On the John presents…
A trip to the Chicago Bulls locker room
Originally completed December 1, 2009
I work for a magazine called TrueStar. We are student-run publication; Chicago high school students (and a few of our alum now in college) do all of the writing, graphic design, photography, sales and marketing, distribution, and now, radio work. TrueStar then hires professionals in those fields to teach the necessary skills to our student staff.
I love this job.
Not only because I am teaching writing to high schoolers without the bureaucratic burdens I will eventually deal with in a classroom job, but because my bosses are captains of the Go-Get-It-Done team. In preparing students for their futures, they finagle as many celebrity interviews and special assignments as can be. If a 17-year-old can master her jitters while interviewing Barack or Kanye or Keyshia Cole, certainly she will find her steady hand while interviewing for a job or internship or admission to college.
This time it was B.J. Armstrong and a trip to the United Center, a Saturday night Bulls-Sixers game on the docket and admission to the Bulls locker room for pre- and post-game interviews after the event.
As a severe Bulls fan, my first career trip into the locker room could not have been planned any better. Since I was attending as a chaperone/coach for our two students (one from editorial, one from radio), I was locked into “professional adult” mode and could not indulge Jack the Manic Bulls Fan.
For example, a phone conversation with B.J. Armstrong was conducted with an unprecedented level of casual ease, considering I was cell phone chatting with a member of Your-World-Champion-Chicago-Bulls. The conversation was necessary due to a miscommunication: we thought the interview was set for 5:30. He thought 6.
So I called my boss to get his number, and at 5:40 p.m. Saturday night, standing on the United Center floor, I phoned B.J. Armstrong.
“Hello B.J. This is Jack Silverstein from TrueStar, calling about our interview. (Also, remember when you made the layup to close out the Charles Smith Game at MSG? That was monster! Bulls baby! Bulls!)”
“Was that right now? Because I thought it was at 6.”
“Not to worry. Why don’t you just call me when you arrive and let us know where to meet you. (Yeah, why don’t you just call me, B.J. Armstrong. Just give me a call on the ol’ cell phone and I’ll pick up and talk to you. To B.J. Armstrong. B.J. ARMSTRONG!) We’re on the court right now.”
“Sounds fine. I’m 20 minutes away.”
“Perfect. (You started the ’94 All-Star Game! I was 12! IT WAS SWEET!). See you then.”
And Professional Jack hung up.
While we waited for Mr. Armstrong, I began pointing out the Bulls beat journalists and broadcasters to our writer Simeon and our radio man David, AKA “Champ.” (His radio handle.)
“You guys know what Pax looks like, right? OK…see that bald, white guy with the sweater vest and thin glasses, standing behind Pax? That’s the legendary Sam Smith, old Bulls beat reporter for the Trib, author of The Jordan Rules, now writing for Bulls.com. And that guy he is talking to is K.C. Johnson, the current Bulls beat guy at the Trib. Sitting right there to Paxson’s right are the radio guys, Bill Wennington and Chuck Swirsky. And you know Neil Funk and Stacey King, the TV guys?” They did. We watched as Neil and Stacey sat on the court for their pre-game reports, their eyes fixed on the camera, totally unaffected by the surrounding chaos. “See that?” I told Simeon and David. “If you’re watching on TV, all you see is Neil and Stacey doing their thing. It looks like no big deal. But you can really see it all from here, the concentration they must have…”
Since it would be a bit before B.J. arrived, and since reporters have locker room access prior to the game, we decided to send David in for his pre-game material. The three of us walked away from the court, between the rafters through what is “the tunnel,” and into this monstrous white hallway that loops all the way around the outer-rim of the stadium, this terrifically white, slick hall adorned with floor-to-ceiling photos of Bulls and Blackhawks legends.
