April 24, 2005
I woke up this morning ready to go.
Granted, I wasn’t dressed or showered, nor had I eaten, and you can’t very well go to a basketball game without getting out of bed, but all that aside, I was ready. The last time I’d seen the Bulls in the playoffs, I was a sophomore in high school with little idea as to where I’d be attending college. Bill Clinton was president, Dave Wannstedt was coaching the Bears, and Sammy Sosa was in the midst of a record breaking month in which he hit twenty home runs and transformed himself from Sammy to SAMMY. Seven years and five Bulls coaches later, the Bulls are back in the postseason, and I am going to see them.
After showering and eating breakfast, I head upstairs to look for my game day uniform. I’ve only owned one Bulls jersey in my day, a black Rodman jersey I got when he came to the team in eighth grade, and I can’t find it anywhere. Great. But I do have a lot of old Bulls t-shirts, and that seems like the way to go. My room was clean when I got here yesterday, (my parents for some reason decided that they would have to be able to walk through it while I was gone), but it is a condensed clean: you can walk around, but the closets are filled with old books and clothes, as is the storage compartment that’s attached to my bed, and now there are boxes packed tight with stuff that my parents took off the floor while I was traveling. It takes a while to get through everything, as I quickly look for any t-shirt from the glory days, and after searching the entire room I finally come to the last bag, a shopping bag that’s sitting in the back of my closet underneath a blanket that I put on my bed during the winter. I open the bag, and I feel like I’m looking upon the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. About ten t-shirts that I’ve saved, and right there in the middle is the one that I know I’m going to wear. It’s a black shirt from the third grade with pictures of Michael, Scottie, and Horace each dribbling the basketball accompanied by the phrase “Chicago Bulls’ Triple Threat.” Ball game.
“So tight!” as my brother would say, though the phrase takes on a literal meaning as well as the shirt is hugging the small gut I’ve acquired while on the road. But it’s perfect, and once I find an old black Bulls hat from the garage and the black Bulls shorts that I got with the Rodman jersey, I know I’ve found my game day uniform. I throw on a pair of red warm up pants over the shorts, lace up my shoes, and I’m ready.
Of course, at this point, it’s only 1:15 or so, and Ben’s not coming over till 2:30…
I go downstairs and grab the Tribune sports section and immediately begin pouring over every written word about the Bulls and this playoff series against Washington.
“Oh, that’s awesome! They’re gonna wear the black shoes!” I yell to no one.
“What’s that?” Mom asks.
“It says here that the Bulls are gonna wear black shoes for the playoffs, which is what they always used to do back in the day. White shoes during the season, black shoes for the playoffs.”
“Is that a surprise?”
“Well, I just wasn’t sure if they’d do it, or if they’d remember to. It’s just cool to see that kind of tradition, ya know? Just like the old days.”
The phone rings, and Mom gets it. I continue reading the paper, while Dad sits on the couch enjoying his Sunday, reading the paper and watching the Cubs. We’re down 2-0 to Pittsburgh.
“I forgot all about the Cubs.”
“Yeah. Pirates are up 2-0 in the third. Wood’s pitching.”
“You mind if I pop a tape in to get ready for the Bulls game?”
“Learning to Fly. The Bulls ’91 championship video.”
“I’m watching the Cubs,” Dad says in protest.
“Come on. Bulls baby. Bulls! Cubs’ll still be on.”
He relents. “Fine.”
We put the tape in, and I’m brought back to the early days. All of the other championship videos focus solely on one season, but Learning to Fly looks at the rise of the Bulls, from Jordan’s drafting to the signing of Pax and drafting of Scottie and Horace and the trade for Cartwright to the struggles against Detroit and finally to the ’91 season. Just watching the video, I’m amazed at how emotional I still get at some of these scenes. During the sequence in which they recap the playoff losses to Detroit in ’88, ’89, and ’90, I grimace and shake my head in disappointment. After we go up two games to none, and they show a clip of Laimbeer looking up at the camera, his eyes glaring creepily through the small slits in his clear face mask, I shiver in fear. As Scottie talks in the interview and says that Detroit is going to “have to accept the beating we was giving them,” I get wide eyed and smiley. And as we finish off the series, I pump my fist and grin.
