- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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The bridge to the Chicago Bulls' past glory is long and rickety, sagging under the weight of failed expectations, weakened by 13 years of stops and starts.
The foundation was laid with Elton Brand in the 1999-2000 season, the first brick in a promised rebirth. And the Baby Bulls with Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler were going to seal the deal. The following season came Jay Williams from Duke and, by gosh, he was really going to do it. And when that dream went unrealized, Ben Gordon and his late-game heroics forced comparisons to Michael Jordan.
After the 2006-07 season, Gordon, Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng would break through to the team's first second-round playoff appearance since the Bulls' last title, in 1998. But that hope too, would stall with another coaching change and more player transition.
There was something different happening, however, with the development of raging young center Joakim Noah and the budding brilliance of Derrick Rose. And now, if true greatness is not just over the horizon, this sure appears to be the best chance yet to close that gap to Jordan's Bulls.
Scottie Pippen isn't so sure it was even fair to place that burden on the others in the first place. But he knows it is reasonable now.
"Those past teams were all so young," Pippen. "When I came back [joining the '03 team], we were still trying to figure out what kind of a player Eddy Curry was. He and Tyson hadn't fully developed. They were put in a man's game and they weren't there yet. The Bulls were hoping to live off potential, and sometimes the potential didn't pan out.
"But this team now has players who have been around a while, players like Carlos Boozer and Kurt Thomas, who know their way around the game and know how to play. It's a good mix, they have good chemistry."
And they have a fully bloomed Rose.
Pippen does not merely allow comparisons between Rose and Jordan -- he has no trouble with them.
"You can mention [Rose's] competitive fire, his ability to be dominant and very effective in late stages of the game," Pippen said. "I think he has a lot of that charisma to his game. He's able to have an affect on the outcome of the game night in and night out, which is definitely one thing you can look at as a comparison."
Rose, of course, will tell you that neither he nor these Bulls have done anything yet. And it's hard to argue when they have not advanced past the first round since he entered the league three years ago.
"We're far away from what we're trying to be," he said recently. "Now everyone's talking about us but I remember when they weren't talking about us, they were talking about all the other teams. Those are things you can't forget, and that's what drives us."
What also drives him as he practices each day under the banners of past champions and Hall of Famers, is to be in their company, even as he credits them for his team's very recognition.
Rose was not yet 3 years old when Jordan won his first NBA title in his seventh season. But there were enough to follow that he remembers, enough that he laughs convincingly when parallels are drawn.
"Those teams were unbelievable," he said. "All the teams that won championships are unbelievable. We're not even near them, I'm not even near Michael Jordan. The things he did individually, his accomplishments, are unbelievable. Those teams were great. We haven't even made it to the second round yet, so we can't even compare ourselves."
He is right, of course, to cite his team's inexperience as a group. But as the Bulls established themselves as one of the best in the league, often under the adversity of playing without Noah and Boozer, they also gained a toughness that past Bulls' hopefuls did not possess.
"You have to be ready every game," Rose said. "That's something that we had to get used to. It's tough, everybody wants to beat you, make a name off you and it makes you play harder. You got to live up to that pressure. Every game is going to be a sold-out crowd, the fans are going to be into it and it's really like playoff basketball."
Playing in games "like" playoff basketball and playing actual playoff basketball are two different things, however, and performing at a level high enough to advance to at least a conference final may be asking too much, too soon.
But somehow it just feels right. You can actually imagine this team, if not this season then soon, standing beside the other Bulls' greats. Finally bridging the gap. Not even Rose could deny it then.
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
After several false starts, the Bulls are back on the title track.