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MARK HEISLER / ON THE NBA

For the Chicago Bulls, this is growing up

The young and talented team learns when things go wrong at this level, they go really, explosively wrong. If this ends badly, the Bulls have shown themselves to be tough.

May 23, 2011|Mark Heisler
  • Chicago's Joakim Noah was fined by the NBA on Monday after making an anti-gay slur during the Bulls' loss to the Miami Heat in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals on Sunday.
Chicago's Joakim Noah was fined by the NBA on Monday after making an… (Joe Skipper / Reuters )

From Miami — As Casey Stengel, who could have qualified for a doctorate in youth studies managing the expansion New York Mets, once said of a hot catching prospect named Greg Goossen:

"He's 19 years old and in 10 years he's got a chance to be 29."

That was the 1960s, the age of peace, love and flowers, but Woodstock or no Woodstock, growing up was hard to do.

Fifty years later, growing up is harder, if anything, with cable, the Internet and tight camera shots reading your lips as you engage the fans behind the bench in a little homophobic banter, as Chicago's Joakim Noah did in Game 3 in the Eastern Conference finals against Miami.

Amid the subsequent feeding frenzy before Tuesday's Game 4, which the Bulls must win or go home feet first, it was hard to remember there will be a Game 4.

Noah handled it professionally — after the fact, of course — apologizing before and after the NBA fined him $50,000.

"I think that with the comment to the fan, I just want to apologize about that," Noah said Monday.

"I had just picked up my second foul. I was frustrated. He said something that was disrespectful toward me and I lost my cool.

"People who know me know I'm an open-minded guy. I'm not here to hurt anybody's feelings."

Off the floor, Noah is as personable as quotable. On it, he's a great high-energy, selfless young player, who does for the Bulls defense what Kevin Garnett does for that of the Boston Celtics.

Of course, Noah is also Out There, as you may have noticed, watching him put his shoulder-length-or-longer hair up in a bun coming out for pregame.

Former Bulls great Dennis Rodman actually said Noah "runs around without his head sometimes."

The Bulls still are trying to figure out if that's grounds for concern, or high praise from someone who kept his head just long enough to show off that night's dye job.

As an incident, this one was most significant for its lesson to the young Bulls:

At this level, when things go wrong, they go really, explosively wrong.

If Noah hadn't said anything, the media would have landed on Derrick Rose, who took only two shots in the fourth quarter Sunday, shot 15 for 42 in the last two games, and — inadvertently, he claimed — was just quoted calling steroids a "huge" issue in the NBA.

Reprehensive as Noah's outburst was, let's not be too shocked.

It's true, Miami fans are vicious ... as are Chicago fans and most others, although in New York and Los Angeles, local sophistication — and astronomical ticket prices — act as a buffer, surrounding the court with wealthy people who are no longer fast on their feet.

After the 2004 brawl at a Detroit Pistons game in Auburn Hills, Mich., the New York Daily News' Mitch Lawrence was asked by an editor whether it could happen in Madison Square Garden.

Replied Lawrence: "Can you see Woody Allen rushing on the floor?"

Players snap out all the time, unprofessional as it is.

The deeper in the postseason they go, the more cameras are trained on them.

Welcome to the fast lane.

If this ends badly, the Bulls weren't even supposed to be here. If they need shooters, they have shown themselves to be tough and disciplined, as well as young and talented.

At Rose's age, 22, Michael Jordan was six years from his first title, which he had to spend hearing that he didn't make teammates better.

Happily for Jordan, it was pre-Internet so at least it wasn't maniacal.

Jordan was 34 and had four titles in 1997, the last time these teams met in an Eastern Conference finals game here before Sunday.

The Bulls — who led, 3-0 — were upset, more or less... after Jordan spent the off-day playing 46 holes of golf at nearby Turnberry Isle.

Jordan missed his first 13 shots as Miami went up by 21 in the third quarter, then scored 20 in the fourth as the Bulls cut it to one before falling, 87-80.

The Bulls then went home and eliminated the Heat in Game 5.

If this wasn't veteran leadership in the strict sense, Jordan wasn't exactly overwhelmed by the pressure.

Of course, Miami then was Alonzo Mourning and Tim Hardaway.

Even if Zo might come in handy at 41, now they're LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, eight-year veterans who have seen trifles blown into scandals, like all this season.

"Thibs [Coach Tom Thibodeau] always talks about walking through a fire together," said Noah.

"You win Game 1, there's a lot of love after the game.

"You lose two, it's like the end of the world."

Happily, this is the NBA. Disappointment notwithstanding, it's just win or go to Cancun.

mark.heisler@latimes.com

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