|Running with the Baby Bulls|
By Charley Rosen
Page 2 columnist
Just about 19 months ago, Jerry Krause aimed to resurrect the moribund Bulls by bringing a pair of highly regarded schoolboys to Chicago. First, Elton Brand (a 20-10 big man who routinely loafed through practice sessions) was dealt to the Clippers for the second overall pick in the 2001 draft, 7-foot-1 Tyson Chandler from Dominguez High School in Compton, Calif. And with the Bulls' own lottery pick (the fourth overall), Krause tabbed another 18-year-old, 6-11 Eddy Curry from Thornwood High School near Chicago.
Krause was betting that the two young studs would eventually become dominating NBA players -- and by postponing the day of reckoning to the unforeseeable future, perhaps Krause was also buying time to save his job.
Of course, Krause's tinkering didn't stop there. Jalen Rose was obtained from Indiana (in the middle of last season), and then Jay Williams was selected as the second pick in the 2002 draft. Even so, the development of the Baby Bulls remains the keystone of Krause's plan to reconquer the NBA.
So, one-and-a-half seasons later, how far along are Chandler and Curry? Do they really have the goods? Or are they destined to turn Krause's dreams of glory into nightmares? My latest voyage of discovery took me to Madison Square Garden, when the Bulls and the Knicks squared off in the second round of a back-to-back home-and-home mini-series.
The Bulls had won, 101-94, the previous evening in Chicago, with Chandler and Curry making major contributions. The former had eight points (4-for-6 FG), three assists, and a career-high 19 rebounds. In 12 minutes of daylight, the latter posted 13 points (4-for-4 FG and 5-for-6 FT). Could it be that the Bulls' future was now?
Before the game, I canvassed the Bulls' coaching staff to assess the status of Chandler and Curry. The general consensus is that Chandler is already an impact player on defense, while Curry has the potential to become a big-time scorer.
"Eddy is deceptively quick," coach Bill Cartwright says. "In fact, he's got the quickest feet in the league. He can shoot, spin, hook, duck under, drop step ... you name it and Eddy can do it. The trouble is that he's too nice. Even though Eddy weighs 300 pounds, he's not nearly as physical as he has to be."
At the other end of the floor, Cartwright says that Curry "does not know how to play defense. He's learning through sheer repetition, but it's a very slow process."
As for Chandler, Cartwright reports that the youngster is "one of the NBA's fastest big men up and down the court, and nobody's quicker off his feet. Ty's defensive reactions are aggressive and also super-quick, which means he's become a very good shot-blocker. His job is to guard the other team's best post-up guy."
Too bad Chandler is so passive on offense. "When he gets bumped," says Cartwright, "instead of fighting back, he'll just spin away from the contact."
Cartwright exhales a weary coach's sigh. "You know," he says, "if there was some way to combine Curry's and Chandler's talents, some day you'd have an All-Star caliber player."
Assistant coach Bob Thornton points out that Chandler is more advanced on offense than Curry is on defense: "Ty's high-post game is still tentative, but from the low-post, he's getting better at attacking the middle and then spinning back for a turnaround jumper. He can always fill a lane when we're on the run, and he's learning how to take a hit and still finish. The most important thing right now is for Ty to make make the right read. What's so encouraging is that he's got such a great attitude. He listens to learn, and he's not afraid to do things that are way out of his comfort zone. Eddy and Ty are both good kids who want to become good players."
Face-to-face, both prodigies seem to be earnest and friendly. Curry is basically shy but has learned to respond politely to the media's constant prodding. When asked to evaluate his progress, he says that he's "moving along, but still has a long way to go." He also volunteers that he's concentrating most on playing defense, maintaining a positive attitude, and "praying."
One of the Bulls' suits believes that playing in his hometown is a great disadvantage for Curry: "He listens too much to his boys. Eddy's their meal ticket, and several of them are actually living with him, so they're always stroking his ego. They tell Eddy that he should be playing more and that the coach knows nothing."
