March 2, 2005
Sports fans are always a step ahead of the rest of the country when it comes to their team. We watch day after day when no one else is watching, and then the team starts to play well and begins garnering praise outside of the city, and we feel pretty damn good about ourselves. We’re like the kid who “discovers” a band, and then makes sure everybody knows it when they finally hit big. But being a fan of a rock band is not the same as being a fan of a team. First of all, there’s no such thing as a bandwagon rock band fan. Posers maybe, but not bandwagon. A band starts small, cuts a few records, makes a few hits, and grow more popular. There’s no shame in becoming a fan of a band once it becomes popular, because all you are doing as a rock fan is appreciating their music.
Take Kanye West, for example. I first heard his music last summer, when some friends of mine played The College Dropout for me. They were big into that album, and wanted to share it. I liked it, and got into it, and by the time the Grammys came around earlier this year, I was a Kanye fan. Not a huge fan, but that was only due to personal tastes. I dig his shit. What more does one need?
Then came the Grammys, with Kanye getting pub for his many nominations. College Dropout won Best Rap Album, and Kanye performed “Jesus Walks” at the show. His fame grew. Sales of his CD increased after the Grammys, as lots of music fans discovered his music for the first time. That’s a time span of nearly a year in which people have become fans of Kanye West, and certainly there are still people who have not yet heard his CD. Does it matter when a person became a fan? No, not at all, because all we are doing is appreciating a person’s music. In fact, my future child could find The College Dropout in my CD case in about thirty years, pop it into his CD player or forehead or do whatever it is that they will be doing for their musical enjoyment, and he could then become a diehard Kanye fan. Totally possible, totally reasonable. There is no expiration date on a piece of art. Even if Kanye West never cuts another successful record, people can still enjoy The College Dropout, and new fans can still discover that album in the same way that I became a fan of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
This kind of attachment is not the same for a sports team. A franchise, yes. But not a specific team of a specific season. The Bulls are improving now, and like Kanye during the past year, more and more people are being introduced to this team, to Kirk and Tyson and Eddy and Du and Luol. And while others can enjoy the team and root for them now that they are winning, they cannot legitimately claim to be diehard Bulls fans; it just wouldn’t be true. On top of that, if a person attempts to hop on the bandwagon of a team on the rise and disguise himself as a long timer, we actual diehards would take a great deal of offense to them because they are not just saying that they like a team; they are trying to take on an identity. This is similar to what happened in the early ’90s when the whole grunge movement took off, and flannel started popping up everywhere. People were doing the grunge thing because they thought it was hip, not because they were really into it, and the real grunge fans got mad, because they felt like their identity was being pimped. That’s why people don’t like fair-weather fans, and why it’s a sin to hop on a team’s bandwagon and claim to be the driver.
Outsiders are now seeing the Bulls’ improvement, and as the season goes on I’m sure we’ll see some amount of bandwagon fans. However, bandwagon fans have never really bothered me, because I am comfortable with my fandom. People who know me know what my fandom is all about, and anybody who jumps onto a rising team’s bandwagon can always see what separates them from the real fans, and in my experience they pay us their respect. And that’s all we ask. Acknowledge our commitment. After all, if you don’t, and you try to talk shop with us about our own team, our depth of knowledge will be immediately apparent.
For example, anybody who jumps on the Bulls bandwagon well into this season probably thinks that this Bulls team has come out of nowhere, but those of us who have been watching all season have seen the steady improvement. We went 1-10 in November, 8-7 in December, and then romped through January with a league best—and franchise best—13-3 record. That made us 22-20 heading into February, which was a good record to have considering that our February schedule looked like a minefield. Eight of eleven games on the road, and the home games were against Miami, Minnesota, and Sacramento. Not exactly an easy run. In the world of sports journalistic clichés, this stretch would determine whether or not the Bulls were “for real.” Well, we won seven of those eleven games, and at 29-24 we’re starting to get some recognition around the rest of the league. ESPN.com’s Power Rankings has us at number eight overall right now. I almost crapped myself when I saw that.
