CHICAGO — Going back decades, the last time that the Knicks and Bulls were jockeying for positioning at the top of the Eastern Conference there were fights on the court and profane messages on the whiteboards, a rivalry that was must-watch not only for the fan bases but for the NBA’s leadership as they readied to hand out suspensions.
It is in stark difference to what the mood was Thursday. With "Joakim Noah Night" being held and the Knicks stocked with remnants of the Bulls' contending teams, the event was staged to have Tom Thibodeau, who was the coach for those last Bulls’ glory days, and Noah’s teammates, Derrick Rose and Taj Gibson, on hand. Thibodeau even made his way to a party Wednesday night as players flown in for the game gathered, and the Knicks were spending the night after the end of the game in Chicago rather than fly right to New Orleans as they would in most circumstances.
"They’re both two great basketball cities, " said Thibodeau, who was an assistant coach on the Knicks teams that battled Michael Jordan’s Bulls before he complied a .647 winning percentage in five seasons as head coach in Chicago. "So there’s great appreciation for the subtleties of the game: hustle plays, the extra pass, the effort plays, the togetherness, the teamwork, the discipline.
"I just remember how fierce the games were. Back then, there were a number of great rivalries: the Chicago-New York one, the Miami-New York one, New York-Indiana. That was a great time in the NBA. Every night was a big game, so hopefully, we can get back to that."
By game time Thursday, the nostalgic reunion could not diminish the odd turn in the standings. The Bulls entered the game with a 4-0 record and the Knicks were 3-1, their early season marred only by a disappointing home loss to Orlando and already piling up impressive wins over Boston and Philadelphia.
It may not make this matchup take the course that the Michael Jordan-led Bulls and the Patrick Ewing Knicks embarked on and it’s hard to imagine that these two will still be at the top of the conference when the season is over. But for Thibodeau it brought to light the comparisons between his Bulls teams and the Knicks squad he helms now. The comparisons may not come in style of play, but in groups that had a belief and bought into what he was preaching.
"I’ve been lucky through my career to have that experience in the ’90s with New York," Thibodeau said. " . . . You realize when you look back how special it is. You don’t remember who scored how many points. You remember the people you were with and things you went through. Taj, Derrick, the things they’ve gone through and see who they are, it’s special. I love our team. The character of our team now is similar to those teams. They care about each other, great teamwork, discipline, effort. Some nights we fall short but that commitment to get back at it and do better and improve. That’s what this league is about."
Rose, who was a key player for both the Bulls of Noah’s era and the current Knicks, grew up in Chicago when the Knicks and Bulls would fight, figuratively and literally. But he missed that history.
"My story is a lot different than any other hooper," Rose said. "I didn’t watch the Bulls games like that. My family would be around watching the Bulls games. I was always outside. I didn’t know about salaries or anything. I just had a pure passion for the sport and that got me here."