Vincent Goodwill

Emotional return to the court for Quincy Pondexter after missing two seasons: 'The journey is worth it'

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USA TODAY

Emotional return to the court for Quincy Pondexter after missing two seasons: 'The journey is worth it'

Quincy Pondexter’s trade to Chicago makes him a newcomer. His birth certificate makes him a veteran. But it’s his story that makes him worth listening to.

Even in the eye of team chaos, Pondexter’s debut with the Bulls had such a special meaning that when he entered the game to start the second quarter, he thought he would come to tears.

Having been out of basketball the last two years after knee surgeries went bad, Pondexter came close to dying in a New York hospital in January when his organs began to fail after a MRSA infection.

Catching MRSA can often lead to death.

“It wasn’t looking good,” Pondexter said. “It was tough. I prayed. My family was there close to me. Being able to play basketball again in less than a year is crazy. It’s all God. This journey has been amazing.”

His journey took him from being in New Orleans, where his knee troubles started, to being an addition to the Bulls in a trade months ago when the Bulls picked up cash and a second-round pick from the Pelicans.

Pondexter joined high school teammate and close friend Robin Lopez on a team needing some leadership, and due to the punch Bobby Portis threw to Nikola Mirotic Tuesday afternoon, it put Pondexter in position to get on the floor as a backup power forward behind rookie Lauri Markkanen.

If the Bulls were smart, they’d probably put Pondexter in a room to talk to his teammates about his struggles, especially the two teammates who may have to share the same floor in several weeks.

“The competitive nature of our team has been really terrific and we wouldn't want to trade that for anything,” Pondexter said. “It hurts those two guys aren't here right now. But we love them and we love what they brought to this team.

“I think my age on my ID solidifies me as one of the veterans. When you do things the right way, that's what it means to be a veteran. Show up first, last one there. That's what it means to be a veteran. Establishing myself there and doing things that are right, the guys have followed and listened and embraced me and I love it.”

No word on whether Pondexter got teary-eyed when he got a breakaway steal and dunk for his first points since the 2015 playoffs, when the Pelicans were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the eventual champion Warriors.

“I know I’m going to get emotional on the court later on and probably tear up,” Pondexter said after the morning shootaround. “I told Robin that a thousand times. People don’t know what you’ve been through. There are a lot of times they’re not there besides your close family and friends. I appreciate them carrying me through this whole process.”

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg can relate to Pondexter, with Hoiberg’s heart ailment cutting his career short. When the Bulls coach speaks about the frailty of the game and how precious things are in the NBA, Pondexter is living, breathing proof.

“I’m really really happy for Quincy. For a time there, his life was in danger with his infection. I know he’s really excited to get his career going again,” Hoiberg said. “I never got that opportunity to get back out there. I tell these guys to cherish it ever day. You never know when it can end. All of a sudden. For Quincy to get this chance, it’s awesome.”

Pondexter, with the straightest of faces, called basketball his “obsession” and he felt happy to get back on the floor, if even for a few minutes.

“I love it to death. It’s my life,” Pondexter said. “Basketball is what got me through it---my family and basketball. It was like, ‘How can I make this story even better? Do I quit?’ No. I watched so many inspirational movies, 'Hacksaw Ridge.' They get you through tough times because you say, ‘That’s going to be me.’ I’m going to be able to inspire someone down the road. That’s really helped me.”

A hamstring injury slowed Pondexter in training camp, which would explain his lack of explosive lift in the season opener.

No one was really sure if the Bulls would hold onto him for the season, but it’s clear he holds value beyond the box score. When he finished his media session, Lopez turned to Pondexter and said, “Now you’re stuck with me”, putting his arm around his teammate.

“Being able to play after two and a half years, it feels like hundreds of surgeries, getting traded to this organization. It's been a lot,” Pondexter said. “I wouldn't trade any of that for this moment right now and how I feel in my heart. I can't wait to get on this floor and play with my teammates and try to do something special. The journey is worth it.”

Bulls opener includes quick blitz, miscues and an impressive Markkanen debut

Bulls opener includes quick blitz, miscues and an impressive Markkanen debut

Observations from the Bulls’ season opener, a 117-101 loss to the Toronto Raptors Thursday at Air Canada Centre.

It happens quickly: An encouraging first quarter and all its good vibes went away in a matter of 90 seconds to start the second, when a two-point deficit turned into 10 as the Bulls’ second unit failed to continue some positive habits established in the first quarter.

