I tried to put on a brave face during the NBA lockout, maintaining my enthusiasm for college and high school basketball. It's real, my passion for the amateur level of the game, but starting Friday evening, I woke up to reality.
It was one thing for the lockout to end -- interrupting my Thanksgiving weekend, something taken for granted when you're in a faraway city like Denver for the holiday -- and for players to come in for voluntary workouts and training camp to begin, let alone a hectic period of free agency and trades. But when the Bulls played the Pacers in Indianapolis in the preseason opener Friday, something clicked.
The NBA was really back. Attending shootaround at Conseco Fieldhouse that morning was fine, nothing amazing, but again sitting courtside, watching Derrick Rose slashing to the basket, Taj Gibson sparking the team with high-energy play off the bench, rookie Jimmy Butler starting his professional career with a flourish and evaluating the rival Pacers, it felt different than any other preseason.
Before I started covering the Bulls, preseason games were something to be taken with a grain of salt as players knocked off the rust, rookies adjusted to the league and veteran stars mostly sat on the sidelines. As a full-time beat reporter, they're typically considered more of a necessary evil before the games that really matter commence.
But this time around, there's an aspect of feeling grateful to be able to dissect the minutiae of the sport from the perspective of watching actual games. Forget the quality of play early in the season; media, fans and players -- to a man, every player I've encountered spoke of "just being happy to be playing basketball again," and based on the fact that they seem less weary of the media as a whole, it seems pretty accurate -- alike are just happy to watch basketball at the highest level, whether in person or on television, now that seeing NBA highlights before bed can finally be part of a daily routine again.
There was plenty of talk about whether fans had become apathetic during the lockout, whether they'd be resentful at both the league and players, and although I'm a writer, I'm also a fan, so I can absolutely understand if some people feel that way. From a purely selfish standpoint, though, I'll just say this: NBA exhibition games are ultimately meaningless, but they certainly beat covering labor negotiations.