Watching the Spurs land Victor Wembanyama while remembering Chicago’s joy over landing Derrick Rose

The memory is the perfect example of the word “bittersweet.’’

SHARE Watching the Spurs land Victor Wembanyama while remembering Chicago’s joy over landing Derrick Rose
The Spurs will take France’s Victor Wembanyama with the top pick in the draft next month.

The Spurs won the draft lottery Tuesday night, earning them the opportunity to take coveted center Victor Wembanyama.

Steve Marcus/Getty Images

If you’re a Bulls fan and found yourself getting wistful while witnessing the elation that San Antonio felt Tuesday night after nabbing the right to take 7-4 phenom Victor Wembanyama in the draft, few people would blame you. That was Chicago once. That was you once.

Fifteen years ago, the Bulls shockingly won the NBA’s draft lottery, nabbing the first overall pick with a minuscule 1.7% chance of doing so. The city was bruised the next day from pinching itself so much. Did the impossible just happen? Did the Bulls really just win the right to be great again?

Well, it turned out to be a lot more complicated than that, and that’s why the wistfulness has never quite left town. The Bulls ended up choosing Memphis guard Derrick Rose, a bundle of talent and fast-twitch muscles. He was a Chicago kid, having grown up on the South Side and starred at Simeon, and that made the story even more compelling.

In terms of hype, he wasn’t Wembanyama, who is considered the best draft prospect since LeBron James in 2003. Rose’s selection in 2008 wasn’t a slam dunk. Kansas State’s Michael Beasley, who ended up going second overall to the Heat, was also considered a worthy choice. But once the Bulls took Rose, there wasn’t much dissent over whether the team was heading in the right direction, possibly in the direction of an NBA title. He was that good.

And nothing about his first few years in the league changed that thinking. In fact, he was better than anyone could have anticipated, winning the league’s Most Valuable Player award in his third season. That he was headed for the Hall of Fame seemed obvious to gaga Chicago sports fans, who love their superstars more than some of their family members. Whether Rose could take the Bulls to a championship seemed just as obvious. The Bulls went 62-20 in his MVP year and lost in the Eastern Conference finals to Miami.

And then it all came screeching to a halt. What made him so great — legs with TNT coursing through them — failed him. He blew out a knee in the first playoff game the next season. What followed was a sad, frustrating tale of medical procedures on both knees and of setbacks. Of public debates over whether he cared more about himself than his team. Of a reduced player and of a reduced town for having to ask those questions.

Remembering those times brings back some of the exhaustion that accompanied them. It’s why Rose’s legacy in Chicago is so difficult to pin down. Yes, a great player who lost his superpowers way too early. Yes, a three-time NBA All-Star who should have had so many more honors. But should his banner hang at the United Center someday? Does an MVP award, tough injury luck and a seven-year career here get you that?

Maybe Rose is the living, breathing word of warning to Spurs fans that bad things can happen. No one is pitying Rose for the $143 million he has made as a more-than-serviceable guard since his spate of injuries. But no one wins the NBA lottery and envisions getting a more-than-serviceable player out of it. You want to see great players be great.

The Blackhawks won the NHL lottery recently, and they’ll use the top pick on 17-year-old Connor Bedard, who, like Wembanyama, is considered a once-in-a-generation talent. If, out of spite, there are any Bulls fans who would like Wembanyama to fail (or worse) because their team didn’t win the right to draft him, they should know that that attitude gives life to the idea of the same fate befalling Bedard.

The Bulls had a 1.8% chance of getting Wembanyama, which was as remote as it sounded. But having dreamed big and won with Rose, it wasn’t wrong to dream bigger with the big man, who can also hit 3-pointers. Wembanyama has an 8-foot wingspan and can almost grab the rim without jumping. Those of us who needed maximum effort just to get a finger or two on the rim in our younger days understand the outrageousness of that. And here I thought I couldn’t cry anymore at life’s unfairness.

Wembanyama is so blessed with natural ability that, in the lead-up to the lottery, it was considered a fact that he’d change the fortunes of whichever franchise got him. In an ESPN interview after the Spurs landed the top pick, Wembanyama said he wanted to win an NBA title “ASAP.’’ No one found the statement audacious.

The Bulls? Their last NBA title came in 1998 — perhaps you’ve heard — and they’re not close to winning another one anytime soon.

On a May night in 2008, a ping-pong ball with the team’s insignia popped up, and so did a geyser of hope. Remember? Of course you do. It’s the forgetting that’s the hard part.

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