The Intangibles: The Chicago Bulls' Key to Success

Michael Gross

When the final buzzer mercifully went off, ending the Bulls 2012 campaign much earlier than expected, the Chicago Bulls quietly returned to their locker room. Just a week before, many had been picking the Bulls to advance to the Finals and win their first championship since the Michael Jordan-era. All hope vanished at the conclusion of game one of the Eastern Conference first round matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers. The Bulls’ star point guard and defending most valuable player, Derrick Rose, collapsed to the ground in agony with 1:20 remaining in the game; the Bulls had a commanding 12-point lead. He immediately grabbed his left knee, and the announcer reported in despair as a once vivacious crowd fell utterly silent. Later that day, it was revealed that Derrick Rose had torn his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and was ruled out indefinitely, as the Bulls playoff expectations had abruptly evaporated. After the injury, they had failed to learn how to play as the underdogs – a role they had been unfamiliar with for quite some time.

As Bulls’ fans sank their heads in disappointment following the round one defeat, questions around the sports media arose as to whether or not they could carry on without their unquestionable leader. Rose was not due to return until the end of the next season and to make matters worse, they had also lost their reliable backup point guard, C.J. Watson, to free agency. Expectations were certainly low, as many doubted a playoff appearance in the upcoming season. If the Bulls were to succeed, they would have to embrace the role of the underdog. During the offseason, they did just that, signing three free agents that epitomized that role: Nazr Mohammed, a veteran forward who had consistently played a minimal role throughout his 14-year NBA career, Marco Bellineli, a forward from Italy who had been nothing more than a bench player, and finally Nate Robinson, a 5-9 guard who had occasionally shocked the sports world throughout his 7-year career with his ability to play at such a high level at such a short height. The year before, the Bulls reserves were known around the league as “The Bench Mob,” and these newcomers would try to live up to that astounding reputation.

As the All-Star Weekend arrived, featuring the Bulls own Luol Deng and Joakim Noah, the depleted squad was certainly in position to make the playoffs with an impressive record of 30-22. However, as the injuries increased, with starting center Joakim Noah sidelined for weeks at a time suffering from a right foot injury, the hopes for a playoff run continued to diminish. In contrast, the Bulls playing did not, as they collected several stunning wins, including defeating the Miami Heat and New York Nicks to snap their 27 and 13 game win streaks. They accepted and dealt with the adversity, riding their hard work and passion all the way to a respectable 5 seed in the Eastern Conference. Their opening round matchup was a rejuvenated Brooklyn Nets team, looking for their first playoff series win since 2007.  As usual, the expectations were heavily against the Bulls, and after a blowout loss in game one, many thought they would have the same playoff fate as the previous year. But, they continued to defy the odds by bouncing back to take a 2-1 series lead.

With less than four minutes to go in game four, the Nets led by 14 points and were trying to seal the game. As former Bull C.J. Watson stole the ball and went up for the wide-open dunk, my hand reached for the off button on the remote. But, as I looked back up at the TV, I saw that Watson had missed the dunk; the Bulls had a sliver of hope to come back and steal a victory, to grab a commanding 3-1 lead. Led by 12 consecutive points from their third-string point guard, Nate Robinson, the Bulls roared all the way back to tie the game. The Bulls rode their momentum into an exhilarating triple-overtime victory, as their heart and confidence prevailed over the Nets’ skill. In response to the remarkable win, Sophomore Brennan Besser said, “I felt like I was going to wake up in five minutes and realize this was a dream – I slapped myself in the face and the TV still read the score: Bulls 142, Nets 134.” It appeared that when the odds were against them, the Bulls performed at their best. What was it about being the underdog that inspired them to play so well?

When others expect you to fail, it is easier to give everything you’ve got because there is nothing to lose. Often times, people are afraid to go all out due to the downside of defeat and disappointment. However, when expected to flounder, there is no downside – if failure does occur, it was expected, but if there is success, it is seen as remarkable.

After winning two straight games, the Nets forced a deciding game seven in Brooklyn, and were poised and ready to steal the series back from the Bulls. The Bulls were expected to lose with starting guard Kirk Hinrich, and forward Luol Deng both injured. Despite that, they continued to surprise by grasping and early lead and closing out the Nets on the road. But, there was little time to celebrate, as the Bulls were scheduled to face Defending NBA Champions, the Miami Heat two days later. The Heat were eight days rested from a dominant opening round sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks, whereas the Bulls were on two-days rest, facing numerous injuries, including, of course, Derrick Rose’s knee. On paper, a Bulls win seemed unimaginable. While they had certainly shocked the sports world in their playoff run up to that point, most people still picked against them.

The Bulls, like they had been all year, were up to the challenge and came out firing. Bulls’ Forward, Jimmy Butler shut down MVP Lebron James defensively for the first 36 minutes, and at the start of the final quarter, the Bulls trailed the Heat by a mere four points. As the fourth quarter began, Lebron James began playing like the most valuable player in the league, as many were waiting for the Heat to blow the Bulls out of the building. To everyone’s surprise, it never happened. Once again, the unsung hero, Nate Robinson fueled an astonishing game one victory for the Bulls, as his seven straight points capped a 10-0 run to end the game. After the improbable victory, I had the chance to speak with sophomore Johnny Buchanan about the rising star, Nate Robinson – “It is truly amazing that he can compete at this level with his height, I mean I’m taller than him! He has obviously been a viable contributor in their playoff run this year, and I really admire his heart and love for the game.”

As we learned after game one, there is only so much that can be determined on paper. What are not accounted for, however, are the intangibles: heart and confidence. Nothing on paper can truly predict a player’s heart or confidence, and these intangibles continue to fuel the Bulls to override enormous odds.

Heading into the postseason for our spring sports at Latin, it is important to compete with heart and confidence, as they can often override skill. When the odds are stacked against you, and people expect failure, use that as motivation to succeed. Never be afraid to go all out, because another opportunity is rarely guaranteed. When star athletes or sports teams are favored to win, they do not receive significant accolades if they do indeed prevail, as their victory was expected. But if expectations are exceeded, immense praise will be given. Of course, this article is not meant to convey the message that you shouldn’t strive to be a team or an athlete that is favored to win; but, in the case when you find yourself as the underdog, be confident and embrace that role, as it frequently leads to success.