(MCT) — CHICAGO — Here’s how serious losing an NBA star is: Charles Oakley uses plain language to describe the impact.
“That’s some bad stuff,” Oakley said in a phone conversation.
Oakley, who rarely met a metaphor he didn’t magnify or mangle, lived through the Bulls’ 1985-86 season when Michael Jordan broke a bone in his left foot and missed 64 games.
And as the Bulls begin the 47th season in franchise history with Wednesday’s home opener against the Kings, the former enforcer and rebounding extraordinaire has some advice for a team that will play without Derrick Rose for a significant portion — if not all — of the season.
“Don’t think about trying to do what he did,” Oakley said. “You can’t replace him. You have to do the things that win games — defend, rebound, play tough. Times like that show you what’s inside each individual and the coaching staff.”
To the Bulls’ credit thus far, that has been the dominant theme of training camp. Coach Tom Thibodeau, he of the “we have more than enough to win with” sound bite, has refused to let Rose’s rehabilitation after knee surgery be a distraction — or even much of a topic.
If the Bulls are waiting for Superman, one wouldn’t know it by their work ethic and mindset.
“We prepare hard,” All-Star forward Luol Deng said. “And we know how to win games. The past two years, we’ve proven that. We have the same core back. No one individual is going to fill Derrick’s shoes. But collectively, we understand the situation. We know we need each other to get better.”
The Bulls dealt with the loss of Jordan another time. Granted, Jordan’s stunning retirement on the eve of the 1993-94 season isn’t a direct analogy for this season’s situation. That Bulls team had won three championships, not bowed out in the first round of the playoffs.
But this refusal to play the woe-is-us card is the same approach a certain Hall of Fame coach used when Jordan stepped away.
“Phil (Jackson) of course would accept a death notice with a very calm voice,” said Johnny Bach, an assistant on those teams. “He’s a great coach in times of duress. He had superb control over that scene. That was his strength. He didn’t cry about what happened or why it happened. I think he recognized Scottie (Pippen) stepping into another role.”
Indeed, Pippen emerged as a star rather than sidekick for that 1993-94 season, leading the Bulls to 55 victories and a controversial second-round exit to the Knicks.
“We still had a championship core,” said current Bulls broadcaster Stacey King, who was traded to the Timberwolves for Luc Longley at the 1994 trade deadline. “And Phil was a championship coach. He wouldn’t let us feel sorry for ourselves.
“Scottie was ready to take over. He welcomed the challenge of being the man. In the back of his mind, he probably always wanted to be the man. But MJ was there so he would never be the man. With MJ stepping away, it helped Scottie’s game and showed people how valuable he was. He wasn’t a guy who just rode alongside MJ. He was capable of leading a team.”
This Bulls team doesn’t have a Hall of Fame talent like Pippen. But it does have players in Richard Hamilton and Carlos Boozer who have been primary scorers for an NBA champion in Detroit and conference finalist in Utah. Their most productive days might be behind them. But if the rest of the Bulls can stay healthy, there appears to be enough pride and talent to weather Rose’s absence.
“Honestly, what are we supposed to say?” Deng said. “We’re competitors. No one is going to stand up here and say we have no chance. We practice hard and work hard. Nothing is handed to you in this league. We have good players. We have enough to compete and win games. And we believe in each other.”
Oakley said the 1985-86 Bulls team rarely discussed Jordan’s injury or when he might return.
“We all knew what happened,” Oakley said. “I was young on that team and we had a lot of pros. We had a veteran coach (Stan Albeck). Our whole goal was to just try to make the playoffs and then if he got back, you never knew what could happen.”
Jordan indeed returned, authoring his stunning 63-point performance at Boston Garden in a first-round series swept by the Celtics.
Cavaliers coach Byron Scott played for the Lakers when Magic Johnson made his stunning, HIV-related retirement announcement in 1991.
“When you’re dealing with that situation, it makes basketball seem not that important,” Scott said.
Nevertheless, he learned lessons he still uses today as a coach.
“You say next guy up,” Scott said. “I always tell our guys it’s not going to be one guy. It has to be done by committee.”
Nobody knows when or if Rose will return this season. But this is certain: The Bulls won’t let the situation become a distraction.
“The style of play is going to be the same,” Thibodeau said. “We’re not changing our attitude or approach: Defend. Rebound. Low turnover. Play inside out. Share the ball. Play to your strengths. Cover up your weaknesses. Know your job. Do your job. Stay disciplined. Whether he’s here or not, that stays the same.”
Thibodeau paused to point out the Bulls overcame major injuries to Boozer and Noah in his first season and injuries to Rose, Deng, Richard Hamilton and C.J. Watson last season to lead the NBA in victories.
“Even our first year here, the experts didn’t have us picked very high,” he said. “I don’t know how this season is going to unfold other than if we approach it the right way, we can improve and who knows where it goes.”