We were standing outside of the locker room entrance waiting for admittance, and as I gave David and Simeon a pre-game pep talk, familiar faces kept passing. John Paxson. Bernie Bickerstaff. Elton Brand in his Sixers warm-ups. Aaron Gray in street clothes. Once again, it was a lucky break that this was Professional Adult Jack on the job and not Bulls Fan Jack, because BFJ may have conducted himself like this:
“Remember guys, there are going to be a lot of distractions. Cheerleaders, drummers, lights—Pax! What up!—music, the thrill of access, and the kick of seeing people in person you only see on screens. But as you could see with Neil and Stacey, they’re not distractions to the other reporters and they’re not distractions to the players. So it is imperative that you—Hey! You’re Bernie Bickerstaff!—keep your composure, that you stay focused on The Job. These guys are people, ya know? Just regular—Elton! Loved you on the Bulls man! Sorry you got traded!—people. If you keep that in mind, and just focus on your goals as journalists—Whoa! Aaron Gray! You’re really really tall!—you’ll be fine.”
But Professional Jack had a job to do, too. Focus and professionalism were Critical.
Furthermore, what can you really say to these guys? Ten years ago, I would have spouted all of the spoutings listed above. But when Luol Deng is walking past you as if you were just another piece of that white hallway, what can you really say? “Hey Lu!” And then…what? “Good game!” “You’re good at basketball!” “I know you from when yer on the TV!”
And at 28-years-old, a senior to all but five players on the active roster, it’s not as if these guys are my childhood heroes.
At five minutes to six, David entered the locker room. Simeon and I walked back down the hallway, turned right into The Tunnel, and walked back out between the seats and onto the court.
My phone rang.
“Hi Jack. Where are you guys?”
“We’re standing by the court, by the Sixers’ side of the court…Thaddeus Young is shooting jumpers…no, now he stopped because someone is putting up a giant ladder…it’s a yellow ladder…”
“I’ll be right there.”
As we waited for B.J., I found myself mesmerized by the Bulls’ shoot-around. I’d been watching our old friend Jannero Pargo firing away, just as he did in The Jannero Pargo Game, and now it was Joakim Noah, knocking home banker after banker Tim Duncan-style. Catch, release, glass, swish. Catch, release, glass, swish. Eyes on the ball, eyes on the rim, and back on the ball again. Whoa! Noah’s got a really nice jumper now! This is great!
B.J. approached from above. We were watching Noah’s heavenly bank shot when ol’ Number 10 walked down from the second level through section 106. I said something like “Hi there” while extending my hand, and he shook mine and Simeon’s and asked us: “Where should we do this?”
“Your house,” I said. He motioned to the front row of seats in 106. Simeon sat one seat over on his right, and I went two seats over to his left. Simeon is a thoughtful, soft-spoken 20-year-old, and the young man was prepared and focused, delivering questions to a different sort of young man, the one we once called The Kid back when I was a kid, the one who cranked out threes from the corner with a full-body motion that I used to imitate at the park.
I did so because B.J. was always one of the guys who seemed most like us. He looked young like us, and he was “short” like us. Pax and Hodges and later Steve Kerr all had catch-and-shoot motions that fired out of them and seemed difficult to reproduce for your average 4th grader, but B.J.’s jumper seemed manufactured out of hard work and repetition alone, and maybe if I just kept practicing, that would be me out there, maybe not starting for the Bulls, but perhaps starting for the Orrington Boys Basketball team.
That was B.J.’s on-court identity to us: the little-basketball-player-who-could. Now I was sitting next to him, and I was learning his actual identity—a man who continued his career in professional basketball as an agent because he was fascinated by all elements of the NBA game.
“Look at the production of this facility,” he told us, suddenly lighting up as his eyes carried around the arena. “The lights. The cameras. The floor itself. The rims. The referees. The people doing the score. The people helping to sell these tickets. The people who organize all of these people who are working here. The concession stands. There’s so much business in sports. Just stop and take a look around.” He waved his hand around the gym once more, and we followed his lead and really began to look. “This is the product that drives it—the players get a lot of recognition, but it’s really the behind-the-scenes that makes this a smooth operation.”
“Did you think about that stuff while you were playing?” I asked. “Did it ever distract you during timeouts?”
He smiled. “It’s funny—when I was in college, I began to recognize TV timeouts. Because once I learned that the advertisers had to come in, I began to train so that I could play in four-minute intervals. The timeouts had to come at the 16-minute mark, the 12-minute mark, so I began to learn about the business of TV, radio, their impact on the game. A national game is going to have different timeouts than a local game. And that got me interested in the business. The business runs the sport. So I began to train for the business of basketball, the business of sports itself.”