But Curry disagrees. "I have total respect for coach Cartwright and for all the coaches," he says. "And playing in Chicago is very uplifting. Things have been tough lately, and my friends are always there to stand by me."
Words come easier to Chandler, and he exudes a certain bright-eyed charisma. "Last year, I was playing on raw talent," he says. "This season I'm much smarter, because I'm able to put to use what I've been learning. Last year, everything seemed to be happening so fast. This year, everything around me has slowed down somewhat, but I'm still trying to play too fast, especially on offense. My first instinct is to try to make something happen too quickly. What I'm working at is learning how to read who's guarding me and how the defense is rotating."
Chandler's idol and inspiration is Kevin Garnett. "I want my game to be just like his. The same shooting mechanics, the same skills. Of course, he's up there, and I'm still down here. But the distance between us is what keeps me working. Meanwhile, I'm loving it."
Another of the Bulls' traveling corps marks a further improvement in Chandler: "Last year, Ty thought he was hot stuff. He still has the same self-inflating tendency, but getting his butt kicked night after night has also forced to become much more humble."
Just before the game, Cartwright has a special warning for his young big men: "You both played well last night in Chicago, and the danger is that you automatically expect to have another good game. The reality is that you both have to start from ground zero, remember the things you did well, and gear yourselves back up again. And don't expect to get the same calls from the refs that you got last night. You've got to do it yourselves. OK?"
Despite the youngsters' ready agreement, Cartwright is expecting the worst in the rematch with the Knicks. "Young players don't function well on the road," he says. "That's because they play so much on emotion that they really need the support of the home town fans. On the road, youngsters have trouble motiva ting themselves, and they don't know how to get themselves comfortable. We'll see. Hopefully, I'll be proved wrong."
Last season, Tim Floyd's strategy was to force-feed the Baby Bulls, to let them start and play through their mistakes. Experience is a function of minutes played. But according to another insider, the since-deposed Floyd "was in way over his head. He never understood the intricacies of the pro game, but he was good at sweet-talking the media and coming across as an all-around nice guy. Floyd was a con man, and he even fooled Krause, proving that it is possible to con a con man. In contrast, Cartwright is probably too honest for his own good, but he really knows what he's doing."
Cartwright's strategy, then, is to step up the pressure on both Chandler and Curry. They have to earn their daylight, then they either play well or they sit. And since Chandler is currently the more evolved of the two, he starts the game while Curry pines on the bench.
From the get-go, the game is a disaster for Chandler. The Bulls win the tip and set up with Chandler in the pivot. When Chandler is fronted by Kurt Thomas, the second-year man shoves the veteran -- once, twice, with the third shove bringing a whistle. Offensive foul on Chandler. On the Bulls' next possession, Chandler takes advantage of a cross-pick and receives the ball in the right box before taking one hard dribble baseline and sinking an easy layup. Subsequenly, Chandler tries to drive from the foul line, but trips and falls -- the ref's call is walking. Then Thomas beats Chandler down court for a dunk. And Chandler tries to push through Thomas' stubborn defense to get to the right box. "Tweet!" says the ref, and hangs another offensive foul on Chandler. When Chandler protests, he's tagged with a T. At 4:03 in the first quarter, Chandler is replaced, not by Curry, but by Marcus Fizer.
The Knicks lead 27-21 at the quarter-break.
Chandler and Curry are not the Bulls' only young calves. Jay Williams is expected to lead the team for the next generation. Yet the rookie repeatedly overhandles and throws risky passes. At first sight, he's strictly a dribble-and-spin guard, totally unprepared to assume a leadership position.
