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Bulls Head Coach Billy Donovan: It’s So Good That My Team Is Melting Down After One Game

Billy Donovan stalks the sidelines at a Bulls home game.
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Billy Donovan must be a glass-is-half-full kind of guy. The Chicago Bulls head coach, now in his fourth season on the job, found something to be positive about in the aftermath of Chicago's ugly 124–104 season-opening home loss Wednesday night to the upstart Oklahoma City Thunder: An encouraging sign that—despite all the bricked three-pointers and busted defensive rotations and bad feelings—there remained in his team's core a smoldering ember of competitive pride, ready to be stoked into a consuming blaze.

That encouraging sign: After the very first game of the season, Donovan's players kicked him out of the locker room so that they could talk in private about how awful everyone played. Donovan walked into the postgame locker room Wednesday night to find his players engaged in "heated conversations," the Chicago Tribune's Julia Poe reported, and interrupted them only long enough to meekly ask if they'd prefer for their head coach to remove himself from their midst. They said yes. To Donovan, this rules and is great.

"If that’s happening in Game 1, I think it’s in some ways really, really good," Donovan said, with a straight face, "because people are now stepping up saying, 'Hey, there’s certain things that have just got to be better.'" According to Donovan, this very super extremely encouraging airing of grievances after just 48 official minutes of basketball reflects a positive vibes-shift for this group, which is largely intact after last season's disappointing campaign. "That would have never happened last year, ever," Donovan said.

To Donovan, this means that his core players, several of whom have now been together for parts of four seasons, are more serious about winning than ever before. Though this commitment to excellence did not show up in their play—the Bulls folded like an umbrella when the visiting Thunder knocked down three consecutive three-pointers inside the first minute of the fourth quarter to open up and extend a double-digit lead—it was apparent in the way that they shooed their head coach out of the locker room afterward, leaving him largely in the dark about the substance of their confrontation.

Also it was very awesome and healthy when Bulls center Nikola Vucevic picked up a third-quarter frustration technical foul, and then he and Donovan yelled at each other on the sideline. All very positive signs of a team that is rowing together, toward victory. "I’ve said it before, I think confrontation is good," insisted Donovan, who, if he believes his own words as quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times, must therefore be feeling awesome about all of this. "He's probably not wrong for feeling like that. Maybe I could have handled it better with him, and he could have handled it better with me. I don’t blame him. I think it’s healthy, and it needs to happen."

Outsiders raised their eyebrows when it became apparent over the summer that Bulls personnel honcho Arturas Karnisovas was planning on keeping the gang together, banking on consistency and internal development to propel the Bulls into the East's top six. To mix things up for a stagnating group that finished last season in a very bad mood, the Bulls moved their training camp out of Chicago and down to Nashville, Tenn. The Bulls entered camp with a few lingering rotation concerns—Coby White won the starting point guard job vacated by a perma-crabbed Lonzo Ball, and the enigmatic Patrick Williams held off yappy veteran Torrey Craig in an entirely manufactured competition for the starting power forward spot—but this camp, as much as anything else, was supposed to be about building camaraderie and clearing lines of communication that became clogged amid last season's frustrations.

Mission accomplished! Gone are the days of returning stoically to your locker after one bad game against a rising team loaded down with young blue-chip talent. These new Bulls, in the spirit of camaraderie, shifted into crisis mode at the very first sign of trouble. Those lines of communication are wide open. Unless you are the head coach and would like to enter the locker room. Then, respectfully, sir: You can buzz off!

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