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5/2/2009
7th HEAVEN

1-11
The Bull’s Joakim Noah dunks in the face of Boston’s Paul Pierce in Game 6 at the United Center on Thursday night. Noah’s steal and 3-point play in the 3rd overtime proved the game winner.

I am taking a break from my self-imposed hiatus from writing not to talk about politics but something equally near and dear to my heart; Chicago sports. Specifically, the rebirth of the Chicago Bull’s franchise and what it means to a city that for all it’s beauty and architectural splendor, still feels pangs of inferiority when measured against its rivals on the east coast.

Any discussion about the growth of American cities over the last century cannot ignore the contribution made by professional sports teams as a uniting expedient that has given residents powerful icons with which to identify and take pride in. It helps that these teams generate tens of millions of tax dollars these days (as well as most cities taking a healthy cut of parking and vending concessions at the various stadiums and ballparks around the country).

It remains a source of civic pride for a city to possess a major sports franchise, a signal to potential residents and businesses that relocating has other advantages than dollars and cents. For this reason, some cities have financed the building of sparkling new venues where the sports teams play their games.

It is a controversial use of tax money and while I tend to frown on such expenditures (and curse the owners who literally hold up cities for such structures by issuing ultimatums to build them or they will leave ), I understand the impulse behind them. Professional sports franchises are gold mines and serve the chauvinistic purpose of generating a sense of belonging to something greater than oneself, united with other residents in a common love of “the team.”

For residents of Chicago, the success or failure of its major sports franchises has always been colored by the feeling deep down that as a city, we just don’t measure up to Boston, Philadelphia, or especially, New York when it comes to the cultural pursuits or the kind of cynical sophistication exhibited by residents of those burgs. But rivalries in professional sports have a way of evening things up for some and that’s where the Bulls come in.

Of course, no Chicago sports team can match the football Bears in fan loyalty or intensity. This is a Bears town and probably always will be. And the North Side/South Side divide in baseball with the Cubs and Sox defines the yin and yang of the city to it’s very core. The Cubs - a team for women, children, and hopeless romantics versus a Sox team with much more of a working class appeal. In the modern, wall to wall sports age we live in, the Bears have one championship (1987) since 1963 while the Sox have one World Series win (2005) since 1917.

It has been 100 years since the Cubs tasted success and nearly 40 years since hockey’s Blackhawks have gotten drunk by sloshing champagne from the Stanley Cup. In short, triumph for Chicago sports teams has been doled out by the sports gods in quite the niggardly fashion.

Except for the Bulls. Winners of six World Championships in the 1990’s, the team’s fortunes during that magnificent run rose and fell on the health (and retirement plans) of perhaps the greatest athlete of the 20th century: Michael Jordan.

I will no doubt get an argument from Jim Thorpe fans (Thorpe was AP’s “Athlete of the Half Century in 1950″) and supporters of other athletes like Bob Mathias or even Carl Lewis might also chime in with why those worthies should also be considered.

But if Jordan wasn’t the athlete of the 20th century, he can certainly be named the greatest athlete of the modern media era. He was untouchable, the greatest competitor I have ever seen. I understand Ty Cobb had the same burning, insatiable desire to win. And skills wise, there is always a good case that can be made for Bird or Magic, or even Jerry West.

But the total package — the razmatazz, inherent showmanship of the man helped him dominate the media in an age that he defined. His unrivaled power until Tiger Woods came along to sell anything while performing feats of legerdemain on the court proved a too much for his NBA opponents and too tempting for marketing moguls to pass up.

Jordan led Bulls teams were a phenomenon in a city that was used to more workmanlike athletic teams that were usually competitive but rarely able to grasp the brass ring of a championship. This proved valid when the Jordanless Bulls, forced to compete without their superstar in 1994 when he retired the first time to play pro baseball, failed to reach the finals against the hated New York Knicks. Jordan’s late season return the following year excited fans but also demonstrated that a rusty superstar was not enough to help the team climb the last mountain; they lost in the second round to Orlando.

It was the magical 1996 year in which even casual fans finally adopted a Bulls team that won an astonishing 72 out of 82 games and destroyed their playoff competition on route to the second of their “threepeat” championship runs. Jordan had reinvented himself as a player, changing from a slashing, driving, leaping, flying scoring machine into the best post-up guard who ever played the game. He could still drive to the hole but eschewed the pizazz for a role that left him free to dish the ball to his cutting, screening teammates. The results were incontestable. As was Jordan’s dominance.

The end of the Jordan era meant trouble; five long years of awfulness followed by a few middling years where it appeared the team was going to be competitive again, only to see that dream dashed by bad drafts, bad front office decisions, and bad coaching.

The Bulls had become something of an embarrassment to the city and unlike Bears or Cubs fans who will go to the games no matter how awful their team might be, Bulls fans proved to be a little more fair weather, with the cavernous new United Center half empty during many of these lean years.

This season started dismally with the Bulls playing very inconsistently and appearing as late as February that they would finish out of the playoffs. This despite the play of an exciting rookie, Chicago native Derrick Rose whose speed and quickness as well a developing basketball sense earned him Rookie of the Year honors. And then the trade deadline brought two important pieces to the team; John Salmons and Brad Miller from Sacramento. The team seemed to mesh quite well and they put on a very strong finish to end up at .500 and earn the seventh seed in the playoffs.

Unfortunately, thought everyone in the league, that meant playing defending champion Boston in the first round. But the Celtics looked beatable when superstar Kevin Garnett went down with a knee injury. Still, the chances that the young Bulls would be able to compete with the seasoned Celtics seemed more fantasy than practical reality.

