"Stunned and despondent" was the media-described mood around the Bulls before Tuesday night's victory over the Phoenix Suns. If that seems like a description more fit for a wake than a basketball arena, it just goes to show the gravity of Saint Luol Deng's presence with the Bulls. Who would have guessed: a dude who is among pro sports' biggest humanitarians and someone seemingly unanimously deemed a "great guy" by anyone who has been around him was well liked inside the locker room.
The Bulls will survive, I suppose, and starting the post-Deng era off with what was surely an emotionally-fueled victory over a current Western Conference playoff team is a good way to begin the coping process. But even as the Bulls trudge forward with the remaining 49 games on the schedule, it's going to be hard for the team to remove itself completely from Deng. He'll hang around as a guiding spirit like Obi-Wan Kenobi's hologram.
The players said it themselves: losing Deng was a big deal, and not just on the court. Jimmy Butler talked about picking up Deng's role in pregame rituals. Carlos Boozer sounded like a man stuck at the fourth stage of the grieving process:
"Quite frankly, everybody's down," Boozer said. "I don't know how else to put it. Everybody's in a tough spot. We're short a man right now, just lost one of our best players. Not even that, one of our brothers.
"With Lu, it's real personal. I know it's business for the organization. It's not business for us. We miss him. Obviously, we wish him well. Lu's a great player. He'll continue to have a great career."
Joakim Noah refused to address reporters before or after the game, but he did speak with his teammates. According to Taj Gibson, Noah did his best to rally the team by telling them to play like ... Luol Deng
"We talked about it," Bulls forward Taj Gibson said. "Jo said he loves this game and he's going to play exactly how Lu plays the game. We're going to go out there and leave every ounce of energy and sweat on that court and know that you gave it your all. At the end of the day, all you can say is that you went out there, did your job, represented the team on your chest and played it to the fullest.
"That's one thing that he learned from Lu. That's one thing that I learned from Lu. That's how he played tonight."
Noah did, however, post a Twitter tribute, which was about as confusing as one might expect from the self-proclaimed Mr. Stick Stickity:
Shout out to the whole zangale crew. @LuolDeng9— Joakim Noah (@JoakimNoah) January 7, 2014
Gibson opted for Instagram for his social media tribute, and oh boy was it heartbreaking:
Cue up "End of the Road" and get emotionally vulnerable. Everyone else is doing it.
If you think this all sounds a bit overboard, consider just how much time these guys spend together. Between film studies and lifting and training camp and corporate events and pre- and post-game media sessions, they're around each other a lot. And Deng had been here forever. The last time Deng wasn't under contract, the starting lineup looked like this:
Last game Bulls played w/o Deng under contract: Apr 14, 04. Starters: Curry, Fizer, Crawford, Jeffries...and Kirk (some things don't change)— Jeff Mangurten (@JeffGurt) January 8, 2014
As I told Jason last night amid the Hinrich trade rumors, there's about a 100 percent chance he signs back for the minimum next year even if the Bulls do trade him. Our lives are just that bad.
The best Lu eulogy may have come from his de-facto replacement, Jimmy Butler, who we already know is the just generally the best. In death, Jimmy finally felt loved by Deng:
"Lu is more than just a basketball player like we all are," Butler said. "It was a lot of joking around, and then we got on a serious note. He told me he’s going to miss me, and Lu’s never told me anything nice throughout his time being here, so that felt good.’’
Last word, of course, goes to No. 9. which, of course, comes via Instagram:
Good luck in Cleveland and wherever you may find yourself next season. Chicago misses you already.