This past weekend was the first time in a long time I thought the Bulls sounded, if not looked, like a championship team. Jimmy Butler complaining about the coach, the media heating up about locker room drama and discord, sources disclosing internal discomfort, the whole thing about to implode!
Reminds me of when Scottie Pippen on that road trip in the last championship season said he hated the Bulls and would never play for them, when Horace Grant before a playoff series against the Pistons said he resented his treatment from the team, when Michael Jordan after various trades, including of his buddy Charles Oakley and draft picks, said the team wasn’t committed to success, when Jordan skipped a trip with the team to the White House and Grant and Pippen screamed about unequal treatment.
So, let me see if I have this right? Jimmy said the coach was too laid back and should be tougher?
C’mon, learn from some real grumps. You know, the ones with six NBA championships.
“Do I regret it? No,” Butler told reporters Monday after the morning practice which followed a Sunday clear the air meeting with coach Fred Hoiberg.
Then came, as it were, a bull session among the coach and players and then Butler talking with teammates. And then the chroniclers of doom.
“A little frustrated after the loss (in New York Saturday),” Butler agreed. “I put a lot of it on myself now because I’ve got to lead better. Can’t allow stuff to happen. You got raw emotion right there. You take my leadership for what it is. Some people may like it, some people don’t. Money has absolutely nothing to do with it. I feel like I’ve been here long enough. I’m one of the so called vets here that I can’t allow stuff to happen when I see it happen, so I have to put that on myself.
“I know what we have here (knows) what it takes to win,” Butler said. “People are going to think what they want to think. Yeah, I said coach, but then again when we all talked about it, talked about it with my teammates, it’s on us. We’re the ones that have to go out there and play.’’
Until the next losing streak?
We’ll see, because, well, the big difference between, say, 1996 and 2016 as we consider the 20-year anniversary this season of the greatest season ever is the Bulls don’t have Jordan and Pippen and Grant and Rodman. No offense to whom they do have, but no one’s been talking about 70 wins in this time zone.
“I know how emotional these last 48 hours have been,” said Hoiberg in a laid back response.
OK, I’m joking.
“I understand all the effort put into that (four-overtime) game against Detroit,” Hoiberg said. “Some of those emotions poured out the next night. Emotions are a part of this game. The comments were made, you learn from them. Are there some things I can do better? Of course. Are there some things our players can do better? Absolutely. We (he and Butler Sunday as the Bears game wasn’t of much interest) met for an hour in my office. I had a great talk with Jimmy, talked a lot of things out, came out in a better place. Sometimes in a situation like what happened you can become a better team, a better leader. Jimmy was phenomenal today with the team, really good session in the film room, talking among the group. It’s an opportunity for us to grow as a team and hopefully we’ll take that first step tonight.”
These things happen in group settings, whether government, business, personal or sports. But it’s also what’s so much fun about sports: We get to listen and watch their arguments.
The reality show is hardly a new concept.
Whether it was Butler boiling over about a new boss or Derrick Rose with a stream of verbal consciousness that ended up on a free agency detour, we tend to make moral, ethical and professional judgments about these young men based on a few comments, occasionally misplaced or on a bad day.
It’s why they tell you to sleep on it before threatening to quit.
Or at least have lunch.
I went through that many times when I worked at the Chicago Tribune, having seven or eight different sports editors in my time in the sports section. Editors and managers are much more easily replaced than people who actually do the work. So sometimes you have a boss you like who treats you special. Then the next guy comes in and likes the way the other guy does it better, and while you are still good, you’re not special anymore.
Former coach Tom Thibodeau was Jimmy’s guy. He ran a half court offense that went through Pau Gasol inside and Butler outside. Basically no one else. So here comes the new sports editor, err coach, and he has this idea about doing it a different way. Because every new boss always reinvents the job. Otherwise why would you need one?
Not that you’re not important any more. You’re just not the most special. So you have a lot of good days; but you have some bad days and you bubble and still can’t turn the heat down and boil over and say something. The difference is when you have a long term guaranteed contract for millions of dollars they want to know how you feel. When you don’t you think about what it’s like at the Indianapolis Star. And then just sulk a bit.
