Archive for April, 2009

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With all of the people that have been jumping on the Blackhawks bandwagon (which halfway includes yours truly), it’s been easy to forget how many people still love the Bulls in Chicago.  In my opinion, when all things are equal (understanding that a less popular team that’s doing extraordinarily well in a particular year is going to receive more buzz than a more popular team that’s performing poorly at the same time), the Bulls are third in the overall Chicago sports pecking order behind the Bears and Cubs, but that’s been tough to observe these past few months with the team needing a surge after the All-Star break to secure a .500 regular season record and the concurrent Hawks renaissance and high expections for the Cubs, White Sox, and Bears.  However, the Bulls’ literally heart-stopping playoff series with the Celtics is likely going to return the pecking order back into normalcy as the general public starts to truly understand how special of an athlete Derrick Rose already is at 20-years old and that we’re witnessing a young team on the ascent.  Certainly, there are a number of issues with this club (as I’ll get to in a moment), but I’m really enjoying how the town is buzzing about the Bulls again (speaking as someone that followed this franchise intensely through a whole lot of dark days over the past decade and is anything but a bandwagon Bulls fan).  When I went to the Bulls-Lakers game at the United Center last month, it was apparent that the sold-out crowd (whether they were cheering for Chicago or L.A.) was mostly there for the chance to see Kobe Bryant and Company.  Now, though, the Bulls (and specifically the magnificence of D-Rose) are becoming an attraction unto themselves, which means that tickets at the United Center are going to become a whole lot harder to come by.  Here are my thoughts on the series that’s tied up at 2 games apiece so far:

  • I’m wondering where that significant contingent of people that thought that the Bulls should have taken Michael Beasley over Derrick Rose have gone.  That argument is looking as inane as the 1998 NFL Draft debate where Ryan Leaf supposedly had more upside than Peyton Manning.  (Of course, every upside has a commensurate downside.)  There’s been plenty of print about Rose’s performance so far, but it’s all deserved – here’s a rookie point guard that was attending his high school prom two years ago at this time completing already breaking veteran players down, in a playoff series against the defending NBA champs, no less, in a manner that legitimately has made impartial observers openly state that there’s no ceiling on what this kid can achieve.  This was why I was so excited when the lottery balls bounced the way of the Bulls a year ago – while there’s no 100% sure thing in sports, Derrick Rose was about as close to that as anyone could reasonably get.
  • The focus on Rose and also shone the spotlight on his counterpart on the Celtics, Rajon Rondo.  While watching the Celtics’ run to the title last season, I saw Rondo as a solid complementary piece to a championship team – someone along the lines of a more athletic version of Kirk Hinrich.  However, I’ve been completely blown away by Rondo’s performance during this series with the Bulls, where he’s been the best and most consistent player on either team over the first four games.  The jump in his game from last season to this year makes me believe that Rondo has gone from a supporting cast member to a cornerstone player that the Celtics can build around once the Boston Three Party has moved on.  Frankly, even as a Bulls fan, I’m miffed that the media swarm around Rondo has been relatively muted compared to his stellar performance – the storylines around Rose, the ability of both Ben Gordon and Ray Allen to swish 30-foot jumpshots while double-teamed by 7-foot defenders, and Paul Pierce’s overall game seem to have taken away a lot of print from the former Kentucky point guard.  This is a shame since Rondo’s play is the most surprising story in the first round of the playoffs.
  • I still have no confidence that the Bulls can make a key defensive stop when necessary.  Both of the Bulls’ wins would never have even gone to overtime if the team could have avoided a stupid foul and/or buckled down in man-to-man defense in the respective last possessions in regulation.  The defense at the end of game 3 was passable in the sense that Ray Allen made a ridiculous fadeaway shot over Joakim Noah that no one could have defended, but that also ignores the fact that Allen was the one guy that the Bulls absolutely couldn’t let get the ball in the first place.  This series is a Paul Pierce free throw and game 1 and a made open Celtics jumpshot in game 4 from being a Boston sweep as opposed to an even series.  Ultimately, the subpar defense in pressure situations is going to be the downfall for the Bulls whether it’s in this round against the Celtics or another team if they somehow move on.
  • It’s hard to believe, but Joakim Noah is actually growing on me.  I was a harsh critic of the Bulls drafting him two years ago, but his overall play in this series along with his performance over the second half of the season has at least given me some indication of his value.  If Tyrus Thomas can keep up his all-around production (which I have my doubts on – we’ve seen a whole lot of flourishes from him over the years and he always seems to recede shortly afterwards), then Noah makes a whole lot of sense on the floor as a disruptive defensive player.  For all of those people out there that are just starting to get back into following the Bulls and have a completely negative impression of Noah, whether it’s because of his days at Florida, ridiculous hair, or general d-baggery, I completely understand where you’re coming from.  However, if you can just focus on his basketball play, you’ll find that he actually has been a very good contributor and the Bulls are certainly a lot worse off defensively when he’s not on the floor.
  • It took up until game 4, but it appears that Vinny Del Negro has finally figured out that a timeout in the last seconds of the game might be a little bit useful.  I’ll repeat my mea culpa on my premature dissing of Rick Carlisle last summer (although I’ll note that I wrote that post before the Bulls hit the lottery jackpot) – it’s not that he’s a particularly great coach, but at least he’s not affirmatively making his team worse by his presence.  As everyone is witnessing now, this Bulls team is pretty talented and deep.  There’s no doubt in my mind that the Bulls would have won 9 or 10 more games in the regular season along with game 2 of this series with a halfway competent coach.
  • What’s the test of whether you’re a true Bulls fan that stuck through the down years?  If you saw the brief spat between Brad Miller and Glen “Big Baby” Davis in game 4 and immediately thought back to this legendary fight between Miller (during his first stint in Chicago) and Shaq.  Please note the irony of Ron Artest actually acting as the peacemaker in this brawl (plus Shaq gets tackled by Charles Oakley – honestly, there’s nothing that I don’t love about this video).
  • I wonder if I’m alone in this reaction, but I went from laughing out loud in watching this Burger King commercial featuring Sir Mix-a-Lot to being quite disturbed upon finding out at the end that it’s actually to sell kids’ meals (and I usually find a direct correlation between offensiveness and comedy).
  • Speaking of old school rap in commercials, I was delighted to see the marketing recognition of the genius that is Biz Markie.
  • The one thing that has surprised me above all else is that despite the defensive and coaching flaws of the Bulls so far in the series, this team has still been able to win games.  Prior to the start of the series, I was pretty convinced that the Bulls would need to play completely perfect games in order to take any games from the Celtics.  Part of me is disappointed in knowing that the Bulls ought to be seeded a whole lot higher (maybe even fourth so that they would have had home court advantage) if they had played up to their talent level all season, but overall I’m ecstatic that they’ve showed up at the right time and making the most of their opportunities against a depleted Boston team.

