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It is not possible for folks who lived it in Chicago to look back at the almost decade of basketball success capped off by The Last Dance and not feel a wave of nostalgia. Of course, it was easy to be a sports fan in Chicago in the '90s. For one thing, we didn't have dimwitted cable/satellite/streaming channels making proclamations about who was an "authentic" sports fan. More on that later.
It was not easy to be a Bulls backer in the late '80s and the spring of 1990. And then when the winning started the next year, it was hard not to believe that too many of the people you were celebrating with hadn't suffered enough in the five years prior to call themselves Bulls fans. There were times you felt practically surrounded by bandwagoneers (if that isn't a word, it should be, shouldn't it?).
But if you were going to enjoy the ride, you had to suppress those thoughts, i.e., it wasn't going to enhance your viewing experience if you spent half the night quizzing the guy sitting next to you at the bar on Bulls trivia. Better to just surf the wave of championship season after championship season. And I've never been great at trivia - my brain just doesn't work that way. I've always been able to tell you a decent amount about what's going on in a decent-sized array of sports right now, and what has been going on for the past year or so but further back than that, the details blur quickly.
And anyway, who needs to know trivia in the Google Era?
You may have surmised by that reference to sitting at the bar that I still wasn't getting to many games in person at that point. That would be correct. 1989 and '90 were my first years out in the working world. I had a job until 1991 working for the City News Bureau in Chicago, and that place paid virtually nothing and you absolutely had to have a car if you were going to be a reporter there.
Either you had to have at least two roommates and be really good at making pasta from scratch (the needed eggs and flour were just about always nice and cheap) or you had to have help from your parents.
I had a good friend and co-worker at that time who was out on his own and I swear he sometimes went a full week at the end of a given month eating very little other than pasta. I was lucky enough that my parents owned a two-flat and I rented the one-bedroom garden apartment. I had a roommate for the first couple years to help make it work and he was an even better friend and thank goodness for that.
Perhaps the first thing I think about when I get nostalgic is that when I was still in college, at the end of 1987, my brother and I received our favorite Christmas gift ever. I recently checked in with him about this memory and he is absolutely with me on this. And no, it wasn't a surprise visit from grandma and grandpa or any other emotional crap. It was an actual present.
And it ensured our Bulls fanaticism was locked in forever. Not that it wasn't beforehand, but this cemented it like the foundation of a skyscraper.
The gift from our mom was tickets, in the second balcony, to a Bulls game. First we just thought it was for a generic game but then we realized it was the game that day.
Oh by the way, this is when you know you are an actual authentic fan, when tickets near the rafters to see the team you love is the ultimate gift. It has nothing to do with all the garbage the local sports channel puts out there as it tries to promote itself.
There are many reasons to hate NBC Sports Chicago's "Authentic Fan" crap (I know I am getting redundant with that word but sometimes only one word works in a sentence and this is that time). But perhaps the biggest is the insinuation that runs through it all that the biggest fan is the one who buys the most gear. There hasn't been a supposed "Most Authentic Fan" yet who wasn't covered head to toe in team memorabilia.
Authentic fandom is passion. It isn't some jersey or hat, which of course are a big part of the team in question's bottom line and therefore are what NBC Sports never fails to pump up.
My first impression of the "Most Authentic Fan" promotion happened a couple years ago at what was then The Cell. The White Sox were playing the Yankees and we had some nice seats about 30 rows back well down the left field line.
There was a Sox employee at a table not far from us in the main concourse. He was handing out "Authentic Fan" merchandise. And I watched as not one, not two but three straight people wearing either a Yankees shirt or hat checked in with the guy and accepted the free swag he was distributing. I hope one thing we can all agree on is that an authentic Sox fan is not wearing a Yankee hat.
Authentic sports fandom was painful when the Bulls lost to the Pistons in '89 and '90, losses that were a focal point of the flashback portion of the third and fourth episodes of The Last Dance. Those weren't just losses, they were bitter defeats against a bunch of assholes.
So how about Jordan not mincing words after the filmmakers showed him a video of Isiah (who I can't stand but who still stands as the absolute best basketball player to ever come out of Chicago) trying to justify the Pistons walking off the floor without shaking the Bulls' hands after they were swept in the Eastern Conference finals in 1991? Jordan is 57 but his furious competitiveness still burns. It's the stuff of authentic fandom.
Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.
1. From Tom Chambers:
There were some fun times with the likes of Artis Gilmore (who Norm Van Lier described to me as "no heart"), John Mengelt. Alas, David Greenwood and Scott May were great college players, even when they were in the pros.
Reggie Theus was one of the most selfish ballplayers ever, the UNLV star runnin' and gunnin' and the Johnstown Dam hole on defense. It was said that when Jordan got there, he deferred to Theus to a degree out of respect to the veteran. That probably lasted 30 games.
Although the United Center is nice, the old Stadium will never be replaced. Sometimes that place got so loud it would obviously shake, and it would throw off the balance of your inner ear. Seriously. We usually sat free throw line in the second balcony.
Just for fun once, we went and were literally second row from the top in the very corner, against the Bucks. Gilmore had just signed a $1 million a year contract extension. A guy behind us proudly announced he was from Milwaukee.
"The dummy. The million dolla dummy! Give da ball to da million dolla dummy." This went on all through the first half, when Gilmore only had about five or six points. "SEE? Da dummy can't even score!"
Second half starts and Gilmore starts rolling. That spin move when he would get up just high enough to deposit the ball in the basket. Needless to say, the guy from Milwaukee shut his trap. It was in fun, not a confrontation in the stands like today. Every once in awhile, a Bulls fan would say "THAT'S the million dolla dummy." He ended up with about 33 points and 12 rebounds just in the second half. Bulls win.
We still tell that story.
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