ST. LOUIS — It was a small sample size, just five minutes of playing time at the tail end of the Bulls’ 101-67 preseason win over Memphis at the Scottrade Center, but upon entering the contest, Mike James lived up to his reputation.
The 38-year-old point guard checked into the game, playing off the ball, and as soon as he touched it, drove into the lane and launched a runner off the glass for a quick two points. Wherever he’s been throughout his long, winding professional career, nobody has ever accused Mike James of being a shrinking violet.
“Mike is Mike,” Bulls head coach Tom Thibodeau said afterwards. “You know what you’re going to get with him. He’s always aggressive and he’s always ready.”
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Knowing Thibodeau, that’s one of the best compliments he can give a player, that art of preparation. James’ pregame stretching routine, keeping him limber after all these years, has something to do with it, but mostly, the guy can just play.
While Monday was his first playing time of the preseason, sources say the likable James has been playing well throughout the Bulls’ training camp, which isn’t surprising, given that he started the final 23 games of last season for Dallas after his second consecutive year of using the D-League as a springboard to an NBA job, having done so back in the 2011-12 campaign, which he finished in Chicago. But the Mavericks opted not to re-sign him and although he had other opportunities, James decided to try his luck with the Bulls again, due to his familiarity with the team, not to mention his ties with Thibodeau, going back to their days together in Houston on the Jeff Van Gundy-coached Rockets.
“Having a relationship with Tom Thibodeau, that made a difference and also, I just think that this is a good team and they have a great opportunity to do something special this year. It’s always great if you can be part of a great team. You can always play for a losing team and you get stats, but there’s no satisfaction in that. The satisfaction comes in winning, especially trying to pursue a championship,” James who won a title in 2004 with the Detroit Pistons, explained to CSNChicago.com.
“Derrick [Rose] is probably one of the top players in the NBA and right behind, at every position, you have some of the top players at every position in the NBA. As far as Thibodeau’s strategy and the way he coaches the game, anyone can have success in his system, just because of how hard and how well everyone plays together, and how well everyone knows each other. That’s rare, when you have a team of players who enjoy playing with each other and like each other, on and off the court. That’s just fun, playing for a team like that, being around guys like this.”
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After a series of 10-day contracts — starting with a remarkable one-day journey that involved bus trips and multiple flights, culminating in a pregame arrival at the United Center, only to have no name on the back of his jersey — the Bulls signed James for the remainder of the 2011-12 season, so it’s understandable that he sensed that this year’s version of the Bulls, with a healthy Rose back in the lineup, could again be a legitimate championship contender.
But after all he’s experienced in his career, from minor leagues to playing overseas, one would imagine that at 38, James would feel above vying for a 13th roster spot in training camp with a group of free agents that includes veteran swingman Dahntay Jones, massive center Dexter Pittman and power forward D.J. White, all of whom also have NBA experience.
“We’ll see. The only thing that I can control is what I can control and that’s what I do in practice, and that’s what I do when I get in the games, so that’s all that I’m going to keep my eye on,” the Amityville, Long Island native and Duquesne University product explained, in his way with words that brings to mind his ministry away from basketball. “Knowing that I can still play this game at a high level and knowing that I can help wherever I’m needed and so, wherever Coach needs me, that’s where I’m going to be ready to play. I just think that mainly, this is just a good opportunity, but whatever management decides, that’s out of my hands.”
“My biggest thing is don’t judge me by date of birth; judge me by my play. If I wasn’t still able to play this game, I wouldn’t try. If this game passed me by, then there’s no point. I’m not holding on because I feel like I’ve got to hold on. I still feel like I can compete. It’s a reason why, even last year, when they told me I was too old, I still got two All-Defensive Team votes, [one] first team,” James continued. “So that’s a compliment, about how well I’m always prepared and how I have such a dog attitude when I’m on the court. So as long as I play this game, I’m going to keep my dog mentality.
“Then, when I’m done, I’m done. But I’m not done yet.”
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Clearly, Thibodeau doesn’t think so either. Whether that results in James earning a roster spot or not — Pittman, who also played in the same five-minute span against the Grizzlies, notching four apiece of points and rebounds, appears to be the co-favorite, though it’s possible that the Bulls could keep 14 players, even at a punitive financial cost — is still to be determined.
But would you bet against him?