Boxing analogies applied to other sports are all too commonplace, but in the case of this series, it’s entirely appropriate.  Outside of the horrific game 3, these games between the Bulls and Celtics have been about withstanding multiple punches and who can throw the last knockout blow in the end.  As emotionally draining as these games have been, it’s the first time in a whole long time (maybe since 1998) where it’s a whole lot of fun to be a Bulls fan!

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

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A couple of quick thoughts on today’s NFL Draft:

(1) With the Bulls and Blackhawks in the playoffs, both the White Sox and Cubs not yet knocked out of the postseason race two weeks into the baseball season, and the fact that the Bears essentially have had their draft already with the Jay Cutler trade, it’s been nice to not have to deal with several weeks of babble of who the Bears will take in the NFL Draft.  In past years, the Chicago sports media would have been in all-draft mode for days on end with supposed life or death questions of the Bears’ future.  Sure, the Bears still need an arsenal of wide receivers for Jay Cutler to actually throw to and I’m very interested to see where various Illini players such as Vontae Davis will end up, yet these concerns pale in comparison to everything else that’s happening on the Chicago sports scene.  Don’t get me wrong – I enjoy draft talk as much as anyone, but I really love watching my favorite NBA team being competitive in the playoffs (notwithstanding this past Thursday evening) a whole lot more.  It’s great to have actual games on the field dominate the sports discussion in Chicago in April as opposed to the war room at Halas Hall.

(2) The NFL has compounded its mistake of moving the draft start time from its long-time slot at 11:00 am CT on the first day to 2:00 pm CT last year by pushing this year’s start time back another hour to 3:00 pm CT.  I understand that this move was made to draw in more viewers in prime time.  However, it takes away a lot of the allure of the NFL Draft as a television event in the first place.  To me, it’s a perfect “have the TV on in the background event” and an excuse to get together with your buddies to hang out for a whole morning and afternoon in a low-key manner while you invent creations such as bacon tacos (as Minneapolis Red Sox and I did the year that the Vikings forgot to get their draft pick in on time).  However, it’s far from a prime time edge-of-your-seat event (particularly when playoff basketball and hockey games are alternative options).  So, instead of the draft having already started in the late morning as a write this post, ESPN and ESPN News are in the midst of an 8-hour marathon of punditry (featuring the legendary hair of Mel Kiper, Jr.) on draft prospects, even though the world already knows that Matthew Stafford of Georgia is going to be picked first by the Detroit Lions.  (Let’s see if that pick works better than, well, every Lions pick since Barry Sanders.)  The NFL had a great all-day format for the draft, but its belief that this is somehow a compelling prime time event is misguided and, as a result, this will be the second year in a row where I’ll watch little, if any, of what was once one of my favorite not-on-the-field sports events of the year (next to NCAA Tournament Selection Sunday, the NBA Draft, and the NBA Draft Lottery) as someone that has always wanted to run a sports team.

