For the sake of clarity, yes, other losses in recent local sports history qualify as decidedly 'more heartbreaking' than the one the Chicago Bulls suffered last night, a 79-78 defeat in Game 6 to the Philadelphia 76ers to end their season. The Bears' NFC Championship loss to the Green Bay Packers will probably always be the one that stings the most, personally. The Blackhawks' Game 7 loss to the Vancouver Canucks in the first round of the 2011 playoffs to prematurely cut short their title defense also comes to mind. Perhaps even the way the Bulls bowed out of last season, in five close games with the Miami Heat, counts as more painful. The Cubs are an entire category unto themselves. But, all things considered, it's hard to fathom a playoff run has ever been more devastating to the state of a franchise and the collective psyche of a fanbase than the one the Bulls just concluded.
If Derrick Rose's torn ACL in Game 1 was like suffering a terminal wound, the Bulls' eventual demise on Thursday in Game 6 was the twisting of the knife. We were already down, we were already defeated. Somehow, you're still fooled into thinking it hurts just as bad.
If that sounds overwrought, it probably is. But if there's ever a place to be over-the-top morbid -- for something, you know, as frivolous as professional sports -- it's in times like these.
A bad sports loss is uniquely melancholy. When it happens, you can feel it, physically. In your blood, in your bones. You try to eat, but food tastes like chalk. You try to laugh, but just want to cry. You can momentarily drink away the pain, but that time-tested method of coping only inevitably makes things worse. Being a sports fan is an often joyless experience, and losses like the one the Bulls suffered on Thursday cements it. I have no idea why so many of us choose to spend our leisure time in this way. It can't be healthy.
The Bulls were so close to winning Game 6. If the officials don't wave off a second quarter three-pointer from Taj Gibson that came just a tick after the shot clock expired, the Bulls would have won. Had C.J. Watson not foolishly passed to Omer Asik in the final seconds of the game with Chicago holding a one-point lead, the Bulls (probably) would have won. If Asik doesn't blow both free throws. If Spencer Hawes' foul on Asik was rightfully called a flagrant. If Carlos Boozer finishes 2-for-11 from the floor instead of 1-for-11.
The Bulls were so close.
Ultimately, it wouldn't have mattered. The Bulls' incredible 2011-2012 season ended with Rose's torn knee tendon, a universal truth we all accepted at the time. The Bulls were not winning anything of note had they found a way to defeat Philly in Game 6. It only would have served to delay future elimination. But there are still plenty of things about losing to these 76ers that considerably sucked. I can't stop thinking about the graphic. From now until the end of time, whenever a top seed is in jeopardy of losing to an eight seed, we'll see "Chicago Bulls - 2012" as an example. There's also the pesky fact that these 76ers were pretty terrible. They were good enough to defeat the Bulls without Rose and Joakim Noah, but just barely. A small, pathetic part of me looks forward to seeing them curb-stomped by Rajon Rondo in round two.
Another part of me considers what happened last night a mercy kill. I have watched plenty of basketball in my 24 years, and this series was about as poorly played as any of it. I have covered more competent high school Catholic League games (lies). The castrated Bulls and fully healthy 76ers were simply each too good defensively and too flawed offensively to create an entertaining brand of basketball. These games were nails on a chalkboard. Perhaps we're fortunate we don't have to watch that garbage anymore. If you love something, give it away.
In the end, the 2011-2012 Bulls go down with an asterisk, a denotation written with a heavy heart. This team was a contender, until they weren't. They overcame so much. Derrick Rose missed 27 games, Richard Hamilton missed 39, Luol Deng missed 12 and played the rest of the season with torn ligaments in his wrist. The Bulls still won 50 games, tied for the most in the NBA. They had homecourt advantage throughout the playoffs. That would qualify as a remarkable regular season if everyone was fully healthy.
Don't forget the good times, because there were many. John Lucas III besting LeBron and the Heat in March. C.J. Watson and Kyle Korver keying a second victory over Miami. Rose's straight nasty buzzer-beater against the Milwaukee Bucks. Remember the early season 19-point fourth quarter comeback against the Atlanta Hawks? Don't forget Deng's tip-in to defeat the Toronto Raptors at the buzzer in overtime, don't forget the first game of the season, when Rose powered a comeback to topple the Lakers on Christmas day.
In times of loss, it's always best to celebrate life, not mourn death. The 2011-2012 Bulls gave us plenty to celebrate. They were a great team, and I loved watching them. They might look different next year, though I have my doubts. We have an eternity to focus on next year, though. Now, I want to remember these Bulls for what they were: a valiant, tough-as-hell, overachieving bunch who had a legitimate chance at a championship cut short by injuries. I will never forget this team. Unfortunately, they'll be remembered for circumstances surrounding their demise than the qualities that made them a joy to watch.