I always figured it would take an act of God to get me to root for LeBron James. Really, it took just two words. Chicago Bulls. Thanks to an awful display of basketball over the past week, I’ve pulled for LeBron’s Miami Heat over the Bulls in the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals. Right now with a 3-1 lead in a best of seven series, it’s most likely the Heat can end this tonight so I can start hating LeBron again.
To be fair, it’s not that I’ve fallen for LeBron, perhaps the most complete player to ever play the game. It’s that I just can’t stand this Bulls team. I’m not alone there. Hating the Bulls right now is like hating Congress. It’s in vogue, and they’ve given us plenty of reason. It shouldn’t be this way with the Bulls. In fact, it should be the opposite, the perfect David vs. Goliath. Look over at the Heat sideline, you see LeBron, mega-star Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, and enough decent complimentary players to make it seem like the sports version of Cream, a supergroup in high tops and baggy shorts. Look across to the Bulls bench, and you’ll see three of their best players in suits with no intention of breaking a sweat. That includes former league MVP Derrick Rose, who’s played less basketball this past year than I have. Yet even without its best player, and now its best shooter, the Bulls willed themselves to a first round upset of the Brooklyn Nets in a seven game series that would kindly be described as unwatchable. It was like throwing a basketball in the middle of a mosh pit.
That put the Bulls squarely in the way of the Miami Heat and inevitability, lest destiny be too strong a term. Particularly given the breakup of last year’s upstart NBA runner-up Oklahoma City, this season has been something of a victory lap for the defending champion Heat. There was even talk of an undefeated sweep of the NBA playoffs, which is about easy as going to Vegas without playing slots. And it didn’t happen, with the Bulls stealing game one in Miami.
How did they do it? By playing a brand of basketball that falls somewhere between chippy and illegal. If there’s a line between hard play and flagrant aggression, the Bulls have erred on the side of assault. At times they’ve challenged LeBron in particular, egging him on with excessively hard fouls, hoping to throw him off his generally fluid game and maybe, just maybe getting him to stoop to their level. The only way the Bulls could really stop LeBron is by getting him kicked out of the game, something that would happen if James ever threw a retaliatory swing in frustration. That’s what Bulls center Nazr Mohammed appeared looking for in game three when he shoved LeBron on a fast break. James got angry, but didn’t take the bait. Mohammed got tossed. And this came after Chicago’s Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson were both ejected in game two for a cocktail of shoving and cussing, neither of which were an integral part of the Naismith rules.
What the Bulls are doing is nothing new. The Bad Boy Pistons of the 80’s and 90’s won two NBA titles with lesser talent and cheap shots. Pretty much every player of the past 20 years did their share of hack-a-Shaq. Playing dirty is a longstanding strategy to normalize a talent gap. And unless you’re a five star prospect, you’ve probably done it yourself in pickup games at the Y.
But somewhere on way from effort to criminal behavior, the Bulls crossed a line. They turned a game of grace and athleticism into a psychological tale of crime and punishment. They’ve robbed the public of watching what we assume to be a display athletic wizardry, where talent and effort is as much artistry as it is sport. It’s like robbing Picasso of his paint, and yes, I know that’s a stretch. But you get my point.
The Chicago Bulls have decided the rules of basketball aren’t a code of ethics, but a challenge. And because of that, they’ve made it further than they probably should have, given the sad state of their roster. I’m sure some people admire them for that. I’m just not one of them. But fortunately, I shouldn’t have to worry about that after tonight, when the Heat can close out this ugly series in five on their home court. And then, thankfully, I can go back to doing what I really love – hating LeBron.
Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.
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