Column: Bullish about Ben

By Jeff Feyerer

Last spring, I suggested UConn’s Emeka Okafor might be the answer to what ails the Bulls.

Turns out, I had the right college. Just the wrong player.

With the third pick in last summer’s NBA Draft, Chicago took Okafor’s mate from its 2004 National Championship squad, guard Ben Gordon.

And John Paxson once again looked like a genius.

During a year that has proved to be a resurrection of sorts for a once-great franchise, Gordon has been the star.

A 21-year-old go-to guy on a team full of young players still trying to find their roles.

Paxson saw something in Gordon that he knew he had to have. A true offensive weapon that could single-handedly change momentum and carry the team.

Analysts questioned taking Gordon so high in the draft with the third pick.

Is he big enough to guard the opposing teams’ shooting guards?

Would he team well in a backcourt with Kirk Hinrich?

That’s where coach Scott Skiles came in.

In what has turned out to be a genius move, Skiles decided to slowly ease his potential star into the limelight by bringing him off the bench.

Now, I know you may be saying to yourself, “If he’s the team’s best offensive weapon, shouldn’t he be starting and playing more?”

Well, he did start three games at the beginning of the year. Three games in which he averaged a mere eight points per game and shot a robust 31 percent from the field.

Skiles could see the rookie was pressing to prove everyone wrong.

People waited for the rookie to whine. There was no way this kid, in an age where egos and contracts outweigh the desire to win, would accept a role on the bench.

How wrong they were.

Gordon hasn’t just accepted his role. He’s relished it.

February has seen Gordon chalk up almost 19 points a game off the bench and push himself to the forefront of talk for both Rookie of the Year and Sixth Man awards.

But it’s not how many points he puts up. It’s when he puts them up.

When the Bulls need to call on someone to take the important final shot, Gordon’s number is on speed dial.

The most telling statistic is Gordon’s flare for the dramatic – he leads the NBA with 16 games scoring 10 or more points in the fourth quarter.

Not just rookies. The entire league.

No performance has been more indicative of Gordon’s influence on the Bulls or his All-Star potential than last Tuesday against Miami.

Down 86-77 in the fourth quarter. No problem for Ben.

Making the nine point deficit look like child’s play, Gordon hit three pointers on three consecutive possessions, putting the Bulls in position to force overtime.

Two more three pointers in overtime and Gordon’s comeback was complete.

He’s a closer. He’s Mariano Rivera looking for the final strike out. He’s an uppercut from Muhammad Ali when the opponent’s on the ropes.

In a year where everything seems to have turned around for the possibly playoff-bound Bulls, it is clear they have found themselves the star they have been so dearly desiring since some guy named Michael skipped town.

Gordon has stood tall like Big Ben at critical moments in the game when critics believed his small stature would prevent success.

In a time when players complain about not being in the starting lineup, Ben Gordon has proved it’s not who starts the game, but who finishes the game.

Something he’s done many times this year.

How does Scott Skiles know when to put the finishing touches on the opposition?

He just looks at Big Ben.