5 Questions with...Sun-Times' Neil Hayes

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5 Questions with...Sun-Times' Neil Hayes

By Jeff Nuich
CSN Chicago Senior Director of CommunicationsCSNChicago.com Contributor

Want to know more about your favorite Chicago media celebrities? CSNChicago.com has your fix as we put the citys most popular personalities on the spot with everyones favorite local celeb feature entitled 5 Questions with...

On Wednesdays, exclusively on CSNChicago.com, its our turn to grill the local media and other local VIPs with five random sports and non-sports related questions that will definitely be of interest to old and new fans alike.

This weeks guestone of the hardest working beat writers in town who covers one of the best, if not THE best team in the NBA: the 2011-12 Chicago BullsBulls fans are hoping this guy keeps covering games for the next two months as the Bulls strive to bring the city its first NBA title since the Jordan erawhat are we waiting for, its playoff time for crying out loud!...get ready for 5 Questions withNEIL HAYES!

BIO: Neil Hayes returned to his native state in 2006 after spending 15 years covering the San Francisco Bay Area sports scene. Since being hired at the Sun-Times, he has covered Northwestern football, Notre Dame football, the Bears & Bulls, while also producing features and columns on other local and national sports stories. He is the author of When the Game Stands Tall: The Story of the De La Salle Spartans and Footballs Longest Winning Streak. His book inspired the ESPN documentary, 151: The Greatest Streak, which he also wrote. Hayes is also the co-author of The Last Putt: Two Teams, Two Dreams and a Freshman named Tiger. In 2005, he was named one of the Top Ten sports columnists in the nation in the 100,000-250,000 circulation category by the Associated Press Sports Editors.

The Northern Arizona University and Rochelle Township High School graduate grew up in a home where Bears Sundays were sacred. He also spent countless summer nights trying to make out shadowy White Sox players in what appeared to be a snowstorm on UHF Channel 44.

1) CSNChicago.com: Neil, with NBA Playoff time upon us once again, the thrilling prospect of another NBA championship returning to Chicago is on everyones mind, especially within the legions of die-hard Bulls fans in our city and around the globe. Optimism runs high among fans this time of year, especially with the teams solid starting line-up and very deep bench. Simple question: should we be optimistic about them winning it all this year? Your thoughts.

Hayes: After what this franchise has been through since Michael Jordan retired, youd be crazy not to. The Bulls, Heat, Spurs and Thunder are all championship contenders in my mind with the Celtics, Lakers and Pacers being potential dark horses. The Bulls are going to need some sort of advantage to get past the Heat, whether it be a Heat player being slowed by poor performance or injury or some lights-out shooting by Kyle Korver andor Rip Hamilton, but it can definitely be done. Derrick Roses health is the key, obviously, and Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer will have to step up as well. Coach Tom Thibodeau also needs to find a way to use his bench as effectively in the postseason, when rotations are shortened, as he has during the regular season.

2) CSNChicago.com: If the stars align and both teams advance through the first two rounds as they are expected to, an Eastern Conference Finals re-match against LeBron & Co. seems very likely to occur once again. What are your top 3 on-court key elements that the Bulls need to accomplish to get past the Heat this year?

Hayes: They are going to have to match the Heats physicality. That was an issue in the regular-season finale between these two teams, when the Bulls were bullied by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Assuming Rose is healthy, they will also need Carlos Boozer to win his matchup with Chris Bosh, not only when it comes to scoring, but rebounding as well.

The Bulls ability to dominate the boards is a great equalizer, and they were out-rebounded in the last game in Miami.

Finally, they are going to need the Bench Mob to really step up and make a difference, by which I mean make some shots. It may be Taj Gibson, who can make an impact on both ends of the court, or perhaps Korver, as I mentioned earlier, or even John Lucas III hitting some timely threes. Omer Asik was injured in the Eastern Conference Finals last season. Many inside the Bulls organization believe not having Asik to defend the rim when Noah was on the bench was a huge factor in that series.

3) CSNChicago.com: As youve naturally already read, GQ recently published an interview with Bulls superstar Derrick Rose. In that interview, Rose stated hes still not used to the limelight and all the well-deserved attention he receives on a daily basis. He also discussed how Michael Jordans six titles with the Bulls drives him and makes him work even harder. In your opinion, is it even fair to put that kind of pressure on D-Rose at this early point in his career to compare him to MJ?

