This is the third installment of Leitch Across America, a recurring feature in which our own Will Leitch visits an American sports city for a week to get the pulse of its sports and fan culture. Previously, he went to San Francisco and Cleveland. This week: Chicago.
CHICAGO -- A.J. Liebling, the man who coined the term "Second City" (and who ultimately found he mostly disliked the place) , wrote, "Chicago seems a big city instead of merely a large place." He said this in 1949, and it feels like he is more correct now than he was then. Sometimes it feels like the only real big city.
Here's the thing about Chicago: Everyone I've ever met who either lives there or has lived there talks about it like it is the single driving force in their lives. They talk about it as if it is the sun. New Yorkers think the rest of the world is stupid for not living there; Los Angelenos know they're getting away with something. But you can move to New York and Los Angeles, and if you stay there long enough, you can reasonably impersonate one of them. Chicagoans welcome you and make you feel like one of them, but if Chicago isn't in your blood, you are just visiting. You can always find your own clique in New York and Los Angeles. Here, Chicago is the clique.
And God do they love it. Their love is infectious. Something seems more real here; Chicago has a quiet gravitas that cuts through all bullshit. Movies just feel a little bit more important when they're set in Chicago; when Christopher Nolan put all those Gotham setpieces here, you knew he meant business. (I'm convinced ER felt 10 times better than it was because it was set in Chicago; it's the perfect city to set television programs because everyone could look perfect and live in perfect apartments and still feel like real, believable people just because it's in Chicago.) Bill Murray wouldn't be half as cool if his hometown were San Francisco, or Houston. Chicago makes him an actual human being. Chicago makes him one of us.
Chicagoans complain about Chicago, but not really; the rest of the planet is full of things that simply get in Chicago's way. The weather is bad in Chicago, the politics are corrupt in Chicago, the class divide in Chicago is as profound as any in the country. But these are all seen as human faults, not Chicago's faults. It's the world that can't live up to what Chicago promises, not the other way around.
I wish I were from there so, so much. But I'm not.
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Chicago is in Illinois, but, as someone who grew up downstate, I can assure you, Chicago is much bigger than Illinois. The state of Illinois is basically Nebraska with Chicago at the top. I'm from the Nebraska part.
I think I always resented this about Chicagoans: They had much more of a sense of place than I ever did. I grew up in Mattoon, Ill., and since then, I've lived in Champaign, Los Angeles, St. Louis, New York City and now Athens, Ga. There is no way I'd have been that nomadic had I grown up in Chicago: It is a city that always beckons you home.
Like in every state in which one city crowds out the whole landscape and leaves the rest of its residence scrambling for recognition, Illinois has a clear Chicago vs. Downstate problem. (For some Chicagoans, everything south of downtown is "downstate." Even the White Sox.) We downstaters think Chicago believes it runs everything in Illinois, which just makes us even angrier when we realize that it does. I grew up four hours from Chicago, and 90 minutes from St. Louis and Indianapolis. Chicago was in my state, but it wasn't mine. That was a city: There was nothing about my hometown that even resembled "city." To cheer for Chicago sports teams, in Mattoon, was to be a betrayal of who you were. It was selling out to them.
So: Cardinals over Cubs. Arizona Cardinals over Bears. Blues over Blackhawks. Pacers over Bulls. It felt like for most of the rest of the state, as Dave Eggers famously put it, Chicago was the promised land and the rest of the world was China. Sports became a place to fight against that. Sports was a place to rebel.
So I have always seen Chicago sports teams as villainous when, pretty much across the board, they're the opposite of that. The Bears have as passionate a fan base -- and as staggering a history -- as any team in the NFL, but they were the bad guys as far as I was concerned; as a kid, I even attempted to resist the Fridge. (This would prove impossible.) The Bulls were the home of Michael Jordan, who every kid worshipped, but I still found myself cheering more for Reggie Miller. (A symptom of an undeveloped mind, clearly.) And worst of all those Cubs, that team the world finds so lovable and charming … they were our Public Enemy No. 1. To many downstaters, their misery was not one of historical happenstance: It was justifiable wrath reigning down. Their curses were self-inflicted, earned.
I don't feel this way anymore, at least intellectually. (Emotionally, I'll always see the Cubs as cartoonishly evil, in spite of all available evidence. We'll get into that later this week.) In fact, the more Chicago sports fans I've met in my life -- most of which came south to the University of Illinois as I went north -- the more I find them inspiring. Their teams are central to their very identity. Da Bears. MJ. Ryno. The breakthrough Blackhawks teams of this decade. DIT-KA. They are part of the landscape in Chicago the way they just aren't in other cities. You can live in New York City and not give a darn about Derek Jeter. Everyone in Chicago has been to Wrigley -- even Sox fans. Sports are tied to everything here.
And thus, our sports are embiggened by Chicago. The 2005 World Series, Super Bowl XLI, two of the last four Stanley Cup Finals … they all felt a little more vital because they had a Chicago team in them. Because you knew how much it meant to them. And good heavens, if the Cubs ever win the World Series, it's going to be the biggest goddamned party that has ever happened.
This week, I'm going to hit a Bulls game, a White Sox game and a Cubs game. I'll watch a Blackhawks playoff game (against my Blues, actually). I'll be talking to Chicago sports luminaries and stars who have lived Chicago sports from every angle and perspective. I'm going to pester every fan I can find. I'm going to try to live it. I'll never be a Chicago sports fan. But sometimes I wish I were. For this week, this downstater can at least try to understand.
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