Ben rings the doorbell as we begin the finals against the Lakers. He’s wearing jeans and a red t-shirt that says “1991 NBA Finals Bulls vs. Lakers.” Perfect.
“WHAT TIME IS IT?” he exclaims.
I answer: “GAME TIME! HOO!” We high five. “Great shirt.”
“Thanks man. You too.” Ben eyes up Pip, MJ, and Horace. “Triple threat? That’s a tight fit.”
“No kidding. You ready?”
“I woke up ready.”
“Same here!” We fist pound.
I say goodbye to my parents, and they wish us good luck and tell us to bring home a victory, and we jump in my car, turn on the radio, and head out.
There’s lots of good stuff on, and it’s tough to pick what to listen to. The Bulls games are broadcast on AM 1000, but there’s no pregame right now because 1000 also does the Sox games, and they’re playing Kansas City. So we flip to WGN on 720 to hear Pat and Ron do the Cubs game. While watching Learning to Fly, the Cubs came back to take the lead 4-2. It’s now 5-2, with the Cubs trying to hang on and win. At the commercial, we flip to 670 the Score, and they’re talking Day Two of Bears draft coverage.
“Oh man!” I say in surprise. “I totally forgot about the draft.”
“Me too. I’ve been totally focused on the Bulls game.”
“Yeah. Totally. Who’d we take today?”
“I don’t know.”
And then, as if they heard us…
“…and in case you’re just joining us, we’re talking about quarterback Kyle Orton of Purdue, the Bears’ fourth round draft choice.”
“Hey there you go. Orton’s a real good player.”
“Yeah. That’s a nice pick.”
There’s heavy traffic on the Kennedy—Bulls playoff traffic…awesome!—but it thins out a bit as a bunch of cars get off at Ogden. We decide to go all the way to Madison and head west from there to the stadium. On the ride there, the Cubs finish off Pittsburgh to hang on for a 5-2 win.
“OK, good win,” I say.
“Let’s get another one.”
The stadium looks great. It appears on the horizon, massive, peaking out over the left side of the landscape and then quickly dominating everything else in sight. Men in bright orange shirts wave flags and direct fans into their lots, less expensive than the lots next to the United Center, but we decide to park across from the stadium. The traffic inches slowly forward, allowing us to see the hoards of fans donned in red and black excitedly making their way to the gym. We pull into a lot, packed in tight next to the cars that pull in just before us and just after us, and then out of the car and out of the lot and across the street and now we’re in the thick of Bulls fans, all ready for the playoffs. The glory days are still well represented—everywhere you look there’s a JORDAN 23 on somebody’s back—but HINRICH 12, CHANDLER 3, CURRY 2, and GORDON 7 are also in abundance. We walk past the Jordan statue, which is surrounded by the usual group of fans, gawkers and photographers and enthusiasts and tourists, and we weave between families with little boys decked out in their Bulls gear, too young to remember Jordan’s last shot and blissfully ignorant of the horrors of the Bad Boys, their faces aglow as they hold their parents’ hands and listen to their stories of guys named Jordan and Pippen and Grant and Rodman and get ready to walk into a Bulls playoff game as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening. The ticket windows are packed with hopefuls trying to get into the action, and scalpers walk among us with you need two? I got two slipping from their lips and then disappearing back into the crowd, but Ben and I have our tickets, and when we get to our gate we display them proudly, holding them up for the ticket rippers with big smiles on our faces. We are here.
“OH MAN!” I’m ecstatic. “Dude, we’re at a Bulls playoff game! We’re in the playoffs man!” Ben and I high five.
“What do you wanna do first? Get food or go to our seats?”
“I can’t make any decisions right now. Let’s get food. No, actually, let’s go to the seats. I wanna see the court. I’m kind of hungry though.”
“We’ll go to the seats.”