Simeon finished out the interview with another fifteen minutes of conversation. B.J. sat with us for just shy of a half an hour, and when Simeon was done he said goodbye and we were on our way. We saw David in the hallway just as he was emerging from the locker room.
“How was it?” I asked.
“Great!” He is a very excitable young man—perfect for radio—and he began telling us about his locker room experience. All the while, the “normal” pre-game hub-bub carried on. The hallway was filled with writers, players, trainers, team staff members, TV reporters, security guards, camera men, techies, and various other unidentified (to us) people with IDs hanging from their necks, including a short, springy woman striding through the hall on a walk and talk with a male counterpart, she of the bouncy curls, tight athletic pants, professional makeup job and showbiz smile.
The man was far from her equal in flash and glamour, but seemed entirely her equal in status, as if they worked together. He took little notice of her habit to greet the male-dominated hallway contingent with a purposed half-modest/half-Gorgeous! “polite smile.” Like the rest of us, David’s eyes were caught on her passing figure, but he soon snapped back into his Bulls excitement: “Talked to Rose for a while. Real long while. Talked to Noah. Deng. Vinny Del Negro. Some really tall, sort of light-skinned guy.”
We couldn’t figure out who that was until the rookie James Johnson walked out in his warm-ups and David said “That’s him.”
In fact, all the players were heading out in their warm-ups, scooting down the hallway either solo or in certain pairs. Pargo and Rose were chatting. Gibson and Salmons were chatting. Lindsey Hunter ran out and, seeing us, extended his palm for the run-by high-five. “Hey guys!”
When Sam Smith passed, I introduced the Bulls reporting stalwart to the next generation of journalists, also taking the opportunity to thank him for appearing on my radio show junior year of high school on the eve of MJ’s second retirement.
The hallway emptied. The players were now on the court for their layup lines, and after waiting around until we were certain that we would not miss anything cool, we took the press elevator (press elevator!) up to the 8th floor.
While our pal Sam Smith and other big time reporters are set up on the floor, there is another section for press high above the court, underneath the MADHOUSE ON MADISON sign. I was fortunate enough during the 2007 season to enjoy the privilege of floor seats—we were directly behind Tom Dore, Stacey King, and the late Red Kerr—and having now sat here as well, there is no doubt: for my personal tastes, the up-top press section is the best seat in the house. The entire court is visible, like standing on top of a table in your living room and looking straight down at the rug.
From the floor seats, you can see who is winded, who looks angry, who looks confident—all fascinating. But from up in the press heavens, you can watch the plays develop. You can watch the way an offense spaces the floor; the way a defense runs a full-court press; the way a careful rebounder slowly moves himself into position before the shot; the way a shooter runs his man around the court, and the way that defender fights through screens to stay with the shooter.
You are also removed from all of the nonsense that dominates the current NBA experience, and the rest of the chaos created when one mixes sports fans with live sports with alcohol with lights with jumbotrons with music. No drunken hecklers spitting on your neck. No squeezing past people’s legs to get to the bathroom. No crazed fans reaching over you to catch a t-shirt fired from the t-shirt sling shot or cannon or whatever they are using now. No kiss-cam. No limbo-cam. No dance-cam. No fan-cam. Just a brilliant, unobstructed view of the floor, the sporting spectator version of a calmer, steadier plane-ride made possible by flying above the weather.
And of course standard seats don’t include a statistician distributing fresh-from-the-printer box scores following each quarter.
And there are no cool signs letting you in on secrets like “UNITED CENTER WI-FI PASSWORD: love10.”
Stepping off the elevator, we walked left into the press “free food” corridor. Not knowing where to sit, I sought out an employee to direct us. “Well, let’s take a look at the sheet here,” he said, walking me over to a printed game-day directory of who would be where as David and Simeon explored the press food offerings. I pointed to our names on the sheet: Row 2. “Right this way,” the man said.
