For Chicago basketball fans, love of the game doesn’t necessarily mean love for the Bulls
All-Star Weekend has folks remembering the heydays of Jordan, Pippen and Rose, but feeling meh about today’s team
CHICAGO — The snow-covered pavement made the Tuesday night walk into the St. Columbanus gym tough, but icy temps don’t stop basketball on the South Side of Chicago. A blast of heat greets you just inside the double doors as players from 18 to 40 in the Lace Em Up rec league streak up and down the hardwood.
“Basketball is part of our education,” says Shawn Meredith, 60, a retired bus driver who coaches his old Chicago Transit Authority team. “It’s as much a part of our culture as jazz.”
As the NBA All-Star Game returns to the city this weekend for the first time in 32 years, though, black Chicago’s passion for the game no longer stretches from these evening rec leagues or hard-fought high school games all the way to the Chicago Bulls. Once a dynasty that dominated every conversation about the game, the two-time three-peat NBA champions are now like an old love jones, a nostalgic afterthought.
During the team’s heyday in the 1990s, the Bulls both united the entire city under a half-dozen championship banners, and still felt proprietorially black. The bus system would sometimes shut down certain routes because there was so much hoopla in the streets, said Meredith. His mother used to tape every game, taking out commercials and free throws so it was all action. Eventually, they’d just tape the fourth quarters so they could pack more winning onto one VHS cassette.
“At the time,” said Meredith, “you knew you were looking at something special.”
Not so much anymore.
These days the Bulls are a middling franchise, playing middling basketball.
Since their last championship in 1998, they’ve only made it to the Eastern Conference finals once and failed to even qualify for postseason play in 10 seasons.
This would be disappointing, if not totally unexpected, if it were, say, New Orleans or Sacramento, California. But it is Shakespearean for The Chi — a ghost with a countenance more in sorrow than in anger. No one expects the Bulls to be any good, or gets all that worked up if they’re not. Unlike the New York Knicks and their perpetually aggrieved fans, the Bulls don’t even merit hate from their followers. In the walk-up to Sunday’s All-Star game, basketball fans talk about missing the glory days of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant and Steve Kerr. They recount old rituals and crash the (memory) lanes. But the team’s present has little glory and no great stories.
High school basketball is nearly as popular as college hoops among Chicagoans now, said Lane Barlow, 28, who’d just come from a game at Bowen High School, where he’s the varsity head coach. “But it’s definitely past the Bulls for sure. If it was a Bulls game and Morgan Park versus Simeon,” people would flock to the high school game, he speculated.
Barlow played in high school against Detroit Pistons point guard and Chicago native Derrick Rose. Theories of the Bulls’ decline abound, but many of them feature Rose, the first overall pick by the Bulls in the 2008 draft. Rose became a three-time All Star and the 2011 MVP, but was traded in 2016 after years of injuries and controversy.
To many black fans here, who believed that white fans and media misunderstood and mistreated Rose, his trade was almost a spiritual blow. “Ever since Derrick left, it’s kind of been detachment, from our people, versus everybody else, with the organization,” Barlow said.
Some date the team’s reversal of fortune to the front office’s decision to dismantle the team in 1999 after the Bulls’ second three-peat, when Jordan announced his retirement (for the second and final time). Others recount a litany of bad hires, front office and coaching controversies, and ill-considered trades. The net effect is a team mired in banal mediocrity.
Retired Hall of Fame center Artis Gilmore began playing for the Bulls a decade after its 1966 founding as an Eastern Conference expansion team. He was traded in 1982 but returned to the team during the 1987-1988 season, which already featured Jordan and saw the addition of Pippen and Grant to the roster. Jordan was a “singular entity who was able to elevate and bring about a different kind of support” to the Bulls, said Gilmore. The organization built a team of future Hall of Famers around him and it made for “the right combination of individuals that really brought about just an extraordinary amount of excitement in the Chicago Bulls community as fans.”
Their success was unifying. “And that was everybody, the different ethnic groups,” and different parts of the city, Gilmore said.“There’s no question in that the fans, all of a sudden, they become spoiled. They had this great expectation.”
Then they became disillusioned. Then mildly mad, and now largely indifferent. A few years ago, the Bulls celebrated their 50th anniversary and it was low-key, possibly because for years, Gilmore said, “they have not enjoyed the kind of fan success and the kind of performance they’ve had early on to celebrate.”
