CHICAGO -- The last spot in the starting introductions before a Bulls game at the United Center has become hallowed ground because of what it represents. For years, both at Chicago Stadium and the United Center, Michael Jordan was the final name, much to the delight of a capacity crowd. Derrick Rose became the youngest MVP in league history during the 2010-11 season, as fans started to roar when they heard public address announcer Tommy Edwards say, "Frrrrom Chicago ..." before Rose high-fived his way through teammates on the way to the floor. All-Star swingman Jimmy Butler held the honor of being introduced last a year ago, proudly accepting his role as the face of the organization.
After dealing Butler on draft night, thus pressing the button on a full-scale rebuild, the reality of those decisions hit home hardest as Edwards called out some unfamiliar names on Saturday night. If fans ever wanted to know what the reconstruction of a basketball team looked (and sounded) like, Chicago's ugly 87-77 loss to the San Antonio Spurs provided the perfect example. As Edwards made his way through an unfamiliar list of Bulls players, he finished off his roll call with: "Frrrrrom Notre Dame," as Jerian Grant, who has started 36 games in his three year career, came out to the floor.
Minutes earlier, veterans Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday gave a warm address to the near capacity crowd, welcoming them to opening night and promising that the team would, "work hard on the court and in the community." It was a nice gesture for fans, but the fact that it came from Lopez, who has been in Chicago just over a year, and Holiday, who signed over the summer as a free agent after spending a couple months in Chicago two seasons ago, was even more telling.
The longest tenured Bulls, Nikola Mirotic (starting his fourth season with the team) and Bobby Portis (starting his third), weren't even in the building on Saturday night. In the aftermath of a skirmish last Tuesday during a heated practice in which Portis punched Mirotic, leaving him with facial fractures and a concussion, Portis had to leave the arena before the game as part of his team-imposed eight game suspension. Mirotic wasn't feeling well enough to be around the team yet.
In his first public comments since the incident, Portis acknowledged that he has tried texting and calling Mirotic but has not gotten a response back. He said he was not thinking about whether Mirotic would potentially take legal action in the wake of the episode, but the fact that he even had to consider the question shows just how rough the past week has been for an organization that already knew it was headed into a trying season.
Since the punch, Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg has worn the countenance of a disappointed father each time he speaks to the assembled media. Heading into his third season, the embattled coach understood how difficult the rebuilding process would be, but he didn't expect to take even more heat for allowing the practice battle between two of his young power forwards to escalate to a point where one knocked out the other.
As the Bulls prepared to face one of the best teams in the league, on what was supposed to be the joyous occasion of a home opener, Hoiberg had to answer close to 15 questions related to the incident between Portis and Mirotic. The narrative that Hoiberg and the Bulls had been trying to build since the beginning of training camp about the young group playing hard and coming together as one was destroyed with one swing.
"I think you kind of have to let it happen," Hoiberg said of trying to get Portis and Mirotic to speak to one another and clear the air. "We are reaching out to both guys right now. The important thing right now with Niko is getting him better, getting him healthy, he's still really sore. Hopefully get him back to feeling himself here soon."
It's worth noting that neither Hoiberg nor his players have had any clear-cut answer as to whether the pair will be able to coexist moving forward. Now, on top of the losing that is sure to encompass a team devoid of much talent, they must deal with the lingering effects of the fight.
As the Bulls prepared for the long future ahead, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich discussed how difficult the rebuilding process can be and what kind of luck goes into it.
"Good fortune always helps, and we've certainly had that," Popovic said. "You hope that you've done your homework. You hope that you've done enough research, what kind of character guys have, how they're going to adjust to team play. If they have the mental ability to grow, to learn, become better players. Because lots of times it's not a question of physicality, it's between the ears. That's a function of character so as much research as you can do, you do. But it's hard to hit, be correct, every single time."
Popovich went on to praise former Spurs assistant and current Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown for his demeanor and the way he's handled all the losing the Sixers have endured over the past few years. No coach wants to deal with the kind of situation Hoiberg finds himself in right now, but that's the new reality for the young coach.
The issue for the Bulls' braintrust is that aside from Lauri Markkanen, the rookie acquired in the Butler deal who has been solid in his first two games, much of the rest of the roster looks like it is comprised of G-League players. Point guard Kris Dunn is expected to return later this week after a finger injury and veteran Zach LaVine, also acquired from the Timberwolves, should give Chicago a boost when he returns at some point in the next couple months as he rehabs an ACL injury.
For now, Hoiberg has to continue to try and stay positive in an emotionally draining situation. Saturday offered a glimpse of the kind of hard truths that await the Bulls the rest of this season -- and likely several beyond.
"It's definitely going to be a challenge for all of us," Lopez said. "But I think we're all excited. Every time we get on the court we're looking to get better and make each other better out there. I can't wait to wake up every day and get to the practice facility."