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Bygone Air-a: Ruminations of a Bulls fan

By John Wilmes\n\nIt makes sense that I’m a Bulls fan. Not only did I come of adolescence in the most golden era of Michael Jordan’s Chicagoland—imprinting my psyche, treat thumb along with those of the rest of my regional generation, sick with emotional conquests far more indelible than any Disney parable—but, I am also something of a bohemian. As a white male who’s also a struggling artist, I am imbued with the same gland of patron-saint-making of ethnic heroes that Jack Kerouac and friends exercised on Charlie Parker and Miles Davis; I’ve always found it infinitely more exciting to identify with what I could never be, versus what’s most similar to me. There’s such a thrill to the otherness, and undeniable social subjugation, that formed Kanye West and Derrick Rose, in much different parts of this city than where I live. It’s kin to the thrill that steers me constantly away from the guaranteed financial success of day-jobbing, and the lush comforts of Suburbia, fully available to me. (It’s also a thrill that doesn’t take me beyond the role of audience; that doesn’t spur me into a more richly experiential pursuit of Chicago, as I still live in a predominantly white, post-gentrification neighborhood of the city, and watch all of the sports networks that every 9-to-5 schlub I aim not to be does. But that line of psychoanalysis, along with many other flaws in my outlook, are for another place and time.)\n\nOutside of my generation, though—which, again, received so much surrogate cinematic glory in the Jordan years so as to ensure our compulsory lifetime fandom—and outside of my personal leanings, mine is a Chicago demographic largely indifferent to the game of basketball. That things were different here in the 90’s was not an aberration, as the NBA experienced its brightest moment in the national cultural imagination through that decade—the result of fairly brilliant marketing strategy on the part of commissioner David Stern, who, starting with the promotion of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson’s friendship in the 80’s, was able to re-brand a historically neglected “black sport” as a bastion of celebratory post-racial imagery. M.J., beyond being one of the greatest athletes of all time, was the perfect realization of Stern’s dream, as he complied utterly with the media machinations to make him an everyman’s corporate monolith. Coke-and-Gatorade drinker, McDonald’s-eater, Hanes-and-Nike-wearer, Looney Tunes gladiator, smiling, affable and charming, and a consummate winner, to boot. What else was there to Michael, back then? It wasn’t until well after his final retirement, during his 2009 Hall of Fame acceptance speech, that he began to break character and show the public the borderline-petulant anger that drove him to so much domination. Some reconsidered his legacy, negatively.\n\nBut the N.B.A.’s moment (with Chicago as its undeniable capital), by then, was already long gone. In the years following Jordan’s reign, more authentic forms of black, “urban” identity—often linked to the supposed moral dearth of Hip Hop, by detractors—began to shape the media image of a league now featuring Allen Iverson and a handful of college-skippers (Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, Tracy McGrady) front and center. As is superbly documented in Dr. David J. Leonard’s book “After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness,” the returning skepticism of white N.B.A. audiences (historically strong) regarding this “black sport” came to a head in 2004 when a Pacers-Pistons game in Detroit deteriorated into an ugly brawl, and Stern, his business’s image badly damaged, quickly doled out extreme suspensions, and in the following years banned players straight from high school, and enforced a league-wide dress code. (None of which measures, it should be noted, relate to the simple over-done jockery of that evening in any meaningful way; Stern merely waged, and won, a war on cultural signifiers).\n\nSomething of the N.B.A.’s former positive cultural presence has been recaptured in the current LeBron James-versus-everyone narrative, but only something. Most Midwestern baby-boomers can’t even tell you who Kevin Durant is. The post-racial cartoon is over. And Chicago, thick with a racial tension which seems genetically linked to its extreme segregation, is much, much less friendly to its Bulls than it was before. If the Bears or Blackhawks, or either baseball team is playing, it can be extremely difficult to find the Bulls on a bar’s TV screen, in my north-side neighborhood and others. When seen (rarely), team apparel is more often Jordan, Rodman, and Pippen jerseys dragged out of the attic—not Rose, Noah, Deng. This is even the case in seasons when the Bulls are title contenders—which was both of the last two, and which was the belief for much of this season, before Derrick Rose’s playing status began to err toward the unlikely.\n\nSo who is it that’s filling the United Center, 41 times per regular season? (The Bulls do sell out virtually every game). This is a good question when Jerry Reinsdorf’s other, mostly white team is regularly struggling to fill its seats. But the UC’s capacity is only 20,917—that’s about half of U.S. Cellular Field, and a third of Soldier Field. The indomitable volume of the city and its surrounding suburbs (along with no competing basketball team, and the token investments in season tickets that area businesses make) is what guarantees this attendance, above all. Location, is key, too: The UC floats near the city’s equator in a sparsely populated part of the city that might as well be called Neutral Chicago; The Cell, by comparison, is on 35th street, much nearer to the heart of the profoundly murderous, largely black south-side than many affluent (white) fans are comfortable with. (This, of course, is simply a matter of perception, as the new Bridgeport is one of the many safer neighborhoods on the south-side). The Bulls’ ability to fill their seats is a misnomer.