Chicago is ready for a new king
The city of big shoulders, bigger expectations and giant legacies is hungry for LeBron
"Giants lived here once."
-- Nelson Algren, "Chicago: City on the Make"
CHICAGO -- Once upon a time, sporting giants did live in Chicago. Men named Butkus and Payton, Aparicio and Banks, Jordan and Pippen. I guess you could add Ditka to that list, and Jackson.
It had more to do with gait than size, and those who walked the walk in Chicago were respected and feared and beloved. We love our sports heroes here.
And we still have some bigger-than-life protagonists, but they're few and far between. Our quarterback and middle linebacker are hardly charmers, and barely talk to the media, preferring to live in their bubbles. Our head football coach is more boring than geometry homework.
The Blackhawks, of course, are the new sporting royalty in the city, and deservedly so. But no one really stands out from the pack. Except Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, that is. Kane is the rakish Wonder Boy, the successor to the Golden Jet, and the master of the special moment. But he's still so young and unvarnished, a boy dominating a man's game. Toews is the workingman hero, the guy you count on, the captain.
Derrick Rose, the talented son of Englewood, should be the star the Bulls build around. But in terms of public presence, he has a similar personality to Toews. He's almost too real, not fantastical enough.
Michael Jordan was once larger than life. Derrick Rose is still the nice kid you see at the mall who's done good.
The only stand-alone personality we have on our baseball teams is Ozzie Guillen, and while he's certainly got enough chutzpah to go around, he doesn't play. There are only so many sound bites you can listen to.
Maybe that's why we're so crazy for the possibility of LeBron James.
LeBron is a giant, a bold-faced name, a kinetic, physical marvel who stirs the soul, rouses the imagination and fills the lane. The possibility of him choosing Chicago is tough to overhype, because he will bring a sense of arrogance back to the franchise, and in correlation, the city.
"Winning LeBron" is not a guarantee the Bulls will win an NBA title. LeBron is only one man -- one very large, very gifted man -- but he represents something more than a triple-double and a Gatorade commercial. He represents hope and possibility and ascension and reflected glory.
"It's funny how years come down to hours and minutes."
-- Chris Bosh's Twitter account
It is finally here. The Bulls are hours or days away from landing a star player, from mattering again in the global sense. For so long, pipe dream after pipe dream, from Ron Mercer to Jalen Rose to Eddie Robinson to Ben Gordon, the Bulls have tried and failed to recapture the magic that put the franchise on the map and made the city the epicenter of the basketball universe.
ESPNChicago.com Bulls blog
The latest news from Bulls reporter Nick Friedell. Blog
It's impossible not to be maddened by the buildup, which took over the season at many times, whether you're a Bulls fan, player or reporter. You've heard the Nike slogan for LeBron: We are all witnesses. Nike's free-agency slogan should be: We are all experts.
Everyone, from suburban real estate agents to downtown waiters, has a scoop about possible free agents, most notably James, who, if you believe everything you hear, already has a suburban home and a downtown condo waiting for him. The president has weighed in. All the shoe-leather national reporters are searching for that elusive scoop from Anonymous Sources With Knowledge of the Situation.
But it's a story with plenty of real players, agents, general managers and a guy with the handle "Worldwide" in front of his name, leaking morsels of information, which change direction like the wind whipping through Wrigley Field.
This is a story that belongs in our instant information age, where stories are always breaking and changing and being disputed. Forget health care reform, Vice President Biden, this is a big bleepin' deal, especially in Chicago.
Take the recent free-agent summit of James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. How could three abnormally tall, freakishly famous men go unnoticed in public? ESPN sources declare they met in some form, while agents and go-betweens say they didn't in Miami.
It was apropos, given the final ticking of the clock. July and free agency are finally here, and soon we'll be bombarded with assertions and promises and 100 percent guarantees, and soon after that, we'll know the truth.
As Bosh said, it's just hours and minutes.
"He was raucous, sentimental, hot-tempered, practical, simple, devious, big and powerful. This is, after all, Chicago."
-- Mike Royko, "Boss."
With so many opinions going around, the one that bugged me the most was the idea that James, or Wade for that matter, can't thrive in the shadow of Michael Jordan. It's as ludicrous as saying Mayor Richard M. Daley couldn't get out from under the shadow of his father, Richard J. Daley, the subject of Royko's words.
Chicagoans love a winner, which explains how, aside from more complicated reasons, the younger Daley was able to keep a stranglehold on the city's voting public and remain in office the last 21 years.
