.

I can't say I know their personal lives, but I know Mirotic is from Eastern Europe, has a wife and child and is white. Portis from the southern United States is single and black. And the Bulls weren't one of the most connected teams during Mirotic's tenure. Last season, Jimmy Butler and Dwayne frequently were on their own, often practicing together while Rajon Rondo practiced with the rest of the team. Previously, it was the building rivalry between Butler and Joakim Noah, who stopped speaking, and before that the injuries and in and out complications with Derrick Rose that hardly created an atmosphere of mutual devotion and endearment.

And when Nate Robinson was around who else even had a chance to speak?

Though the NBA probably is one of the most diverse workplaces in the world and strives for acceptance beyond most organizations, it's highly unlikely Portis and Mirotic would have spent much time together other than at work, meaning at practice and on the floor. And as Mirotic said, that's the place to be professional.

Which, well yes, that dispute wasn't. And Portis also paid a price in a substantial loss of pay and reputation.

Sure, Mirotic suffered more as the victim, losing his apparent starting position and at least a quarter of a season to make his case for a future contract.

But there's little reason why they cannot continue to work together as workers all over the world do with their contemporaries who even, gasp, believe in a different political philosophy and office holder.

You look at the analytics from last year, Niko behind Jimmy was our second most efficient defensive player when he was out there on the floor, and we miss that right now. Just in all areas because of the fact that Niko has a lot of experience in this league.

Fred Hoiberg

"After what happened, Fred came to the hospital with Jim Boylen," said Mirotic. "Gar was calling. Everybody was worried about me. So I did feel support and I appreciated that from the front office. Now their goal is to make me get back in the game. I'm working on that. All those guys (teammates) text me, call me. I text most of the guys before the game just wishing them luck. I've been in contact with them all the time.

"I don't know about it," Mirotic said of any ultimatum. "I just know that right now the only goal-Bulls' goal and my goal-is to make me get back with the team and practice together and get my strength back and as soon as I can, play with the team."

Mirotic is not eligible to be traded based on his signing date until mid-January. It's unrealistic to believe there is a trade market given he hasn't played. Similarly with Portis, who after back to back 20-point type games in his return, has been pedestrian, averaging about 10 points without an impactful role.

Plus, it seems Markkanen can use a rest.

The 20-year-old rookie was the surprise starter after the incident, suddenly playing more than 30 minutes per game as even the team's go-to guy with Zach LaVine still out after knee surgery. Markkanen played for Finland this summer as it's go-to guy, and he has moved up to the top of opponent's scouting reports. He's shooting about 20 percent the last five games. He probably can use some relief, too.

So it's a welcome time for Mirotic to return to a 3-16 team.

"Niko's a guy that has a lot of experience, not only in this league but also he's been playing professionally, really going back all the way to when he was 16 years when he started playing in the Spanish League," Hoiberg pointed out. "So just to get another experienced guy out there who can space the floor and make the right plays. You look at the analytics from last year, Niko behind Jimmy was our second most efficient defensive player when he was out there on the floor, and we miss that right now. Just in all areas because of the fact that Niko has a lot of experience in this league."

Nikola Mirotic #44 of the Chicago Bulls warming up before a game.

He and Portis, obviously, will be watched closely for indications of disorder. That the events were so unprecedented and surprising, they'll likely provide a stage for ennui. Both will be back to trying to earn more playing time. And the Bulls certainly can use Mirotic's abilities. Though he hasn't been consistent, he's had some of the best stretches on the team the last few years. Mirotic one month as a rookie led the league in fourth quarter scoring and last season came back impressively after a mid season benching. Mirotic in March had a run of eight games scoring more than 20 five times with three games of at least six threes made. He scored 28 points three times in a four-game stretch.

Mirotic was most proud in the preseason of adding additional weight, and perhaps it would provide for opportunities to play together with Markkanen and with Portis in the more open style Hoiberg prefers. With 11 losses in their last 12 games, the Bulls aren't much in position to refuse help from anyone. And Mirotic is in position to offer some.

"It was very hard," Mirotic acknowledged about his absence. "It was the first time being in that situation. Like I said before, I had support from my family and friends. I was trying after the second week to get some exercise and stay in touch with the team. I didn't want to lose all the contact right away. I was watching all the games from home and trying to help myself when I get back how I can help the team. It was hard. But now I'm here and focused to play."

Let the games continue.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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