He’s not a Chicago native, nor has he lived in the city, but in the 90’s the Bulls were his life.
It’s a cold January night in 1994, and I am thrashing my fists against the floor in steady, percussive agony. “Horrible!” I scream at the TV I just turned off, the ghostly crackle lingering on the screen, mocking me. “It’s embarrassing!” I say, not about my own behavior, but about the halftime score of the NBA regular season game between the Chicago Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Bulls, my Bulls, are losing 51 to 38. The commentators blame poor play and lackadaisical effort; I call it betrayal. I am a nine-year-old third grader living in Germantown, Tennessee, and a professional organization of athletic millionaires has the power to control my mood. Scottie Pippen hits a three? I’m happy. Horace Grant blows a lay-up? I’m sad. Bill Wennington misses a jumper? I’m mad. The Bulls trail the mediocre Cavaliers by thirteen points at halftime? I’m downright hysterical.
I am not a Chicago native. I have neither lived in the city nor its much talked-about “’burbs’”. No family of mine resides in Chicago, not even a fourth or fifth cousin. Its cityscape I know only because it is featured in the opening credits of the TGIF sitcom Family Matters. Like millions of children and adults around the world, I became a fan of the Chicago Bulls for one reason: Michael Jordan. Whether it was due to his commercials or his actual gameplay or a combination of both, Michael Jordan had effectively supplanted the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in my mind as the definition of the cool, unbeatable superhero. He could jump high. He could dunk hard. And in my brief history as a basketball fan (I only saw the first half of games in the 1993 Finals because they ran past my bedtime), he never lost.
I turn the TV back on halfway through the third quarter of the game, somehow thinking that my break from watching had served its purpose and would function as a spiritual balm for the Bulls’ woes. But they are still losing. “I hate this!” I yell, stomping my feet. Downstairs, my poor parents hear the rumble of my stampede, but there’s not much they can say to calm my nerves. During a previous game, my dad asked me for the score. I told him the Bulls were down eight to the Hornets, and my dad responded with words that I thought were the most vicious in the English language: “They’re creaming them,” he said, and I hurled a pillow at him in wordless reply. When my mom sat on the couch with me, and the Bulls would commit a turnover, I’d call her a bad luck charm. Normally I was a good kid. I loved my parents and wasn’t shy about showing them affection. But I had a problem: I was a fan.
By the time Michael Jordan returned to the NBA, I thought I had matured. Being a member of a winless JCC soccer team taught me that the better you can deal with losing, the better you can look like a grown-up. So when the Orlando Magic upended Chicago in the 1995 Playoffs, I was proud of myself for handling the loss without resorting to any thrashing or stomping. Because my parents weren’t home, I solemnly walked into my teenage sister’s bedroom. She was on the phone with her boyfriend. They were fighting. “Anna,” I said, as if I were an aide about to tell the president that there’s been a terrorist attack. “The Bulls lost.”
“So what, Alex!” she said. “Big deal!”
“Fine!” I said, slamming my sister’s door and running to my room.
The Michael Jordan Bulls never lost a playoff series again. For the next three years, they spoiled me with victory after victory. Just as the Ninja Turtles always foiled Shredder, Michael Jordan’s Bulls always foiled Karl Malone and Reggie Miller. Eventually, Jordan retired, the NBA had a lockout, and I discovered girls. Suddenly the Chicago Bulls didn’t look so interesting to me anymore. There was no need to have a temper tantrum over a basketball game when there was even the slimmest chance that Suna, whose first name enchantingly rhymed with her last, might go out on a date with me. The Bulls were a bad team, anyway, and so I transformed from a mega-fan who once dressed as Dennis Rodman on Halloween into someone who plainly didn’t care anymore.
Real Bulls fans who followed the lottery teams just as closely as the championship ones might call people like me “bandwagoners” or “fake fans.” But another word offers a more accurate description: kid. I was a kid who inhaled the relentless drama of the mid-90s Bulls as a bridge between the superhero cartoons of my youth and the super hormone feelings that descended upon puberty. So thank you, Chicago, for letting me steal your team for a few years. I may have been more kid than fan, but I hope you could hear the rumble of my feet during that long-ago game in 1994 and know that I was with you.
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Photo: Flickr/ JM