Both Chandler and Curry ride the bench as the second quarter commences. Finally, at the 9:11 mark, Curry gets his chance. The first three times Curry sets up on the left box. the entry passes slide through his hands. When he does make a catch, he dribbles left but doesn't protect the ball with his right hand -- allowing Mike Doleac to poke the ball away. Next, Curry fails to box Doleac off the offensive boards, the veteran center taps the rebound back to Charlie Ward, and the home team winds up scoring. Here's Curry hustling into the lane on a Bulls' fast break, but he doesn't seal Doleac with his backside and another entry pass is tipped away. Fizer replaces Curry with 4:20 left in the half.
The Bulls are fortunate that their deficit is only 56-48 at halftime.
Cartwright was always a tough dude -- even Michael Jordan was afraid to cross him when they were teammates in Chicago. So Cartwright is not timid about getting into his players' faces. "It's so easy for young players to say, 'Yeah,' " Cartwright notes, "and then go out there and do whatever they want. That means that personal correction is always necessary. The trick is to discover how much the kids will allow me to push them without starting to pout and contract. I have to pick my spots with Ty and Eddy, so that when I do let loose they know I'm serious. But the bottom line is that they understand that we all have the same goals -- to make them better players and to make us a better team."
Instead of venting, Cartwright is gentle and corrective during the intermission. If the youngsters can recuperate quicker than veterans can, Cartwright understands that having to play back-to-back games in different time zones can also overtax their developing powers of concentration.
Chandler is on the court when the games resumes, but fares little better than he did during his first rotation. When he executes a quick spin along the baseline, the ball slips out of his hands and he stumbles. Now Chandler cuts to the basket and can't snatch a catchable pass that's thrown slightly behind him. Another pass slides through his hands. An offensive rebound falls into his hands and he's fouled; he hits both shots from the free-throw line, showing admirable hand mechanics. Now he's tightly guarding Thomas 20 feet from the basket, when he's suckered by a head fake. Chandler lands in time to see Thomas knock down a jumper. Chandler fails to rotate and allows Latrell Sprewell an uncontested dunk. Chandler takes a seat at 4:48.
The Knicks lead 80-63 after three quarters.
Curry gets a chance to redeem himself with 8:28 left in the game. He proceeds to overplay Doleac in the low post but makes too much of a commitment -- Doleac goes back door, receives a nifty pass and forces Curry to foul him. Curry has the ball on the left block and drives to the middle, but he loses firm control and has to hump up a half-hook-half-jumper that barely catches a piece of the rim. Fizer replaces him at 5:20.
With the Baby Bulls combining for four points, six rebounds, six turnovers and three fouls in 22 total minutes, the Knicks cruise to an easy win, 98-86.
In the postgame locker room, Chandler and Curry are slumped against their lockers looking as sad and forlorn as orphans of the storm. Cartwright takes them aside and tell them that, yes, they stunk up the court. But there's another game in two days, so this is what they have to do: Make a plus out of a minus. Instead of beating themselves up for playing so badly, they have to search for, and find, something that can be corrected. Maybe they weren't prepared mentally. Maybe they ate the wrong breakfast or lunch. Whatever it is, there's something to be learned from even the worst debacle.
Cartwright is surprisingly calm after meeting with the media. "Young players usually take two steps forward and then one step back," he says. "But sometimes they take one step forward and two steps back. At the same time, we have to step up the pressure on both Ty and Eddy. Ty's natural position is power forward, Eddy's is in the middle, and when we can get them ready to play together, they could dominate. So our timetable is for Eddy to be able to start along side Ty by the end of the year. But this is the last year of their apprenticeship. They'll both be 21 next season and a lot is riding on how much work they'll be willing to do over the summer."
But even as a player Cartwright was agonized by each and every loss. So the more he talks the more emotional he gets. "Damn," he finally says. "We need another scorer. We need a tough point guard and a tough small forward. Somebody mean enough to knock guys on their butts. Ty is the toughest we have, and he only weighs 230. Aside from him, we've got too many nice guys. And you know where nice guys finish, don't you?"
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game," "The Cockroach Basketball League," "The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball," "Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."