Pondexter blessed for a second chance in ball and life

Young team trying to take a baby step in the opening game of the season, but severely incomplete due to suspension and injury and starting against one of the veteran favorites in the conference on their home floor. The result for the Bulls season opener in Toronto, which became a 117-100 loss, was probably fairly foreseeable.

"I saw a young group that played a team on opening night on its home court; it happens," said Bulls veteran forward Quincy Pondexter. "It's basketball. Now we've got a chance to do something on Saturday in our home opener and hopefully we'll take care of business; the good thing is it's one game and we have a lot more to go."

Good for the Bulls, who face the rugged San Antonio Spurs who will be without the injured Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker.

And good for the likeable Pondexter, a second generation Bull, the nephew of onetime Bulls top draft prospect Cliff Pondexter. And a man who saw his basketball life flash before him before Pondexter Thursday made something of a miracle return after three knee surgeries that kept him from playing basketball since April, 2015.

"It's truly a blessing," Pondexter said late Thursday night in the Bulls post game locker room. "I've been through everything and in this game a lot of times you are not given another chance. For this organization to give me another chance to come out and play again, I can't thank them enough. I can't thank Gar, Pax enough for giving me this opportunity to help lead these guys to be that positive voice in the locker room and the guy doing the right things on and off the court."

Quincy Pondexter knows about struggle.

And not only because of those devastating injuries and surgeries that would have ended the playoff careers of most players. He's the kind of man you want to have around a group like these Bulls, trying to overcome so many obstacles in a rebuilding. Feeling sorry for yourself? Hey, take a look at that guy.

Not only has Pondexter faced a near death basketball career experience, he faced, simply, death very nearly, his life flashing before him at such a young age. As he related in an interview with ESPN last month, he was struck down by MRSA, an infection technically known as Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus.

It's one of those horror infection stories you hear, someone going into a hospital for a routine procedure and never getting out. It's primarily a hospital-based type of infection common in places where there are open wounds or the use of catheters. If not treated quickly, it can be drug resistant and result in death. Quincy was coming much too close after the third knee procedure last January after not playing since late in the 2014-15 season.

He was hospitalized with high fever and lost more than 30 pounds. But he recovered and began working hard to get back with the New Orleans Pelicans. Pondexter had been a so called "three and D" kind of player, a defender who could stretch the floor on the wing with threes. He shot 37 percent his last season playing with the Pelicans after being traded from Memphis.

He felt ready to finally return, but then was included in the September salary trade to the Bulls, who primarily were seeking the draft pick. But Pondexter, 29, was healthy, and the Bulls decided to give him a chance. Not that the roster was overloaded with veterans, and Pondexter had played with Robin Lopez in high school and Justin Holiday in college.

Pondexter, a 6-7 forward, sustained a slight hamstring injury in training camp and didn't play in the preseason, but he finally was back Thursday. After a shaky start, he finished with eight points in 12 minutes.

"I was nervous like a rookie," Pondexter admitted. "The first two shots (with an air ball) were nerves. We had me playing the four the last few days (following the Bobby Portis suspension and Nikola Mirotic injury). I had to learn the whole playbook. It wasn't a position I was familiar with. But whatever this team needs: That's my motto. You want me to play center for 48 minutes? I'll do that.  Whatever this team needs I'll do to the best of my ability."

And, clearly, the Bulls could use some stability.

Portis, though suspended through the New Orleans game Nov. 4, was back at practice Friday. He is permitted to practice with the team, but he cannot be at games. Mirotic remains away from the team for medical reasons.

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said Portis apologized to teammates at a team meeting Friday regarding his behavior. Portis is expected to meet with reporters next week.

"It was good to have (Portis) back in here," Hoiberg said. "Everybody's looking forward to getting Niko back in here as well, hopefully soon."

Holiday, who has emerged as a team leader for his seniority and impressive play in the preseason, added, "Bobby came in today like Bobby. We're not sure what he's thinking mentally and we can't assume, (but) when he got into practice he worked hard like he always does. That's important for our team right now."

Hoiberg said Kay Felder on the strength of his play in the opener would move into the backup point guard role. The starting lineup likely will remain the same with Jerian Grant, Markkanen, Lopez, Holiday and Paul Zipser. The Spurs without Leonard aren't exactly star studded with Kyle Anderson, Dejounte Murray and Danny Green expected to start along with Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge. Denzel Valentine is uncertain with a sore knee. So the Bulls will likely again look also toward Pondexter.

"How many players do you know who have been through as much as I have the last two years and lived to tell about it and go out and play?" Pondexter asked proudly. "I work extremely hard and am extremely blessed; it's been a hell of a journey. It's the mentality, being a leader by example, first one in, last one to leave every single day, giving all my effort and mentoring as much as I can."

The Bulls could use some good news.