(Image from The Nasty Boys)

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I’ve always considered myself to be a complete purist when it comes to my sports fandom.  As much as Bill Simmons can be insufferable these days, his column on “The Rules For Being a True Fan” from earlier this decade is a classic and still holds up today.  I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, so I’m a die-hard fan of the White Sox, Bears, and Bulls.  When I went to the University of Illinois for my undergraduate years, the Illini became my college team forever.  I’m a huge believer in steering clear of sports bigamy or shenanigans with adopting popular teams in different markets just because they happen to be dominant or have players that date supermodels and music stars (i.e. Cowboys and Yankees back in the ’90s or any of the Boston teams today).  The only acceptable exception would be some direct family connection – for instance, if I had to move to, say, New York, I would insist that my future kids be raised as Chicago sports fans.

This also means that I have very little tolerance for bandwagon fans.  While I believe that Chicago has the best sports fans in the country (only Boston, Philadelphia, and Detroit fans can be allowed to debate this), there is also an unfortunately long history of bandwagoneering in this town.  The ’85 Bears, the Bulls dynasty of the ’90s, the ’05 White Sox, and every Cubs team that has finished above .500 have all drawn out the pink hat crowd in massive numbers.  These people took a sudden interest in these teams right when they were on the ascent without having had to endure the blood, sweat, and tears of missed expectations and painful losses.  Maybe that’s acceptable in places such as Los Angeles and Miami, but it’s infuriating to witness this happening in the legit sports towns like Chicago and Boston.

Having said that, I wonder if I’m being a complete hypocrite on this issue with respect to the Blackhawks.  For reasons that I’ve stated elsewhere, I never became anything more than a casual hockey fan.  While I absolutely love seeing the game live (making it a point to go to at least a game or two per year) and own a Blackhawks hockey sweater (which is my favorite sports jersey since it’s the only one that I can wear that doesn’t make me look like a complete tool), the combination of the half century of ineptitude of the Bill Wirtz regime and the fact that I have the ice skating skills of a Brachiosaurus means that I never cared about the Hawks in the same way as the teams that I listed in the first paragraph of this post.

The number of hockey games that I watched this past regular season is one-and-a-half: about half of the Blackhawks-Red Wings Winter Classic game at Wrigley Field (as I flipped between that game and the college football bowls going on at the same time) and then a Hawks-Kings game that I attended in person.  I know a handful of guys that are on the team: budding young stars in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, Martin Havlat, and Nikolai Khabibulin (who, as the “Bulin Wall”,  was my lockdown goalie with the Phoenix Coyotes in marathon sessions of EA Sports NHL ’98 back in college).  The last time that I watched a hockey game that didn’t involve the Hawks was the 1999 Stanley Cup Finals when the Stars beat the Sabres on the controversial Brett Hull goal (where he may or may not have been in the crease) in overtime.

Yet, I’ve been juggling my schedule to watch the Blackhawks’ playoff games, as hockey this late in the year has been a rare occurrence over the past decade.  Thursday’s win over Calgary with Havlat scoring the game winner with 16 seconds into overtime was thrilling in terms of action and spurred me to look forward Saturday’s game (which turned out to be another win against the Flames to go up 2-0 in the series).

What I’m trying to figure out is if I actually start following the Hawks with some semblance of regularity, particularly if the team has a successful run in this year’s playoffs, would I be one of those bandwagon-jumpers that I despise?  Granted, I think that a lot of my contemporaries in Chicago are in a similar position as me since the late Bill Wirtz did everything possible to destroy the franchise’s fan base with bass-ackwards TV and marketing policies along with a reputation of throwing nickels like manhole covers (as Mike Ditka once said of George Halas) in terms of payroll.  With son Rocky in charge, it’s as if though Chicago received a completely new NHL franchise with a fresh start.  Still, I don’t want to be one of those guys that just hops onto a shooting star when it’s the easy thing to do.  That would be an injustice to the Hawks fans that still bought season tickets even when the United Center was barely half full (such as a mere 2 years ago, when I went to a Hawks-Red Wings game with Danny M and it was at about 2/3 capacity, with 3/4 of those people being Detroit fans).

Realistically, the Blackhawks will likely always be a team that I want to win (similar to my attitude toward the basketball team at my law school alma mater of DePaul), but never reach a level in my heart where I would be a die hard fan.  In contrast, earlier in the day on Saturday, I was screaming at the television for a solid three hours during the Bulls-Celtics game.  (It should be no surprise to you that my continuing man crush on Derrick Rose has been sent into the stratosphere.)  That type of emotional investment didn’t occur overnight or even over the course of a year or two – it was built up over nearly three decades of watching and growing up with the Bulls.  By the time the Blackhawks could catch up to that timeframe, I’ll be starting to take withdrawls from my 401(k) and hopefully be spending my winters in a place with a beach and palm trees.  (As a side note, I’m not foolish enough to believe that anyone in my generation will ever actually be able cash a  Social Security check.)  Plus, I’m not sure how much longer my wife would want to be around me if I started watching hockey on top of all of the basketball and football that I follow during the fall and winter months.  Thus, I envision myself being the hockey equivalent of the people that I wrote about a couple of weeks ago that don’t watch college basketball all year but then rabidly follow the NCAA Tournament, where my interest in the sport is pretty much limited to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  My promise is that I will cheer for the Blackhawks, but do everything in my power to not fall into the traps of the typical bandwagon fan (i.e. using the royal “we” when talking about the team’s performance).  If I still get called a bandwagon jumper in this instance, I’ll just have to suffer the consequences when I get judged by the sports gods.

