Bulls

Wendell Carter Jr's blessing in disguise could be big-time gain for Bulls

Wendell Carter Jr's blessing in disguise could be big-time gain for Bulls

Wendell Carter Jr. sat stoically at the dais Monday, being introduced with Chandler Hutchison as Chicago Bulls first-round picks at the Advocate Center, adding more talent to a growing trough of youth in a rebuild many hope will take a sizeable step this fall.

His cool demeanor shouldn’t be interpreted as an affront, Carter Jr. seemingly keeps a calm face in new situations in the wake of new challenges.

It was likely the same controlled expression he displayed a year ago when like many, he watched future teammate Marvin Bagley III reclassify to become college eligible for the next season and selected Duke as his pit stop before hitting the NBA.

“Humanly, you didn't want it to happen,” Carter Jr. said some time after going through the battery of media interviews following his introduction.

In a moment’s time, Carter Jr. went from incoming focal point for Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski to afterthought, from future shoo-in as a top pick to the risk of being lost in the shadow of a more heralded teammate.

Carter Jr. stayed quiet, true to his roots despite being a “spoiled” only child, by his admission. His mother Kylia, a former college basketball player who along with his father Wendell Sr. guided the steps of her child, didn’t know if it was a roadblock or blessing in disguise.

“My initial reaction, I was pissed. And it wasn't pissed because Marvin was coming. To be honest, I felt like that was information that was kept from us,” Kylia Carter said. “It felt (shady), it felt like my baby was gonna get kicked to the curb. I felt like all of that.”

While it took Kylia some time to get over it, Wendell Sr. was more pragmatic. It’s there where the balance of the Carter family is on display.

“I tell people. People make promises they can't keep. It didn't bother me,” Wendell Sr. said. “I was concerned because I felt like we were lied to. ‘Oh, Wendell's gonna be the man’ and then the rug was pulled from under us.”

The father had a simple solution for his son: “Just go play ball.”

Wendell Jr’s path was carefully cultivated and nurtured by his parents, who’ll move from Atlanta to Chicago to help with his transition to NBA life. His adjustment to the unforeseen circumstances at Duke wasn’t unlike his adjustment to high school, where he was enrolled in Pace Academy in Buckhead, northeast Atlanta.

Pace Academy has been recognized as one of the top private schools in the country, and the Carters selected it because of its challenging curriculum, amongst other reasons.

Carter Sr. said he didn’t even know who the basketball coach was, and Carter Jr. was already nationally ranked, making it an unorthodox move on its face.

“That made a huge difference,” Carter Sr. said. “He was around people, those people were wealthy. Not rich but wealthy.”

Making Wendell Jr. develop comfort while being uncomfortable was a lesson he learned early and he excelled academically and athletically, weighing a scholarship offer from Harvard before deciding on Duke.

“We would drop him off at school, (other) cars pulling up would be Ferrari’s,” Carter Sr. said. “These folks got money. Long money. When they saw him, they treated him like he wasn't nothing special. That environment helped him a whole lot.”

“He was another student. He felt he was able to grow, nobody tugging at him.”

At Pace, he found out he could easily stand out as well as he could blend into a diverse environment.

At Duke, he was ready to blossom on his own so admittedly, it wasn’t the easiest adjustment although it was embedded in his behavioral DNA. The practices where Bagley and Carter Jr were matched up against each other was likely tougher than the early games.

“We were definitely going at each other,” Carter Jr. said. “Hard. Very hard. But only to make each other better. It wasn't 'I don't like you, I hate that you're here so I'm going at your neck.' We both wanted to get better.”

On the floor, though, he wasn’t performing like a future lottery pick. Wendell Jr. attributed it to the “freshman 15” pounds he added before getting in better shape.

“At the beginning when you watch Wendell's games, he was engaged but we could tell something wasn't all good,” Kylia Carter said. “(He) didn't look all in, you didn't look like you were giving your all. You were there, but you weren't really there.”

A trip back to Atlanta for a visit a few games into the season got him back on track, embracing the minutia and intangibles that helped Duke become a favorite headed into March Madness.

