Frankie O's NBA guilty pleasure

Frankie O's NBA guilty pleasure

By Frankie O
CSNChicago.com

As anyone who knows me can tell you, or even someone who unwittingly comes into my proximity, the sports affliction I possess is pretty serious. At front and center of this is rooting for my teams, those that I grew up following with a passion being raised in the Philadelphia area: The Eagles, Phillies, Flyers and Sixers. For as long as I can remember, I have been consumed by their travails and exploits. Some might even call the enthusiasm I have for my teams a borderline mental disorder. I dont know about that, but, at this point, what can I do?

Even moving over 700 miles away hasnt dampened my fervor. That this would puzzle some people puzzles me even more. Among the top-5 questions that I get asked at the bar is about which of the cities teams that I root for: Philadelphia or Chicago? I often viewed this query as being ignorant to what being a fan is all about. You dance with who brung ya. Obviously, switching allegiances to any flavor of the monthduring my lifetime could have saved me years of heartache. We all know Yankees or Dallas Cowboys fans that have never set foot in either city. But Im too far in at this point. A parallel might be: for better or for worse. Why must my teams torture me? WHY?!! Ive come to the realization that this is the VERY reason that they were put on this earth: To mess with my mental well-being at every opportunity. (Wow! That is quite a parallel!)

I know some of you are saying, But, Frankie O, you had the Phillies of 08. And Ill reply: Do the math! Since 1983 4 teams per year, 1 freaking title! ONE. 1 out of 116. Whatever!

The thing that probably drives me most crazy is the spectacular way in which my teams choose to lose. There are no easy ways out when you can make your failure one for the ages. I need only mention The football Dream Team, the 2011 baseball Cardinals or a humongously crazy Russian goalie. And thats all in just the last year!

As you notice, I only referenced three teams. Thats because almost since I moved here 17 years ago, the Sixers, already regulated to 4 status, were gradually losing my interest. Now remember Im talking Frankie O interest, (Whenever you can go 3rd person, DO IT!) so compared to someone normal, I still spent way too much time on them. But even during the run to the NBA Finals in 2001, the team did not conjure the passion in me the way the other 3 teams did. Call it the Iverson effect. Talented player, but he seemed to me to represent what I didnt like about the NBA. Not that it was just him, the Jerry Stackhouse-Derrick Coleman didnt help things either, but the selfishness of their basketball was hard to watch. My nickname for Iverson was 9 for 27 since that was his shooting line every night. Im not kidding, look it up!

Anyway, in retrospect, what has now happened now should make sense. My memories of Doctor J, Mo Cheeks or Bobby Jones will never be tarnished or go away. But to sound my age, basketball was better then. Old school! This all would contribute to make me what they would call vulnerable. It wasis my weakest link.

Now the Chicago Bulls are one of the premier franchises in the NBA and renowned around the world. Thank you Michael Jordan! I moved here just at the end of his hiatus in 1995. Watching the Bulls and living here during the Second Three, was very cool. But as Ive written before, there was a disconnect for me, since I wasnt from here. I didnt feel that I had earned the right to be a Bulls fan and hopping on the bandwagon while they were winning titles was in bad form. I did however share the anger when they were disbanded way too early for all of our enjoyment. Any NBA fan should have felt that way.

That led to the Dark Ages for basketball in this town: Six straight years of missing the playoffs. 119-341. Ouch! Yet all during that time I watched. Of course when you spend most of your nights in a bar you cant help yourself, but still, watching those teams night after night takes some sort of devotion. (Or sickness, which is right up my alley!)

Then Scott Skiles took over as coach and along with an infusion of talent, thats when the team began to be fun to watch. Now mind you, this wasnt top-of-the-mountain talent, but they seemed to get the most out of it and this appealed to me. Theres something about scrappy teams.

Each of these teams met an early demise, but again, this is the NBA, where superior talent always wins and the Bulls still didnt have that. Scrappy teams get a wink for pluck and then have a nice summer.

Then, in a lottery winning moment, the Bulls hit the lottery-literally and Derrick Rose became a Bull, a home-grown talent as good as any player in the league. Bring in a coach as focused as Rose is talented and for the Bulls it was: game on!

During my time here, there are these little games within the game that occur when a team from Philly plays a team from Chicago. This I have written ad nauseam and I do mean nauseam! But every time, it was never in doubt for whom I was rooting. This has led to many uncomfortable moments, on both sides, but only when my team lost! Rest assured, I will have to live with the memory of the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals and not be at all happy. But no grudges and no worries, its not like that was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Close, but not quite.

Imagine the surprise of Flyers G.M. Paul Holmgren when he sat at the bar on the eve of the Flyers-Hawks game here a year later and Frankie O (3-ball!) let it all out. That was very cool. Cooler yet was the fact that Holmgren seemed to encourage me to get it all out. Love that guy!

Its a torment that I will have to carry by myself, (Along with a select 3 others that are in my same boat.) and since thats the way it is I will just have to deal until my pain is eased, some year. (Not that any of the teams seem to be in much hurry!)

Which brings me to a crossroad, and a confession.