The rest, if you’ve been following this titanic struggle, is history. The Bulls and Celtics will play the seventh game of a series for the ages tonight. And once again, Chicago has embraced their basketball franchise with something approximating the same abandon with which they adored the Jordan-led Bulls of the 1990’s.

They say that the United Center was never as loud for a basketball game as it was for that life draining, dramatic triple overtime victory for the Bulls on Thursday night. Indeed, the Jordan era, despite its success, never seemed to bring out the animal roars from spectators that used to intimidate opponents at the old Chicago Stadium. But the fans - finally - seem to have taken this team to heart and win or lose in Boston tonight, their efforts in this series will carry over into succeeding years and will no doubt elevate the team to its previous heights in the Chicago sports firmament.

As an aside, Thursday night’s game was the first pro basketball game I watched from beginning to end since that Game 6 in Utah a decade ago that saw Michael Jordan push off a Utah defender to get away the winning shot and bring the Bulls their last championship. The youngsters probably will fall far short of winning it all this year. I expect them to lose tonight or almost certainly in the second round against Orlando. But for me, they have become an interesting team again.

And no doubt, the city feels the same way.

By: Rick Moran at 9:42 am
8 Responses to “7th HEAVEN”
  1. 1
    Eddie Said:
    12:59 pm 

    To me the Bulls are better than the Magic, who have played terribly and miss their starting PG Jameer Nelson a lot more than they let on. They live and die by great 3pt shooting, something the Bulls tough D can negate. If the Bulls survive the Celts, they’ll beat the Magic and then get pummeled with honor by the Cavs. Thank you for the occasional non-political post, as it shows off your writing skills in an enjoyable fashion.

  2. 2
    Increase Mather Said:
    7:46 am 

    Haven’t watched basketball in many years…recently I came across a game on tv…do these guys HAVE to dribble the ball when making progress on the floor anymore? Are there lane violations? Are they ever called?

    Call me old fashioned but I remember a very different game.

    Didn’t one of the refs get caught betting on games? Whatever happened with that? Don’t remember it being news for more than a month. Were there other investigations into other officials and players?

    Seems the NBA has become more like Wrestling. Wonder how much of it is fixed?

  3. 3
    Wramblin' Wreck Said:
    4:17 pm 

    Rick,

    This is not related to your basketball post but…I was certain that you would have made note of Cutler’s trade to Chicago Bears earlier this year. This move has all of us Broncos fans shaking our heads.

    What does the average Chicagoan think about this? I can tell you one thing for certain, many people in Colorado (including myself) will be following the Chicago Bears carefully this season. Are we going to be pounding our collective heads against a brick wall or are we going to be laughing at Chicago?

    In eather case it will be most interesting. Enjoy your new QB.

  4. 4
    Arthur Said:
    1:36 am 

    Too bad the Bulls couldn’t bash the Celtics faces in their own mystique. However, it’s rare for a rebuilt team to do well in it’s first pressure playoff experience. Next year, those players will know what a Game Seven is like. Then you’ll see what kind of team you have.

  5. 5
    busboy33 Said:
    6:17 am 

    Nice post, and I respect your position.

    Now as a Boston sports fan . . . *does happy dance*

    Seriously, this Bulls/Celts may well go down (at least in my mind) as the best series ever played.
    And the Bulls have rebounded tremendously. Having watched the Celtics go from Bird/McCale/Ainge and putting up a banner every other year to “who are these jokers?”, their resurgence last year was something beautiful to behold, and the Bulls definitely displayed that “we’re back!” magic this year.

    Here’s hoping the Bulls keep on re-establishing themselves next year . . . just so long as they ultimately lose to my boys, of course.

    Boston sports loyalty was mandatory in my family, despite consistently failing to deliver. I just wish my dad got to see the Celts, BoSox AND the Pats rising to the top.

    (if it makes you feel better, I cant look at a refridgerator without tasting bile rising in my throat . . .)

  6. 6
    Frank the Tank Said:
    8:05 am 

    Michael Jordan was drafted by the Bulls when I was starting out in grade school and the last Bulls championship was after my sophomore of college. So, essentially my entire childhood and young adult life coincided with the MJ Era - as a Chicagoan who loved to watch and play basketball, I couldn’t have grown up more spoiled in that respect.

    Many of the post-MJ years for the Bulls were ugly, but I never wavered in my loyalty to them. When the Bulls miraculously won the NBA draft lottery last season, I knew right away that this was a franchise-altering event with the opportunity to draft Derrick Rose. See my comments before last year’s NBA Draft:

    http://frankthetank.wordpress.com/2008/05/25/bulls-should-make-the-draft-a-rose-bowl/

    Frankly, Rose has even surpassed the very high expectations that I set for him a year ago considering that starting point guard is the most difficult position for a rookie in all of sports other than starting quarterback. I think that LeBron James will be king in the NBA for as long as he plays (and there’s a part of me that’s very scared that he was sent to Cleveland as karmic retribution for all of those years that MJ made Craig Ehlo and the Cavs his whipping dogs), but Rose seriously has the potential to be the clear #2 player in the league overall after Kobe retires, which I’ll take in a heartbeat (especially if the Bulls can get a true low post scorer to pair hum up with).

  7. 7
    Gayle Miller Said:
    12:35 pm 

    Or you could be from Cleveland!

  8. 8
    Gayle Miller Said:
    12:38 pm 

    The Cleveland Indians have been breaking my heart since 1952 (I actually attended one of the 1948 Series games - that’s how elderly I am) and I haven’t really enjoyed a Browns game since Jim Brown retired. Watching him gain yardage (with no blocking) was a thing of beauty. Got ejected from a hockey game at the Cleveland Arena in the days before barriers because I didn’t like a ref’s call and expressed my disapproval by whaling on him with my purse!

    Cleveland cannot equal Chicago in sports luminaries or in corruption!

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