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

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Last night, when the Bulls got locked into the seventh-seed position in the Eastern Conference for a first round matchup with the defending champion second-seed Celtics, I was pretty sure that we would have been witnessing a Boston sweep. Of course, this was assuming that Kevin Garnett (even a 50% healthy one) would be on the floor. With today’s announcement that KG will likely be sitting out of the entire playoffs, though, the Bulls’ loss to Toronto on Wednesday night (which prevented them from moving up to the sixth-seed) now looks fortuitous since they get a banged-up Boston team having to play the third-seed Magic and a healthy Dwight Howard. Granted, I still think that the Celtics have a substantial upper-hand since Paul Pierce will still be the best player on the floor and Ray Allen is what Ben Gordon could be if you added a heavy dose of consistency, but this has at least turned a series that was a virtually guaranteed sweep 24 hours ago into a scrum that could reasonably go up to 6 or 7 games.

The Bulls’ best chance to be competitive is to use their relative athleticism to push the tempo against a half-court-oriented Celtics offense and downgraded KG-less defense. This would be similar to the method employed by Scott Skiles’ Bulls team that swept the Heat (who happened to be that season’s defending champs) in the 2007 playoffs, albeit Vinny Del Negro’s group has better offensive weapons counterbalanced by a significantly worse defensive unit. After having a little bit of a lull in January and February, Derrick Rose has been rejuvenated in March and April (to the point where the point guard winning the Rookie of the Year is the biggest lock out of any of this year’s NBA individual awards) and John Paxson’s trade for John Salmons and Brad Miller has been a relative success. I’ll admit to having known virtually nothing about Salmons when he got sent over by the Kings (and I watch a lot of basketball), but his cockeyed jump-shot has grown on me to the point where his apparent recent injury issue has me much concerned than the fact that Luol Deng has been shut down. Salmons is one of a rare breed in the NBA: he’s a solid contributor and scorer that’s getting paid commensurate with the value he provides to the team. This means that he’ll be getting a Deng-like overpayment by the Bulls or some other team after next season (see also Kirk Hinrich and Ben Wallace). Regardless, I can’t believe that I’m writing that the health of some guy that I thought was the name of an entrée at Red Lobster a couple of months ago will end up swinging a game or two for the Bulls one way or the other against the defending champs, but it sure looks that way.

I still say that the Celtics will take the Bulls in 6 games (as opposed to 4 if Garnett were playing), although I also envision Derrick Rose having a couple of games that will serve the general public notice of his phenomenal skills (to the extent that it doesn’t know already) at the most difficult position to play in as a rookie in sports outside of quarterback. While D-Rose won’t put on a performance on par with Michael Jordan dropping 63 points in the old Boston Garden in the 1986 playoffs (against a Celtics team that would go on to win the NBA title that year), which led Larry Bird to famously proclaim that MJ was “God disguised as a basketball player” (and if Basketball Jesus makes a statement of that nature, you know it to be true), I think that it’s great that young point guard is going to get some playoff experience right away against a veteran club. From the moment that the Bulls won the NBA lottery last year, the focus of the organization has been to build around Rose to create a legitimate championship contender two or three years down the road. Outside of having Vinny Del Negro as coach (unfortunately, it’s 99% likely that we’re stuck with him for at least another season – I’m sure I’ll be posting a long overdue rant on this subject sooner rather than later), the Bulls are at least on the ascent where they should be set up nicely when the all-important 2010 free agent class hits the open market. Until then, I’ll enjoy some playoff basketball back in Chicago after a one-year hiatus.

(Image from Sports Illustrated)

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I rarely ever write about football trades and free agent signings (the NFL Draft is a different story) because (1) even the most recognizable names on the trade and waiver wires are invariably way past their respective primes, (2) desirable players that are in their primes never get moved since they are either paid so much that they can’t practically be moved due to salary cap issues or are paid so relatively little being on their rookie contracts that they won’t be moved due to how valuable they are in a salary cap world, (3) it’s simply not that much fun to speculate compared to basketball, where one trade can legitimately change the prospects of a franchise (which is why I’m on every viable Bulls trade rumor like white on rice), or baseball, where the lack of salary cap allows for plenty of blockbuster deals both in the offseason and at the trade deadline every year, since adding a single football player outside of a top flight quarterback (who never get traded) is going to be a relatively low impact move when so many other pieces need to be in order for a team (in 99% of the cases, the addition of one football player is a piece that may help but not a cornerstone that single-handedly vaults a team from pretender to contender), and (4) Jerry Angelo and the Bears never seem to be serious players in any type of high impact trade or free agent discussion (in fact, their modus operandi for the past few years has been stockpile draft picks by trading down in the draft or obtain compensatory picks by letting guys like Bernard Berrian move on to other teams).

