Thursday, November 20, 2008

Winter and Chicago Sports

There were times, years ago, when Chicago's winter professional sports teams were exciting to watch, and captured our attention. These teams, specifically speaking, were the Bulls, Bears, and Blackhawks - the dreaded three B's. Their greatest moments have since been permanently emblazoned upon the cold bronze that is the city's sport fan community. Allow me to recapitulate:

The Bears brought immense anticipation and enthusiasm to a fervent Chicago crowd, starting around 1984, when they were forming a prominent defensive presence, and playing competitive games against the best teams in the league. It was an exciting season, and a sign of more to come. All of the pieces of the puzzle were in place, and I recall quite a bit of excitement for their victories that season, and for the season to come. The season to come, well, came. 1985 brought forth a dizzying, dreamlike autumn for Chicago football fans, with a run of 12 impressive wins in a row to start the season. The only elements that spoiled this potentially indefatigable season were the dreaded notion of broadcast television, named Monday Night Football (which thus disrupted the team's rhythm and momentum) and a talented quarterback named Dan Marino. I remember, as a 14 year-old fan of Bears' seasons good and bad, literally crying as I realized that the bastard Dolphins were about to defeat the Bears that dreaded Monday night during week 13. If there was ever to be a greatest football team ever, this was it - and it was to be spoiled on national television. I hated hearing the howls of the suntanned idiot fans in the Dolphins' home stadium. Miami didn't deserve that win, but tried to make a mockery of the hardest working team in recent history. Miami, the city that deserved a football team as much as Elvis deserved his black belt.
The Bears, that season, regained their composure, and played a strange, presumptuous card by recording their "Super Bowl Shuffle" song well before the end of the regular season was even in sight. The Bears held true, however, and steamrolled their way through the post season and provided ardent fans a long-sought Super Bowl title.

The Blackhawks were an exciting team in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They made it to the Stanley Cup finals in 1992, and around 1989-1990, I went to most of their home games, having a friend who invested in season tickets. There was nothing quite like the environment of hockey in the Madhouse on Madison, being Chicago Stadium. Everyone was drunk and rowdy, and during games against local rivals, fights on and off the ice were common. It was a paradise for the typical male sports fan. When at those games, the team was agressive, exciting, and every game was a close one - fortunately, with the Blackhawks often gaining victory. Again, in those years leading up to their Stanley Cup push of 1992, there was an element of excitement, anticipation, and progress. Nothing seemed stale, and every season seemed promising. Even though they didn't win it all in 1992, they were still champions to most, if not all, of the old school Blackhawk fans out there.

The Bulls were mostly a joke in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Management was abysmal, draft picks were local jokes, attendance was amusing, and media exposure was nil. Even in the late 70s, I remember promising players such as Reggie Theus, Artis Gilmore, John Mengelt, etc. Nevertheless, the coaching of such legends as Larry Costello helped keep the Bulls away from the pressures of playoff contention and participation. Finally, things took a turn for the better in 1984. Yes, that's when the Bulls drafted Michael Jordan, a #3 pick. People seem to forget that the team wasn't instantly better with Jordan's addition during his early professional seasons. Jordan was still a thin, lanky punk, and his game was not polished at all. He was, however, exciting to watch, and while his game was nowhere near what it ultimately became, it drew crowds, more money into the till, and ultimately, the power to acquire stronger players in upcoming years. The true unsung hero leading to the Bulls' eventual dynasty was the coach of the team in the late 80s, named Doug Collins. At this point, all things about the Triangle Offense and other strategies involving Jordan were being set in place - and the assistant coach was a nobody named Phil Jackson. Strategic geniuses named Johnny Bach and Tex Winter were also on the coaching staff during those anticipatory late 80s runs, and their contributions not only led to the Bulls' ultimate Championships, but Jordan's "best ever" performances as well. Once again, those late 80s seasons were exciting to me - something was building. Pieces of the proverbial puzzle were steadily added into the mix as attendance figures (and finances) improved. Scottie Pippen was added in 1987, then Horace Grant, and ultimately Bill Cartwright. John Paxson's steady shooting and court wisdom (that which could be compared to John Stockton) stabilized the on-court presence. Jordan was finally a piece of the greater puzzle, rather than the savior of the team, even though his scoring dominated every game. It was inevitable that the Bulls would become a title-ready team, and once they pushed themselves past the dirty tactics of the Detroit Pistons, the NBA championship was theirs for the keeping. 1991 was their first NBA title, and rather poetically, a passing of the torch from an aging Magic Johnson to the peaking Michael Jordan. The dynasty to follow was something beyond most fans' expectations, and the Bulls could arguably have won eight straight NBA titles if Jordan hadn't abandoned all things basketball for his attempts at minor league baseball. Unfortunately, we Bulls fans got accustomed to the annual championships and the great breakup of late 1998 was all too sobering. The coach left, Jordan (for the moment) retired, and Pippen was poised to leave the team as well. But one of our winter teams was exciting to watch, and gave us thrills right into the early summer's post-season competition.