“He told us it bothered him at first. But he said I gotta make it work,” Kylia Carter said. “You're gonna do all the stuff you already know how to do. And you're gonna do it at an extreme level. Everything but score. Do everything else to aid.”

“Everybody knows you can score. So let Marvin have all the damn points. They're throwing him the ball, the offense is geared around him. Why are you beating your head against the wall.”

She pauses to choose her words carefully, paraphrasing her advice to her son.

“Defense is not the strong suit of this team. Fill that void.”

The early start never dropped Carter Jr. from draft boards, firmly planted in the top 10 all season as a steady complement to Bagley—an aspect that appeared to be the greatest compliment to his maturing game.

The blessing suddenly was undisguised, with Kylia facetiously saying “thanks, Coach K.”

“As the games got tougher, his game got better,” she said. “Because those things they needed in those tough things were things he was so comfortable doing. They needed rebounds, rim protection. They needed ball screens.”

Many times over the last few days, John Paxson, Gar Forman and head coach Fred Hoiberg mentioned Carter Jr.’s character off the floor and on it, made note of the verticality he’s used to block several shots last season.

Unknowingly, they were praising mom’s teachings, honed from her playing days.

“It's still basketball. Still X's and O's. Same rules, it's just the players are different,” Kylia said. “We know all the X's and O's. That's what we women know.”

As for the blocked shots, that came from Kylia’s athletic gifts as a volleyball player.

“We played volleyball. That's the way we learned verticality is volleyball,” she said, before demonstrating. “You go straight up. Two hands, straight up. If you go straight up you won't get called for a foul. He would lean, be tempted. All of that is temptation, and anticipation.”

The temptation to command more of Duke’s offense when it had so many first-round draft picks settled down as the anticipation of getting to the NBA grew closer and closer.

“People think I took a backseat to Marvin. I don't think that's the right terminology. It's just that I sacrificed,” Wendell Jr. said. “People think I bowed down to him or allowed him to take the leadership role. But in my opinion I did what I had to in order to win.”

The incoming rookie said there wasn’t much he learned about himself in the process, and his per-game averages of 13.5 points, 9.1 rebounds and 2.1 blocks showed he didn’t have much back-down in his game for anybody, let alone a teammate.

The intangibles have long been noted as a reason many believe he can be a nice frontcourt sidekick to Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls’ burgeoning second-year forward.

“I think it was a positive,” Carter Jr. said. “I'm coming into a situation where I'm gonna be playing with other great players again.”

As for the blessing in disguise, Kylia Carter has yet to give Krzyzewski her true feelings from promises that weren’t kept. But it’s coming.

“We have not had our conversation but we will. We almost went there with him when we did our exit interview,” she said. “But he'll come around to a Bulls game and I'll get the chance.”

Like the Bulls, mom is letting it build.

5 Bulls remaining must-watch games of 2019-20 NBA season

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NBC Sports Chicago

5 Bulls remaining must-watch games of 2019-20 NBA season

There are 23 games left, Bulls fans! Not that I’m counting, or anything. As we prepare to enter the final month of the NBA regular season, the Bulls are a Leap Day loss to the Knicks away – it could happen, we’ve seen it happen – from being 20 games under .500. Given the goals set forth by John Paxson and Jim Boylen on media day, I think it’s fair to say that the underachievement this season has been jarring.

Some fans have checked out and will tune back in for the draft lottery in May. To those of you I say: I get it. But there’s still basketball to be watched!

The Bulls’ remaining schedule is a gauntlet of playoff-bound teams including a daunting west coast trip in April. This likely means the playoffs are a pipe dream, regardless of what the math says in the “games back” column of the Eastern Conference standings. But this tough schedule in March and April also provides Bulls fans with some fun games to watch, with individual matchups that might just provide glimpses of hope for next season.

Here are 5 games I’m excited to watch in the remaining Bulls schedule. It’s the Pecking Order.

1. March 2 – Bulls vs Mavericks

I know, I know. It’s not fair that the Mavericks went straight from the Dirk Era to the young and wildly promising Luka Era with no gap in between while the Bulls languish in the third year of a rebuild that hasn’t taken off. It’s only human to wonder “what if” the Bulls had gotten luckier in the lottery or managed to make the trade Dallas did to land Luka Dončić two years ago. John Sabine doesn’t help matters with his nonstop Luka talk.

