Bulls

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.”

Bill Wennington remembers Michael Jordan's double-nickel game on 25-year anniversary

Bill Wennington remembers Michael Jordan's double-nickel game on 25-year anniversary

Over 25 years, Bill Wennington has used some variation of the same line. But given the magnitude of the occasion, it still hasn’t grown old.

Do you remember the time Michael Jordan and I combined for 57 points?

Still, with Saturday marking the actual 25-year anniversary of Jordan’s famous 55-point outburst against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden in his fifth game back from a 17-month retirement, it was nice of Wennington to offer up something new.

“My line at the time was, ‘What was Patrick Ewing doing leaving me at the basket? It’s not like Michael had 55. Oh, that’s right. He did,’” Wennington joked in a phone conversation.

Yes, 25 years have passed since Jordan’s double-nickel game, the grandest of grand statements that Jordan was back from his minor-league baseball experiment.

“There are some players who are simply unique and transcend every aspect of the game,” Knicks coach Pat Riley said that March 28, 1995 day. “And he’s the only one in the history of the game who has had the impact he has had all the way around.”

Indeed, Wennington recalled Jordan making that impact immediately, even in practices at the old Berto Center in Deerfield, Ill.

“I had heard what it was like through the first three championships were and how practices were. As soon as he came back, all the stories were true. He just raised the intensity level up,” Wennington said. “And the intensity level was already higher than some other teams I had been on because Scottie was carrying on the tradition and keeping things competitive. But when Michael came back, it went up twofold.”

Jordan had scored 19, 21, 27 and 32 points in his first four games back, but shot just 39.3 percent as he tried to find his legs and rhythm after such a long layoff. Plus, his body had been conditioned for baseball.

That’s what made his 55-point explosion on 21-for-37 shooting all the more shocking.

“Seeing him play that well that quickly was pretty amazing. He did whatever he wanted on the floor,” Wennington said. “But he had talked about that game. He wanted to play in the Garden. He liked playing in the Garden. He thought it was a great place to play, especially with the rivalry that had grown between the Bulls and Knicks.”

Wennington laughingly pointed out that he only played because both starter Will Perdue and reserve Luc Longley fouled out trying to stop Patrick Ewing, who scored 36. But the crucial reserve for the second three-peat pointed out he had been in that position before.

“That’s where Phil (Jackson) was so good. He made sure guys understood their roles and how they fit in. So it wasn’t hard to stay ready,” Wennington said. “Not that I thought I’d have to do much with the game that Michael was having. I just knew I had to play my role and get out of the way with proper spacing.”

Which is exactly what Wennington did on the game-winning basket. John Starks fouled out Perdue with 14 seconds left and sank both free throws to tie the game at 111-111. In the ensuing timeout, Jackson reminded Jordan, wearing No. 45, that Ewing had left his man to double-team on the three previous possessions.

“I’d be lying if I said I was coming out to pass the ball,” Jordan said that day. “I was coming out to score.”

Jordan drove on Starks and rose for a shot as Ewing came to contest.

“The play was for Michael obviously to make it happen and win the game. It was just one of those things where we run the play and I'm going out to the weakside down low, and Patrick just leaves me. So I go down by the basket to put myself in a position to either get a rebound or be available for a pass,” Wennington said. “And Michael passed.”

Wennington slammed home Jordan’s second assist of the day, with little fanfare afterward.

“He slapped me on the head, said, ‘Good shot.’ It was a do-your-job type thing,” Wennington said. “That was what Michael was all about. If you talk about guys who played with him and the reputation that he was tough on players. It was really only that he expected you to do your job. If you didn’t do your job or hold your own, you’d hear it. Because he was always focused on winning.

“I don’t think he ever got mad at me for having someone score on me. But if I did something goofy like take my eye off the ball and lose the ball or not be in the right spot at the right time, he’d let you know about it. That to me is an extension of him wanting to win.”

The Magic eliminated the Bulls in the second round of the 1995 playoffs. But Wennington points to the double-nickel game as a harbinger for what was to come. The Bulls set an NBA record by going 72-10 in 1995-96, Jordan’s first full season back, and winning the first title of a second three-peat in the 1990s.