We get up to the seats with about twenty minutes left on the pregame clock. The stadium is not empty, but it’s certainly not yet crowded. All around the gym fans are settling into their seats, and blowing up those moronic “Thunderstix” that they pass out as you enter the stadium. I hate those things. So does Ben. There’s a little kid in front of us smacking the hell out of his Idiotstix, and normally I’d be focused on him in the same way that you can’t help but focus on a kid humming loud and off-key while sitting in a plane on the runway, but I’m so geeked up for the game that I hardly notice him. Fans continue to file in, and when the Bulls run out onto the court to start warming up the United Center comes to its feet, applauding our Bulls as they get into their layup lines. We get a kid behind us to take our picture, and then we head out for some food.
As we stand in line at the concession stand, I watch other Bulls fans walking around the concourse and I can’t help but wonder how many of them have been there with Ben and me over the past six years. Do they remember Kornel David or Cory Carr? Were they dismayed by the Elton Brand for Tyson Chandler trade? Did they see the years of tough play and disappointing defeats? In the end though, it doesn’t matter. This game means something to Ben and me, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t mean something else to other fans. Some people want to be involved for the whole ride, and other people can only get excited for the high points, and that’s OK. It’s just like the High Holidays. Some people need and want to go to services every week, and other people, for whatever reason, only go for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. It’s just a question of what kind of a role Judaism plays in your life, just as this crowd is an example of what kind of role the Bulls play in their lives. And what this crowd really brings to light is what kind of role the Bulls play in the lives of Chicagoans. No matter what the Bears do, Soldier Field will always be packed. We are a football city. When the Bears go to the playoffs, even if it’s a surprise season coming off of a losing year like in 1994 or 2001, the fans at a Bears playoff game are all of the same people who have been experiencing the ups and downs with the team every Sunday. The schedule has something to do with it, as it’s obviously much easier to attend eight football games than it is to attend 41 basketball games, but even still, the city’s interest in the Bulls waxes and wanes with their performance. That’s just the way it is.
Still, it’s exhilarating to hear the roar of the crowd when the lights go out at the United Center. You can really feel it: these fans are truly excited for this game and this team. “Aaaaaaaaaaaand now…” A.D., Noce, Othella, Chris Duuuuuuuuuuhon, and Captain Kirk are introduced to applause and cheers and lots of “whoooooos!” and the lights come on, the refs jump it up, and we’re underway.
During the game’s opening moments the fans are pumped up and yelling on every possession, but soon after things settle into a nice rhythm and the crowd settles down, only getting jacked up for big plays. I haven’t been to an NBA game since 2001, and I’d forgotten one incredibly obnoxious feature of today’s NBA: they never let you rest. At every time out, time I usually spend relaxed on my couch watching commercials or flipping around, I’m assaulted with some kind of cacophonous entertainment ploy like a mascot race or a break dancing contest or some other silly thing that asks for loud music and my attention. I don’t really care for this stuff, but it goes over well with everyone else, as fans cheer in celebration when Cuppy Coffee defeats the donut and the bagel in the Dunkin Donuts race. I guess the thinking is that we’ve paid so much for tickets, we may as well be pummeled with entertainment at every waking moment.
The Bulls trail by two at the end of the first quarter but quickly come right back in the second to take the lead. For a young team, the Bulls look like they’ve been playing playoff basketball for ten years. Paxson’s decision to draft players with big time college experience has been paying off all season, and at no time is that advantage more evident than today. What’s Game 1 of a first-round playoff series to Ben Gordon, a guy who helped lead Connecticut to the national title last year? What’s Game 1 of a first-round playoff series to Chris Duhon, a guy who became Duke’s starting point guard during his freshman season and helped them win a title, and then brought them back to the Final Four last season? What’s Game 1 of a first-round playoff series to Andres Nocioni, a guy who’s been playing professionally in Argentina and just this past summer helped lead his national team to the Olympic gold medal? Throw in Kirk Hinrich’s four years at Kansas, including two Final Fours and a trip to the national title game in 2003, and you’ve got some big-time experience on the court. This isn’t one-and-done Michigan man Jamal Crawford and a couple of high school guys; these are battle-tested players who have played big minutes in big time competition. Hopefully, the success of these Bulls will lead other GM’s around the league to mimic Paxson’s blueprint, because talented high schoolers with big-time college experience are nearly always better suited for the NBA than talented high schoolers with little or no college experience.
