By the time I was seven years old I had a pretty good grasp on the normal rhythms of life.
As Summer came to a close we would return to school. In the Fall, as the air grew cooler and the leaves changed color, we would dress up for Halloween and enjoy time with family at Thanksgiving. Winter meant snow, snow meant Christmas, and Christmas meant presents. After the New Year came the awkwardness of Valentines followed by the confusing connection between eggs and bunnies at Easter. When it truly began to warm up we knew that Summer was coming again, the Chicago Bulls would beat the Utah Jazz in the NBA Finals, and we would soon be out of school on break.
This was simply the normal course of things in my seven-year-old mind. Michael Jordan and the Bulls winning the championship was as predictable as Santa’s reindeer and the changing seasons. Everyone celebrated holidays and watched movies about holidays. The Bulls beating the Jazz was just one more cultural norm.
I’m sure some part of me knew a basketball game was a little different than all of the other movies and cartoons I watched where the Heroes always defeated the Villains but not too different. It was expected and natural that while there would be some sort of rising action and drama, at the climax the Hero would make the last shot and the Good Guys would win. That was what was supposed to happen. It’s what did happen.
Everything was right with the world.
When I was a kid living an hour and a half south of Chicago my parents’ TV had “rabbit ears” for an antenna. Usually you had to fiddle with it to get good reception and a somewhat clear picture. My two best friends down the block had cable. I don’t remember watching very many Bulls games during the year, but I do remember going over to watch the Finals against the Utah Jazz. We would each choose a Bulls player to “be” at the beginning of the game. Their shouts of “I’m Michael Jordan!” and “I’m Scottie Pippin!” always left me with Dennis Rodman. I wasn’t disappointed though. Rodman was cool. Every game his hair was dyed a different combination of colors. To a seven-year-old that was awesome.
For whatever reason there are certain memories which remain as crystal clear as the cable TV image in comparison to the fuzzy rabbit ear reception of many of my other childhood memories. The plastic Chicago Bulls helmets my friends owned. Sitting on the floor in front of the TV watching the game. Rodman’s Game Six hair. Jordan’s last shot. Everyone being a fan of the Bulls.
I didn’t realize it then but every single person being a fan of the Bulls was unique to that time and specific iteration of the team. The postal worker, the grocery store clerk, the bank teller, everyone seemed to be a fan of the Bulls. TV showed me people all across the world who loved the Bulls. If someone was at the top of their field they were considered “the Michael Jordan” of whatever they did. I’m sure someone was the Michael Jordan of accounting. Heck, someone still is the Michael Jordan of accounting. Honestly, comparing being a fan of Jordan and the Bulls to Santa and his helpers isn’t quite accurate. Even as a kid I knew there were some people who didn’t celebrate Christmas due to their religion. I didn’t know anyone who wasn’t a Bulls fan.
As an adult I now realize there was a small group of people in a far off land who were sadly fated to be fans of the Jazz. That somewhere an hour and a half south of Salt Lake City there was a seven-year-old kid who’d grown up similar to me in every way except his team always lost. I suppose his summer always began with something closer to a Greek Tragedy than a Heroic Epic. Everything was right in my world though, so I didn’t think about that.
Until it wasn’t.
When Jordan returned from his first retirement he sent out a fax saying “I’m back”. The world erupted with noise and news stories. After a brief hiccup we’ve collectively decided to excuse, the Bulls reeled off three straight championships and an impersonation of the Beetles.
And then, Jordan retired, Scottie Pippen was traded, and Rodman was released. Just like that, they were gone and it was over.
I woke up one morning and no one was a Bulls fan anymore. Not the postal worker, not the grocery store clerk, not the bank teller, they’d all moved on to other things, seemingly overnight. The normal routine of holidays and seasons still continued on but the Bulls weren’t a part of it anymore. In my world, the 1999 NBA season didn’t even occur.
In the three seasons from 1995-98 the Bulls only lost 43 games total in the regular season combined. They lost 169 the next three years and that was with one of those seasons being shortened (thank goodness) due to a lockout. They wouldn’t even sniff the playoffs until seven years after Jordan retired and the Bulls broke up. I was finishing 2nd grade when they won their last championship. When they made the playoffs again I was in high school. They didn’t make the Conference Finals till I was almost done with college. I’ve been a fan for more seasons where they didn’t manage to win even 30 games (8) than they won championships (6) and I really only remember beating the Jazz (2).
I liked the Bulls as a kid when they were winning. I fell in love with them when they were scrapping and clawing their way back into the playoffs. Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman planted the seed, but it was Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, and Luol Deng who made it grow.
I suppose in some ways my love for the Bulls mirrors how real love often operates in the world. Everything is perfect at first. It’s like winning the championship year after year. At some point you come down off the mountain though, and that can be tough. It can even get ugly. If you keep working at it though, some of those early feelings come back. As life goes on and love matures, it goes through ups and downs, but if you stick with it, you appreciate the good parts all the more and learn how to navigate the hard parts better.
Of course the analogy breaks down pretty quickly if you think about it too much or try to draw too direct a line. As much fun as sports can provide and as meaningful as they can be in so many different ways, people and relationships are more important. But sports can play a lot of different roles in who we are, who we become, and what that means for how we interact with those around us and the experiences we share with them.
It would be nice if the world would be right again though.