- Michael Wilbon, Pardon the Interruption co-host
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CHICAGO -- The crusty old guys with all the championship rings don't give their blessings easily, if at all. But the old Chicago Bulls, right down to Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, appear smitten.
Six weeks ago the idea of these new Bulls reaching even the Eastern Conference finals seemed at best a reach. But now, with the Bulls locked in a race with the Boston Celtics for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and with Jordan himself suggesting more titles are coming, the notion of the Bulls going deep into the playoffs, perhaps even into June, doesn't seem preposterous at all.
The 20th anniversary celebration of the first Bulls championship team Saturday night was an occasion for both reflection and transition. It seems a helluva lot easier to pass the torch when there's actual affection for the guy you're handing it to.
Jordan, as we've known for more than 25 years, is notoriously tough to impress, and next to impossible if you're a young player. So when Jordan said of his Chicago heirs, "Don't be surprised if you have six more coming," it was something of an eye-opener. Jordan later said he told Bulls boss John Paxson, "I think you guys could be the best team in the East."
And it wasn't a trick or a setup or a case of MJ, famous for his gamesmanship, trying to create an advantage for the team he owns, the Charlotte Bobcats, who could actually face the Bulls in the first round of the playoffs. Jordan -- and you can see it on his face when the subject is broached -- is not only impressed but proud of these new Bulls.
"It's interesting listening to MJ and Scottie, the way they talk about Derrick Rose," former teammate Will Perdue said, after watching Rose lead a decimation of Utah, during which Rose did everything but shrug after hitting five 3-pointers in the first quarter.
It should probably be pointed out that of the 12 players on that 1991 Bulls 20th anniversary roster, all 12 essentially make their livings in the basketball industry. Scott Williams, Stacey King, Perdue and Pippen are on-air analysts. Dennis Hopson, Craig Hodges and Bill Cartwright are assistant coaches. B.J. Armstrong is an agent (for Rose, among others). Cliff Levingston owns his own basketball business, specializing in camps. Horace Grant, often on behalf of the league, is involved in overseas initiatives. Paxson is the executive who runs the Bulls' day-to-day operation and Jordan owns the Bobcats. Each watches the game with a critical eye.
So the question is: How has Rose specifically, and the Bulls in general, elicited this warm a hug from a bunch of basketball skeptics?
"The reason," Perdue said, "is they remind us of the players of our era. It's an easy group to like. The game has really changed, so when you get a group of guys like this who pay respect to the guys who came before them and respect the contributions of people who played previously ..."
Perdue told a story. He was having dinner one recent evening with Armstrong when Armstrong's cell phone rang. It was Rose calling immediately after a Bulls victory. "The first thing he asked B.J.," Perdue recalled, "was, 'What did I do wrong tonight?'"
Grant knew of a similar story and said, "It starts with Rose because he's a natural born leader."
But they're quick to talk about how the intelligence and professionalism of the team extends from there to Luol Deng and Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver and of course old man Kurt Thomas. What's apparent, regardless of who's assessing the Bulls, is that they don't have a single bum, slacker, irritant, poser, dunce or drama queen in the bunch ... which makes them a whole lot like the 1991 team. (Reminder: Dennis Rodman, the world-class drama queen, wasn't on the first three Bulls championship teams; he essentially replaced Grant when he left for Orlando).
There's no nonsense. Rose, the other day, said he plays basketball, practices basketball, plays video games ("I've gotten good, I'm telling you," he said in the closest thing to a boast we've heard this season) and sleeps. That's it. Down the line, who knows how success or failure, both of which are determined in the postseason, will affect the principals. Great chemistry doesn't last forever. But for now, with Rose leading the way, it's eat, sleep, pray, ball.
The old heads can't help but see some of the similarities to their team. Grant, at 6-foot-10, was a superior defender and could guard three positions, sort of like the 6-11 Noah does now. Both were quick and agile enough to be great on-the-ball defenders or help double-team and still get back to their primarily responsibilities.
Omer Asik, the 7-foot rookie, reminds some of us of Scott Williams (yes, more than Perdue), who was a 6-10 rookie on that first championship team, not because of their styles of play but because both were late bloomers who became huge contributors defensively late in their first seasons.
It's unfair to ever compare anyone too favorably with Pippen as a defender because he's the best swing defender (yes, as good as Jordan) in the past 30 years, but Deng has come to relish his ability to successfully guard high-octane swingmen in much the way Pippen did at about the same age.
The records of the two teams aren't all that different, either. Rose's Bulls are 47-18; Jordan's Bulls were 49-16. Rose's teams haven't won a single playoff series yet; Jordan's teams had, but at this point of the 1991 season we were wondering if that team had been psychologically scarred by the Pistons, who had beaten the Bulls three straight times in the playoffs.
Of course, anytime you wander into these comparative analyses you simply must remind yourself and continue repeating: "That team had Michael Jordan."
Perdue, who doesn't need to be reminded, made an important observation about Rose, one that is at least the starting block for determining how personality can help a player who wants to be great.
"For the longest [time], until Derrick, most guys didn't want to even come here because to them it meant playing in Michael's shadow," Perdue said of Rose, who was drafted No. 1 overall by the Bulls in 2008. "Derrick wasn't afraid of that."
Seems Rose is afraid of nothing, not even of asking what he did wrong that night or what he needs to do to get better, which sets him apart from so many of his peers. So does the fact Rose has about him that wide-eyed wonder, the trait that allows him to, without any kind of agenda, call Jordan, "Mr. Jordan" or say, "He's like a basketball God."
Professional basketball, more than the other sports, entices us to make these personal comparisons, even over decades and eras. Ultimately, championships won are the great deciders and tie-breakers. The 1991 team has that stamp and these Bulls have nothing -- not yet. But they've evolved to the point, half a game out of the No. 1 seed with four weeks left in the regular season, where it's necessary to view them as a serious threat, and to listen to the crusty old guys wearing rings who think the new Bulls, starting with Rose, could be on to something.
The games, the races, the conversations, like spring and the playoffs on the horizon, are just starting to bloom.
Michael Wilbon is a featured columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He is the longtime co-host of "Pardon the Interruption" on ESPN and appears on the "NBA Sunday Countdown" pregame show on ABC in addition to ESPN. Wilbon joined ESPN.com after three decades with The Washington Post, where he earned a reputation as one of the nation's most respected sports journalists.
The crusty old guys with all the championship rings don't give their blessings easily, if at all. But the old Chicago Bulls, right down to Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, appear smitten with this year's team.