United Center

Zach LaVine not daunted by chasing ‘Black Jesus’

Zach LaVine not daunted by chasing ‘Black Jesus’

The statue doesn’t sit out front of the United Center anymore, but the statute remains the same for any player good enough to be on the marquee for the Chicago Bulls.

Zach LaVine, while awed by the specter of Michael Jordan, isn’t spooked by chasing a ghost. Weeks away from a debut as a Bull—returning from ACL surgery—LaVine is aware of the standard set by the man who called himself “Black Jesus”.

“Black Jesus played here for so long. I’m not putting myself in that category,” LaVine said, unaware Jordan gave himself that nickname as a young player in Chicago. “He lived up to it. They (fans) want to get back to that pinnacle.”

He hears the hopes and wishes of fans when he walks off the United Center floor two hours before every home game after getting shots up as part of his rehab. LaVine knows what’s expected from him—what’s more, he expects that from himself.

He’s a two-time slam dunk champion, certainly, but the Seattle area native wants to be known as a complete player, someone a franchise can build around.

And if it’s Black Jesus’ franchise, so be it.

“You try not to let it mess with you,” LaVine said. “I feel like I’m strong minded, I’m confident in myself. Everybody is gonna have their own opinions. All that matters is how you feel about yourself.”

Not that he’s not holding himself to the standard set by the standard bearer himself, but he’s aware the responsibility that comes with playing at Jordan’s position for a franchise still largely synonymous with Jordan—even though this spring will mark 20 years since Jordan actually wore Bulls red.

“No one’s trying to compare you to him, that’s out there,” LaVine said. “You’re just trying to be the best you, coming into this situation. You have the opportunity to be the face of the franchise. To be that guy. You want to embrace that. You want everybody to know you’re prepared and capable of doing that.”

Simply being identified as a player a franchise will commit to building around as opposed to the third wheel, as he was believed to be in Minnesota behind Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, is warming for him.

Derrick Rose believed he was up for the challenge until his body betrayed him. Jimmy Butler wanted it, but the Bulls thought otherwise leading to the chain of events that brought LaVine to Chicago.

In the first season of a full-fledged rebuild, LaVine knows the prevailing belief is that the next franchise carrier is more likely in the coming draft than on the Bulls roster.

“People gonna put a name on everything. I’m gonna hoop, do what I do,” LaVine said. “I know I’m talented, I think the Bulls organization knows I’m talented. Whatever we do with the pick or free agency, that’s their side of basketball operations. I’m gonna do what I do. I put in the work.”

He’ll return to full contact practice next week and if one had to guess, finally be introduced as an active player in the middle of December once he works the kinks out and gains confidence in taking real contact.

But then again, confidence has never been a problem for LaVine. Whether it was instilled in him by a vocal father who had him chart every shot he took as a high schooler or simply innate, LaVine isn’t shying away from the challenge.

“He had a plan, for sure,” LaVine said of his father, Paul, who once played linebacker for the Seattle Seahawks. “I have binders of shots. I was doing workouts the day before games. I was doing professional workouts before (college). I embraced being a hard worker.”

Whether it’s the rehab or a road that’s had plenty of twists and turns for him to be 22, he’s experienced enough not to be naïve but young enough to have admirable wide-eyed optimism.

“You put in that much hard work, it can’t fail. It can’t.”

Will anyone on the current Bulls roster make the 2020 All-Star team?

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USA TODAY

Will anyone on the current Bulls roster make the 2020 All-Star team?

For the first time since 1988, Chicago is set to host an NBA All-Star Game

In 2020, basketball fans from around the globe will descend on the United Center to catch a glimpse at the very best the Association has to offer. Whether any Bulls player fits that criteria remains to be seen. 

At the beginning of what is likely a long rebuild, the Bulls roster isn't filled with obvious future All-Stars. And unlike in 1988 at Chicago Stadium -- when Michael Jordan started and dropped 40 -- getting a player in the game is questionable. Here's a breakdown of each current player's chances: 

Nahhhh.  

Cameron Payne: In a league loaded with point guards, Payne doesn't rank anywhere near the top. Pitched as the possible point guard of the future in last year's deal that sent Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott to Oklahoma City, Payne has played in just 11 games with the Bulls. Barring some miraculous development, he won't be reppin' Chicago at ASG Weekend. 

Kay Felder: He may turn into a heat-check guy, but he's no Isaiah Thomas. 

Quincy Pondexter: He beat the odds when he returned to an NBA floor after a myriad of serious knee injuries. The odds of an All-Star appearance are much greater, though. 

Jerian Grant: The 25-year-old point guard out of Notre Dame is getting his chance to run the show... he's shooting just over 30 percent. 

Cristiano Felicio: Big Cris has made huge strides in his short time in the NBA. Becoming one of the best big men in the East, though, seems a tad unrealistic. 

Paul Zipser: Until he improves his 3-point shot (32 percent in his career), he's not a candidate. 

Anything is possible... but probably not 

David Nwaba: The guard has an incredibly high motor, but it's not often that a strong, energetic defender with clear offensive limitations gets an invite. 

Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic: Given the sour relationship between these two, it's probably one or the other. Portis would have to consistently hit his outside shot along with rebounding like a menace. Since Mirotic is a below average defender, he'd have to have an incredible offensive first half to earn a spot. 

Denzel Valentine: It's fairly obvious that the Bulls did not get the 2016 version of Draymond Green. Could be a solid role player still.   

Justin Holiday: On pace to have a forgettable offensive season, Holiday's a terrific perimiter defender who can get hot for one half of a season. Right? 

Robin Lopez: The trusted veteran in the Bulls locker room would be 31 come the 2020 Game. He's yet to make an All-Star roster in his career, so this "it's possible" nod is just out of respect for RoLo continuing to be a positive influence on this version of the Baby Bulls. 

Kris Dunn: Where there's hype, there's not always All-Star appearances. Dunn has looked better of late with the Bulls, but he still struggles to shoot, a pretty important factor in determining ASG worthiness. 

Legit shot

Zach LaVine: This may be a bit overzealous considering LaVine hasn't even played a game with the Bulls yet. The 22-year-old has already left several marks on previous All-Star Weekends though, winning the Slam Dunk Contest twice. If he fully recovers from his torn ACL, his scoring and playmaking could land him a spot. If not, he could make an appearance in the Slam Dunk Contest or 3-point contest (38 percent for his career). 

Lauri Markkanen: He's turned heads in his rookie campaign, being lazily compared to Kristaps Porzingis. Assuming he'll continue to get more touches and flourish offensively, it's not a stretch that he'll be a 22-year-old All-Star. 

Patrick Kane gave a touching tribute to a soldier on a recent flight

Patrick Kane gave a touching tribute to a soldier on a recent flight

Patrick Kane is all in on the Blackhawks' organization-wide effort to express gratitude to the troops.

The star forward recently gave up his first-class seat on an American Airlines flight to a soldier, according to flight attendant Teri Truss' Twitter account:

The Blackhawks honor a different member of the military on the ice each night during the singing of the national anthem at the United Center and Kane has suited up for Team USA in several international competitions, including the 2010 Vancouver Olympics when the United States won the silver medal.