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Mark Woods in Orlando
It’s a measure of how dazzled we’ve all become of the youth movement which is currently burning its spotlight across every corner of the NBA that we’ve almost become immune to the frail ambition of Generation Z. Kobe, T-Mac, KG.
We never expected them to be this good this fast but up they came, surprising and thrilling in equal, impressive amounts.
It never actually happened overnight of course. It just feels that way. A bad team needs a saviour and all of the hope goes onto the shoulders of the guy who might be the Next Big Thing. Or who could be an underwhelming disappointment.
Rome wasn’t built in a day. Likewise NBA superstars, despite the rapid amounts of hype and expectation – plus the million-dollar paycheques - which have already been piled on Pau Gasol, Tony Parker and J-Rich. They might be the real deal but their path to the very top is only at the start, a flower with the buds only merely popping open.
No city needs a saviour quite like Chicago though. No group of fans have tasted the pure air at the top of the mountain and luged so quickly all the way back to the leaden smog. But for the Bulls, the fingers are crossed and the lucky rabbit’s foot has been rubbed back to the bone – all in the hope that Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry might lead the fallen giants back to greatness from their current position at the very basement of the NBA.
The second and fourth picks respectively of last year’s draft are both aged just 19, both straight out of high school and both suffering from the traumas of adjusting to adulthood and the pros while soaking up the Windy city spotlight. Babes in (extra long) arms in NBA terms, each serving their apprenticeships on the league’s worst team.
“It’s been hard because I came in wanting to win,” concedes Chandler, the elder by two months. “I had expectations of that, of being in the play-offs.” Fat chance and certainly not this season. He adds: “We have to start winning so we can get back up. Then we have a chance to make things happen.”
It has not been all plain sailing. Each has suffered the ignominy of the DNP-CD, benched for a stretch of games by both Bill Cartwright and his predecessor Tim Floyd. Watch and learn from the sidelines is the message.
An hour before I meet the pair ahead of the Bulls meeting with Orlando, Cartwright informs both that they have been taken out of the starting line-up to face the Magic. It is another step in the maturation process but significantly, there are no tantrums, just an acceptance that their time has not yet come.
“We have to trust in coach,” Chandler nods, a patient approach to their rookie campaign which appeals equally to Cartwright himself.
“It’s a process,” he underlines. “You understand they’re 19. You understand that every game is a learning experience to the extent that they’ve never played this many games in a season. They’re being introduced to new offenses and defences. And then also they’re playing against guys who they have to get acclimated to. So this entire year is a learning experience.”
Other observers agree. “Those young guys are going to be good,” Orlando Magic coach Doc Rivers enthuses. “You see it. I think they have quite a future.”
Despite the turnovers and missed passes, there have been sufficient signs of improvement to justify the Bulls optimistic stance.
"Some nights you do see it and some nights you don’t,” says former Chicago legend John Paxson of the twosome’s incremental advances.
“You know it's a young team and these are the guys you're going to be counting on down the road. It's all part of the growth process. It takes time for new guys to come into this league and play consistently. And that makes it real tough to win a lot of games. they don’t give you the same game every night and that's what the great players can accomplish. The great ones when they are not on, they find other ways to help you. But you see flashes with these guys and that's OK.”
The hardest part, both rookies agree, is the 82 game, non-stop travel, what time zone is it today grind of the NBA. It’s a major test of stamina for two kids who would otherwise be attending classes and paying more attention to Final Four than Defensive Three Seconds.
“As many games as we play, you have to come in night in and night out against the best players in the world,” Chandler acknowledges in his soft-spoken tones. Some nights, neither can get in synch with the offense.
A junk put-back from Curry. A monster block from his buddy. And that’s it.
“It’s real hard on our bodies,” Chandler continues. “We’re not used to this. So maybe when we do play less minutes, we might be able to put more production for our team.”
With his red headband and infectious grin, Curry appears relaxed with the mixture of acclaim and criticism. A Chicago native, he recalls easily the great era of the not-so-long past. The age where Jordan ruled and the entire world watched on in universal amazement.
“This is a dream come true for me,” he states, smiling at a bunch of young fans clambering for a quick autograph and a wave from his 7’6” wingspan. “To be in NBA with the team I grew up watching.. I used to put myself in those uniforms and imagine one day I could be at that level.”
More advanced offensively than his fellow newcomer, he enjoys a greater stability off the court, benefiting from a watchful circle.
"I've had a lot of support from my family, especially with them being only an hour away,” he reveals. “They can drive to my house. I can go to theirs. It keeps things normal. Even with a lot of things which have changed, they've been my rock.”
By contrast, Chandler’s folks remain in his native California. “My mom comes back and forth but I have other little brothers who are in school. So she has other people to watch out for,” he outlines. Mutual support hence has been important to cope with the varying demands of their new lives.
“That's been wonderful for us both,” Curry states. “Having two guys who are going through the same things. We help each other as much as we can.”
The portents look good. The upsides large. Another two seasons and this could be the next running of the Bulls. Until then, be prepared for the odd mistake, the occasional lapse and enjoy the growing pains ahead.
“This is everything I've ever wanted,” Curry smiles. First the Bulls babes must walk. Running will have to wait.
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