CHICAGO -- Unlike most women I've met, Julia was carrying a big sign that told the world how old she was. She said she was from Bloomington-Normal, Ill. -- she didn't specify -- and she was 82, according to her sign. And she was at her first Bulls game. That was on the sign too.
"I've been watching every Bulls games for as long as I can remember, but I've never been here in person," she told me. "My kids got me the tickets for Christmas, and I can't believe I'm finally here!" She had the enthusiasm of a particularly addled contestant on The Price Is Right. I asked her who her favorite player was. "I love them all, but Noah is my favorite." She smiled. "He's just not like anybody else." She said goodbye and hopped to her seats, and I mean it, she really hopped.
Later, I'd meet a guy wearing a Carlos Boozer jersey because "he went to Duke," a couple in matching Derrick Rose T-shirts who met at Rose's Simeon Career Academy high school, and love him and the Bulls because "he never forgets where he came from" and a group of young teenagers wearing Toni Kukoc jerseys, who I assume were just messing around. It was a bafflingly snowy Monday night in mid-April, a relatively unimportant game against the dull Orlando Magic, and the United Center was packed all the way to the top with every sort of Chicago Bulls fan imaginable.
When you wonder how the Bulls have suffered through every possible injury and setback in the last two-plus years and still been one of the most exciting teams in the NBA, you shouldn't look first at the fans -- Noah and Tom Thibodeau is where you should start -- but they shouldn't be ignored, either. It has now been almost 16 years since Michael Jordan played his final game as a Bull at the United Center -- a loss , by the way -- but Bulls fans are still the most loyal, obsessive and avid in the entire league. The Bulls have been in the top three in NBA attendance every year of the last decade, and for the past five, including this one, they've been No. 1.
It's not because of ambiance. The United Center is an unappealing area of town that's virtually unaccessible by the L trains, and it's cavernous and weirdly vacant as a noisemaking presence; it is the largest indoor arena, square-footage-wise, in the country, and it gives it the feel sometimes of an airplane hangar. (You can almost see the fan noise rise and rise and rise, and then vanish.) The place is so huge that one of the timeout entertainment games is to drop objects from the roof via parachute. It is perfectly efficient and entirely charmless.
It matters not to Bulls fans: They are here, through all of it. In 2000-01, the Bulls won 15 games, and at various points started gentlemen named Jake Voshkul, Michael Ruffin, A.J. Guyton, Dragan Tarlac and Corey Benjamin. That Bulls team finished second overall in attendance.
So here's my question: How much of this, still, is attributable to Michael Jordan? The year before the Bulls drafted Jordan, they were 21st out of 23 in NBA attendance. (To be fair, they were terrible. They did get to draft Michael Jordan, after all.) The next year, they were ninth, and they haven't been out of the top 10 since. Michael Jordan is probably the best player in NBA history and is unquestionably the most popular, even though he appears to be a deeply miserable human being. The statue of him that stands outside the United Center -- which features him dunking over some sort of terrifying demon glob that possesses and tortures doomed souls -- was actually built after his first retirement but before his second, which means for three seasons, one of the guys in the locker room literally had a statue of himself just beyond the door. (This would seem an excellent way to settle clubhouse disagreements.)
What Michael Jordan gave to Chicago Bulls fans was, simply, the best sports fan experience imaginable. Six championships, in increasingly dramatic ways, in logical story lines even the most casual fan could follow, from the most charismatic, alpha-male-dominant athlete in American sports history, along with his wacky supporting characters and a whimsical head coach. It's little wonder that even those teams' introductions are iconic.
As a sports fan, in your wildest dreams, you couldn't imagine a better stretch than those Jordan championships teams. It just can't be better than that. When Jordan retired and those Bulls teams fell apart into a jumbled mess of Tim Floyd, Pete Myers and Jerry Krause's confused fever dreams -- did you know that Krause, or "Crumbs" as Jordan would always call him, works as an assistant general manager in baseball now? -- fans would show up at the United Center just to remember what it was like when Jordan was playing there. If you were wondering what happens when your franchise has one of the best runs in the history of American sports, this is what happens: Your fans will just smile for years.
It hasn't stopped. But it's definitely not all Jordan today, either. Here's a curious thing about the team's official store: It's difficult to buy Michael Jordan merchandise, even if you want to. You can buy "Ruth 3" at Yankees Stadium, "Favre 4" at Lambeau Field, "Musial 6" at Busch Stadium, essentially wherever you like. But Jordan jerseys, while still dominant in the stands, are sparse, and by design. You can only buy one Jordan throwback jersey -- positioned in the middle of the store, mounted almost like a display, even a talisman -- and nothing else with the Jordan brand. There are Rose jerseys and shirts and dolls, and Noah jerseys and shirts and dolls, and even a couple of things with Mike Dunleavy's name on them, but Jordan is just that one jersey. He stands above the Bulls now. He sort of always did.
There is a general cheer, and a lack of a fatalism, from Bulls fans, that's different from other Chicago sports teams. Derrick Rose's story has been the central NBA tragedy of the last two years -- it wasn't long ago he was considered the next top-tier crossover NBA megawatt celebrity -- but people here just seem bummed about it, and sad for him, rather than angry or particularly cursed and woe-is-me. (Save for a few fringe "he's soft!" lunatics.) Joakim Noah is sort of the ideal Bulls star now anyway, one of those guys who has taken the defensive stalwart/glue guy job and turned it into a superstar position, and he's goofy and likable and weird in a way that's reminiscent of -- but somehow better, more stable and secure than -- Dennis Rodman, who remains beloved here. It was Noah who greeted the fans Monday before the final home game, and received the loudest roars. If Rose can ever get healthy, he'll discover that while he was gone, a superstar sidekick emerged.
The Bulls have had more success in the last 40 years of the NBA -- in all of professional sports -- than any other franchise. But we do not resent them for it. You get that the sense that they still, almost two decades later, appreciate it, and are a little awed that they got to be a part of it. There's a sense of gratitude at Bulls games, even snowy meaningless ones on a Monday in mid-April. Wherever they're from, whatever they care about the most, whatever reason they came … they're all just elated to be there. And why wouldn't they be?
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