I thanked our press box guide for the directions and walked down the three steps to Row 2—Row 3 is one step lower than the corridor, with Row 1 at the bottom of the box, just like your standard sky box seating. Our seats were the first three next to the stairs, and as I removed my coat I noticed something on the row-long table top that would thrill Simeon and David: their names.
I found them filling up on popcorn. “Free Bulls press popcorn!” I exclaimed, taking a container for myself. David was holding up a Haagen-Dazs ice cream sandwich. “Check it out!”
“Excellent!” I said. “But I found our seats, and something else you will really dig.”
I led them to our seats where they were indeed thrilled to see three red and black, five-by-eight place cards that read CHICAGO BULLS WELCOME on the top, followed by a small white sticker with each name printed. It was also a kick to have a computer screen in front of us that updated the entire box score in real time.
After Luol hit a jumper to open the game, the Sixers scored 11 in a row on their way to a 20-6 lead with 5:39 to play. The Bulls responded with 16 unanswered, highlighted by a fierce Joakim Noah drive and dunk and roar that brought to my mind The Steal in Game 6. Did Noah’s increased offensive confidence start with that play last June? We surely were not seeing moves like this a year ago.
The Bulls grabbed a 22-20 lead on a Captain Kirk jumper with two seconds left before Philly’s Andre Iguodala heaved a three-pointer at the horn, just two steps past mid-court. 23-22 Sixers after one…
…and around came Stat Man with our first quarter printout.
The lead swung in the second. Bulls up three, tie game. Bulls up five, Sixers up one. The Bulls took their last lead of the half 36-35 on a Deng jumper, followed by consecutive Elton Brand jumpers and a powerful oop from Brand to Thaddeus Young. A layup for Rose as time expired sent the Bulls to the locker room down 41-40. We set down for the court, because why not?
When we reached the tunnel, we quickly spotted our hallway walk-and-talk business male/showbiz female duo. They were the halftime entertainment, he the magician, she his assistant. We watched from the tunnel. Propped against one wall was a t-shirt cannon, which is now a multi-chambered t-shirt rocket launcher. Against the opposite wall was a rack of Spalding basketballs.
For much of the third quarter, we explored the premises. Between the court and the hallway is a massive “under the bleachers” Chicago Bulls cave, an echoing, plaster-walled cavern with ceilings that go as high as the first section of seats, the whole place packed with extra chairs, backboards, hockey goals, mini-scoreboards, basketballs, boxes filled with glossy player headshots, portable loading docks, and plenty of other odds and ends one might reasonably expect to find in the storage cave of a professional sports arena.
In the middle of the cave seated in small circles on the floor were members of The Stampede, the official drumline of the Chicago Bulls. They were practicing patterns and rhythms on the floor, but casually, their hands doing the practice while their heads held conversation. The drummers with the drums that strap around their chests were standing and playing with gentle taps, just to stay sharp on their rhythm. We compared the netting of the hockey goal to that of the basketball net and examined the red lights embedded around the edges of the backboard (the ones that light up when the shot clock expires), while these packs of drummers drummed and guys on roller blades skated through now and again and the crowd “above” cheered the Bulls as they battled back from a nine point deficit, taking a 52-50 lead on a pair of Brad Miller free throws.
Having explored the court, the cave, the tunnel, and the hallway sufficiently, we returned to the press box for the remainder of the game. With 3:05 to play in the third, a Thaddeus Young layup gave the 76ers a 56-54 lead. From that point until the 5:39 mark of the fourth, the Bulls rolled over Philly 28-9 behind Hinrich (nine of the 28 points) and Deng (six and three boards).
They were also bolstered by some memorable athletics. A Noah fake-dish/lefty-layup on the break; a Brad Miller rebound/reverse-layup; and a Derrick Rose I-am-scoring-NOW drive that ended with a nifty right-handed floater, a move straight out of the Ben Gordon playbook. The closest Philadelphia would get was 90-85 with 57 seconds left. The Bulls finished strong, closing out for the 94-88 victory.
When Hinrich knocked down a pair to put the Bulls up 93-85, Simeon and David departed for the locker room. I told them I would wait for the final stat sheets and then head down. I thanked our pre-game seat guide and the stat guys and grabbed the elevator back to the hallway.
