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

Cubs conserving Jake Arrieta for October and see another Cy Young push coming

Cubs conserving Jake Arrieta for October and see another Cy Young push coming

SAN DIEGO – West Coast atmosphere, late August, almost no-hitter stuff for a Cubs team riding a wave of momentum. Jake Arrieta might be reentering the zone that made him the hottest pitcher on the planet last year. Get your onesies ready.

It felt that way on Tuesday night at Petco Park, where Arrieta shut down the San Diego Padres, allowing only two hits across eight scoreless innings in a 5-3 victory, making another statement in his Cy Young Award defense.

For all the questions about Arrieta’s fastball control and mechanical tweaks – and times where he’s admitted he’s felt a click off – this is still a top-of-the-rotation guy who leads the league with 16 wins and has a 2.62 ERA.

“He should be” in the Cy Young discussion, manager Joe Maddon said. “The only thing that’s been amiss is a little bit of command issues on occasion. Otherwise, stuff is the same. Numbers are fabulous. It’s hard to replicate what he had done last year, because he just nailed it.

“If he gets hot over these last couple weeks…”

It will be up to Arrieta to complete that thought in a World Series-or-bust season for baseball’s first team to 80 wins this year, one that’s now 35 games over .500.  

[SHOP: Get your own Jake Arrieta jersey]

This didn’t feel like a perfect game or create any no-hitter drama. The Padres are already 20 games under .500 and years away from being a serious contender. And Arrieta had to bounce back from last week’s ugly win over the Milwaukee Brewers – when he walked a career-high seven batters – and work around a first-inning walk to San Diego leadoff guy Travis Jankowski.

But the Cubs played spectacular defense behind Arrieta, with catcher Willson Contreras make a lightning-quick throw to pick off Jankowski at third base. The Cubs turned three double plays while a thunderous lineup led by Kris Bryant (33rd home run) and Addison Russell (fifth home run in his last five games) lowered the stress level. After Alex Dickerson’s single leading off the second inning, the Padres didn’t get another hit until Christian Bethancourt’s double with two outs in the eighth.

“I really wanted to let my defense work,” said Arrieta, who finished with six strikeouts against three walks. “When you have Addison and (Javier) Baez in the middle of the infield – two of the best athletes in all of baseball – you want the ball to go to those guys.”

At a time when Clayton Kershaw (back) and Stephen Strasburg (elbow) are on the disabled list, leaving potential playoff opponents like the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals in scramble mode, the Cubs can see Arrieta building toward October.

The way Arrieta did with that Aug. 30 no-hitter last year at Dodger Stadium on national TV, walking into the press conference in a moustache-covered onesie, Maddon going with the pajama theme again for the flight home after this weekend’s series in Los Angeles.

But the Cubs ultimately paid the price for all that effort poured into the wild-card chase, which explains why Maddon pulled Arrieta after 99 pitches with a five-run lead (leaving Aroldis Chapman to clean up Felix Pena’s mess in the ninth inning and get the final two outs, giving him eight saves in a Cubs uniform).

“Yeah, I was mad at Joe taking me out,” Arrieta said. “But at the same time, he came over to me and he said: ‘Hey, just remember last year and let’s conserve some things for October.’

“That’s our game plan. We want to be as strong and as dominant as we can be, but still in the back of our mind understanding that late September, early October, mid-October is really the most important time for us.

“Could I have finished the game? Yes. Does it play in our favor to maybe conserve that for later? Yeah. Joe’s a really smart guy. He knows what he’s doing. I feel like he makes the right moves in the right situations. And that’s why we’ve been playing as well as we have.”

No doubt, Addison Russell is becoming a star for Cubs

No doubt, Addison Russell is becoming a star for Cubs

SAN DIEGO – On a team bursting with MVP frontrunners and Cy Young Award candidates – and in a clubhouse with louder, flashier personalities – Addison Russell can emerge as an All-Star shortstop and not become the center of attention.

But here at Petco Park last month, Russell drew scrutiny for his spot in the all-Cub infield, patiently answering questions from reporters about whether or not he deserved to be the National League starter the fans voted for in that popularity contest.

Russell might actually be developing into a superstar now, a Gold Glove-caliber defender with legitimate middle-of-the-order power, someone absolutely essential to what the Cubs are doing now. Russell crushed the San Diego Padres again on Tuesday night, opening up a two-run game with a two-run homer in the fifth inning of a 5-3 victory.

“Just watch me over the course of a year,” Russell said. “My numbers may not be great or whatever, but I contribute to my team every single day. I play my heart out for my team.”

Super-agent Scott Boras, posted up at Petco Park to see clients and watch Jake Arrieta pitch, pointed out that Russell is now only one of five shortstops within the last 40 years to have at least 19 homers during his age-22 season, joining Cal Ripken Jr., Alex Rodriguez, Troy Tulowitzki and Corey Seager.

Russell is the first Cubs shortstop to reach the 80-RBI mark since Ernie Banks did it in 1961. For all the comparisons to Barry Larkin, he didn’t make his big-league debut with the Cincinnati Reds until the age of 22, and didn’t exceed 12 homers in a season until five years later.

Russell has homered five times in his last five games, leads the best team in baseball with 23 multi-RBI games and exemplifies a no-panic approach that should translate in October.

“I’ve said all year, we have guys on our team that get on base and it’s my job to get them over or get them in,” Russell said. “I’ve taken that role to heart. It’s a lot of fun out there. I challenge myself whenever I’m in that situation.”

[SHOP: Get your Addison Russell jersey here]

Russell’s highlight-reel play during Monday night’s victory inspired manager Joe Maddon to give him a bottle of Justin Isosceles wine with a “6-3” written on it. Imagine the reward if Russell wins a Gold Glove.  

“Defensively, it’s as good as there is being played right now,” Maddon said. “It’s getting to the point where there’s nobody else like that right now.”

Whether or not Russell can stay healthy and remain productive enough to become another Mr. Cub – or come close to matching Larkin’s Hall of Fame numbers – you don’t get the sense he will be a one-time All-Star.

“I’m very happy for him, because I know prior to being selected, that was an issue,” Maddon said. “I’m so proud of him, how he came out and confronted it in his own way, very quietly, but in a distinguished manner. That’s who he is.

“Now he’s showing everybody how good he is. And I also believe that event has pretty much catapulted him to the point he’s at right now (with) the status that he felt by being here. In some ways, there was this negative dialogue going on. He’s turned it into a very positive one. Good for him.”

Preview: White Sox try to sweep Phillies tonight on CSN

Preview: White Sox try to sweep Phillies tonight on CSN

The White Sox take on the Philadelphia Phillies on Wednesday, and you can catch all the action on CSN. Coverage begins at 7:00 p.m. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on White Sox Postgame Live.

Wednesday’s starting pitching matchup: James Shields vs. Jerad Eickhoff

Click here for a game preview to make sure you’re ready for the action.  

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