The slim margin for error is actually less than that, considering the Bulls don’t have enough firepower to compete or a player who’ll create his own shots for long stretches.

It was early but the Raptors’ 20-2 run ended the game even though there was more than 34 minutes left. The score was 45-25 and everybody in Air Canada Centre knew it was just about over.

“That was the key stretch of the game. They got downhill, they picked us up (defensively). We didn’t respond well to that,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “They got in the paint, spread us out and hit shots.”

Clearly their roster was already depleted in the wake of the Bobby Portis-Nikola Mirotic incident, so Hoiberg had to dig even deeper into his bench than he’d like.

“Obviously we didn’t have a lot of time to prepare and figure out what we were gonna do with lineups because we haven’t played those lineups the entire preseason,” Hoiberg said.

First look: You can tell Lauri Markkanen will struggle a bit with his strength, as he’s just 20 years old in his first NBA action. On a couple occasions, he drove the ball hard to the basket right into the mammoth Jonas Valanciunas, and put up quality attempts.

“I have a lot to improve but if I had any nerves for the first game, those are out now,” Markkanen said. “I let the game come to me. I’m not forcing anything.”

The stat line looked good for someone in his position, scoring 17 with eight rebounds in 33 minutes but the spirit of how he played was the most encouraging thing.

“That’s what we like about him, he has no fear,” Hoiberg said. “I thought he was really good, to go out and put up 17 and 8 in his first game, he had a couple shots he normally is gonna make. So yeah, he was real good.”

He also gets aggressive on defense to block shots on the weak side, leading to harder rim runs and a 3-point play in the third quarter where his long stride got him from the top of the key for a layup without a dribble.

It was a stretch where he scored a quick eight in the third, and he reiterated he’s a confident player and his first game did nothing to dim that belief.

“He was great, I loved how aggressive he was,” Robin Lopez said. “He put himself into good spots out there on defense and offense.”

Playing hard/hard lessons: Even though they were down 20 multiple times, the Bulls didn’t completely fold. Part of it was DeMar DeRozan going just 11 on two of nine shooting, but the Bulls consistently played hard—one of the few things Hoiberg can hang his hat on as a coach.

“Obviously something we talked about a lot is playing through adversity, playing through the tough times,” said Hoiberg, noting the Bulls had a few chances to cut the Raptors lead to 12 in the second half.

Denzel Valentine was four of seven from 3 but was also a minus-19 in his 25 minutes of run, a feat matched only by Cristiano Felicio, who played 16 minutes.

“I was proud of the guys in the second half,” Hoiberg said. “I thought (Kay) Felder gave us a big lift off the bench with his pace, with his speed.”

Felder wasn’t shy in his 15 minutes, getting up nine shots and hitting two, but had six assists as he was the only Bull to get in the lane with any regularity. Considering one of the things the Bulls lack of shot creation, finding ways to compromise the defense will be critical if they are to stay close for long stretches.

But with that comes the risk of turnovers—which is something the Bulls will likely struggle with anyways. Coughing it up 19 times for 27 points is an example of “thin margin for error”.

“You turn the ball over 19 times, you give up eight offensive rebounds to one guy, it’s gonna be a long night,” Hoiberg said, referring to Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas, who had 23 points and 15 boards.

The long line: The 3-point line was supposed to be the great equalizer on some nights for the Bulls, considering they want to get up shots early and often in this offense.

But C.J. Miles took the Bulls playbook and used it against them, scoring 22 points in 20 minutes, hitting six of nine from 3-point range. Overall the Raptors, a team that was middle of the pack at best in that department last season, come into this year with an added emphasis.

It showed, as they hit 13 of 29 compared to the Bulls making 11 of 33. Justin Holiday was off, hitting just four of 12 and was five of 16 overall.

“You put a big key on Miles, making him bounce the ball. He hit some tough shots,” Hoiberg said. “That’s who he is, that’s what he does. They hit shots, they got it in the paint and spread it out.”

Looking for culture reset, Bulls find themselves in the middle of more drama

Looking for culture reset, Bulls find themselves in the middle of more drama

It was supposed to be an uneventful and culture-resetting season for the Chicago Bulls, but that ended the moment Bobby Portis’ hand connected with the sweet spot on Nikola Mirotic’s face.

Now a light is shining on an unwilling franchise and rightful questions are again being asked about what led to the event, rather than the result.

