One by one, they emerged on cue from the darkness of the United Center tunnel Wednesday night before the Bulls' season-opening 93-87 victory over the Kings bathed in a spotlight and adulation.
So that's what Vladimir Radmanovic looks like. Marco Bel-i-nelli sure sounds fun to say. Welcome home, Nazr Mohammed. Welcome back, Kirk Hinrich. Nate Robinson is shorter than I thought.
Looking lean, Booz. Looking ripped Rip. Gotta love introducing Luol Deng from South Sudan this year instead of Duke. Gotta like seeing Jo jog onto the floor without a limp.
You could read lips and faces as the curious, excited crowd of 21,313 reacted to new and old Bulls alike when they introduced every member on the roster — except one.
Derrick Rose was significant by his absence, nowhere in the building, out of sight but hardly out of mind. They didn't hand Rose a microphone or save him a seat on the bench. They didn't acknowledge Rose at all during player introductions or the pre-game pomp and circumstance. Carlos Boozer addressed the crowd, not the former MVP who wasn't even in attendance.
No, they didn't go as far as confiscating the jerseys of kids who came dressed as D-Rose for Halloween. But limiting reminders of Rose seemed obvious and odd and by design. Intended or not, the opening-night symbolism sent the necessary and proper message for this most unusual of Bulls seasons: Rose isn't limping through that door any time soon.
Get used to it, Chicago. The Bulls have.
"Whether Derrick is here or not, we don't want to change anything," Tom Thibodeau said. "What we've always wanted is a team of leaders. We don't want any one leader."
The Bulls started out as if they were trying to make Thibodeau's point. All five Bulls starters scored by the six-minute mark. Share the ball, take the lead. By the end of the first quarter, the way Kings coach Keith Smart described the Rose-less Bulls beforehand seemed prescient.
"Sometimes when you lose one of your top guys, as an opponent scouting that team, it changes the identity," Smart said. "Once that guy is not there, other avenues will open up for multiple players and that becomes a dangerous team."
Try telling Richard Hamilton the Bulls still can't be the dangerous team Smart predicted.
Hamilton seldom has looked sharper as a Bull, dropping patented mid-range jumpers for 19 points. Noah did what Noah does, outwork everybody for 23 points and 10 rebounds. Deng typically spent nearly as much time on the floor as the officials, playing the first 17:30, and struggled but still grabbed 12 rebounds. Boozer appeared thinner and more willing to take big shots than play help defense in scoring 18. Hinrich shot a miserable 1-for-7 and missed a wide-open jumper in the final minute but contributed seven assists.
Super sub Taj Gibson endured a forgettable opener on the stat sheet, shooting 2 of 6, but will remember the night forever after wisely agreeing to a contract extension after the game that provided security — and produced tears.
"It's a relief," an emotional Gibson said. "I feel much better we got a win too."
One down, how many more to go? Work remains. The Bulls won't play the Kings every game. The competition will improve. Thibodeau's coaching history suggests the Bulls will too.
The Kings penetrated too easily. Bulls bench players will mesh easier than they did in a sloppy debut. Timing will come, chemistry will evolve. It won't be perfect and, on nights like Wednesday, it won't even be pretty. But anybody who thinks it won't be enough for the Bulls to remain among the East's top five or six teams underestimates the power of the professionalism in the NBA.
They overlook the value of consistent defense and effort, even if Smart called the perception the Bulls work harder than any team in the league "a cliche." They focus more on the player who isn't there than the players who still are.
The pall around Chicago many have cast over this Bulls season makes little sense. The notion that nothing over 82 games matters if the Bulls can't compete for an NBA title defies logic. Not that Thibodeau cares about anything but maximizing every opportunity to improve.
"I don't get caught up in that," Thibodeau said. "Whether someone is picking us to be the top seed or the bottom seed, it doesn't matter. The things that are important are coming in every day, being ready, putting everything you have into practicing, staying disciplined and having the ability to do it day after day."
Day 1 of the Bulls season says to expect more good ones than bad.