But I can’t help it. Luka, and this entire Mavericks team, is so much fun to watch. Their offensive efficiency this season isn’t getting nearly enough talk or respect. The Bulls kept it close when these teams met in January despite a modest 20-point night from Zach LaVine. Lauri Markkanen had one of his better games of the season with 26 and 9 rebounds.

Dončić didn’t even need his sidekick Kristaps Porziņģis, as he picked apart the Bulls to the tune of a 38-point triple double. And this was before defensive anchors Wendell Carter Jr. and Kris Dunn went down with injuries. Hopefully Wendell will be back on the court for this one and we’ll see how he handles Kristaps, who looked pretty darn good in February.

2. March 14 – Bulls @ Heat

The Bulls are 0-2 against Jimmy Butler’s new team so far this season. One of those was a backbreaker that saw 17 ties, 15 lead changes and went to overtime. The Bulls led for 37:38 of the game’s duration, while the Heat only led for 6:10. Zach LaVine drew a foul on Jimmy Butler and sank free throws to send the game to an extra frame, where Tyler Herro drilled three of his game-high five 3-pointers to seal the win for Miami.

The Heat have been reeling of late, including losses to Atlanta, Cleveland and Minnesota. But they’re still dynamite at home, where their record is 23-4. Could the Bulls manage to steal one in a trap game for the Heat? Zach didn’t play well in either matchup so far, scoring 15 and 18 points. How great would it be to see a LaVine-Butler duel like the one we saw three years ago when Zach was fresh off his ACL rehab and Jimmy was still with Minnesota? And if the Bulls come out on top? Sure would be fun to watch.

3. March 21 – Bulls @ Rockets

The Bulls were beat by Houston back in November in their first game after Otto Porter Jr. went down. James Harden was one assist shy of a 42-point triple-double and Russell Westbrook chipped in 26. The Bulls, meanwhile, had all five starters and seven total players score in double figures, but nobody scored more than 13. Yikes.

Since shipping off Clint Capela and going all-in on their small ball strategy, the Rockets have surged to just two games back of the second seed in the West. I can’t wait to see what Jim Boylen does with his game plan, as we’ve recently seen him use some give-guard lineups in similar fashion to the Rockets. Might he go back to this even if certain members of the Bulls frontcourt have returned from injury?

It would be a bonus to see a back-and-forth showdown of recently surging rookie Coby White and the always-going-100-mph Westbrook. Give us at least 48 minutes of this! And hopefully, a more respectable outcome.

4. March 23 – Bulls vs Nuggets

We actually get a twofer here, as the Bulls play Denver again on April 3rd as part of their five-game west coast trip. There’s one big reason I can’t wait to watch both matchups with the Nuggets: Wendell vs The Joker, Parts II and III.

In his NBA coming out party on Halloween night 2018, Wendell admirably battled Nikola Jokić in a devastating overtime loss. The Joker did his usual thing, putting up 22 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. But Wendell also gave him some challenges, forcing Jokić into an uncharacteristic six turnovers. The Bulls' seventh overall pick finished the night with a stuffed stat sheet of 25 points, eight rebounds, five assists, three steals and three blocks. The Nuggets big man even paid his respects to the rook after the game.

We never got to see Part II of that matchup last season, as Wendell was out with an injury the second time these teams played. We’ve heard that Wendell is expected back in the lineup as soon as this Saturday against the Knicks after recovering from his high ankle sprain. I cannot WAIT to watch Wendell go at The Joker twice in the final few weeks of the season. Please, Jim Boylen. Let Wendell go at him.

5. April 8 – Bulls @ Lakers

I want revenge. That loss to the Lakers way back on November 5 still bothers me. It’s bothered me all season. Instead of closing out a solid win over LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the juggernaut Lakers, Bulls fans watched the team let a fourth quarter lead slip away with our primary starters watching from the bench. Boylen said he had "15 guys to develop” when he explained his rotation after the loss.

One potential hiccup here: a revenge win will mean a LOT less if LeBron and AD are managing loads in the final games of the season as they prepare for their title push. I hope they’re playing, and I hope we pay them back.

