Wayback Wednesday: Running With The Baby Bulls & Beyond

Wayback Wednesday: Running With The Baby Bulls & Beyond

This is Wayback Wednesday, your midweek blast from the past! From retrospectives of basketball games and their interesting features, to republished articles and looking at NBA history through the lens of the virtual hardwood, Wednesdays at the NLSC are for going back in time. This week, I’m reminiscing about playing with the Baby Bulls teams in basketball video games.

My nostalgia for the NBA and basketball video games doesn’t end with the 90s; far from it! Many of my favourite titles were released in the 2000s through to the early 2010s, and I’ve remained an avid NBA and basketball junkie long after Michael Jordan called it a career. Of course, playing with His Airness on the virtual hardwood required some modding back in the day, owing to his absence from the official roster. When it came to running with Bulls teams in the years that followed, I (usually) didn’t have to worry about them missing a prominent player.

Mind you, while all the names might’ve been accounted for, the talent was certainly lacking. I’ve previously reflected on the challenges that came with assuming control of my favourite team in the early 2000s; an extraordinarily tough time to be a Bulls fan after experiencing the glory days of MJ! I mentioned in passing that they became far more appealing to play with as the decade wore on, and their rebuilding efforts began to yield better results. Those teams came to be known as the Baby Bulls due to their youth, and while they didn’t reach the top of the mountain once more, I did enjoy putting them on the virtual hardwood. Let’s take a look back…way back…

As I noted when I discussed running with the early 2000s Bulls, the 2004 season proved to be a turning point; at least in video games. I had a fantastic new game in NBA Live 2004 to spend countless hours with, and an intriguing Bulls squad to try out. Even though the real 2004 Bulls finished with a worse record than the previous year, they had great potential as a video game team. By that, I mean they had the talent on paper to be successful and fun to use on the virtual hardwood, even if they were basement dwellers in reality. There have been a number of such teams over the years, and it’s hard not to be drawn to them when dusting off an old favourite.

Kirk Hinrich in NBA Live 2004

The 2004 Baby Bulls were an interesting mix, as they featured young players full of potential including Jamal Crawford, Kirk Hinrich, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry, and yes, Marcus Fizer! They also had veterans nearing the end of their careers, namely Kendall Gill and a banged up, washed up Scottie Pippen, returning for a farewell tour. There were also players with a few good years left, like Donyell Marshall and Jalen Rose. Throw in video game legends like Eddie Robinson and Jannero Pargo, and they were easily the most appealing Bulls team to use in years. After a false start in NBA Live 2003 due to a few gameplay gripes, I had my team for the new Dynasty mode.

They still presented a challenge of course, and I’ll admit that a few weeks in, I was mulling trade options. I had an opportunity to replicate the deal with Toronto that brought in Antonio Davis and Jerome Williams, but as I’ve fondly recalled, I instead opted for an unrealistic trade that brought Kevin Garnett to the Windy City. To that point, I didn’t quite play a season with an accurate Baby Bulls team. However, I did keep a bulk of the team intact, and the fact they had enough assets for me to pull off a blockbuster for KG without gutting the team was an improvement on previous years. I had far more incentive to play with my beloved Chicago Bulls in NBA Live 2004.

When the release of NBA Live 2005 reset my rosters to reality, the Baby Bulls continued to be an appealing option. The 2004 offseason brought in Ben Gordon, Luol Deng, Chris Duhon, and Andres Nocioni. The 2005 squad is one of my favourite Bulls teams, even though they were bounced in the first round by the Wizards. After years of struggling, and a rough start that year too, it was so gratifying to see them rise up the standings and remain in the top eight in the East as a gritty underdog. In Gordon, I found the new favourite active player that I’d been seeking since MJ hung up his Air Jordans for the final time. The Bulls were back! Well, sort of, anyway.

Ben Gordon Outside Scorer (NBA Live 06)

Strange as it may seem to say now, the loss of Eddy Curry in the 2005 offseason stung. He’d continued to emerge as a key contributor during the previous season, and his absence during the Playoffs was a factor in their first round exit. With the benefit of hindsight, it was the right move, netting them some draft picks that would land at least one important player in the years to come. Curry was actually still a Bull in NBA Live 06 PC owing to the early roster cut-off, but I was using the roster update that I released on the NLSC. I did add an older Shawn Kemp to that roster and signed him in my Dynasty, so once again I wasn’t using an entirely accurate Baby Bulls team.