But even with our vast improvement, we still have a long way to go, as witnessed by the 119-89 schalacking at the hands of the Houston Rockets two nights ago. Like the Bulls of the ’80s, this team is young and inexperienced, and watching them can be both agonizing and exhilarating. We are clearly a talented group—Tyson Chandler (second overall pick in 2001), Ben Gordon (third in ’04), Eddy Curry (fourth in ’01), Kirk Hinrich (seventh in ’03), and Luol Deng (seventh in ’04) are all recent top ten picks—and apart from Curry every player on the team is a guy whose effort and desire matches or exceeds his talent. When we are playing well, our talent is augmented by that effort and desire as we out-hustle opposing players for rebounds and loose balls. When we are playing poorly, no amount of talent or hustle can save us from our poor decisions and fatigue. Young players generally have more energy than older players, but older players are wiser and better conditioned. Young team, old team, it doesn’t really matter. There are ups and downs with both, and either name is used more as an insult than just a description. Michael, Scottie, Horace, Pax, B.J., and the rest of those guys were all in their twenties during the first title run, but they weren’t a “young team,” but rather a high-energy athletic club. Then, during the second three-peat, Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, and Harper were all in their mid-30s, but people never referred to the Bulls as an “old team.” They were always “experienced.”
Along with the defense and team play, what I find most exciting about this Bulls team is the possibility that the team’s core will stay together throughout their primes. The championship Bulls were fun to root for because they kept the team together for a while, allowing fans to become familiar with the players. That’s one reason that sports are best when teams stay together, but there is another big reason, and that is this: teams that stay together perform at a higher level because they learn all of the specificities of their teammates’ games. This rule is more applicable in basketball than in other sports, because basketball is a more individual sport than football or baseball. That’s not to say that basketball isn’t a team sport. It is. But like soccer, hockey, lacrosse, field hockey, water polo—any sport that has players advancing a ball towards a goal or net—basketball is a game that can be taken over by an individual player.
Brett Favre is a great quarterback, but in order for him to be successful he needs an offensive line to block for him and a receiver to catch his passes. Barry Bonds is a great baseball player, and while he can achieve brilliant individual stats on his own, he cannot win games just by himself. He only goes to bat between three and four times a game, he doesn’t pitch, he only covers one-ninth of the field, and he is frozen within the confines of a batting order. On the other hand, Michael Jordan could win a game practically on his own, because he could control the ball and dominate without much assistance of his teammates. Of course, he found his greatest success when he got his teammates involved, but even without that help, Jordan was still able to hold more of an influence over his team’s success than any great football or baseball player. With that kind of potential for individual effort and skill to translate into at least a moderate level of team success, talented but selfish basketball players feel more important than the team and thus make it difficult for clubs to keep a team nucleus together. And it’s the talented but selfish basketball players that always feel like their team’s failure is somebody else’s fault, and GMs have fallen into an unfortunate logic track that has them acquiring these kinds of players and then getting rid of them when they turn the heat on and say that they won’t resign.
The NBA trade deadline hit last week, and this trend of GMs not knowing how to keep teams together and giving into the pressures levied by talented but selfish players led to eleven deadline deals involving fifteen teams and thirty five players.
How many of these trades will result in a positive impact for the teams involved? Philly getting C-Webb is big, and Houston made some nice moves, and Steve Smith will be a good fit in Miami, but the rest of the trades were either addition by subtraction or, failing that, simply subtraction. Nobody knows how to build and keep a team anymore. That’s another big problem in the NBA, a problem that was almost non-existent when I was growing up: most teams do not stay together, and thus they do not form an identity, and thus there are a small number of memorable teams which in-turn makes the games less memorable and less exciting. The NBA of the ’80s and ’90s was filled with teams that stayed together. There were the top tier clubs, the teams that were guaranteed to challenge for the NBA Finals every season, but there were also the second tier teams, teams that were never at the top of the heap but stuck together and were highly competitive and professional clubs.
All of these teams benefited greatly by patient owners and GMs who allowed their teams to grow and learn to play together, making for a much more competitive and thus more exciting league.
That’s what I want most with this Bulls team, maybe even more than another championship. I want a club that will stay together and grow together and take the city along for the ride.