When it became apparent, that the Bulls and Sixers were going to meet in the playoffs this year, I had a decision to make. I was asked a bunch about it but not as much by those who knew me well, Im sure they just assumed what the answer would be. Those who did ask, and did know me, just kind of gave me blank looks. Awkward!!

They must have been thinking: Who is this imposter? This cant be Frankie O! (There should be a drinking game where every time I type Frankie O, you have to drink when you read it! Twice in 2 sentences! Boo-Ya!)

Well, it is. Ive come out of the closet. The Bulls have been a guilty pleasure of mine for a long time. Like I said, what I have is a sickness! Even rooting for a team where I live is not something I take lightly or without guilt. Im a Philly fan for crying out loud! How could this have happened? But the Sixers and I have been growing apart for a while now, might as well face facts. I was ripe for the picking.

This series has forced me to be honest about my dishonesty, because, in a way, thats how I feel. Still I cant deny the feelings that I have for the Bulls. They are the type of team that I want to root for. They play hard. They show up every night. And most importantly, they havent broken my heart year after year! They are something shiny and new.

It was hardest to tell my kids, but I think they understand. It will be confusing for them for a while, but well get through it. In fact, my son even watched Game Six with me in his Bulls tee shirt.

Young minds, they heal fast!

It is here that we get to the series and the kick in the stomach that it was for Bulls fans, like me, in fact, especially me. I cant help feeling that Ive watched this before, say for the last 28 years!

This wasnt supposed to happen! I cant help but feel a little responsible. Is this because of me? Is this the curse of Frankie O? (Chug-a-lug!)

Have I now brought a lifetime of suffering to new, unsuspecting masses?

If so, my bad, I couldnt help myself. The allure of the Bulls was too big, too fast and too strong. Im only a man, and a weak one at that.

So bear with me as we move forward. What doesnt kill us only makes us stronger, at least thats what people I know have been telling me forever.

But there was a certain familiarity as I watched the Bulls season blow-up right in front of my face. Ive been experiencing this for as long as I can remember. If only the Bulls....

I guess the grass really isnt greener. Its just grass 730 miles west, same as it ever was.

Blackhawks updates: Why Joel Quenneville is starting Corey Crawford vs. Canucks

Blackhawks updates: Why Joel Quenneville is starting Corey Crawford vs. Canucks

Corey Crawford will start but Marcus Kruger won't play yet when the Blackhawks host the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday night.

Scott Darling is coming off a 30-stop shutout in the Blackhawks' 1-0 victory over Boston on Friday night. Coach Joel Quenneville said there was some consideration given to start Darling in this one, too, but, "at the same time we want Crow playing as much as he can to get back to the great pace he had prior to being away."

"He hasn't been bad. But certainly that's what we're looking for him to get back to," Quenneville said on Crawford. "I like giving Darls some consideration. We'll see but [Darling] certainly enhanced his positioning."

[SHOP: Gear up, Blackhawks fans!]

Meanwhile, Marcus Kruger skated with the Blackhawks for the first time since hurting his hand against the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 30. He took faceoffs on his own at the end of practice but was not among the line rushes. Quenneville said the Blackhawks will see how Kruger is for either Tuesday or Thursday but, "knowing we have that [All-Star] break, we'll see how he feels and what our options are."

Kruger said he felt, "pretty close."

"I tried to take it day by day and prepare to play," Kruger said. "Obviously not tonight, but the next game we will see." 

BLACKHAWKS VS. VANCOUVER CANUCKS
6:30 p.m.
TV: WGN
Radio: WGN 720 AM

Chicago Blackhawks
Forward lines

Ryan Hartman-Jonathan Toews-Richard Panik
Artemi Panarin-Artem Anisimov-Patrick Kane
Vinnie Hinostroza-Tanner Kero-Marian Hossa
Andrew Desjardins-Dennis Rasmussen-Nick Schmaltz

Defensive pairs
Duncan Keith-Niklas Hjalmarsson
Michal Kempny-Brent Seabrook
Brian Campbell-Trevor van Riemsdyk

Goaltender
Corey Crawford

INJURIES/ILLNESS: Marcus Kruger (right arm).

Vancouver Canucks (via Canucks)
Forward lines

Daniel Sedin-Henrik Sedin-Loui Eriksson
Sven Baertschi-Bo Horvat-Alex Burrows
Markus Granlund-Brandon Sutter-Jayson Megna
Brendan Gaunce-Michael Chaput-Jack Skille

Defensive Pairs
Alex Edler-Troy Stecher
Luca Sbisa-Chris Tanev
Alex Biega-Nikita Tryamkin

Goaltender
Ryan Miller

INJURIES/ILLNESS: Anton Rodin (knee), Ben Hutton (hand), Jannik Hansen (knee), Erik Gudbranson (wrist), Philip Larsen (upper body), Derek Dorsett (back).

With losses piling up, things starting to get predictable for Illini — and not in a good way

john-groce-0122.jpg
USA TODAY

With losses piling up, things starting to get predictable for Illini — and not in a good way

Remember when the season began and we were talking about the likelihood of Illinois ending a three-year NCAA tournament drought?