These days, the fans of the three cold weather teams in Chicago are left with a bad taste in their mouths.

The Bulls are showing nothing promising, even with the lucky lottery opportunity to have the first draft pick, in Derrick Rose. Rose is somewhat like a young Jordan, unpolished, not yet the savior of the team, and about four years away from true prominence. The fan base has worn away, media coverage is fleeting, and coaching changes happen with the flipping of the calendar. Joakim Noah (the previous year's wasted first draft pick) is an embarrassing member of the team. He's an arrogant, pot-smoking dork that rarely contributes anything other than personal fouls and missed lay-ups. I'll never understand why anyone drafted this bozo, and as I watched the NBA draft on live TV, I screamed out loud "WHY?!". The Bulls won't be much to watch for several years to come, at least. It's a shame to say that, but trust me, it's not must see TV. They are bottoming out, and it won't be long before they are playing in a 1/4 filled United Center.

With the Blackhawks, it's the same old story. Constant personnel changes, and seasons that might have been. WIth good coaching and passion, they could've made the playoffs last season, but seemed to give up the ghost in the final couple weeks. Except for goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who is by far the biggest name on the team, nobody is interesting to watch. To make matters worse, their games in the early part of the season have been frustrating at best, with them unable to hold a lead in the late minutes of the game. The other team would tie the game, and eventually win a shootout. Nikolai can only do so much.

The Bears - forget it these days, though I was excited for them during their 2006 season. There were two reasons why the Bears fared so well that year - Thomas Jones, the running back, and their receivers. Jones always could provide first down runs, seemingly no matter what yardage was required. They unfortunately didn't win the Super Bowl, and the geniuses in the front office decided to dispense with Jones during the ensuing off season. Everyone knows that a strong running game is critical to keeping options open for a more effective passing game, and Jones was the reason why the Bears quarterbacks could complete passes with reasonable reliability. Since 2006, the Bears chose to pass (pun intended) on grabbing a "real" quarterback over and over again. They have become much like the Cubs, opting to trade away established superstars for one or two supposedly promising rookies. The Bears are once again, a joke, with too much media exposure and nothing to show for themselves. They're destined for a 7-9 season, missing the playoffs, and a new round of "wait until next year" rhetoric. As such, I don't watch their games, because in a rare case, it's the car accident that I don't slow down to observe.

The winter is depressing enough for a climate such as Chicago's. The summer baseball teams at least show promise, talent, and excitement, but then again, it's summer - everyone is out of the house, enjoying the weather. During winter, when Chicagoans are trapped in their living rooms on cold days, the teams that offer escape through televised sports are nowhere to be found. Sadder still, I don't see the trend changing anytime soon. It will be even worse when the Cubs and Sox lose their stamina and revert to 4th place teams in their respective divisions.

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