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SportsMonday: All-Star Agitation

I skipped a couple more All-Star games on Sunday. I think that makes it something like 47 in a row.

Actually, it probably has been more than that after I took a pass on this year's NHL pick-up game and the NFL's Pro Bowl, which started within a few hours of one another. I think the last time I cared enough to consciously tune in and watch was when the Cubs hosted the midsummer classic in 1990.

And then when that game was delayed by rain, genius CBS quickly switched to a jarringly incongruous episode of Rescue 911 and it was clear that my developing disdain for the annual exhibitions and the networks that televised them was utterly justified.

As for this year's events, my initial response to the plan to announce captains and then have them choose up sides for the NHL All-Star get-together was that it was a ridiculous gimmick. But then I spoke to a few people earlier in the weekend who watched the picking process on Friday evening and they enjoyed it (although evidently it was a little long).

So maybe the NHL has a format with some legs. Unfortunately - according to reports - the actual game turned into the same, old defenseless dreck. One of the teams beat the other team 11-10. No thank you.

And apparently the NFC scored the first six touchdowns of the Pro Bowl before winning 50-something to 40-something.

Despite the fact that Pro Bowlers receive a free trip to Hawaii and each player on the losing team is paid more than $20,000 (the winners get more), Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher announced after the Bears' loss to the Packers that they had turned down their invitation to attend (had they made it to the Super Bowl, they wouldn't have been eligible).

I would have done the same without a second thought . . . had I been invited to the Pro Bowl. I'm sure of it. At least I mostly am.

Baseball took the most radical step to try to invigorate its All-Star game a few years ago when it decided to have it determine home-field advantage in the World Series. The ridiculousness of that move still wounds the psyche of any rational baseball fan. And there really isn't anything else to say.

No mas! No mas All-Star agitation.

Bulls Eye
Moving right along now and diving into some commentary on the hottest team in town, one that enjoyed a boffo weekend and is sitting pretty in the standings, tied with the Miami Heat for the second spot in the Eastern Conference three games behind the Celtics, let's talk about the Bulls. (Fortunately the NBA's All-Star game is still a couple weeks away.)

The Bulls' latest feat was to play so well they got the opposing coach fired. After knocking off the Pacers 110-89 on Saturday night, the team from Indiana announced on Sunday that it had fired coach Jim O'Brien after three-and-a-half years at the helm. Early reports indicated that the last straw was actually a long series of subpar efforts capped off by a mid-week home loss to Orlando in which the Pacers (who are now 17-27) were never competitive. But still, O'Brien didn't have a good night in Chicago.

Most NBA coaches have figured out that to maximize their team's chances, any arguing they do with referees has to be about setting the stage for the next call. If coaches can limit their complaints to ones regarding egregious errors - and if they can voice those complaints in respectful, timely fashion - they have a shot at influencing future calls in their favor. It 's just human nature that many referees, upon realizing that their previous call may have favored one team unfairly, will look to balance things out as soon as possible.

But some coaches clearly can't help themselves and argue more than they should, though it must be acknowledged that there have been instances where coaches have successfully intimidated referees. And sometimes they have to argue because one of their valuable players feels he has been wronged and the coach needs to back him up, perhaps even distracting the referee enough to help the player avoid sanction.

By any measure, though, it was ridiculous that O'Brien walked onto the court and cursed out the referees late in the fourth quarter on Saturday. Maybe he already knew he was on the way out in the larger sense and decided to get an early start on his departure. But it was poor form to essentially force the refs to give him the heave-ho after Josh McRoberts committed an obvious foul on Ronnie Brewer's powerful slam late in the fourth quarter and then followed that up with a flagrant foul, shoving Carlos Boozer almost across the lane on Brewer's ensuing free throw.

I am clearly not an objective viewer but earlier in my career I covered enough high school basketball games in which I did not have a stake in the outcome to develop a decent feel for legitimate complaints about officiating versus partisan complaints. It was clear the refereeing in the Bulls-Pacers game was balanced enough. Or if it wasn't perfectly balanced, it certainly wasn't any more tilted in the direction of the home team than the average NBA contest. And any sort of tilt certainly didn't have any impact on the outcome of the game. The Bulls were clearly the superior team.

Maybe O'Brien was especially frustrated because it seemed as though he had forgotten to bring McRoberts back quickly from a stint on the bench after the power forward was by far the Pacers' best player during the game's first three quarters. Announcers Neil Funk and Stacey King, who have really hit their stride this year, pointed out with seven minutes left in the game that McRoberts had been on the bench for far too long and two minutes later he was still there before O'Brien finally put him back in.

O'Brien can take comfort in one thing: this was probably his last shot at head coaching in the NBA (he was fired early last decade after an initially successful run as the head coach of the Celtics and then had a short stay at the helm of the 76ers). So he probably won't have to mend any fences with officials in order to make sure a team he coaches gets a fair shake in the future.

The victory over the Pacers was a quality result but the win over the Orlando Magic the night before was considerably bigger.

The Magic, led by Dwight Howard, has pounded the Bulls of late. No one in the NBA can really control the outrageously powerful Howard, but he has been particularly tough on the locals. And he was at it again on Friday, dropping in a relatively easy 40 points and grabbing 15 rebounds. But it wasn't enough.

At this point in the season, one thing in particular must be said: I'm sorry, Luol.

I've never been a fan of Mr. Deng's. I thought the Bulls forward simply wasn't tough enough and that he hadn't come close to living up to the large contract he signed with the team several years ago.

But he has had a great season so far and he hit every clutch shot against the Magic.

He also had a real good night on the board and followed it up by dishing out six assists in the first two-and-a-half quarters alone on Saturday against the Pacers.

There is a long way to go but there is plenty of reason to believe the Bulls will contend for the top couple spots in the conference for the rest of the season.

That is considerably better than just about anyone anticipated they would be and while Derrick Rose's excellence has been the primary reason for the team's acceleration, Deng has done everything the team has needed, from great defense on a series of big scorers to one clutch offensive performance after another.

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Jim Coffman brings you SportsMonday in this space every week. He welcomes your comments.

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