Thanks for reading. Let’s close out these final 23 together, Bulls Nation! See red, be good.

After 30 years, Hank Gathers is never far from Bulls' Chip Schaefer's mind

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NBC Sports Chicago

After 30 years, Hank Gathers is never far from Bulls' Chip Schaefer's mind

It doesn’t take an anniversary for Chip Schaefer to think about Hank Gathers.

“It’s never really far from my mind,” Schaefer said in a recent interview.

Schaefer is the Bulls’ director of sports performance, working his second stint with the franchise after serving as the athletic trainer for the dynasty. But one of the Deerfield, Ill., native’s first jobs was athletic trainer and strength coach at Loyola Marymount University from 1987-90.

In fact, Schaefer was the first non-player to Gathers’ side on that fateful March 4, 1990 day when the star forward collapsed on the court during a West Coast Athletic Conference tournament game and died moments later due to a heart condition called cardiomyopathy.

Wednesday marks 30 years since Gathers’ death. On Saturday, Loyola Marymount will unveil a statue honoring him. The family invited Schaefer to the ceremony, no small gesture in Schaefer’s world.

But with the Bulls in New York and Schaefer having already squeezed a trip into Los Angeles this week for Kobe Bryant’s memorial service, Schaefer merely sent his appreciation and respects to the family.

“It doesn’t take much for me to think of him,” Schaefer said. “Every time we’re in Philadelphia, his hometown, I think of him. Every time I flip around the TV and see a Loyola Marymount game, I think of him. I run into people, Jay Hillock, one of (the Bulls’) scouts, was an assistant coach on the staff, and I think of Hank. He was special.”

Schaefer isn’t merely referring to Gathers’ athletic ability, which had NBA talent written all over it.

“He was really an extraordinary personality,” Schaefer said. “He had just an unbelievable sense of humor and a wonderful gift for mimicry.

“I remember one year we had the typical college, end-of-season awards night. It was supposed to be MC’d by one of the local sports anchors. He had to cancel at the last minute. Hank wound up MC’ing it. And he killed it. He could’ve done Vegas with the bit. He had a whole (Muhammad) Ali- (Howard) Cosell bit. It was just unbelievable. He had something funny for every player. And he was riffing, completely spontaneous. I remember nights like that where his rich personality and wit and intelligence was on full display.”

Much like with Bryant, who Schaefer worked with for 12 seasons with the Lakers, he is trying to remember the happy times. When Loyola Marymount hired Schaefer from the esteemed Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic in Los Angeles, he was only a few years older than Gathers.

“Hank was actually a patient that I met at the clinic. I think he had patellar tendinitis. And we really hit it off,” Schaefer recalled. “That Spring, the athletic trainer before me (at Loyola Marymount) was let go. Hank came in all bubbly and was all excited about me applying for the job.

“So we had the next three years together where we continued to build the special relationships you often build in this field. There were a lot of really personal moments. Hank and Bo (Kimble) grew and we kind of shocked the world in the NCAA tournament that 1987-88 season. We built a national spotlight.”

Indeed, Gathers led the nation in scoring and rebounding in 1988-89. And then Kimble led an emotional run to the Elite Eight in 1990, shooting a free throw left-handed to honor Gathers’ memory.

Schaefer attended Bryant’s memorial service by taking a red-eye flight so as not to miss any Bulls’ commitments. Saturday’s game against the Knicks doesn’t allow him to do the same for Gathers, although he grew emotional when asked what the invitation meant to him.

After all, since Schaefer was one of five people who worked on Gathers outside the gym after his collapse, he was named as one of 10 people and three medical practices in a lawsuit. Schaefer knew he did nothing wrong and followed proper emergency protocol by the book, and Gather’s mother, Lucille, ultimately settled the $32.5 million wrongful-death lawsuit for $545,000.

“I’m the one there along with the doctors on the floor trying to help revive and resuscitate him, so you never know how a family is going to react to anybody that is associated with that,” Schaefer said. “But I’ve heard from Hank’s brother, Derrick, occasionally with warmth and affection and magnanimity and grace. That’s really something. After three decades, that Lucille would even remember my name much less think, ‘It would mean a lot to have him here,’ I’m touched beyond words about that.”