Hayes: I dont think anybody puts that pressure on Derrick. He puts it on himself. Hes a very driven individual and that drive is largely responsible for where he is today. It defines who he is. As far as handling fame, Derrick is one of the most unique athletes Ive ever covered. Ive never meet anybody -- inside or outside of sports -- who is as genuinely humble and sincere. Thats why the story about him going to management and asking them to trade Carlos Boozer for Pau Gasol earlier this season didnt make sense to me. If you know Derrick, even a little bit, you know hes not capable of that type of manipulation. Hes just not wired that way. Hes an introvert in a very extroverted world. He will grow more accustomed how he will have to live his life, but he will never be comfortable being the center of attention anywhere other than a basketball court.

4) CSNChicago.com: As someone who has interviewed countless pro athletes in the NBA, NFL and many other sports over the years, whos been your favorite athlete to interview and why?

Hayes: Interesting question. I used to have great conversations with ex-49ers quarterback Steve Young. He was the most down-to-earth superstar Ive been around. He was one of the highest paid athletes in sports and was living in a loft he was remodeling himself. He even changed his own oil. I remember a long conversation with him about handling fame. He said, Fame is an elaborate hoax the world plays on you. He went on to say if an athlete wants to get noticed, hell wear the most expensive clothes, sunglasses and be ushered into private dining rooms with his entourage. He found the best way to go unnoticed was to put his name on the restaurant's waiting list, sit down and wait like everybody else. I thought that was a refreshing perspective.

As far as Chicago guys, Paul Konerko is everything you think he is. Hes as thoughtful and humble as it gets. his Bulls teams might be the best collection of athletes in one locker room Ive ever worked with, and that extends to general manager Gar Forman and vice president John Paxson. What they say about hockey players is true, too. Most come from blue-collar backgrounds and are amazingly level-headed and easy to deal with. For the most part, they dont worry about spinning things. They are the most accountable group of athletes youll ever be around.

5) CSNChicago.com: Lastly, and this one is hard-hitting Neil so get ready: tell us your favorite basketball-themed movie(s) of all-time. Interviewers note: TVs The White Shadow is an acceptable answer.

Hayes: I loved "The White Shadow" as a kid. I never missed an episode. Ironically enough, Thomas Carter, who played James Hollywood Hayward during the three-year series run, is now a Hollywood director who has signed on to direct a movie based on my first book, When the Game Stands Tall. I havent yet had a chance to pick his brain about his days on the set of "The White Shadow," but I will. Im also a sucker for "Hoosiers." Its not only a great basketball movie, but one of the great sports movies of all time. Hoop Dreams was also excellent.

Hayes LINKS

Chicago Sun-Times Sports official home page

Neil Hayes on Facebook

Neil Hayes on Twitter

Veljko Paunovic talks Fire's identity, home vs. away record and positive signs

Veljko Paunovic talks Fire's identity, home vs. away record and positive signs

Veljko Paunovic has talked about the Chicago Fire forming an identity throughout his first season as the club’s coach.

Now that he is nearly five months into the season, he says the team is starting to form that identity.

“We are committed to our style now, which is being tough,” Paunovic said on Wednesday during a conference call with reporters. “Our identity is being a tough team at home, a team that fights until the end of the game, to win the game and we have that positive result for us. We fight to defend it.”

Despite being in last place in Major League Soccer, Paunovic says he has seen enough positive things from the club, at least in terms of improvement compared to the start of the season. The Fire are unbeaten in eight straight games at Toyota Park and have won three straight league games there.

[SHOP: Get your own Fire home jersey right here]

Now the road record, that’s another story. Even if you forgive the part of the current league-record 35-match road winless streak that Paunovic didn’t oversee, the Fire have been bad on the road this season, and have gotten worse. Since two promising draws at Orlando and New York City FC in the beginning of the season, the Fire have lost eight in a row away from home.

Paunovic hasn’t been shy about addressing that record, but that doesn’t fit as well with this identity he says the team is forming. The Serbian coach remains an optimist though.

