CHICAGO – The Bears looked kind of funny Wednesday.
For one thing, none of them wore a helmet. They sported sneakers instead of cleats. And why did only five of them line up for the opening kickoff?
It’s basketball season. Forgive me for being late.
Now that another Bears’ season is in the books (and general manager Phil Emery is busy interviewing approximately 217 head-coaching candidates), I headed to the United Center to see what I’ve been missing.
There, I joined a sellout crowd of 21,570 to see the Bulls host the Milwaukee Bucks. The Bulls squandered a 15-point lead to lose, 104-96, but at least Derrick Rose inched another day closer to his return.
Eight months had passed since the last time I watched the Bulls play on their home court. On that day, the Bulls hosted the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, only four games after Rose drove to the basket and crumpled to the court clutching his left knee.
That moment changed everything.
The Bulls lost their opening playoff series in six games. More importantly, they lost Rose for 257 days and counting. They also lost several key members of their “Bench Mob” – Omer Asik went to Houston, Kyle Korver to Atlanta, C.J. Watson to Brooklyn, Ronnie Brewer to New York, and so on.
Knowing that Rose would miss much of the season, the Bulls filled their bench with lower-priced veterans. The message seemed clear: Keep the seats warm until Rose returns.
In came journeymen such as Marco Belinelli, Nate Robinson and Nazr Mohammed. Kirk Hinrich returned, albeit two years older and several steps slower.
Yet the Bulls kept winning, spare parts and all.
At 19-14, Tom Thibodeau’s team is in good position for a playoff berth. One game separates the Bulls from the first-place Indiana Pacers in the Central Division, and a division title would mean a top three playoff seed.
I could try to tell you more about the new-look Bulls.
Instead, I asked some people who have been paying much closer attention.
Stadium usher Giselle Lopez has worked (and watched) all but two home games this season. The 19-year-old from Chicago worked Wednesday’s game between Sections 324 and 325 in the upper deck.
It’s not a bad view. From her perch, Lopez has seen the Bulls improve after a rocky start.
“At the beginning, it was kind of like, ‘Oh, they don’t know how to play with each other,’ ” Lopez said. “But now they’re more comfortable with each other.”
Eight-year-old Alex Prairie of Bourbonnais arrived early to watch players such as Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson practice jump shots before the game. His dad, Gregg, has tickets for another game in April.
“I like to watch them practice,” said Alex Prairie, who watches almost every game on TV.
It’s an easy team to watch for fans such as Pete Overholt and his son, Max, who celebrated his 23rd birthday Wednesday. The season-ticket holders from Wilmette have watched about a half-dozen games this season from their seats behind the basket in Section 116.
As players warmed up before the game, they chatted about how much better Carlos Boozer has played in the past month and how the new bench has developed into a productive unit.
Of course, the impending return of Rose never strayed far from the conversation. For the Overholts, watching the Bulls play without their MVP point guard remained strange.
“It’s a little weird,” Max Overholt said. “But given what a lot of talking heads were saying – how they were not going to be quite as good without Rose – overall, I’d say they’ve done pretty well.”
“They have so far exceeded what I thought they would or could do without Rose,” Pete Overholt said. “I’ve enjoyed this season. I really have. It’s been fun.”
Before long, it will be a lot more fun.
Maybe Rose will return in a month? Maybe six weeks? Whatever the date, it’s getting closer.
“Now, everybody’s getting so pumped up,” Lopez said with a big smile. “D-Rose is coming back.”
• Shaw Media sportswriter Tom Musick can be contacted at email@example.com.