Deng a 'personal' loss for Bulls


CHICAGO -- Taj Gibson got the news at 3 a.m. in a phone call from his brother. But he thought it was nothing but a bad dream.

Luol Deng traded? No way.

"I didn't believe it," he said Tuesday after the first morning shootaround of the post-Deng era. "'That's just talk. I'll wait 'til I go to the locker room.' And then I go to the locker room and everybody's just sad-faced, worse than me. My immediate reaction was, it sucks."

The news of Deng's trade to the Cleveland Cavaliers for the throwaway contract of Andrew Bynum, some draft picks and some crucial financial flexibility came down late Monday night, the coldest such evening many Chicagoans have ever experienced.

Cold news travels fast.

Now get ready for some more cold-shooting nights for a Bulls team that came into the season with championship dreams and finds itself rooting for better draft picks and another full recovery for Derrick Rose.

The reality of the situation was clear. Deng, just 28 years old, is going to be a free agent and rejected the Bulls' contract extension offers that weren't offensive but under market value. Given everything that Deng has been through here, good and bad, it's not a shock he wanted to test the market. With Rose injured again and a championship run out of the question, the Bulls had to make a business decision.

The Bulls, the actual players, knew this. But it was still tough to swallow. Joakim Noah, a close friend of Deng's, refused to talk to the media. Carlos Boozer and Gibson tried to parrot the party line of "It's rare for a player to spend their whole career with one team," but they were obviously upset.

When the media were allowed on the floor of the United Center following the morning shootaround, the only sounds you heard were the squeaking of sneakers.

"Quite frankly, everybody is down," Boozer said. "I don't know how else to put it. We lost one of our best players. Not only that, one of our brothers, you know what I mean? With Lu, it's real personal. I know it's business for the organization, but it's not business for us."

Even coach Tom Thibodeau, a bastion of media discipline, was clearly angry the Bulls traded his best healthy player, his 6-foot-9 security blanket.

"I had a chance to voice my opinion," Thibodeau said. "Their job is to make financial decisions, to make player personnel decisions and things of that nature. Their job is to do that. My job is to coach the guys that are here."

Asked if his opinion differed from the final decision, Thibodeau said, "We discussed it. I'm going to leave it at that."

John Paxson, the team's vice president for basketball operations, said he wouldn't expect Thibodeau or his coaching staff to be supportive of the move because it makes the team weaker. But it was something the front office felt had to be done for the future of this team.

A future without Deng still seems hard to believe given how much the organization has changed for the better since he arrived in 2004.

A versatile but not dominating wing player, Deng has been almost traded seemingly 100 times over his decade with the Bulls, so it's easy to understand Gibson's apprehension to the surprising news.

The Bulls traded for the draft rights for the 19-year-old Deng in 2004. In the six seasons following Michael Jordan's sixth championship in 1998, the Bulls were adrift. In Deng's nine seasons, the Bulls made the playoffs eight times (Deng played in six of those appearances) and had only one losing season.

When Paxson took over for Jerry Krause as the general manager in 2003, he had a clear mandate to clean house and remake the organization. He wound up focusing on guys from winning college programs with good "makeup." In his first draft, he took Kirk Hinrich. The next year, he got Ben Gordon and Deng (thanks to a $3 million cash sweetener to Phoenix) and signed Andres Nocioni to a free-agent deal, and the Bulls returned to the playoffs with Scott Skiles as the coach.

"It was a turning point for our franchise," Paxson said. "We were kind of in that malaise after the championship years, and we tried to get better through the draft. It wasn't happening. When I came in 2003, one thing I didn't like was the culture of, for a lack of a better word, entitlement and not enough work."

Deng wasn't a human highlight reel, but one thing he did was work.

Deng has made the past two All-Star teams while playing heavy minutes for Thibodeau's team despite a nagging wrist injury and other ailments. Durability concerns from his early years might haunt his reputation, but that's only if you don't pay attention. Deng proved to be the toughest Bull since Jordan.

"Nothing rattles Lu," Thibodeau said.

Almost nothing. In May, Deng went to the media, and Twitter, after the Bulls announced he missed playoff games with "flu-like symptoms." It turned out he was seriously ill after a botched spinal tap to see whether he had meningitis. This came a few years after the Bulls' team doctor questioned Deng sitting out with a leg injury that turned out to be a fracture.

Deng was fiercely protective of his good name, and rightly so.

In the past few years, the joke around the Bulls was Thibodeau loved Deng, almost literally to death because of heavy minutes. But it's clear he's earned a spot on Mt. Thibsmore.

"You couldn't ask anything more of a player," Thibodeau said. "Practice hard, be a great leader, play for the team, be selfless. Whatever I asked him to do, he did. And he bought in from day one, from the minute I got here."

Deng leaves as the fourth-leading scorer in Bulls history with 10,286 points, trailing only Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Bob Love. His impressive career numbers, 16.1 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, belie his true meaning to the franchise. Paxson said he'll always be welcomed back.

"It's tough, man. He's the glue to the team," Gibson said. "He's the guy you could always get all the answers from. Even if we're losing a lot of games, he's like, 'Trust me, we'll be OK. Trust me.' He was always dead-on right."

But Gibson went to bed Tuesday morning hoping this time, the news about Deng was wrong.

"I didn't want to believe the hype," he said. "I thought he was going to be at his locker."

Deng wasn't there, but in a lot of ways his presence will always be felt.