Yeah, about that.

The Fighting Illini were again walloped on the road Saturday afternoon in Ann Arbor, their fourth road defeat in as many games during conference play. Against Michigan, Purdue, Indiana and Maryland, the losses have come in extreme fashion, by a combined total of 73 points, an average of 18.3 points.

And those numbers would be much bigger if not for a garbage-time 18-6 run to close out Saturday's 66-57 loss to the Wolverines. The game saw Michigan's lead grow as big as 21 with fewer than six minutes to play. It was another blowout, even if the final margin of defeat was in single digits.

How this continues to happen is frankly somewhat mind boggling. Illinois entered the season with experience, health and depth and have kept all of those traits throughout the campaign. But the experienced players who were believed to lead the Illini to their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2013, Groce's first season, simply haven't shown up.

Malcolm Hill has, and he deserves a pass in this critique. Hill, the only Illinois player who scored in double figures Saturday, ranks fifth in the league in scoring, averaging 17.8 points a game. He also ranks in the top 20 in rebounding (5.9 rebounds a game), free-throw percentage (79.4 percent) and minutes played (32.4 minutes a game).

Maverick Morgan, too, has been a bright spot. He's shooting 60 percent from the floor, good for fourth in the Big Ten, and is averaging 13 points a game over the last 10 games.

But where has everyone else gone? After a stellar non-conference season, Tracy Abrams' production has fallen off a cliff, and he's just 1-for-21 from 3-point range against Big Ten competition. Jalen Coleman-Lands hasn't been very reliable, averaging almost two points fewer per game and shooting almost five percent lower from 3-point range than he did during his freshman season a year ago. Mike Thorne Jr. was supposed to be the team's starting center, but he's not even averaging 15 minutes a game. Second-year guys like D.J. Williams and Aaron Jordan have barely seen the floor. Michael Finke has had good games and quiet games. This veteran team is more and more reliant on freshmen Te'Jon Lucas and Kipper Nichols for sparks that only rarely come.

The biggest issue has been the defense, with the team allowing opponents to shoot 44.5 percent from the field. That number has been significantly worse in conference play, up to 50.8 percent. Saturday was better, Michigan shooting only 45.1 percent and only 40 percent in the second half, when its lead grew largest. But the Wolverines, also a poor defensive team, clamped down on the Illini, who only shot 45.8 percent and more importantly turned the ball over a whopping 17 times, leading to 22 points for the home team.

With consistently subpar defense and inconsistent offense — a win over the same Michigan team just 10 days earlier saw Illinois drop 85 points on red-hot 64.2-percent shooting; where was that Saturday? — has been a recipe for disaster.

Coming into the conference season, it seemed Illinois was a prime contender for a spot in the Big Dance's field of 68. After all, only one disastrous week prevented the non-conference season from being a success. The Illini scored wins over name-brand opponents North Carolina State, VCU, BYU and Missouri, with that nightmarish week featuring losses to West Virginia and Florida State, the current Nos. 7 and 10 teams in the country.

But despite the high rankings of the Mountaineers and Seminoles, that resume has weakened. North Carolina State is just 2-5 in ACC play, and Missouri has just five wins this season, a nasty record that includes 10 straight losses. BYU and VCU aren't at the top of their respective mid-major conference standings.

That has made Illinois' conference showing all the worse as the tournament hopes flicker. The two wins have come at home against Ohio State and Michigan teams that stumbled out of the gates themselves. The losses, as chronicled above, have been convincing to say the least, and the one that came at the State Farm Center, against Maryland, featured an ugly second-half collapse after Illinois went to the locker room with a lead.

With typical bottom-feeders like Penn State and Nebraska improving their play this season, there aren't many noticeably winnable games remaining on Illinois' schedule, with just the season-finale at Rutgers looking like a surefire win, though the Scarlet Knights are no longer winless in Big Ten play after beating the Huskers on Saturday. What it means is a gauntlet the rest of the way for the Illini. There are plenty of home games, but does the venue matter when the Illini are playing like this and their opponents are of a significantly higher caliber?

Groce's seat is undeniably warm, and the heat could crank up if the campaign progresses as it has played out to this point. Would a fourth straight season without an NCAA tournament invite mean Groce's tenure would be over in Champaign? That's difficult to say, as Groce has secured one of the best recruiting classes in the country for next season. Illinois' best recruiting work in years would be in real danger if he's axed before his Class of 2017 arrives on campus.

But the on-court results are starting to get predictable, and not in the way games were predictable back during Illinois' glory days a decade ago. 

How about this: Last week's 23-point shellacking at Purdue was the 12th loss by 20 or more points of the Groce Era, which is in its fifth season. Bruce Weber, who coached the Illini for nine seasons, had three such losses during the course of his entire tenure. Prior to Weber, it was Bill Self, who had one such loss in his three seasons. Prior to Self, it was Lon Kruger, who had four such losses in his four seasons.

You have to go all the way back to 1980 to find the last time Illinois missed the NCAA tournament in four straight years.

Right now, the future is a mystery. What we do know is that the present is not going well.