“I think we improved overall, especially with the addition of Michael de Leeuw we improved in our performance in attack,” he said. “Then also it was very important for me to see in the last game in New England we were very, very close to winning. I’m not saying to tie the game, we were very close to winning. If we scored the opportunities that we had, if we scored one goal I think we would win that game. Again it was a learning experience for us. We finally had that feeling that we can win on the road and we’re just going to help build and improve on that.”

In a few other Fire news tidbits from the conference call and training on Wednesday, Paunovic said Razvan Cocis and Joey Calistri are nearing returns from injury, but are still not at 100 percent. Calistri, who had to pull out of Wednesday’s MLS Homegrown Game as part of the All-Star Game festivities, was in training on Wednesday and sounds like the closer of the two to returning.

Paunovic remained tight-lipped when asked about potential additions before the transfer window closes Aug. 3. The Fire have 19-year-old South Korean forward Jung-Hyun Seo, who was at Wednesday’s training session, with the team on a trial.

Tom Thibodeau on Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah leaving Bulls: 'It doesn't last forever'

Tom Thibodeau on Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah leaving Bulls: 'It doesn't last forever'

The winds of change are becoming as constant in the NBA as it is in the NFL, as players and coaches are seemingly more associated with their own brands than they are their employers.

Former Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau is living proof of that and wasn’t surprised the winds caught his former bookends Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah, as both will start next season as members of the New York Knicks.

Rose was traded before the draft in a multi-player deal while Noah signed a $72 million deal in free agency to go back to his native city.

“It’s sort of the nature of the league. It doesn’t last forever,” said Thibodeau, as the USA Men’s National Basketball team prepares for the Olympics with an exhibition contest against Venezuela Friday night at the United Center. “That was a special group of guys. From where they started, and unfortunately the injuries derailed it some but it was a very prideful group, a proud group.”

Rose and Noah’s best years were with Thibodeau on the sidelines, with Rose winning Most Valuable Player in 2011 and Noah finishing fourth in voting in 2014 before injuries caught them both.

“They never gave up, never succumbed to the circumstances,” Thibodeau said. “They found different ways to win, different guys stepped up. That’s the way the league works. Over time, people leave with free agency, change teams. I’m happy for those guys that they’re gonna get another opportunity. They’ve earned it.”

[MORE: Jimmy Butler says he no longer wears a chip on his shoulder]

Thibodeau’s five-year run in Chicago certainly ended controversially and definitely left many wondering “what if”, but it he knew it wouldn’t be long before taking another position like the one he accepted to become coach and president of the Minnesota Timberwolves this spring.

As usual, he was gracious about the time he spent in Chicago, and the city itself.

“A lot of great memories. Five years coaching and I stayed last year,” Thibodeau said. “I love the city, the fans were great to me the whole time. You look back, you think of all the great memories you have. Great history, great tradition and we had great guys. It was very enjoyable to coach that team.”

Surprisingly, the workaholic coach said the time off was good for him, as it likely gave him a chance for reflection and an opportunity to rejuvenate himself physically and mentally from the unforgiving NBA grind.

“When you take a step back, and you don’t have the next team to worry about, you take a broader view of things,” Thibodeau said. “You get a lot of new ideas, it’s a chance to recharge. You learn a lot. Sometimes taking a step back is a good thing.”

[SHOP: Gear up, Bulls fans]

The next time Thibodeau walks across the United Center floor after Friday night, he’ll be in gametime mode as head coach of the Timberwolves, doing everything he can to get a win.

The smiles will dissipate and the general ease in which he interacts with the media and other personnel will disappear. But for right now, he’s an assistant to USA Basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski for another Olympic run, hoping to help keep the United States on top of the global basketball world.

“This has been an incredible experience for me, to be around the great players and the hall of fame basketball people you’re around,” Thibodeau said

Chance the Rapper throws shade toward the Cubs

Chance the Rapper throws shade toward the Cubs

Chris Sale will be back on the mound on Thursday night for the White Sox after serving a five-game suspension for a well-known clubhouse incident.

According to Chicago native Chance the Rapper — who was recently named a club ambassador for the South Siders — Sale being back guarantees a win over the Cubs in the Crosstown Classic.

The up-and-coming rap star threw some shade at the Cubs on his Twitter page on Thursday:

With so many celebrities from Chicago supporting the Cubs, it's nice to see that someone has the White Sox back.