The guys were waiting outside when I arrived. “He says they will open the door in a couple minutes,” David said, pointing to the security man, “once the players are all in and showering.” David and Simeon were reviewing their notes, their questions, and testing the tape recorders, the three of us awaiting entry.
This was it. The moment before the mystery would finally lift. My first trip to the Bulls locker room.
“Okie doke,” said the man at the door, stepping aside so that I could open it. “Go on in.”
I pulled the door open and saw Kirk Hinrich in a towel. “Excuse me,” I started to say as I shut the door, but I quickly realized “Oh, right—this is the job” and continued in behind Simeon and David who had passed me during my moment of indecision. Hinrich did not notice. He was drying…
And thus began the bizarre experience of the Chicago Bulls locker room.
First of all, the dressing area is quite a lot smaller than I would have guessed. It never looked particularly small in photos or video, but standing in there with players and reporters and a few team staff members, and the place fills up fast. In between lockers along the left wall is the door to the shower area, and in between lockers along the right wall is the door to the “no-press” area. When we entered, along with the toweled Hinrich was a nearly-dressed Joakim Noah and a fully-dressed (due to injury) Tyrus Thomas. Slowly but steadily, the room filled with reporters from the front door as players emerged from the shower through the side…
…so all of these enormous people who have been sweating and banging and playing ball for three hours step out of the shower to dress in a not-big dressing room, made all the smaller and less private by this assemblage of journalists.
To their credit, the press in attendance were cool about letting guys dress before they swarmed for questions. But they definitely did swarm. So what you had were players dressing quietly while this blob of reporters interviewed the guy who was fully dressed, and then the instant that a player was entirely “decent” the blob would re-form around the dressed player as the previous one exited for the evening and the next one entered from the showers.
It was also weird being so close to so many of these guys all at once and without their basketball uniforms. Why was it weird? Because modern professional basketball players are, physically, really strange.
Not the guards, maybe. The guards look like regular tall people. But the forwards and centers are noticeably gigantic, with bodies that do not make sense based on what I know about the appearance of humans.
Take a guy like ol’ Tyrus, for instance. This is how we talk about Tyrus Thomas in basketball terms:
“A freakish athlete with a 7-foot-3 wingspan” (Jay Bilas on draft night)
“Breathtaking athletic specimen…explosive leaping ability…ridiculous wingspan” (draftexpress.com)
“Super-athletic…runs, jumps, rebounds, blocks, and dunks” (insidehoops.com)
“Extremely explosive…very aggressive” (hoopshype.com)
“Agile big man with great leaping ability…spectacular dunker…extremely long arms plus great lift make him a monster on the boards” (nbadraft.net)
“Often described as a ‘freak’ athlete by NBA scouts” (Celtics 2006 draft scouting report)
“Superior length and athleticism…long, fast and can jump to the moon” (bullsbythehorns.com)
Watch Tyrus during a Bulls game and you’re bound to phone your best Bulls friend to pass along messages like “HOLY GOODNESS! That block by Tyrus was super-sick!” Or, “OH MY WORD! How crazy was that oop to Tyrus?”
And within the confines of a professional basketball game on a professional basketball court, that is fine. Great, even.
But within the framework of basic humans, a “ridiculously freakish 6’9 super-athlete with a 7’3 wingpsan and extremely explosive leaping ability” looks bizarre. And this was an entire room of them. Again, not the guards. But the forwards—Thomas, Deng, Salmons, Gibson, and James Johnson—are really tall and long, while the centers are just REALLY tall. Joakim Noah is REALLY tall. Brad Miller is REALLY tall. Aaron Gray is REALLY FREAKING TALL.
You look at these guys and call your best Bulls friend to pass along messages like “HOLY GOODNESS! Tyrus’ arms extend to his knees!” Or, “OH MY WORD! Joakim Noah owns the largest yellow polo sweater on Earth!”
Noah and his huge sweater were the first in the blob, the Bulls big man speaking to the traditional media in English before fielding a separate solo interview with another man conducted entirely in French. A small, beanie-like cap sat upon his head, his ponytail protruding from the back, and thick DJ-headphones propped on his head. As Noah prepared to leave, some chatter started up concerning Number 13’s wardrobe selections.