As a result, I haven’t even bothered to give much thought to the hubbub about Jay Cutler’s apparent fallout with the Broncos’ new head coach, Josh McDaniels. Regardless of how upset Cutler might have been, I couldn’t fathom the prospect of Denver trading away a 25-year quarterback that had already made a Pro Bowl within his first three years – name brand quarterbacks only get traded when they decide to retire, choose to un-retire two months later, and then bitch and moan about not getting his job back when the franchise that has catered to his every whim for nearly two decades decides that it has to move on after being yanked around about retirement plans for over five years. Even if I could have wrapped my mind around the thought that Cutler was truly available, I had absolutely no faith whatsoever that the Bears would offer what it would take to nab a player of that caliber. Early in the morning on April 2nd, I told a co-worker that my feeling was that the Redskins and Daniel Snyder would offer up the team’s first round draft picks for the next ten years (at least the ones that they still have left) plus ownership of any Six Flags theme park in order to get such a huge deal completed and the Bears wouldn’t even bother putting in a viable offer.

So, the fact that the Bears were actually able to nab a 25-year Pro Bowl quarterback was the most shocking transaction that I could ever remember the team (and possibly any franchise in Chicago) completing. After enduring years of that horrific graphic that every television network displayed during every Bears-Packers game with a list of the 87,323 quarterbacks that the Bears have gone through since Brett Favre’s first season with the Packers, there is actually a real quarterback in Chicago. Not only that, this quarterback may very well still be at the helm of this team in 2016 when Chicago hopes to hold the Olympics. (Note that after Mayor Daley spent an enormous amount of time and money to ensure that the visit of the International Olympic Committee evaluators this week would be perfectly coordinated, the news is now dominated by the dual headlines of the Cutler trade and Rod Blagoevich getting indicted.) I’m trying to avoid too much of the Kool-Aid (on the scheme of things, I would still wager that the Bulls landing the rights to draft Derrick Rose last year will end up being the seminal off-the-field Chicago sports moment of this generation), but I continue to be perplexed by that segment of the population that seems to be giving a thumbs down to this trade. Frankly, this reminds of the Bulls fans that began deluding themselves that Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah were becoming the frontcourt version of Michael and Scottie where they couldn’t be given up for a multiple-time All-Star big man in his prime averaging 20/9 over the course of his career. While that trade never went through (and Amare Stoudemire almost lost an eyeball a few days after the trade deadline passed), fans that complained for years that the Bulls needed a top-tier frontcourt scorer all of the sudden became scared of “giving up too much” when a top-tier frontcourt scorer was right in front of them. Likewise, Bears fans have been complaining about their quarterback situation since the Sid Luckman era (he retired in 1950, by the way), yet a sizeable segment of the fanbase inexplicably is criticizing this deal for a variety of knee-jerk (and ultimately illogical) reasons. Let’s connect this situation from one of my favorite scenes from ‘Swingers’, where Rob confronts Mike for being been holed up in his apartment for several days since he continued to be paralyzed by the break-up with his girlfriend:

There are a few lessons from that scene for the Bears fans that aren’t quite on board yet with the Cutler deal. At the top, we have to look at the things that we have as opposed to the things that we don’t have. The Bears traded away Kyle Orton, whose most notable achievements in Chicago were a fantastic neckbeard and a legendary penchant for Chi-town ladies and Jack Daniels straight out of the bottle. I’m not exactly sure what has happened over the last couple of months that has convinced some Bears fans that Orton is a guy that will lead the team to a Super Bowl victory (which is the ultimate goal as opposed to just making the playoffs by winning a mediocre division). Kyle Orton and Rex Grossman might have been the most interesting pair of mediocre quarterbacks in the NFL, but the emphasis needs to be on the fact that they were (and are) mediocre. Jay Cutler, on the other hand, has the ability to be a great quarterback – maybe not at the level of Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, but certainly can be in that next category of guys where you can a win a Super Bowl because of him as opposed to in spite of him. In 2008, only Cutler’s third season in the NFL, he passed for 4,526 yards, which is nearly 700 yards more than the Bears all-time single season record. Cutler’s career QB rating of 87.1 (once again, only after three seasons) would rank as the best in Bears history for a career. These are just a couple of the statistical categories where Cutler would already hold Bears all-time records, not to mention that he has already made one Pro Bowl (and I’ll say it once again, this is only after three seasons), which equals the total number of Pro Bowl appearances by Bears quarterbacks since 1963 (the lone appearance being Jim McMahon in 1985).

At the same time, while the Bears gave up a lot in terms of draft picks (first round picks for the next two years and a third round pick this year), there was no chance that any of those draft picks would have yielded a quarterback anywhere near the level of Cutler. This isn’t like the Herschel Walker trade, where the Vikings essentially skipped the NFL Draft for three years straight, or when Mike Ditka traded all of the Saints’ 1999 draft picks for Ricky Williams. A quick look at Bears’ recent and not-too-distant first round draft picks (Cedric Benson, David Terrell, Curtis Enis, Rashaan Salaam, Curtis Conway… urge to kill… rising) should immediately get rid of any hesitancy of Chicago sports fans to skip the first part of draft day this year and next year.

