CHICAGO In the days leading up to the return of Michael Jordan to Chicago in a blasphemous Washington Wizards uniform, this city has rediscovered its sports identity.
Chicago is a Bears town.
Ever since Jordan announced his return to the court, anticipation had been building for tomorrow’s Wizards-Bulls game at United Center the game sold out as soon as the comeback became official. But the success of the Bears and their playoff game tomorrow against Philadelphia at Soldier Field caught everyone by surprise and has overshadowed Jordan’s first game back in this sports-crazed city.
“Everyone is talking about the Bears,” said Jeff Magill, bartender at the landmark Billy Goat tavern. “I haven’t heard anyone talking about Jordan lately. It’s all Bears.”
Jordan is celebrated as the greatest single sports figure in the history of the city. He led the Bulls to six NBA championships and brought Chicago an international profile with his status as one of the most recognized athletes in the world.
But beneath the glitter that Jordan spread over this city beat the heart of a blue collar sports town fanatically devoted to its football team.
Jordan’s rise in Chicago and his success came at a time when the Bears had fallen from Super Bowl champions in 1985 to perennial losers. Coming off a 5-11 record last year, this young, unheralded Bears squad has turned on the city with its 13-3 record and first trip to the playoffs since 1994.
Not that Jordan necessarily has fallen out of favor. It’s just that “Da Bears” are the city’s favorite sporting pastime.
“Chicago is really a football town,” said Jim Wall, an ad salesman in downtown Chicago. “Before Jordan came along, no one really cared here that much about the Bulls. But he put us on the map as an NBA town and gave us a persona that we needed, a championship persona.”
Jordan created a buzz here last summer when he was working out for his comeback at Hoops, The Gym. Dana Adams, a manager at the gym, believes it will be hard for fans to see Jordan in a uniform other than that of the Bulls.
“That makes it a bittersweet weekend,” she said. “Everyone is excited about the Bears, but they are still hurting that Michael isn’t part of the Bulls anymore. I think that’s why all the attention has been on the Bears. People want to embrace something positive what we have, not what we lost.”
Another factor that may be contributing to the lack of hype over Jordan’s return were the reports that dominated the Chicago media recently about Jordan’s wife, Juanita, filing for divorce. “I think everyone heard their share of Jordan stories last week,” Magill said.
Make no mistake about it: There are still many Jordan fans in Chicago, probably more than Bulls fans. Attendance at Bulls games has dropped dramatically, from once leading the league to the current standing of 11th in the NBA. There are thousands of empty seats now at games.
Taxi driver Charles Knight said he is still a Bulls fan, but he also closely follows Jordan, and watches the Wizards whenever they are on television.
“I’m a Wizards fan, too,” he said. “The Bulls are our team, but they hurt themselves by letting Michael leave. This is the greatest basketball player who ever lived. He wanted to stay here. He should be here.”
The Bulls the worst team in the NBA since Jordan’s departure after the 1997-98 season have no special plans for Jordan’s return.
“We’ve already honored Michael,” Bulls executive vice president of business operation Steve Schanwald told the Chicago Sun-Times. “We honored Michael with the statue [outside United Center] and the night we retired his number after his first retirement. I think the fans are going to take care of paying tribute to Michael.”
Don’t expect much of a postgame tribute, though. Fans will be running to leave because, as it turns out, Jordan’s return and the Bears-Eagles playoff game are the same day. The Bulls game starts at noon Central time and the Bears playoff game at 3:30 p.m. Fans will be flocking to their homes and bars to watch the Bears, and some, like Wall, will try to make it to both events.
“This will be a day in sports in Chicago that people will talk about years from now,” he said. “I want to be there for it.”
The Bears may be the darlings, but Jordan’s place in the hearts of Bulls fans is evident from the fact that a regular-season NBA game between two ordinary teams is even considered competition for a Bears playoff game. That is solely because of Jordan’s presence.
“Some people may be ready to move on, but as far as I’m concerned, he will always be part of Chicago,” Knight said.