“This is style, man,” Noah announced as Salmons and Pargo laughed it up. “And it’s basic. Sweater, jeans, sneakers. I’m out!” And with that he was out the door.
The shower-locker-interview-departure rotation continued, Hinrich to Rose to Deng to Salmons. Meanwhile, word was coming in from Milwaukee, where rookie Brandon Jennings was approaching 50 points. One of the team staff members looked over at Salmons: “He just got it.”
“50?” Salmons asked laconically.
“Just got it,” the guy said again.
The blob continued. Brad Miller, Noah, Hinrich, and Rose had all dressed and departed, and Deng was about to join them. “Jennings just hit a three,” someone said. And then a bit later: “He finished with 55.”
“Damn,” said the veteran Hunter, flashing a smile that revealed awe for the skills mixed with stress-calculation for the next time the Bulls play Milwaukee. “Kid is good.”
On each locker wall are dry erase boards with the NBA standings, Eastern Conference on the right wall, Western Conference on the left. Each team name is on a small piece of colored cardboard with the pieces presumably moved around with Velcro and the records are written in dry erase marker next to the team name. With the win, the Bucks were now 5-2, a few percentage points ahead of Cleveland for 5th in the East. The Bulls were now tied with Toronto for the 8th seed, and still expecting 100% to be there or higher when the regular season closes.
Now there’s a change. Because as lousy as the first half of the first post-Jordan decade was for Your! Chicago Bulls, they closed the decade with four playoff berths in five seasons, one of only five Eastern Conference teams to do so.
And while that 2005 Bulls team was so dear to me, those players were only player-personalities. Which is fine. How often do you meet your rooting interests during their playing days in a relaxed setting on their terms? In a lifetime of fandom, just about never.
But these 2009-10 Chicago Bulls are now real people. I have seen them. Rose proved once again to be a polite young man. Noah is a hoot, the life of every room. Salmons, Pargo, and Gibson are genuine and easy-going. And Lindsey Hunter is always smiling, one of the real, likeable people in sports.
Simeon and David finished their interviews, with David also getting radio drops from nearly every player: “Hi. I’m _______________ of the Chicago Bulls, and you’re listening to TrueStar radio on Power 92…” Simeon had just finished interviewing Salmons; David was nearing levels of extreme giddiness in light of Vinny Del Negro having remembered David’s “Champ” nickname and insisting on calling him that every time they passed. It had been a successful night on all fronts and now we were about to split, but there were still a few questions on my mind, so I approached Salmons and Gibson:
“Is it weird having all these people in here while you’re getting dressed?”
They looked at me. “Naw man,” Salmons said in that laid-back way of his. “You get used to it.” Gibson nodded in agreement.
“Yeah?” I asked. “Because I would think it’d be really weird if I stepped out of the bathroom after a shower and had to answer questions. Like, really weird.”
“One other thing,” I started. “Has your nickname ever been Johnny Fishsticks?”
He looked confounded. “Johnny Fishsticks?”
“When we—” I caught myself. “When the Bulls traded for you, the guys on The Score called you Johnny Fishsticks. I thought it sounded cool, so that’s how my friends and I refer to you now.”
“Huh.” Salmons laughed ever-so-slightly. “No. That’s a new one.”
Deng and Hunter were now gone, as were Pargo and James Johnson. Johnny Fishsticks exited, followed by Taj Gibson carrying a pink, Dora the Explorer backpack as part of his rookie hazing. Simeon, David, and I stood in the hallway reviewing the interviews—“Are you happy with the material you got? Any questions you did not get to ask?”—when Vinny passed by and dropped one final “See ya Champ!” to David, who nearly broke into an excitement-dance.
“Anything more you guys want to do?” I asked.
“Let’s get a picture on the court,” Simeon said. We took the hallway back to the tunnel and walked towards the gym. A smack of cold air, absent earlier, hit us in the tunnel: the United Center crew was changing the stadium for the next day’s Blackhawks game. The baskets were still up, but the glass around the rink was already in place, and we watched as the crew removed the Bulls floor panel by panel.
Copyright 2009, jm silverstein