Another area where some Bears fans are bemoaning what they don’t have as opposed looking at what they do have is with respect to the team’s wide receivers (or lack thereof). I’ll agree that the Bears need better wide receivers immediately. However, that doesn’t mean that the Bears shouldn’t have gone out and traded for Cutler. Quite to the contrary, as Dan Bernstein eloquently stated on Friday on WSCR, arguing that the Bears shouldn’t have traded for Cutler because the Bears don’t have good wide receivers is like saying that you don’t want to pick up a million dollars in cash that you’ve won because you don’t own a suitcase. The Bears can still add a competent wide receiver this offseason (either through the use of a second round draft pick or signing a veteran like Torry Holt or Marvin Harrison) and, practically speaking, it’s a whole lot easier (not easy, but easier) trying to find wide receivers than a Pro Bowl quarterback that’s only 25 years old. Don’t forget that the Bears still have Earl Bennett on their roster – last year’s third round draft pick that happened to be Cutler’s favorite wide receiver target in his final year at Vanderbilt. Plus, this “we don’t have wide receivers” lament is suited in the old Bad Rex/Orton world, where the Bears needed wide receivers that could make their quarterbacks better. Now, the Bears actually have a quarterback that can make the team’s wide receivers better (as it should be).

It also seems like some Bears fans have gotten used to the pain of not having a top level quarterback for so long that they can’t handle a living a life without such pain. Every Bears fan under 70 years old (think about that for a second – that’s not hyperbole) has only known a franchise that has had mediocre (at best) or Division I-AA level (Jonathan Quinn, Peter Tom Willis, Moses Moreno, Henry Burris, Will Furrer, Rick Mirer… urge to kill… rising) quarterback play, so I think there’s some of us that will actually miss those Monday mornings after the game where Chicago sports talk radio contains 4 straight hours of censored expletives about the lack of our passing game. So, some of these Bears fans start throwing out some of the aforementioned complaints, or the supposed scarlet letter that “Jay Cutler hasn’t won a playoff game yet” (once again, he’s only been in the league for three seasons). By that short-sighted logic, we should sign Rex Grossman to a lifetime contract since he got us to the Super Bowl. Are we scared of entering a world where we can’t just blame Bears losses on the lack of a QB? Maybe some people can’t handle it, but I’m more than ready to move on.

Finally, this whole situation is absolutely manifest destiny applied to the NFL. Think of the number of crazy events that had to occur in order to set this trade into motion: (1) Tom Brady gets knocked out in the first few minutes of the 2008 season, (2) Matt Cassel steps in cold turkey after being a backup since literally high school (since he got to carry the clipboard behind both Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart at USC) and leads the Patriots to a record that would have landed them in the playoffs almost every other year, (3) Denver doesn’t make the playoffs and Mike Shanahan gets fired after having brought the franchise two Super Bowl victories, (4) the Broncos then hire Josh McDaniels, who coached Cassel as offensive coordinator with the Patriots, (5) Cassel gets the franchise tag placed on him by New England so that he wouldn’t go to free agency and the team could get some value back for him on the trade market, (6) McDaniels does everything other than publicly proclaim Cassel as being perfect for his system and the Broncos try to trade Cutler for him, (7) Cutler really doesn’t like this, (8) Cassel gets traded to the Chiefs, but McDaniels continues to indicate that his special sauce offense is going to be changed around in a way that it goes against all of Cutler’s strengths, (9) Cutler absolutely positively doesn’t like this, (10) Cutler does everything but publicly proclaim that he will never play for McDaniels, (11) for some inexplicable reason, McDaniels doesn’t do everything in his power to calm down a young franchise quarterback that the long-term stability of his coaching job will depend upon, (12) the Broncos are then essentially forced to put Cutler on the trading block, (13) Jerry Angelo has the intestinal fortitude to go against every precedent that his organization has set in terms of high-profile trades and “got in it to win it” as he put it, and (14) the Bears trade for Cutler to get the quarterback that they have never had.

While a number of Bears fans are a bit turned off by Cutler’s apparent negative reaction to criticism (and he’ll certainly need to become thick-skinned immediately to deal with a rabid Chicago media and fan base that can turn on a misguided interception), there aren’t too many good quarterbacks that aren’t prima donnas. I’ll challenge anyone to find a larger prima donna in sports than Brett Favre and, in all probability, the biggest d-bag in your high school class was the quarterback of your football team. It all doesn’t matter if it means legitimate chances to bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Chicago.

If anything else, the Sunday night regular season opener between the Bears and Packers at Lambeau Field is going to be a whole lot more interesting both locally and nationally. Let’s say this again because I still can’t quite believe it: the Bears actually have a real quarterback. The future is beautiful, Bears fans.

