Bulls also looking good to the president’s guy


Dec 23

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The long delayed NBA season finally begins Sunday, Christmas Day, and for the first time in more than a decade, Bulls fans are excited, really excited.

David Axelrod will concur. David’s been busy these days with his main job, chief strategist for President Obama’s re-election campaign after serving two years in the White House as the president’s senior advisor. But otherwise, he’s like a lot of Chicagoans who are feeling, perhaps anxiously because we always expect something to go wrong, that there may be something special here to watch with this Bulls team.

And he’ll also be watching Sunday when the Bulls open the season in the premier national TV game against Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.

The Lakers, pretty much based on history and reputation, are featured, though Bulls fans believe that may be changing soon.

David Axelrod

“I don’t think (nationwide they) recognize yet how good a team they are,” Axelrod said. “(Derrick) Rose is no secret anymore, but I don’t think people see the Bulls as a great team. They don’t recognize the rest of the talent they have or how they blend together, the intangibles. How hard they play, how well they defend and share the ball. I think people are catching up, though they’re not there yet. Maybe Christmas night.

“I don’t think I’ve felt this way since the (Michael) Jordan years,” Axelrod added. “Where you went into a season really expecting to do well. In those years, we came to expect that we’d be watching basketball into June. I haven’t had that feeling until now.”

I didn’t want to push Axelrod into predicting championships, as he’s fairly busy working on one he hopes comes to fruition in his principal capacity. But this is a man who knows the Bulls, having been a season ticket holder for 35 years. And someone who has done pretty well seeing what few else have and understanding there could be greatness there. I caught up with him Friday as he prepared for a quiet family holiday.

“First thing I did when I got the job at the Tribune in 1976 was buy a season ticket,” recalled Axelrod. “They were more affordable then. First balcony in the old Stadium. Fun stuff. The first date (wife) Susan and I had was at a Bulls game.”

I’ve known David pretty much since then when we both worked at the Tribune. In fact, we played together on the Tribune’s basketball team in one of the Park District winter leagues. I was sort of a C.J. Watson point guard who didn’t like the dribbling and passing parts. He was sort of a Dennis Scott type, not the fastest guy, but with an unusually accurate three point shot.

“There’s nothing orthodox the way I play, or picturesque,” he adds.

I’d never tell him, but he was a pretty good player. We’d play one-on-one some, and when he’d get tired of me actually making a few jumpers, he’d take me down in the post and score fairly easily. I couldn’t do much with my 50-pound deficit. He played some in Washington, though only occasionally with the president. There wasn’t as much time given the White House schedule, but David’s always been virtually indefatigable and seemed to me never to tire. Back in Chicago, he’s playing in weekly games again, but concedes, “I need to have some space between the time I play and when my body heals.”

He grew up in New York City a subway ride down from the old Madison Square Garden and recalled his dad taking him to double header games in an era when the NBA wasn’t exactly prime time. “Five hours of basketball,” he recalls. “We loved it, the Warriors with Chamberlain, Russell (who’s become a friend), the great Knicks teams.

“I spent a lot of my childhood outside Madison Square Garden waiting for autographs,” he said. “Then came the 1970 (and 1973) Knicks. They played good defense, smart basketball, moved the ball and everyone could shoot. I’ve always said I’d still root for the Knicks if Walt Frazier (his personal favorite), Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Earl Monroe or Dick Barnett and Bill Bradley were still out there.”

Though there was a stirring of the Bulls and embracing Chicago, first as student at the University of Chicago.

I loved those games watching Frazier and Monroe go against Van Lier and Sloan,” Axelrod recalls. “Brutal, 82-80 games. Then I came to Chicago and go to see some of Sloan and Van Lier, that great ’77 team with (Artis) Gilmore against Bill Walton and the Bulls came pretty close to beating them. Lionel Hollins beat with a shot and the ‘Blazers go on to win the championship.”

There were long, lean times, but as a basketball fan he endured. “Like in politics,” he says, “you have to take the long view. But the 76ers had Julius, there was Bird, Magic. It’s much better when your team is playing well, but if you were a basketball fan you wanted to see them.”

Eventually came, of course, the Jordan years, “a catalog of exciting moments,” as Axelrod says, like going to Utah to see Game 5 in 1997.

“I’d scalped a ticket, paid more than I should have and I didn’t want to tell Susan,” he recalls. “So Susan calls and asks if Michael is playing, that they said he was sick. I’m thinking, ‘I paid way, way too much money and Michael’s not even playing.’ But I had a great seat opposite the Bulls bench and got to watch that whole drama, how sick he was, the timeouts. It was something.”

David says he recalls a conversation with Ernie Banks.

“Not that I’m name dropping,” he adds with a laugh, “but I remember Ernie was talking about Willie Mays (an Axelrod favorite as a kid as a Giants fan) and how everyone loved to play when Willie did because you knew something exciting could happen. That’s what I felt about Jordan and that’s how I feel about Rose. He’s not a showboat. He’s got great humility, but at any time he can explode and do something spectacular, fun and well.

“It’s a team with swarming defense that hits the open man. That’s what’s fun to watch if you are a basketball fan,” Axelrod says.

And that’s what a lot of Bulls fans like Axelrod are starting to feel coming into this season. There was a sense the last few years, but nothing like this. Axelrod said in the White House during those playoff first rounders after Rose arrived the Chicago staffers would duck into the White House theater, at times with the president, a huge Chicago sports fan, to watch the late playoff games. And, of course, then back to the offices to work.

But now back in Chicago working on the campaign, David’s had more time to get to the United Center, and that one preseason game earlier this week only whetted an appetite for what could be something special.

“We got lucky in the 80’s with Jordan the No. 3 pick,” he notes. “That saved us from disaster. And now to have Rose fall our way with what, a two percent chance. We got lucky. Twice we get once in a lifetime players. And not only is this kid a great player, but a great person. I believe what Charles Barkley said that athletes are not great heroes. But Rose’s character is really admirable. It makes you feel great about your team, a leader other young people can actually look up to.

“Last year was kind of a surprise,” Axelrod agreed. “No one expected them to do what they did. And they were only a few points away. Every one of those games could easily have gone the other way. And they strengthened the team. What I saw of (Richard) Hamilton the other night was exactly what they needed. He runs the floor well. Runs with Rose. Moves the ball and he moves.

“They were going to get better from the experience of last year, and now they added a valuable piece,” Axelrod added. “Two things make a team fun to watch: If they play good, aggressive, swarming defense and if they move the ball well and share the ball. It helps, obviously, to have superstar, exciting players. There’s a great coach and off what happened last year and the first few exhibition games I know I’m really excited.”

Finally, let’s go. It should be fun.

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