By Cody Westerlund–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Nikola Mirotic and the Bulls are ready to move forward, however awkward it may be and with whatever facade they must maintain to go about the business of basketball that’s been overshadowed for much of this season by the Mirotic-Bobby Portis saga.
Providing a glimpse into his window of thinking for the first time since being punched by Portis on Oct. 17, Mirotic remained vague about whether he wants to remain with the Bulls moving forward and indicated he’ll be a professional and exist with Portis so long as the basketballs are bouncing.
“If I’m here, it means that my team needs me and I need my team too, to be back and play,” Mirotic said after practice at the Advocate Center on Wednesday afternoon in his first public comments since the incident in which he suffered a concussion and two facial fractures that have caused him to miss the season’s first 19 games.
That response was a theme of Mirotic’s nearly 14-minute media session. He was asked direct question after direct question and sidestepped most of them. Mirotic opened with a statement saying he wouldn’t comment on the past. Mirotic feigned ignorance when asked about the “me or him” stance his camp has expressed to the Bulls regarding the futures of him and Portis in Chicago, per reports. He’s not eligible to be traded until Jan. 15, and he holds a no-trade clause that he’d likely be willing to waive.
Mirotic, 26, also declined to comment on whether the length of Portis’ eight-game suspension was fair and whether he was upset that management publicized him also having an aggressor’s role in the incident.
He was appreciative of the support in the aftermath.
“Yeah, I feel that support,” Mirotic said. “After what happened, Fred (Hoiberg) came to the hospital with Jim Boylen. Gar (Forman) was calling. Everybody was worried about me. So I did feel support and I appreciated that from the front office. Now their goal is to make me get back in the game. I’m working on that.”
Perhaps fitting for a puzzling ordeal that’s nearly unprecedented, it took a roundabout way for Mirotic to acknowledge that he has accepted the public apology Portis issued through the media on Oct. 21, which came after Portis’ attempts to directly contact Mirotic went unanswered.
“You know, we are teammates, on the same team,” Mirotic said. “Fighting for the same team and we’re both gonna do what we need to do to make it work. Yeah, I accept it.”
What the two haven’t done is make amends in person yet as of early Wednesday afternoon. Any mea culpa and measure of forgiveness has only come through the media. The two aren’t on speaking terms, with Mirotic responding, “I guess he will know now” when asked if he has told Portis that he accepts his apology.
They have interacted a bit in their actions, with Mirotic giving Portis a fist bump during a loss Tuesday night, when he accompanied the Bulls on the bench for the first time this season. Speaking to the odd nature and granular breakdown of this saga, Mirotic fielded a question about whether he’ll keep giving Portis fist bumps moving forward.
“The only thing I can tell you is that I’ve been playing this game nine years professionally,” Mirotic said. “I was always a good teammate, always professional to everybody, and I’m going to continue to do that. If I’m here, it’s because I want to support the team. He’s a part of the team. I’m going to support him too. Obviously, I’m going to give him hands like he’s going to give me hands too.”
In other words, they will act like normal human beings even though they don’t like one another.
Mirotic isn’t traveling with the team to Denver for Thursday’s game, as he’ll instead participate in two of the G-League Windy City Bulls’ practices in the coming days. He’s been ruled out of game action through Friday, and Hoiberg added it’s too early to tell if he’ll be ready to play next week as he works on his conditioning.
Mirotic was fitted for a mask and wore it recently during shooting sessions, but because of its discomfort, he doesn’t plan on wearing it in games. The two facial fractures are fully healed, Mirotic said.
Mirotic said he’s “happy” for rookie Lauri Markkanen locking down the starting power forward spot with strong early play. He also maintained that he’s not preoccupied with starting but rather getting healthy so he can play again. Hoiberg indicated that Mirotic would land in the rotation as soon as he’s active for a game.
“Niko’s a guy that has a lot of experience, not only in this league but also he’s been playing professionally, really going back all the way to when he was 16 years when he started playing in the Spanish League,” Hoiberg said. “So just to get another experienced guy out there who can space the floor and make the right plays (is helpful).”
Mirotic is hopeful that will be soon. This has been a trying season that he didn’t see coming, authored by a punch he wasn’t ready for.
Through it all, Mirotic isn’t ready to call it a “lost” season.
“I’m used to up and down,” Mirotic said. “Obviously you didn’t expect this to happen but just trying to get stronger. There’s a few positives out of this happening, too. I’m always trying to find the good things after all this situation so right now it’s been how many games, close to 20 games. I want to get back stronger, that’s all.”
Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for CBSChicago.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.