When I first got to Northwestern, one of the things I was most excited to experience was my first Chicago Bulls game at the United Center. When I was four years old, my parents introduced me to Michael Jordan, and the Bulls quickly became the first professional sports team I fell in love with. I cheered them on enthusiastically during their 1993 championship season, cried when MJ left the sport for baseball and rejoiced when he returned to help lead the Bulls to three more titles from 1996 to 1998. When Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson all left following that 1998 championship, the Bulls faded into relative obscurity and have never really been the same since. My support shifted to other teams, but I never forgot how incredible it was to watch that team.
So you can imagine my excitement when I got two tickets to their January 27, 2008 game against the Phoenix Suns. Now, I’ll admit that my primary motive for attending the game was seeing the Suns (my favorite team) play in person for the first time, but I was equally excited to witness my first Chicago Bulls home game. I couldn’t wait to see the iconic statue of Jordan defying gravity outside the arena’s entrance, the championship banners in the rafters and the sea of white and red in the stands.
However, the reality of the experience turned out to be far different from the fantasy I had built up in my own mind.
Seeing the statue and championship banners was as cool as I thought it would be, and I was pleased to see that the stadium was packed -– I had to sit all the way in the nosebleeds because every other seat was sold out. But once the game actually got underway, I noticed something interesting.
A solid third of the crowd was cheering for the Suns.
My NBA “home team” is the Orlando Magic (I live in Tampa), so I know a thing or two about bad fans. You haven’t experienced home crowd apathy until you’ve seen a three-quarters full Amway Arena react with complete indifference to every move their team makes.
I also know a thing or two about good fans. Before I lived in Tampa, I had lived in the San Francisco Bay area, where my home team was the Golden State Warriors. To put it simply, we sucked. In the three seasons they played while I lived there (not counting the lockout in 1999), they failed to reach 20 wins each time. But, every game I went to was full of boisterous fans who genuinely loved the Warriors, regardless of the countless losses that continued to pile up.
My point is, I was completely shocked at the fans’ apathy for a Chicago home team. I realize the Bulls weren’t very good that year, and that the Suns were one of the most popular teams in the league, but a sports town like Chicago should be able to fill their home arena with over 20,000 screaming fans every day. Fans continuously fill up Wrigley Field, U.S. Cellular Field and Soldier Field, and the United Center should be no different.
As Philbert Lin (a McCormick sophomore and Illinois native) states, “the Bulls fan base was huge during Jordan’s era, but then completely died after he stopped playing. It wasn’t much of something for Chicago to gather around.”
Of course, it can be hard to do so when your team struggles. In 2007, the Chicago Bulls enjoyed a successful year, finishing with a 49-33 record and the fifth seed in the East and taking the Detroit Pistons to six games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. In 2008, a year in which many experts predicted that the Bulls would win the East, the Bulls finished 33-49 and missed the playoffs.
This year, they turned it around again. They used the number one overall pick in the NBA draft to select Derrick Rose out of Memphis, signed Vinny Del Negro to be their new head coach and brought in NBA veterans John Salmons and Brad Miller in a February trade. All of this culminated in a 41-41 record (18-11 after the All-Star Break) and the seventh seed in the East for the Bulls.
And although most experts expected the defending champion Boston Celtics to easily defeat them in the first round, the Bulls fought with great intensity, leading to a seven game series that many experts have called one of the greatest series in NBA playoff history.
The Bulls ultimately lost, but their fans, the entire city of Chicago and the rest of the country (myself included) took notice. The three home games pulled in an average of just over 23,000 fans, the vast majority of whom were cheering raucously for the home team.
“This year, all of the updates on Facebook from my NU friends were things related to the Bulls for the past few weeks,” says Nate Wong (McCormick senior). “Friends of mine actually went to the games. I think the days of rebuilding are over, and people are excited once again.”
In recent years, the White Sox have won a World Series, the Bears have reached a Super Bowl and the Cubs have consistently been one of the best teams in baseball. And although none of these teams figures to lose a great deal of fans anytime soon, expect an increase in the popularity of the Bulls in coming years.
There are some unanswered questions that remain before the 2009-2010 season begins. (Should the Bulls re-sign free agent-to-be Ben Gordon? Will Luol Deng work his way back into the rotation?). With a young nucleus, an improving head coach and, most importantly, a revived fan base, the Bulls have nowhere to go but up.