Gilmore, who lives in Jacksonville, Florida, and works as a radio analyst for Jacksonville University, said he’s still a Bulls fan. But he can see how for local fans, “watching the team becomes frustrating to the point that they kind of lose their interest as a supporter.” With the city’s famously bad weather, high ticket prices, and without anything to especially root for, they become selective about attending games. Earlier in the season, the Bulls ranked 23rd out of 30 teams in attendance, posting its lowest numbers since its 1994 move from the old Chicago Stadium to the United Center.
Sherri Bradley, who manages a bar and owns a bartending service, was a Luvabulls dancer during the 1992-1993 season, the final year of the team’s first three-peat. The stands at the old stadium, which held fewer people than the United Center, were always packed, Bradley said, and the energy was electric. “It was like you felt it radiating off of the walls.”
Dancers were given two tickets, paid $20 per game, and didn’t really know the players. But Bradley said she was treated like a star when people found out what she did. “Back then, it was, like, Michael Jordan was everything and any association with him gave you a little bit of, ooh, she’s somebody.”
After Rose left, fans didn’t have “a real standout person that the city could just gravitate to and love,” said Bradley. Other big-name players — Jimmy Butler, Dwayne Wade, Rajon Rondo — came and went without much impact. Now people root for the Blackhawks, the Cubs, or even the Bears, who last won a Super Bowl in 1986.
“I don’t see half the energy put toward a Bulls loss as I do for the Bears,” Bradley said. “Or for a Bulls win either.” It almost feels like “Bulls fans just picked another sport and everybody went their own separate ways.”
She thinks the All-Star game is sparking renewed interest in pro basketball, but not necessarily in Chicago’s team. “That’s sad to say, but everybody’s like, ‘Oh, we get to host the All-Star game.’ Ain’t nobody said nothing about the poor Bulls.”
Are any of the current players even on the All-Star team, she wonders. The answer is no. The Bulls haven’t had an All-Star since Butler in the 2016-2017 season.
Maybe they have somebody in the 3-point competition, she asks. Again, the answer is no. Bulls center Wendell Carter Jr. was selected to the Rising Stars Challenge game pitting first- and second-year domestic and international players against each other, but he’s been out with a sprained ankle since last month and his spot went to New Orleans Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson.
At a weeknight game at the United Center last month, the Bulls (16-29 at the time) were playing the Minnesota Timberwolves (then 15-28). Construction worker Mario Williamson, 32, sat a row behind his 11-year-old son and a half-dozen of his schoolmates. During the Bulls’ prime time years, his extended family watched games together and threw watch parties. He attends home games occasionally now, but mostly to see the opposing team.
He likes some of the current Bulls players — guard Zach Lavine, forward Lauri Markkanen, guard Coby White. But he laments that the team doesn’t have any local talent. He notes the empty seats and said they wouldn’t be vacant if Rose were still playing for the team. They lost faith in him, “so it’s like the Chicago fans lost faith in the Chicago Bulls,” Williamson said.
The “Madhouse on Madison” cocktail at the Bureau Bar in Chicago’s South Loop pays tribute to a time when “the whole city was ride or die for the Bulls,” said bartender Terrence Jackson, “and the organization itself seemed like they were ride or die for the fans.”
He was in high school during the Bulls’ first championship and he calls the celebration, when they borrowed a car belonging to a friend’s mother and drove downtown from the far South Side, “epic.”
But the championships are over, the star players long gone, and “who the hell knows right now,” what the Bulls are doing or thinking or even when they’re playing. A big screen television covers part of a large wall near the bar, but the volume is turned down when the Bulls are on, unless they play a star team.
Jamari Crawford, a reading and special education teacher, and Ulric Shannon, an external affairs manager, are meeting for a drink at the Bureau Bar. Both are 34 and work for local charter schools.
In the ’90s, the Bulls represented Chicago proudly as respectable black men “who brought home a win every time,” Shannon said. “And it wasn’t only a win for Chicago, it was a win for black Chicago,” which was powerful, given the city’s history of segregation.
Shannon said his passion is now for college teams, like the old school days when DePaul or Loyola, or Bradley or University of Illinois featured Chicago players everyone followed — guys such as Mark Aguirre, Terry Cummings, Isiah Thomas and Efrem Winters.
Basketball is still central to black Chicago’s sense of itself, but without a better professional team to look up to, Shannon wonders whether the city’s great athletes are even “thinking about staying in Chicago?”
There’s a part of Chicago that still lives for basketball and wants to worship the Bulls again. But they’ll mostly be heading to high school, college and rec league gyms this All-Star weekend, just as they have for many, many years.