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Missing Chicago's Game

My love for the Big Dance has faded during the last decade, but I still love basketball. Fiercely. And I miss it. I don't think I ever took it for granted but I will find a way to take it even less for granted when the games return.

Given the fact that so much of current sports media is highlights of great performances of yesteryear, I thought I would run through my own best memories of local basketball. Or, should I say, my best memories of consuming local basketball as I grew up on Chicago's North Side.

The sport is Chicago's game after all. Sure, the Bears are Chicago's team, but if basketball wasn't number one in Chicago before the '90s, the glorious run of Michael Jordan's six-time champ Bulls made it so.

My first fondest memory is of listening to Jim Durham call Bulls games on my good old Zenith transistor radio in the mid-70s. That little black number was slightly smaller than a 300-page paperback and perfect for late-night listening. I tuned in to Lloyd Pettit calling the Hawks as well, but not as frequently. And I was too young to be especially aware of the Blackhawks' runs to the NHL Finals in 1971 and '73.

The team lost to the Canadiens both times and somehow managed to let Bobby Hull sign with the World Hockey Association's Winnipeg Jets in 1972 (thank you infamous owner Dollar Bill Wirtz!). So by the time I was really aware of local sports, that glorious Hawks era was over. And when Pettit moved on as well after the 1976 season, the Hawks entered a long stretch of mattering even less than they usually did.

Anyway, Durham was a great announcer and the Bulls were great fun in the mid-70s. The team that featured Bob Love, Norm Van Lier, Jerry Sloan, Artis Gilmore for a time . . . guys like John Mengelt coming off the bench . . . it was a great time to be a fan.

Their best shot at a title happened in 1975, when they took a 3-games-to-2 lead in the Western Conference Finals against Golden State. But the Warriors rallied to win the last two games and the series and then swept the Washington Bullets in the finals.

Durham announced the Bulls games from 1973 until 1991, when he left the team after a contract dispute with . . . you can guess it . . . Jerry Reinsdorf. In other words, he bowed out right before the Bulls won their first championship. Brutal.

During this time I almost never actually went to Bulls games. My dad was never a sports fan, and while my mom would let my brother and I take the 22 Clark Street bus to Cubs games starting in the late '70s, trips to the Old Stadium were few and far between.

My best memory of that great old arena (thank you, Arthur Wirtz!) was of watching a Hawks game in the second balcony, which felt like it practically hung out over the ice, and noticing as the second period came to an end a fog of cigarette smoke accumulating as if it was starting to rain. Probably not so good for the lungs but I was ready when I started frequenting bars 10 years later.

Then there was DePaul. I suppose that part of the reason I've become a bit bitter about college basketball is that we had it so good for a little while with the Blue Demons. In the '70s, they played their games at the old Alumni Hall at the corner of Belden and Sheffield and we could walk there from our house.

When old Ray Meyer finally landed the top city recruit - Mark Aguirre out of Westinghouse - in 1978 and Aguirre suited up as a freshman in the 1978-79 season, it quickly became apparent that DePaul had something. We attend several home games that year and I have a vivid memory of Aguirre knocking down shot after shot.

The high-flying dunks and three-pointers practically from the logos are a joy to behold but Aguirre stroking high-arching baseline jumper after jumper . . . man was that awesome to watch.

And sure enough, DePaul made it all the way to the Final Four in 1979. And of course, that was the year that Magic brought his Michigan State team to the same place, as did Larry Bird with Indiana State. You get 100 points if you can name the fourth team in those national semifinals. It was Ivy League champ Penn.

In the next two seasons, when Carver's Terry Cummings joined Aguirre, the Demons seemed even better, spending long stretches ranked among the top five teams in the country. They were seeded No. 1 heading into the '81 dance but suffered the worst loss in program history, 49-48, against St. Joseph's in the first round. Aguirre went pro at that point and was drafted No. 1 by the Dallas Mavericks.

Soon Ray Meyer retired, and after a great season in 1986-87 with Dallas Comegys and Rod Strickland leading the way, Joey Meyer's program began to struggle. The team has failed to make it back to national prominence in decades. And they moved the games to the Rosemont Horizon.

That was brutal. But then the Bulls lucked into a rookie from North Carolina with the third pick of the first round in the 1984 draft. Magic and Larry Bird had begun to lift the NBA up with their rivalry in the '80s but then Michael took over starting in 1991. Some other team won championships in 1989 and '90 but we don't need to mention them here.

Not a bad fan pedigree if I may say so myself.

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Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.

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