The City Game focuses coverage on the game of basketball at the amateur levels in and around the city of Chicago; Justin Dukes is a contributor to WARR.com
Journeying through the world of sports can often be a fickle experience. Such is the case with the Valentine brothers, Denzel and Drew, two young men who’ve devoted their lives to basketball and through circumstance have ended up sharing their latest endeavors in the same city.
Denzel is currently a forward for the Chicago Bulls while big brother Drew serves as an assistant coach for the Loyola Ramblers. Reuniting in Chicago had to pick up the spirits of both Valentines as they try making their respective ways through their careers, but some irony exists given that in this exact moment you can argue the Valentines exist at opposite ends of the basketball success spectrum.
Coming off his 34-point career high a few weeks ago against division rival Cleveland Cavaliers, Denzel finds himself in the middle of a rebuilding situation with the Bulls. Drifting back and forth between the roles of starter and reserve, Valentine is putting up 10 points, five rebounds and three assists a game. In just his second season, the Bulls are anticipating Valentine to at some point make a consistent and substantial contribution to the team just as he did at Michigan State University.
“I give Denzel credit,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said to Bulls.com. “He’s not playing outside himself right now. Earlier in the season, if he wasn’t getting shots he’d take a crazy one. Now he’s letting the game come to him. He’s a guy we can play through because he gives us another playmaker out there on the floor.
“The thing I talk to him a lot about even when he was going through his struggles, he’s one of our better team defenders. He gets himself in help positions very well and that’s what’s kept him on the floor even when he wasn’t scoring for us. Now his confidence has been high because he’s gotten off to some good starts offensively with making shots. If he can continue to play with that type of rhythm, obviously, it helps us because of his ability to be a playmaker.”
The unfortunate side to things for Denzel situation is that the Bulls themselves are amid an identity crisis despite declaring this being a rebuilding year at the start of the season.
With the departure of former Bulls guard/forward Jimmy Butler, the Bulls figured they didn’t have enough talent or experience to make a run at the playoffs, so they spent a big portion of the earlier part of the season operating under that belief.
However, when the roster began to assume full health with players such as former Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic and guard Zach Lavine to compliment the development of young players such as guard Chris Dunn and forward Lauri Markkanen, the team somewhat halfheartedly believed they could make a playoff push and subsequently made the attempt resulting in the team’s hottest stretch of wins this season. Then, when Dunn went down with injury and the team began to sputter, that confidence dissipated and the team retreated to its original stance, resulting in the botched tank season that has kept the Bulls a non-factor on the sports pages over the last couple months.
Sitting at 24-49 currently, the Bulls are now bad enough to not make the playoffs, but too good to be in the running for a top 3 draft pick. Valentine however has remained professional and is using the remaining games this season to hone his game for when the time comes to seriously go after wins.
“It’s just all part of growing up and learning who you are as a pro,” Valentine said to Bulls.com. “It’s happening for a reason. I feel I’m getting better and I’m trying to keep improving.”
On a good day it can take about a 23 minute drive from the United Center to the campus of Loyola University, where the current hottest sports story in Chicago is taking place, one that Drew Valentine is reveling in as a Ramblers assistant coach.
Clinching the team’s ticket to the NCAA tournament’s Final Four last weekend, the Ramblers are making school, city and state history, going in to the Final Four with the best win percentage in the history of the tournament. Like the Bulls, there weren’t many expectations going in to this season for Loyola, but overachieving wound up being in the team’s forecast.
Along for the ride pretty recently, Drew was hired away from Oakland University last summer. After a time as “the other” Valentine in Division 1 basketball and after humbly casting his lot as a coach, he’s enjoying this new high-profile experience just as much as the players he’s helping mold.
“One of the most unprofessional things of my career — luckily the camera didn’t show it — was when Donte hit that shot against Miami, I sprinted across the floor like I was playing,” Drew said to the Detroit News. “You grow up and you see all the different buzzer-beaters during March Madness, and for that to happen literally 10, 15 feet in front of me was like a dream.”
The Ramblers are now in preparation mode for another previously unimaginable game as they are set to play the Michigan Wolverines this Saturday for a spot in the championship game the following Monday. They will be considerable underdogs going in to this game, but then again, they have yet to be favored at any point in this year’s NCAA tournament, so the phrase “that’s why the games are played” has even more of an emphatic meaning in this instance.
With the noise the Ramblers have been making in the tournament, everyone in Chicago, including the Bulls have taken notice.
“[Loyola is] making the city proud,’’ Denzel said to the Chicago Tribune. “They’re doing their thing. I’m happy for them. I feel like it’s me playing in the Final Four. I’m excited for them. The thing is, they’re not satisfied. They’re trying to win it all.’’
Despite the contrasting seasons between the Bulls and Ramblers, the Valentine brothers are embracing all aspects of both experiences and have not allowed the assumptions that they feel the need to outdo each other to drive a wedge between their relationship.
“I don’t think it’s that type of (sibling rivalry) relationship,” Denzel said to the Tribune. “He works hard. I work hard. We are happy when each other succeeds. I don’t think there’s a shadow.”
Follow We Are Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under We Are Regal Radio; Justin Dukes is a Chicago-based sports writer, follow him on Twitter @1kingzdream