Nearly five years ago, Fred Hoiberg began his coaching career in Ames, Iowa, with a 78-64 victory over Northern Arizona in his first regular season game as Iowa State’s head basketball coach. A shade under 13,000 fans were in attendance at the Hilton Coliseum, which held 14,356 at the time, to see the Cyclones knock off a Lumberjacks team that eventually won 19 games and lost in the opening round of the CIT, college basketball’s lowest postseason tournament.
Half a decade later, the scene couldn’t be more different for Hoiberg. He’ll begin his NBA head coaching career Tuesday night inside a sold out United Center against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. And as if the NBA’s first nationally televised game against the league’s best player wasn't enough, President Barack Obama is scheduled to be in attendance to cheer on his hometown Bulls.
Hoiberg admitted five years ago he was “very calm” in his debut with Iowa State, and despite the pressure-packed atmosphere awaiting him against the Cavaliers with the Commander-in-Chief on hand, he said at shootaround Tuesday afternoon that he's more opportunistic than anything.
“Very anxious, very excited,” Hoiberg said. “The opportunity to play a team that’s favored to win an NBA championship this year. To go out, it’ll be a great barometer for our guys to see where we are after this opening night, and then we get to do it all over again tomorrow with a back-to-back. Tonight, it’s exciting. It’s an exciting time. I know our players will be ready.”
When asked specifically about a President, a King (James' nickname) and a Mayor (Hoiberg's nickname) being in attendance, the Bulls head coach admitted with a laugh, "I'm probably the lowest on the totem pole on that one."
The storyline heading into the season opener for the Bulls is once again dealing with James, whose teams have knocked Chicago out of the postseason in four of the last six seasons – twice with Cleveland in 2010 and 2015, and twice with Miami in 2011 and 2013. With a nearly identical group returning from a year ago, when the injury-riddled Cavaliers knocked them out in the East semifinals, the Bulls’ hope is that a new philosophy under Hoiberg, specifically one tailored to the offensive end, will allow the Bulls to succeed where Tom Thibodeau-led groups failed.
And yet, for the hoopla surrounding Tuesday night’s affair, Hoiberg and the Bulls have maintained a level-headed approach, understanding that the outcome is simply one of 82 games that will define the season as two teams on a collision course to meet again in the postseason get their collective feet under them.
"We're definitely all in. We're focused and know its going to take time. We're working hard every day to make it the best possible, and its a good vibe over here," Joakim Noah said. "We know we have a lot of work to do. It's Game 1, and I'm excited to see how we compete tonight."
Neither team will be at the full-strength they hope to be come postseason, part of the reason Hoiberg isn't feeling as much pressure and is taking a long-term approach heading into the opener. James missed the final four preseason games after receiving an injection to deal with back pain, both Kyrie Irving (knee) and Iman Shumpert (wrist) will miss Tuesday’s game with injuries, and Anderson Varejao returns to the floor for the first time since tearing his Achilles 10 months ago.
For the Bulls, Derrick Rose will have his minutes monitored as he battles back from an orbital fracture that limited him to three practices and one 10-minute appearance in the preseason. Mike Dunleavy remains out after offseason back surgery. Tuesday's outcome will have little bearing on whether the Bulls can or will dethrone James in seven months, meaning Game 1 is just that.
“Obviously throughout the course of the season, a lot of things will transpire by the time the playoffs roll around, so I don’t think you look at that from Day 1," Hoiberg. "You know as the pressure of you have to get by this team. Because there’s so many variables that can happen over the course of the season.
“But they are the team if you want to make it to the finals and have a chance, they’re the favorites. You just try to prepare the guys as best you can.”
Hoiberg's preparation has, in the early going, yielded mixed results as the team familiarizes itself with a new up-tempo offensive scheme. The Bulls averaged 28.8 3-point attempts in the preseason, fifth most in the NBA and 6.5 more than they took a year ago under Thibodeau (22.3). There will be bumps along the way, and question marks about the team's defense will linger, but Noah is confident the Bulls' hard-work mentality which defined them the last five seasons will remain, regardless.
"We're all learning from each other and tonight I think it's going to be interesting just to see how we compete." Noah said. "There's going to be mistakes out there, were all learning different philosophies out there. But for me it's just about the energy we're going to bring to the game."
Noah, who will come off the bench for the first time since his second NBA season, shared the same approach as his head coach. Though he thinks it "awesome" that Obama will be in attendance, and knows better than anyone the task of eventually going head-to-head with James in the postseason, Tuesday night is about beginning the season on the right foot and coming away with a victory.
“Obviously there's a great level of respect for him as a player," Noah said of James, the two-time NBA champion. "You've got to respect everything that he does on the court. He's a great player. (But) we just want to beat the Cavs."