(Image from Midwest Sports Fans)

chester-frazier-illinois-fighting-illini

There are essentially three types of people that watch the NCAA Tournament. The first set of people consists of the ones that don’t pay attention to college basketball the entire season but then rabidly fill out brackets at work and get engrossed by the tournament. Just like how most Americans don’t watch an iota of swimming or track and field except for two weeks every four years during the Olympics, these people don’t know the existence of college basketball other than for three weeks in March every year. There’s certainly nothing wrong with these short-term basketball watchers (as many of them are some of my best friends and I don’t mind dishing out well-intentioned gambling advice on Selection Sunday that invariably turns out to be wrong), but they are able to approach the NCAA Tournament purely as an entertaining reality television event in the same manner as American Idol and thus aren’t invested in its outcome in an emotional sense (it might be a different story financially).

Then, there’s the second set of people that are fans and alums of schools where simply making the NCAA Tournament is the end goal. These could be teams from tiny conferences whose only time in the national limelight every year is to get smashed by a #1 seed in the first round (for example, despite my continuing interest in studying the locations and conferences of every possible college out there, I have to admit that this year was the first time in my life that I had ever heard of play-in game winner Morehead State) or schools from large conferences that are largely devoid of any basketball success (I’m looking at you, Northwestern). While these fans have some more emotional investment in the tournament than the first set described above, they also can walk away from their respective teams’ losses with the comfort of knowing that they were playing the role of the proverbial Cinderella and thus look back at the tourney experience itself with some fond memories.

Finally, there’s the third set of fans and alums that are from schools where the NCAA Tournament is an expectation as opposed to an aspiration and satisfaction doesn’t come unless there’s at least a Final Four appearance and ultimately a national championship banner. While these people may participate in brackets and other gambling pools as much or more than anyone else (I’m looking at myself in the mirror), there’s also a sense of dejection and emptiness when your team loses that is a bit harsher than any other sport because everyone else around you that’s emotionally detached from the situation is still partying up and enjoying the tourney (especially in the first two rounds when games are constantly going on). The best comparable situation is the feeling of watching your favorite football team play the Super Bowl (the main sports event other than the NCAA Tournament that draws in a disproportionate number of non-sports fans) and they are getting killed on the field (or, in my case, Rex Grossman is chucking deep balls into triple coverage) – 99% of America is having a great time downing beer, nachos, and pizza at parties, while you’re part of that 1% that is swearing unmercifully at the television screen and questioning why you ever started watching sports. That’s what it feels like if you’re a fan of a basketball program that’s expected to actually advance in the NCAA Tournament and they end up losing, with the crucial difference being that your favorite NFL team probably doesn’t make the Super Bowl very often (if ever), so that lonely feeling is rarely or never experienced (except for those poor Buffalo Bills fans of the 1990s – how cruel is it for those people to now have the NFL openly nudge that franchise toward Toronto), while a fan of a top tier basketball school has to deal with this type of loss in the midst of a national party nearly every single year.

You have probably figured out that I’m in the third set of NCAA Tournament watchers. When Illinois lost in the 2005 National Championship Game to North Carolina, I couldn’t even watch that season’s “One Shining Moment” montage for several months (and I’m telling you in all seriousness that I hadn’t missed a “One Shining Moment” film since I was cognizant of the existence of the NCAA Tournament as a young child – this was like me ignoring Christmas for a year or not bringing up the John Tesh’s Roundball Rock and the 1990s NBA on NBC intros at every available opportunity on this blog). The pain from that day was so horrid for Illini fans that it was even encapsulated in a Nike Jumpman commercial that’s been running during this year’s tournament.

So, why would anyone be willing to deal with the type of constant dejection that I just described? The reason is that this emotional investment has a pay-off unlike any other in sports when it all goes right. When your team is on the winning end of one of those crazy games or buzzer-beaters and you see your school’s jersey in the “One Shining Moment” montage, it’s a direct connection that doesn’t quite exist to the same extent in other realms. Any person can wake up and decide to cheer for the Bears, Packers, White Sox, or Cubs, but there are only a finite number of people in the world that attended the University of Illinois, so there’s a certain sense of ownership when the Illini come through. I’ve been blessed enough to witness all three of my favorite pro sports teams – the Bears, Bulls, and White Sox – win world championships in my lifetime in dramatic fashion, but there’s only one sporting event that is on both of the DVRs in my house so that I can watch it at any moment on any TV: the 2005 NCAA Tournament Chicago Regional Final. The 15-point comeback by Illinois in the last 4 minutes of that game against Arizona was the most exhilarating experience that I’ve ever had (and probably ever will have) as a sports fan (even more than Michael Jordan’s brilliance in the last 41 seconds of the 1998 NBA Finals, which is a reel that I’ll show my future children over-and-over again as to how a perfect basketball player can take over a game by using explosiveness to drive to the rim to make an easy lay-up, come back down the floor and use defensive intelligence and anticipation to straight-out strip the ball from arguably the greatest power forward in the history of the game, and then dribble right back the other way and nail the iconic jumper in textbook form from the top of the key to win the NBA title – I have broken down those final 41 seconds more than Oliver Stone has watched the Zapruder film, yet it’s still just behind the 2005 Illini comeback as my favorite sports moment) where I honestly didn’t sleep that evening from shaking so much and how excited I was that we had made the Final Four in a way that it would be shown on ESPN Classic in perpetuity.