\n\nAnd the inconsistent, generally waning nature of support from Chicago’s sports fans for the Bulls is perfectly crystallized in its recent travails with Rose, the franchise’s supposed savior. Rose, famously, was born and raised at 73rd and Paulina, placing him in Englewood—long considered one of the most dangerous neighborhoods of the south-side. That he was able to transcend these circumstances and tailor his natural speed and aerial flexibility into becoming the #1 pick overall, then rookie of the year, and then MVP, and to turn the Bulls into a point of pride again (all while maintaining extreme modesty, much to the contrary of the criminality suggested in the character of the more braggadocio [and almost uniformly black] N.B.A. types) is a narrative Bulls fans of all races absolutely adore. And why wouldn’t they? Rose is a prodigy, a marvel, a wunderkind.\n\nThe good will toward Rose was even strong enough that he remained well-loved through most of his skipped 2012-2013 season, following his tragic ACL tear in the first game of last year’s playoffs. But when word got out that Rose could miss all of the season—when the going got tough—Rose’s touted humanity became lost to the fans. As soon as it was announced that he may miss the entirety of the season (a truth known to all involved from the get-go, but which the organization obscured, ostensibly in order to keep ticket sales rolling) the city’s discussion of Rose began to perceive him as a commodity. The reality of the situation was (is) that his injury is a career-threatening one, particularly for a player of his make; for a player who relies heavily on sudden acceleration, strong leg-lift, wild bodily contortions, and doing it all over and over, as the offensive centerpiece on a team that struggles to score. The optimum path to recovery for such a player, when severely tearing a ligament that’s elementary to all of these processes, is to take as much time as possible regaining strength, as well as the mental wherewithal to play with confidence—so as not to restrict one’s body, subconsciously, in self-protecting ways which, perversely enough, actually make repeat injuries more likely.\n\nThe chorus from the fans, however—and even from a majority of Bulls pundits and blogsters—has been that Rose should get onto the court, and earn his salary. Never mind that his excellence has been jeopardized, and that the story we all love about Rose (from 73rd and Paulina to the Trump Tower) was only ever possible because he spent a lifetime blocking out everything else out to focus only on basketball; never mind that the game is his only path to success, and that risking his happy livelihood with an early return to action (risking it for less than twenty extra career games) could revert his tale into one of sustained tragedy. The reaction to Rose’s decision not to play has turned downright vitriolic, with fans regularly questioning his manhood—he’s now nearly as much pariah as messiah. Sympathy has turned, somehow, into a certain amount of disgust.\n\nThis turn illustrates that the city is only interested in Rose’s heart-warming narrative if he’s performing for them. His unlikely social, cultural, professional, and economic ascendancy (the very narrative many believe had David Stern rig the 2008 draft to keep Rose in Chicago) means little-to-nothing if he’s not literally risking and punishing his body—which, again, is his only vessel for success. While Bulls center Joakim Noah plays through the first round of the playoffs with a painful spate of plantar fasciitis, many use his determination (often likened as representative of a hard work-ethic which Chicagoans pride themselves on) to contrast Noah with Rose, and paint Rose as lacking in said characteristic. Rose, so many say, is mentally weak, “soft,” and self-involved. Never mind that Noah’s injury is far less serious than Rose’s, and that he was raised internationally, and amongst great affluence, the son of a tennis star and a supermodel; Noah is a man with a wide array of options. Rose, quite dissimilarly, was raised in a battleground—a place where survival is a daily question—and is now capitalizing on the refuge his success has brought him, to preserve the body that got him beyond it.\n\nThe fear that Rose experiences in facing a return is a result of an injury—caused by the very overwork fans are calling for more of—that threatened to steal the exceptionalism that brought him from bedlam to affluence. But the fans calling for his return, treating him like nothing more than a tool for their entertainment (one fan in Peoria has even opened a lawsuit against Rose for not playing yet) want to think about that as much as they want to think about what grisly things lie on the south-side, so many miles away from their reality. Rose has dared to be his own man for a moment—to consider not pleasing his audience; to take a seat where the perfect Michael would have exposed himself up and down Michigan avenue before a home game (Rose is incredibly remote, and uncomfortable with the media’s ever-presence), then dunked, won, and smiled. Rose has dared to take a media-confounding long view, to deny the Hollywood arc and be something other than our top fighter for a moment. And they’re hating him for it.\n

. . .

\nJohn Wilmes is a writer living in Chicago. He is a co-founder of Meekling Press, writes for the ESPN TrueHoop Network, and contributes regularly to Mutable Sound and NewCity. He is, also, @johnjilmywilmes and john.a.wilmes@gmail.com.\n\n 

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