Behind Duhon, Gordon, and Othella, the Bulls begin to open up a big lead, and when Eric Piatkowski squares up and hits a three to push that lead to seven, the United Center explodes in cheer. But Washington comes back, and after they regain the lead at 52-51, Captain Kirk hits a jumper to end the half, and the Bulls go into the locker room with a one point lead.
Ben and I decide to walk around the stadium during halftime, mingling with all of the other Bulls fans. Ben buys a beer while I go to use the bathroom. It’s pretty relaxed, though every so often someone will yell “Go Bulls!” and get a few cheers. As I’m drying my hands, I see a young boy in a Bulls hat standing by the sinks, waiting for his father to finish up.
“You enjoying the game?”
“Cool. What year were you born?”
He looks at me oddly. “1996. Why?”
I laugh. “No reason. Go Bulls.”
I find Ben and we settle back into our seats for the second half. After a jumper from Wizard All-Star Gilbert Arenas—Washington’s regular season scoring leader at 25.5 points per game was held scoreless in the first half by great defense from Duhon—Nocioni hits a three to put the Bulls up two.
“Noce is on fire,” Ben says to me.
“No kidding. Has he even been out of the game yet?”
“He was out for like thirty seconds or something at the end of the first half.”
Noce has been an animal on the boards, pulling down ten in the first half to lead the team. He also had eight points, and let out a scream you could hear from Argentina after every rebound he grabbed or basket he made. As the third quarter rages on, the emotion in the stands grows. Timeout entertainments are treated with less and less enthusiasm, the crowd anxious to get on with the game. A three point play by Arenas puts the Wizards up seven with nineteen seconds to play, and a Duhon layup ends the quarter with the Bulls trailing 82-77. There’s work to be done, and the players and fans are ready for the challenge. The Bulls walk off the court to the applause and encouragement of the crowd, which is now fully immersed in the game.
The Bulls open the fourth on a 13-4 run backed by ten points from Ben Gordon, who by now no longer surprises us with his fourth quarter magic. He cuts the Wizard lead to four on a jumper, and the crowd is with the team every step of the way. When Kwame Brown’s weak floater is blocked by Tyson Chandler, the crowd pumps its collective fist in celebration. When Duhon steals a Juan Dixon pass and heads down the court, the crowd stands up and awaits the bucket that we all know is coming. After Noce ties the game on a free throw, Ben hits a three to give the Bulls a lead they would never relinquish. Ben gets a steal and a dunk to put the Bulls up four, Noce hits a three to put the Bulls up five, A.D. hits a jumper to put the Bulls up seven, and after four straight missed free throws by Kirk and Tyson, Noce steps to the line and calmly hits a pair as the stands reverberate with chants of “No—ci—o—ni!” The final buzzer sounds, the Bulls win by nine, and the crowd stands and cheers and applauds the team. Game 1 is over. Final score: Bulls 103, Wizards 94.
“That’s two playoff wins in a row,” Ben reminds me as we high five.
“Hey, that’s right! Winning streak. Awesome!”
We head into the bathroom, and it’s packed and jumping. The lines go all the way to the back, and people are cheering and yelling and continuing the “No—ci—o—ni!” chant. “Go Bulls!” “Alright!” “Noce was awesome!” “So was Gordon!” We use the bathroom, give the Bulls one more cheer with the rest of the restroom constituents, and leave. Out the door and down the ramps and out onto the street, passing Bulls fans with smiles on their faces and a jump in their steps. We sit in my car, waiting for our turn to drive, and then it’s out of the lot and down the block with the radio on, listening to Bulls post game and Bears draft coverage, and we drive back north on the Kennedy as the packs of Bulls fan thin out along the way. We pull up to Ben’s house, and stop.
“Tell your friend thanks for the tickets.”
“Absolutely. Thanks for coming.”
“Are you kidding? I wouldn’t miss it.”
“Get together for Game 2?”
“Sounds good. Later bro.”
“Peace. Go Bulls.”
We high five, he leaves, and I drive home. What a great day.