This year’s Illini squad obviously didn’t have anywhere close to the expectations as the 2005 team that made it to the national title game. In fact, Seth Davis pronounced Western Kentucky as the winner of the first round matchup between them and Illinois before the South Region bracket was even fully announced on Selection Sunday. It didn’t surprise me that Davis would engage in his typical Duke-baggery prognostications, but it REALLY irritated me when essentially every pundit in the country (other than Erin Andrews, who I will say is the only pundit that matters) also picked WKU and its nightmare fuel of a mascot. While it was certainly understandable that this would be a somewhat trendy 12-over-5 upset pick, I felt as if though Illinois was getting slammed for its high profile 33-point clunker against Penn State in February, yet no one was giving the Illini credit for hammering fashionable pick (and eventual Elite Eight participant) Missouri by 26 points (and the game wasn’t even that close – it would have been a 40-point spread if Bruce Weber hadn’t called off the dogs) on a neutral floor in the Braggin’ Rights Game, soundly beating another fashionable pick (and eventual Sweet Sixteen participant) in Purdue both at home and on the road, and finishing in second place in a resurgent (if not quite great) Big Ten. Bruce Weber picked up on this national media swarm, as well, and I thought for sure that Illinois would come in with the “nobody believed in us” card and frothing at the chance to kick Cinderella to the curb.

Alas, the national media turned out to be correct on this one, although I firmly believe that it was because Illinois played its worst game of the season (outside of the aforementioned Penn State game) as opposed to Western Kentucky’s play (which was spotty other than two separate two-minute spurts where they couldn’t miss from the three-point arc). I thought that we would miss the presence of Chester Frazier to a certain extent, but the way that we were able to handle a run-and-gun Michigan team (another trendy pick at the beginning of the tournament that was able to win its first round game) a week prior to that on a neutral floor in the Big Ten Tournament gave me a bit more confidence that we could at least get through the first round without him. (I must say that Frazier turned into one of my favorite Illini players of all-time and wish that he could get a fifth year of eligibility.  He endured such unfair criticism and catcalls last season from the Assembly Hall home crowd when he was thrust into a role he should never have been in when the Eric Gordon situation went down, yet he didn’t complain and came right back to solidify himself as the heart and soul of this team this season.  By the end, Illini fans couldn’t imagine this team without his leadership and defensive intensity as he played through.  While Frazier will never be in the discussion as one the best Illinois players in history from a pure talent standpoint, he may very well be the toughest.)  Of course, this is why I write this blog for free as opposed to being paid as a coach that supposedly knows what the hell he is talking about. After I was ready to swear off the team when it was down 17 points with four minutes left to go, Illinois charged back to within a possession provide me with some thoughts that this could be another 2005-like comeback that would live on in Illini history. However, it was the old “too little, too late” story, where the Hilltoppers hung on to win a sloppy game. As most others in the bar where I was watching the game were merrily finishing up their drinks and wings after a marathon opening day of the NCAA Tournament, TK, the other Illini fans in attendance, and I sat around wondering how this team could have come out so flat after talking about all week how they weren’t being respected.

Now, I’ll be the first to say that back in October, I didn’t think Illinois would even get a sniff of the NIT this season, much less the NCAA Tournament. So, logic should have put me and the rest of Illini Nation into the second set of fans this year, where we should have been just happy to be invited to the dance. However, while Illini fans were pretty realistic for the most part about the limitations of this year’s team, there’s a residual bad taste in the collective mouth for having ended the season on a downswing. At the same time, I’m not sure if there’s any fan base in the country that has a dying need to win the National Championship more than us. Illinois is almost always at or near the top of discussions of “the best programs that have never won the National Championship”, which is a dubious distinction that we want erased as soon as possible. We came about as close as you can get to the pinnacle without having actually reached it in 2005, so every entry in the NCAA Tournament that doesn’t end up at that pinnacle is another opportunity lost.

Still, the beauty of college sports is that players don’t get signed to 10-year $200 million contracts unless they attend Florida State or UConn. New blood turns into new hope, where Bruce Weber appears to have reversed his prior recruiting issues and secured elite classes for the next couple of years. At the same time, current sophomores Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, and Mike Tisdale showed a great deal of improvement this season and will all be returning, and hopefully Alex Legion will be able to live up to his hype once he’s able to spend a full season with the team.  All of this means that expectations in Champaign are going to be ramped up more than ever when Midnight Madness comes around in October, which in turn leads to even greater scrutiny next March. We just ask that there will be one year in our lifetimes where we actually get to celebrate on the first Monday in April.

(Image from Chicago Tribune)