Mirotic will be out four-to-six weeks with facial fractures and a concussion to boot and Portis was suspended for the first eight games of the season, leaving rookie Lauri Markkanen to man the power forward spot against the likes of Serge Ibaka and LaMarcus Aldridge his first two games.

Welcome to the NBA, kid.

It’s likely he received his wake-up call when he saw his teammates exchange friendly fire, though, considering the witnesses said Mirotic and Portis had been at it for awhile before Portis took one swing to conclude matters.

“Both players owned responsibility in the incident itself but only one player threw a punch. And that punch connected. For us, that is inexcusable,” Bulls Vice-President John Paxson said. “It’s not who we are.”

But when there is no discernable identity, and there’s a coaching staff who’ve witnessed these two go at it for well over two years you have to ask if this is who the Bulls are.

Not in the way of fighting but a team that collectively stands by idly while a situation builds and builds before it explodes, then is forced to clean up the carnage while having to explain and react to an unnecessary event.

Jimmy Butler, gone. Ditto for Derrick Rose. Tom Thibodeau? Dumped too before he picked up what the Bulls didn’t want in Butler on draft night, jump starting this process of the Bulls headed to Parts Unknown.

All have been blamed at some point for the state of affairs. Rose’s knees, Butler’s mouth, Thibodeau’s unwillingness to bend.

Butler took a tongue-in-cheek shot directly across the bow of his former franchise when asked about the incident involving his former teammates, saying “All I know is I’m not to blame for this one”, a nod to the narrative surrounding his trade to Minnesota.

Now who’s left to blame and what happens from here is anybody’s guess.

“When’s the right time to step in? I saw it on the best teams I played on, where you had that competitive spirit,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “You have to have it to have any chance at all. So sure, looking back on it, would we have handled the situation differently? Maybe. I don’t know.”

Both Paxson and Hoiberg expressed the rightful disappointment in Portis while also saying Mirotic had a hand in what occurred. Portis will ultimately bear the responsibility, with his eight-game suspension coming at the worst possible time as his option for next season hasn’t been picked up yet, as it’s hard to see he and Mirotic sharing the same space in a locker room whenever Mirotic returns.

And if he is still around, it’ll be on the players to keep a team from splintering — as if the expected losing won’t be depressing enough.

“As teammates, we're certainly supporting Bobby and supporting Niko,” said Robin Lopez, a de-facto leader on a young roster. “We're going to let them know that what they did, the way they messed up, wasn't right, but we're definitely supporting them.”

Lopez, along with many others, said the confrontation has been brewing for some time, that the pushing and shoving wasn’t anything new. From a human standpoint it’s understandable to sense tension as Portis has been itching for playing time for two years after playing behind veterans, anxious to cement himself on a team that drafted a player at his position four months ago.

Mirotic came in as a golden boy of sorts, handed a starting spot by Hoiberg two years ago and given every chance to snag a starting spot last year before Taj Gibson aggressively stepped in.

His up-and-down performances were rewarded with a $12-plus million deal this offseason and although players usually don’t count each other’s money, they take note of who’s favored and who isn’t.

Mix in competition and ego days before the season began and it’s not surprising something was on the horizon.

But it’s up to a coaching staff to step in, as assistant coach Randy Brown did before the parties were separated in the hope things would settle down.

They didn’t, and now Hoiberg will start yet another season having his aptitude to coach a professional team questioned before he can call an official play or lay out a rotation — because Portis laid Mirotic out on the Advocate Center floor.

Hoiberg desperately wants to change the narrative surrounding his first two years, eager to prove his system can work and that he’s capable of commanding a team that plays hard and organized on a nightly basis.

Whether this is an omen or a random event, it certainly doesn’t bode well for Hoiberg to his detractors.

He stood to the side while Paxson addressed the media, appearing both bewildered and shocked he was having to address such a rare situation a little more than 24 hours before his season-opening cleanse was to occur.

“I’m very disappointed in what happened,” Hoiberg said. “Now, my job is to not let this moment derail us. My job is to get these guys prepared to go out and fight and play as a group, and I’m confident our guys will do that. They’ve shown that going all the way back into late August.

“I’m confident our guys will rally around each other. I’ve seen how much these guys care for each other, and we’re going to go into Toronto tomorrow as a group. We’re going to learn from this. We’re going to grow from this. We’re going to compete, I promise you that.”

It’s clear the Bulls want to extricate themselves from the past couple years and now recent events, but when things are swept under the rug they have a funny way of reappearing at the weirdest times.