An open letter to the 2011-12 Chicago Bulls:
With what happened to Derrick in Game 1, it would be easy to hang your heads right now. You could lose sight of the ultimate goal and give up before the rest of the games have even been played. But I know that’s not even a consideration for this group. And that’s exactly why you’ll make me, Derrick, the organization, and the city of Chicago so proud.
To a man, it’s time for each of you to take a look in the mirror. Decide who you really are and what you represent as a basketball player. Reflect on what you have brought to the table for your team all season long and why you’re a valuable member of the Bulls. Because all of you have contributed to this team’s incredible success. Ask yourself what you can do for the team moving forward. Whether it’s through your verbal leadership or diving on the floor after a loose ball, it’s going to be all about grinding it out moving forward. If there is one piece of advice I can offer you, it’s to put every last ounce of effort you have out there to make everyone proud—Derrick, the fans, and first and foremost, yourself.
Your team has come a long way in terms of what it has been able to achieve this season. And that was done collectively, as a group. It has never been about any one individual. Yes, Derrick was the reigning NBA MVP, but he epitomizes the team concept and you all followed his lead. So it’s been the effort of the group, as well as a tremendous job by the coaching staff, which has gotten us to this point. And it’s exactly why I feel good about this team right now. You’re a group that remains together. You’ve repeatedly lifted each other up when a teammate has fallen. Now, it comes down to continuing to give your best effort every time you step on to the basketball court. It’s easy to say you’re doing that, but are you really dedicating yourself to another two months of basketball? As a player, that’s what I always wanted out of my teammates. Just make sure you arrive on gameday focused and full of energy. If guys want to just show up and take on the 76ers or whoever, well, that might not be enough to get the job done. It takes locking in on the task at hand and honing in on what you need to do in order to be successful in the NBA postseason.
While I dealt with my share of injuries throughout my career, I was fortunate to have been healthy for the majority of our run in the 1990’s. The same can be said about Michael Jordan. But, when Michael retired for the first time to play baseball in 1993, we were faced with a similar challenge to what you’re up against—playing without your best player and leader. Granted, Michael chose to step away from the game and Derrick is sidelined because of his injury, but it comes down to the players who are still out there coming together to collectively rise up as a group and win games. We exceeded a lot of expectations in the regular season, finishing 55-27. But as we entered the postseason, a lot of people had written us off and said we didn’t have a chance without Michael. There was a lot of talk about how we wouldn’t make it out of the first round and might even get swept. But we didn’t listen to any of that. We believed in ourselves and we went out to play the type of basketball that we knew we were capable of playing. We swept Cleveland in the first round and it was a great feeling. Even though we ultimately fell short and lost to New York in a second round Game 7, we all believed we could have—and should have—done better. My point is that there was never a moment where we felt sorry for ourselves or let anyone push us into any self-doubt. We stayed positive and believed that if we stuck together and played good, hard defense, we could beat any team out there. That’s what I believe you can do as well.
You lost a very important piece to the puzzle, there is no denying that. But having dealt with Derrick’s injuries during the regular season, as well as those as some of the others, gave members of the bench an opportunity to step forward as you did all season long. And every single individual on this roster has shown that they can make positive contributions to winning. Obviously the other starters in Richard, Luol, Carlos and Joakim—all All-Star caliber players in their own right—need to raise their level of game across the board to compensate for missing Derrick. But it’s the bench too that will be as important as ever in answering the call. And as we’ve seen these last two seasons, the Bench Mob is up for that challenge. You all believe in yourselves and the coaching staff believes in you too. You’ve already demonstrated you can have success without Derrick in the lineup. Now it’s time to do it when it matters the most.
As you all know, this is when it pays extra dividends to have a coach like Thibs. To me, his preparation is what separates him as one of the league’s very best coaches. It’s got to be his greatest strength. Having watched him coach night in and night out these last two seasons, this team comes ready to play, whether it’s a back-to-back or three games in four nights. He’s always ready and the job that you as players do reflects that. It’s an underrated asset to have a group that truly knows its personnel and the intricate schemes of a gameplan. Thibodeau has you ready to go every night and battle and that’s because of his attention to detail. He’s also kept you focused and prevented you from looking ahead. That’s the mentality you need as the playoffs continue—one game at a time. Execute. Play good, hard defense. Protect the ball. Even without a great player like Derrick, you are still capable of doing those things.
For the fans who don’t know, Derrick was at practice on Monday and I got a chance to catch up with him as well. Just being able to see him with our own eyes, it lifted everyone’s spirits. I could see that in each and every one of you. I could see that it was reassuring to you to know that your teammate is going to be OK, first and foremost. You become so close to a teammate like that and when you’re hearing all sorts of things through the media, it’s discomforting. But I’m glad Derrick made it to Berto and showed everyone he is hanging in there. As we look ahead to Game 2 and beyond, though, now you can realize exactly what you have to play for. With or without Derrick, the ship has to continue to sail. And as he told many of you, it’s time to re-dedicate yourselves to staying on track. I know none of you are ready to stop working and you want more than anything to win for Derrick. That’s the best tribute you could make for him. And in a way, it would very much make him a part of it. He’ll be with you the rest of the way whether he’s in the gym or not, watching and supporting. While you hate to see what happened happen, adversity often brings a team together even more than they were before. It’s all about how you react to that adversity.
As for Derrick, I truly believe he will come out of this better and stronger. If anything, it will be an eye opening experience for him. Remember, he’s still a very young player in this league. Now he knows that injuries are a part of the game. As a young player, I always thought I was doing everything I could. But the longer you play, the more you learn, and the better you’re prepared for what this game throws at you.
Just go out there and play hard. Play your best. Leave everything you’ve got on the floor. Yes, you lost one of your brothers—a warrior in every sense of the word—but I know and you know you’ve still got a lot of fight left. You’re still the best team in the NBA until an opponent proves otherwise. So go out there and play like it. You’ve earned that much with Derrick along the way, but you also won a lot of games without him. It’s time to meet the challenge.
Wishing you all the best of luck on a long postseason run.