But these things can work well for the team, as we saw many times with the Bulls in the Jordan era.
I remember after that Grant blowout. Jordan went to him before the next game and said, fine talk all you want; now it’s you who has to put up. It’s on you. Grant went out and got about 20 rebounds and ran Bill Laimbeer all over the place and the Bulls won the game.
It was a curious time for an outburst this time with the Bulls as things were going reasonably well given a new coach, a starter missing in Mike Dunleavy, a starter missing training camp with a bad facial injury in Rose, a new starter in Nikola Mirotic, basically a rookie, and altered rotations. The Bulls were 15-9 after the Pistons loss with three losses in overtime, a few games out of first. But emotion doesn’t often pair with reason.
I was with the group around Butler Saturday and he didn’t seem overtly angry. Actually also had a sidebar talk with a national reporter hanging around and did some friendly back patting. He wasn’t even asked about Hoiberg. It was a fairly innocuous question asked many times previously about the team’s ability to be successful. Yadda, yadda, yadda, to quote Jimmy. Media people were tired, too. But Butler had played more than any of the other Bulls in the back-to-back set with the 4:15 a.m. arrival in New York. From these verbal snapshots with professional players come philosophical treatises about group commitment, personal responsibility and moral authority.
Maybe he was just hungry.
Anyway, the follow up becomes the one-on-one session, the team bonding as Butler is more on the stubborn side and doesn’t do the mea culpa very often. Remember this kid’s background on the street hustling for a night’s sleep and a meal by the time he was 13.
Hoiberg and Butler offered all the appropriate explanations and observations Monday. Hoiberg, by the way, added Doug McDermott’s knee was fine and he would play after leaving early Saturday and Bobby Portis likely would get into the rotation in some way. The media enthusiasm seemed to be not having to devote the 47th straight day asking who was hurt.
“I know how passionate Jimmy Butler is,” said Hoiberg. “That’s what makes him a great player, his passion, his work ethic. But it’s a new role being a leader. I think he has all the tools to be a really good one. The talk we had yesterday was really positive. The situation happened and now we have to get better because of it and the last couple of days have been a step in that direction.”
“A big thing is to get out and run,” Hoiberg said. “We talked a lot about that, getting to the corner and spacing the floor, allowing us to have that initial burst. Get out on that initial break and make sure guys are doing their job, get a guy to the front of the rim, get guys out running wide, attack. We have a mutual respect for one another. Nothing is going to be taken personal. We can have conversations and you can grow from it. Could the situation be handled differently? Probably could have, but it happened and you make the most of it.
“Jimmy’s one of the best players in the NBA,” noted Hoiberg. “His passion is the reason for that, his work ethic, with that is a responsibility of leadership. He’s growing in that and now he takes responsibility to be a leader of this team.”
For Butler’s part, he doesn’t do contrition that well, especially given his life story. So he moves on. It also puts more pressure on you because now the mirror begins too look back more closely.
“I think if you can set an example out of me, the way that I’m playing right now at a high level, that will make it easier for guys to take criticism,” said Butler. “And then if they see me react like a child and pout and whine, then it gives them reason to do so. But I’m not going to do that so it won’t give them a reason to do that. He signed here for five years, I signed here for five years. We’re going to be here. So we have to make it work I know that we will. We’re only, what, 25 games in.”
Hey, that’s what I said.
“Was he surprised (by my comments)? Yeah,” said Butler. “I think everybody was. But in that meeting he said that he does have to hold everybody accountable. I have to help him with that. He also said–and he’s right, to tell you the truth–I think I took the easy way out with my frustration. The media likes to get carried away with stuff. I was never calling out my coach.
“He doesn’t have to change as a person,” said Butler. “Now that we’ve addressed it, everybody knows what they have to do. Pau, Jo, Derrick, they’re telling me I have to lead more. I’ve never been in this position before in my life. Not high school, not junior college, and not here. So I’m learning. There’s good and bad.
“I think he’s a hell of a coach,” Butler added of Hoiberg. “I think he’s done great through these 25 games. That’s not what I meant by that. Yeah, the media probably wasn’t the best outlet for my frustration.’’