It wouldn’t be the last fictional move I made in my NBA Live 06 Dynasty, but I still loved playing with the core players from the real 2006 Bulls. I’d installed Kemp as my starting centre, but Chandler became a force off the bench, swatting shots, vacuuming up rebounds, and getting easy buckets inside. Turning Ben Gordon into a star was fun, even when he was snubbed for the All-Star Game. Kirk Hinrich and Chris Duhon were solid playmakers, and I enjoyed having Luol Deng and Andres Nocioni on the frontline, occasionally starting them together. Eric Piatkowski even became a virtual hardwood legend following a clutch performance that earned him a starting nod!

Unfortunately, NBA Live 07 and NBA Live 08 failed to live up to my expectations, but I was still eager to continue my NBA Live 06 Dynasty beyond the first year. I would end up making a few more fictional trades, and when I picked up that game again in 2011, I brought in Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver, as the real Bulls had done. I missed being able to play with Joakim Noah – I’d been keen to do that after playing NBA Live 08 at a community event, where he was one of the rookies in the early build – but I still had Gordon, Hinrich, and Deng throughout. Even though Gordon had left the Bulls in 2009, I couldn’t bear to part with him in that Dynasty!

Derrick Rose in NBA Live 10

Despite not making it back to championship contention – and the wretched signing of Ben Wallace in 2006 – the Baby Bulls and a couple of the squads that followed them represented a more optimistic time as a fan of the team. It’s easy to say that that was naive or setting the bar low in hindsight, but at the time, Jerry Krause had been ousted and John Paxson and Gar Forman were making some promising moves. They may not have been a true contender, but they were still relevant, and outside of the blip in 2008, back in the Playoffs to cheer on. It wasn’t the same as watching the title teams dominate, but they were an underdog and team with potential that I could get behind.

And, needless to say, their ceiling was much higher in video games. I didn’t spend as much time with NBA Live 09 and NBA Live 10 when they were new as I would’ve liked, but when I did play them, I frequently used the Bulls with a young Derrick Rose. He replaced Ben Gordon as my favourite active player, and was capable of virtual hardwood dominance with his ability to break ankles and throw down dunks over everyone. Rose was another player that I missed being able to play with in my ongoing NBA Live 06 Dynasty, but I did pick up an explosive generated point guard called Jeremiah Preston, who became a proxy for D-Rose in that alternate reality.

I’d say that it’s inevitable that we overachieve with our chosen teams in franchise and career modes. Like so many other Chicago fans I’m sure, I’ve led the Baby Bulls and beyond to the team’s seventh title, as well as an eighth with an eye to completing a third threepeat for a ninth. That’s the beauty of NBA video games after all; you can make the trades you want, avoid the moves you wish a team didn’t make, and get the results you wished you could see in real life. It’s fun escapism, and cathartic following a tough end to a season, but I was also enthusiastic about the real Bulls. Ultimately, they were good enough to succeed in video games, and facilitate my GM fantasies.

Current & Former Baby Bulls in NBA Live 08

Although the current Bulls have a decent roster – especially when fully healthy – they don’t hold the same appeal for me as far as beginning a franchise game with them. It’s safe to say that the optimism of the Baby Bulls era and the years that followed is no longer there. That’s partly on me for being older and feeling more jaded, but in my defense, outside of a couple of promising moves, we Bulls fans have plenty of reason to be sceptical and cynical. It’s unfortunate, as I know it’d be fun to soar to the rack with Zach LaVine and Alex Caruso, and get buckets with DeMar DeRozan. The same affinity just isn’t there though, and I doubt I’ll ever feel a sense of nostalgia for them.

Conversely, I’ll always have nostalgia for those Baby Bulls, and the later squads with Derrick Rose. It wasn’t the same thrill as being a Bulls fan during the Michael Jordan years, but there I jumped aboard the bandwagon when it was already rolling. Going through those down years, and seeing them become competitive and relevant again, made me appreciate both the championship teams and the rebuilding process. I also went from being reluctant to use my favourite team in games, to being eager to put them on the virtual hardwood. I did enjoy branching out and playing with other teams, but there’s always going to be that added investment when controlling your club.

To that end, if I’m revisiting a game from the mid-2000s through to the early 2010s, the Bulls will always be one of my first choices. Yes, even in NBA 2K7 – or NBA Live 07, if I’m feeling particularly crazy – I’ll play with a Bulls squad that features Ben Wallace! As I’ve said on so many occasions, I love the interactive almanac aspect of basketball video games, and there are a ton of video game teams that are appealing for one reason or another. That optimistic era where the Baby Bulls seemed like they could one day charge back to the top of the NBA solidified my appreciation for those teams on the virtual hardwood, and encouraged me to make my own NBA history.

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