HAWL IN: Some post holiday inspiration at the United Center

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The Bulls and Celtics tipoff at the United Center on January 7th.

CHICAGO – The lights come down and the holiday hangover begins to subside.

Winter rears its ugly head in a number of ways that test the patience of Chicago’s residents on a daily basis. The amount of darkness is still greater than the light and the hope of major holidays is months, not days, away.

This is early January, folks. The holidays are past and inspiration can sometimes be a little dormant in what you might call the dog days of winter.

Outside of the NFL most of the sports are in the grind of their regular seasons. The NHL is at its halfway mark and the NBA is quickly approaching that point as the calendar turns to 2016. Maybe that’s why you would expect Thursday’s National Basketball Association contest at the United Center to be run of the mill.

The Bulls face the Celtics in Fred Hoiberg’s 34th game as head coach in the league. Boston came in with a 19-16 record, four games behind Chicago in a wide open yet talent-laden Eastern Conference.

Nothing about this game jumps out in the statistics that would make this game day out of the ordinary. 

Yet on this January 7th it was.

Something was said. A decision was made. A statement was reaffirmed on the floor. A reason for holiday cheer and appreciation on a chilly, otherwise dull January night.

For one, it appears that a Bulls team which seemed destined to be mired by internal strife seems has found inspiration in the New Year. This would is a simple conclusion considering the team has now won six-straight games, including a 101-92 win over the Celtics on Thursday night at home.

It marked the ninth-straight game in which the Bulls have reached 100 points, some of the first concrete evidence that Hoiberg’s up-tempo offense might finally be taking effect. Plus with the victory over the Celtics the Bulls moved into second in the Eastern Conference behind the front running Cavaliers.

But what was most inspiring is how some words before the game correlated with the play on the floor. In pregame shootaround the team talked about how they’ve grown over the past few months and even the past few weeks as a group. Butler had this to say about the team to the Chicago Tribune on Wednesday..

“We all have a lot of love for each other,” Butler said according to K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune. “Everybody wants to see everybody be successful. That’s why we’re winning.”

On Thursday at shootaround, Rose echoed positive sentiments about Butler to the Chicago Sun-Times.

“We got a good group here. It seems like guys are focused,” said Rose according to Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times. “They’re not worried about themselves. We’re just trying to give the team everything that we have and try and win a championship.’’

Surprised to hear these words after Butler’s statement about Hoiberg after a loss to the Knicks just a few weeks ago? You might not be alone. Believe them? Some might be skeptical.

But on this night at the United Center through words and actions this team is pulling itself up much quicker that people expected. By no means does it signal potential success in the spring, but at least the Bulls appear like they’ll be in the conversation for something other than bickering in the winter.

Yet a victory may not be the most inspiring thing of this common January night on the west side. The other came from the opposition.

Celtics head coach Brad Stevens left Chicago and didn’t coach the game on Thursday night, leaving the duties to assistant coach to Jay Larranaga.

Missing a game is a rarity for an NBA head coach and not taken lightly. Stevens didn’t. His reason for leaving Chicago was keeping a commitment to a former player.

While at Butler University Stevens coached Andrew Smith-a center for the Bulldogs who has been fighting cancer the last two years.  

According to his wife Samantha on Twitter,   the cancer has made a turn for the worst and is asking for prayers in hopes of a “Miracle.” 

Realizing the seriousness of the illness for Smith, Stevens took Thursday to visit his former player in his time of need and headed three hours south to Indianapolis to pay a visit. 

Loyalty never wavered for Stevens as he put his priorities in order by visiting Smith on Thursday. Having dealt personally with the coach this is not a surprise as he was one of the finest people I’ve met in sports. 

Many are finding out the same on this early January night at the United Center that brought a few reasons for post-holiday cheer.