“That game helped us realize that our team could be really good if we got on the same page,” Wennington said. “And the following season, we got on the same page.”

Every other night through April 15, NBC Sports Chicago is airing the entirety of the Bulls' 1996 NBA championship run. Find the full schedule here.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.

Bulls observations: Rodman, Wennington and role guys key Game 4 win over Knicks

Bulls observations: Rodman, Wennington and role guys key Game 4 win over Knicks

We got Dennis Rodman inhaling rebounds, 'Winnington' time and an electric Garden atmosphere in Game 4 of Bulls-Knicks. But most importantly, the Bulls seized a 3-1 series lead. Observations:

A night for the unsung heroes

Michael Jordan got in foul trouble early, picking up two personals in the opening minutes and a third before the first half was over. He was the only Bulls starter not to play every minute of the first quarter. To give you an idea of how rare Jordan battling foul trouble is… 

 

So, yeah, he didn’t foul out of this one. Even in a game that wasn’t his strongest, he led the Bulls with 27 points (though on a paltry 7-for-23 shooting), and tacked on eight rebounds and eight assists in 40 minutes.

But the role players were the story for the Bulls. Ron Harper had a postseason-high 18 points. Randy Brown chipped in a timely eight, Jud Buechler provided a first-half spark with six in the opening two quarters, and the bench, as a whole, shot 64.7 percent from the field — well above the team-wide mark of 40.7 percent. 

Then, it was ‘Winnington’ time in the fourth. Bill scored four points in the final minute-and-a-half — both field goals on setups from Dennis Rodman. The second, a stoic 10-footer from the right baseline, put the Bulls in front for good. 

On a night for unsung heroes, it was awesome to watch Wennington, Rodman and John Salley (let’s not forget Spider’s defense on Ewing on the Knicks’ second-to-last possession) stymie the Knicks’ momentum and pull the Bulls in front. Jordan scored two points in the fourth quarter — on a pair of free throws with 11.2 seconds remaining — and it didn’t matter. The Bulls prevailed 94-91, their slimmest margin of victory in the '96 playoffs.

Dennis Rodman eats rebounds for breakfast, lunch and dinner

To anyone with eyes, the physicality of this series compared to the modern game (and even their first round series against the Heat) stands out prominently. On the glass, the Bulls thrived on that intensity.

Rodman led the way again in this one with 19 rebounds (10 offensive) in a team-high 41 minutes. As mentioned, he slung two late assists to help seal the game. And his 19th rebound, a contested snare off a Ewing floater, gave the Bulls the opportunity to clinch the game with free throws and a final defensive possession. 

On the series, The Worm averaged 15.6 boards per game. He’s awesome.

The Garden was electric

From the jump, the rare energy in Madison Square Garden was apparent, even through the television screen. That swelled as the Knicks got off to a fast start, leading 28-24 after the first quarter and outshooting the Bulls by a wide margin in the first half (at one point, they were 16-for-25 to the Bulls’ 18-for-40).

The organist really set the tone — Sir Duke on loop beats the Power Clap any day.

 

When the Bulls sputtered through offensive possessions midway through the fourth, the crowd’s crescendo was palpable (the Knicks defended their absolute butts off for a long stretch). A John Starks and-one fastbreak layup to cut their deficit to 86-83 elicited a bonafide roar. Consecutive tough buckets by Patrick Ewing to cap a six-minute, 13-0 run that put the Knicks up three late in the fourth quarter incited pure delirium.

It made the Bulls pulling out the tooth-and-nail victory all the more gratifying, especially when a Starks 3 that would have tied it was waved off for traveling with 1.3 seconds left. But, man, if the Knicks ever get good again, it would be so much fun, and that crowd is evidence. You could say the same for the Bulls. I digress.

Game 5 on Monday on NBC Sports Chicago.

Every other night through April 15, NBC Sports Chicago is airing the entirety of the Bulls' 1996 NBA championship run. Find the full schedule here.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.