See, there’s a ball, that goes through a hoop...

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Bulls center Jaokim Noah likes the way things are going in the second quarter in game five of the Eastern Conference Finals with the Chicago Bulls hosting the Miami Heat Thursday May 26, 2011 at the United Center. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

The NBA playoffs begin Saturday, a start that has never before been noted in this column because, to be honest, I never cared about it before now.

Years ago, my attention might grudgingly turn to basketball, in late May, when the city came to a dead stop to watch the semifinals. Back then I tended to complain, in prim columns that are painful to reread today.

“Now is our month of torment,” I wrote in May 1997. “We are lumped into yet another ‘fever’ and regaled with every detail of every player in every game. Don’t get me wrong. Michael Jordan is great and the Bulls are great and we are all humble witnesses to a great shimmering moment of greatness unparalleled in all the history of the world. But geez, five championships. Doesn’t it get sort of tiresome?”

After 15 years I can smile, shake my head and marvel that readers didn’t storm the Sun-Times and escort me, a quivering ball of tar and feathers straddling a rail, to the city limits.

But this is an indulgent city. “One of the nice things about Chicago,” the great cartoonist Bill Mauldin once said, “is its tolerance for rubes.” I can second that.

Rubes can change. They can learn. This year, for instance, snark about basketball is impossible, for a simple reason: I’ve been watching Bulls games. Dozens. Most of the shortened season. I’ve even taken the family to a few. They’re fun. The team’s great.

I don’t know if they’re win-a-ring-this-year great. Derrick Rose, as you might have heard, gets injured. The amazing part is the team still wins without him. Credit coach Tom Thibodeau, who looks exactly like a coach should look, dyspeptic and displeased, his brow knit. Of course the man has a lot of talent to work with. A deep bench and…

Am I talking sports? Oh sorry. I suppose an explanation is in order. You see, my 14-year-old watches every game, and at the season’s start asked me if I wanted to watch with him. The honest answer would be, “Hell no!” But I couldn’t actually say that, so instead dutifully shuffled over and sat down.

God bless Stacey King – I couldn’t have made it through the season without him. He’s the color commentator for Comcast SportsNet, with a litany of Harry Caray-esque exclamations – “get me the hot sauce” and “too strong, too fast, too good” and such – that keep the whole thing fun, with a nod to his straight man, Neil Funk, the play-by-play announcer. I miss them when they’re not on.

It also helps to have a favorite player. Last year, a local magazine asked me to write a profile of center Joakim Noah. I met him at his house in Highland Park. We sat in the kitchen, talking, and it taught me a valuable lesson about the funhouse mirror of the media. Preparing to interview Noah, I read what had been written and watched YouTube videos of him being drafted by the Bulls, where he appears in a goofy white tuxedo and, awash in excitement, comes off as, well, strange. I expected Dennis Rodman Lite.

But Noah isn’t strange. He’s dignified, quiet and thoughtful – amazingly so, for a kid who earns a million dollars a month. The word that kept coming to mind was “normal” – well, as normal as a French-speaking 6’11” basketball star whose father was a tennis and rap icon and mother was Miss Sweden could possibly be.

So not only do I watch the games, but I root for a favorite player who throws himself into the game with energy, skill and passion. Though Rose also has a lot going for him – supremely skilled, with that extra gear of speed that lets him blaze around defenders like they’re frozen. Yet without the me-me-me aura that Michael Jordan exuded.

It’s hard not to automatically match the current players with 1990s Bulls predecessors – Rose is a humble Jordan and Rip Hamilton, his Scottie Pippen. Kyle Korver is John Paxson, the deadly three-point shooter.

None of this would be worth sharing – “Oh look, Neil Steinberg has discovered sports. What took him?” – except for the irony that, now that I’m on board, the rest of the city seems completely indifferent to the team. I wish I could relay all the conversations I’ve been having in the newsroom lately.

“Wow, I’ve been watching the Bulls this year, and they really are…,” I enthuse.

“…doomed,” comes the reply. “No hope.”

“That Stacey King, he’s really a…,” I say.

“…a homer. Home team shill. I hate him.”

I guess that’s natural – the playoffs continue until mid-June. People hold their enthusiasm in check, as disappointment management, in case the Bulls flame out early. But I don’t think they will. I have a good feeling about this year – not that I have anything to compare it with. Still, when you’re ready to climb on the bandwagon, welcome aboard. There’s plenty of room.

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