While Jordan's legacy never will be cast aside, the city's basketball fans aren't worshipping at his altar like some out-of-town media would have you believe. We've moved on, trust me. Just as Lakers fans welcomed Shaquille O'Neal and Celtics fans cheered Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, free agents will be greeted with open arms and empty memories.
And if LeBron or Wade or Bosh, or whoever, can help the current Bulls achieve one championship, it won't be ridiculed as one-sixth of what Jordan could do. His last title came in 1998. There's a generation of fans that barely remembers him playing live. No one will see LeBron on the street and say, "Thanks for nothing. Call me when you have a half-dozen." Jordan's the man, and he always will be, and not just in provincial Chicago. His six rings are the standard for all great players. LeBron looked up to him, dreamed of being him, and has become something similar, a one-name legend synonymous with basketball greatness.
So Chicago is no different from any other city. We just want to see a parade, feel some civic pride and watch guys in red jerseys dunk on some guys in other jerseys.
"No leader can create a successful team alone, no matter how gifted he is."
-- Phil Jackson, "Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior."
The Bulls don't need a leader. Joakim Noah has donned that mantle. He's earned it. Teammates like him and they have started to look to him to speak to the press on their behalf and as a last line of defense on the court.
I know it sounds crazy to outsiders: The guy who acted the fool after winning NCAA titles and wore the bow tie to the draft is a legit NBA leader?
Believe it. Noah, who has matured on the court as well, has the perfect personality for the modern NBA leader: a mixture of brashness and earnestness, not to mention a complete sense of self. He's not a phony.
Derrick Rose is the team's floor leader, and he's no phony either. That's why he didn't feel the need to over-examine his role as a rookie and why he took more control of the reins in his second season. While he's not "there" yet, in terms of total development, he's a franchise maker in the making, a legitimate perennial All-Star. Everyone respects his talent.
But they need help. And that's why we're here. And it's amazing the choices that are out there. Even after being inundated by the possibilities for the past year, the available talent, and the Bulls' place in the buffet line, is jaw-dropping.
So maybe it's James, and yes, he'll immediately be cast as a team leader, as he should be. There can be more than one. But if it's not James, the Bulls better hope a Plan 1-A is executed quickly. The dominoes will fall quickly and Chicago could be left with another Ron Mercer situation.
But I don't have to tell that to Jerry Reinsdorf and John Paxson and Gar Forman. The organization, with around $30 million to spare, has been planning for this moment for well over a year. When the Bulls traded Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden to the Knicks, it gave them future salary-cap relief. When they traded John Salmons to the Bucks, it signified the all-in approach toward this moment. When they traded Kirk Hinrich, the 2003 draft pick who helped lead the franchise's resurgence, for more cap space, it meant they were confident.
"It's been our plan for the last year, or year and a half, where we felt in order to improve our basketball team, we needed to create the flexibility," Forman told "Mike & Mike in the Morning" on June 25. "We've done that to put some pieces around Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson, so that's what we wanted. We wanted to give ourselves options, and I think we've done that."
If James, Wade and Bosh all end up elsewhere, Cleveland and Miami perhaps, the Bulls can make do with the leftovers from the so-called second tier of Joe Johnson, Amar'e Stoudemire, Carlos Boozer, etc. As I'm writing this, Dirk Nowitzki is in play as well.
I could foresee bringing in a near-max guy like Boozer and shooter Kyle Korver over from Utah and adding high-flying backup guard Shannon Brown (a Chicago native and former Bull of about 30 seconds) for more backcourt depth. Other forgotten free agents like Luis Scola, J.J. Redick (yes, seriously) and Rudy Gay could be fits. The Bulls can add now and look for more help during the season.
No, it's not sexy, but the Bulls didn't put themselves in desperate straits like the Knicks and Heat. They actually have the makings of a playoff team in place. That's not to say the Bulls shouldn't bet the house on the big names out there, because the timing is definitely right, but this isn't an all-or-nothing endeavor.
With all the talk about winning championships built around superstars, it's not heretical to remember Jerry Krause's slightly apocryphal reminder that "organizations win championships" and combine it with Jackson's aforementioned words. No one man can win a championship, as LeBron proved once again this season.
As this whole process winds down, I remember a feeling I had during the last game of the Stanley Cup finals in Philadelphia. As I watched the Flyers fans during Game 6, I felt a tinge of jealousy, because they knew that anything was possible and their team, once written off, was on the verge of something special. The Flyers, of course, lost, but for a brief window, anything was possible.
Even though this isn't a time of action, we follow sports for moments like these, even if they often don't come true.
The Bulls, and their fans, are having a moment right now where anything is possible and everything is at stake. And like you, I'm wondering what will happen next.
Giants lived here once, and there's always room for more.
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.