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SportsMonday: As The Seasons Turn

Local teams trump national events, at least for Chicago sports fans. When faced with a choice between watching Derrick Rose and the Bulls hosting the Pistons or whoever wasn't injured for the Hawks taking on Minnesota versus viewing the World Series on Saturday, baseball took the bronze. The brand new basketball season and the still young hockey campaign held more far more allure than the final gasps of the diamond death march.

The turning of the sports seasons was the best part of growing up a Chicago sports fan in the 70s. Not happy about a current season - and we were almost never happy about the baseball or football seasons during the first half-dozen years of this delightful decade - you at least knew the next campaign was right around the bend. This was especially important in the fall, as baseball season after baseball season wound down ingloriously and football season after football season started with virtually no hope for Super Bowl contention. The Bears and the Blackhawks, on the other hand, put great teams on floor and ice early in the 70s. They didn't win championships of course - let's not get too crazy - but they boasted a series of compelling teams.

On the other end of the spectrum, my family started with Bears season tickets early in the decade and the one specific memory I have of the first few years is of a couple fans parading down the aisle nearest the playing surface at Soldier Field with a big anti-Abe Gibron (the former offensive lineman who struggled through several seasons at the helm for the Bears) banner. Another fan grabbed the "Fire Gibron" sheet or whatever it was and crumpled it up, setting off a brawl that was far more entertaining than that day's game.

I actually have one more specific memory of seeing the Bears in person in the 70s, which actually occurred as era of late-60s-early 70s Bears futility finally approached. Indulge me here will you? After all there's no better time for a little Bears nostalgia than a bye week.

It was in 1977 that the 3-5 Bears hosted the Chiefs and fell behind 27-21 in the final 30 seconds, setting off a speedy exodus from the stands.

Soldier Field was at least three-quarters empty when the Bears got the ball back and Bob Avellini fired a pass to Robin Earl, who made a great run after the catch and got out of bounds with :10 on the clock just inside the Kansas City 40-yard-line. Next up was the best pass of Avellini's career, a 37-yard touchdown strike to tight end Greg Latta. Latta, running down the seam and right toward my dad and I in the corner of the south end zone, had to bend his head straight back to keep his eye on the ball as the pass came in straight over his head. He made the catch on the dead run and after Bob Thomas kicked the extra point, the Bears had a 28-27 win. The victory started the team on a six-game winning streak capped off by a shocking wild-card playoff berth.

That was the era of Jim Finks running things, of course, and after treading water a bit in the middle of the decade, he went on a drafting binge that built the great Bears teams of the mid-1980s. The one thing Finks knew that Jerry Angelo has never figured out is that a successful football team prioritized drafting linemen on both sides of the ball. It was not a coincidence that the Bears finally took off in the 80s only after Finks drafted offensive tackles in the first rounds of the 1981 (Keith Van Horne) and 1983 (Jimbo Covert) drafts. This came on the heels of setting up the defensive line for years by picking Dan Hampton and Al Harris in the first round of the 1979 talent disbursal. Oh, and Finks had also drafted offensive linemen in the first rounds in 1976 (Ted Albrecht) and 1977 (Dennis Lick).

Wait a minute, didn't I start this thing intending to focus at least a bit on the Bulls and Blackhawks? I did indeed and I return you now to your originally scheduled column.

On Saturday, the Bulls struggled early against a Pistons team picked by most to finish at or near the bottom of the Eastern Conference this time around and then collapsed in the second quarter with mostly subs on the floor.

Their second team is atrocious right now. Among other improvements needed sooner rather than later, the Bulls need to focus intensely on setting better screens to get reserve shooting guard Kyle Korver many more open shots. If they can get him going, that will go a long way toward avoiding the sort of stretches that left the Bulls trailing by 19 a half-dozen minutes before halftime.

Fortunately the Bulls rallied in delightful fashion, especially in the fourth quarter. Rose was his usual amazing self, piling up 39 often high-flying, hang-timing points. Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and James Johnson (yes, James Johnson) chipped in clutch tip-ins. Don't look now Luol (Deng, a frequent target of less-than-complimentary critiques in this space in previous years), but Johnson is improving in a hurry. The second-year small forward scored eight points and grabbed nine rebounds as he kept Deng on the bench all through the final 12 minutes.

Deng had a great preseason but he has started the games that matter with two poor outings (not a shocker given his weak and highly inconsistent performance the past few years - ever since he signed his big contract). If Johnson continues apace, he could turn the 2009 draft, in which the Bulls took him and fellow forward Gibson in the second half of the first round, into one of the great drafts in franchise history. It would actually offset the ridiculousness of Deng filling up far too much of the team's salary cap.

As for the Blackhawks, they are in a very strange place at this point. They lead their division but have the most losses. As of Sunday morning, the Hawks had compiled a 7-5-1 record to hold a slim lead (15 points to 14) over the Blues (6-1-2). The ever-puzzling NHL has loaded up the home team's early schedule (and it continues tonight with a game at the Rangers) while others play many fewer games.

With Dave Bolland joining Marian Hossa on the bench with injuries along with defenseman Brian Campbell on Saturday, the Hawks still managed to gut out a big win with Troy Brouwer leading the way with a huge goal (breaking up a scoreless tie with less than a minute left in the second period) for him and for his team. It was his first of the season.

The seasons turn, turn, turn in Chicago. The World Series has to be over by now, doesn't it?


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

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