Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sonic Blast

Earlier tonight was Game 4 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals, pitting the star-studded, narcissistic Miami Heat against the gritty, well-rounded Chicago Bulls. This is the Bulls' first conference final appearance since 1998, when Michael Jordan willed the oldest team in the NBA to a sixth and final title. Admittedly, if you're a sports fan and came of age in Chicago in the 1990s, chances are you were spoiled by the Bulls' dynasty. Admittedly, I almost completely missed out.

You see, by the time the Bulls were on the road to their third three-peat, I had actually grown tired of their constant winning. The 1995-96 season, in which the Bulls set the single-season record for wins, was both an exciting and tedious experience. On one hand, the level of talent on their roster was incomparable, and they'd run laps against the most of their opponents. However, nearly every win was a blowout, and half the time there was no point in watching beyond the second quarter.

Between Jordan's first retirement and comeback, I had grown a soft spot for the Seattle Supersonics. The roster they had at the time --Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton, Sam Perkins, Detlef Schrempf, and so forth-- was a tad topheavy but had all the qualities of a contender. I owned a Sonics cap with the classic green and yellow skyline logo and a T-shirt with the slightly less memorable red-and-green icon they wore in the second half of the '90s.

With my noted fanship of the Sonics, imagine the conflict of interest that arose when the Bulls faced Seattle in the 1996 NBA Finals. On the day after the Western Conference Finals ended, I wore my Kemp jersey to school with all the pride and hubris an 11-year-old could muster. At lunchtime, a girl in my fifth-grade class* sat across from me, and without ever taking her eyes off my jersey she started talking smack about "my" Sonics. I was a fairly sensitive kid, and I already had a reputation for outbursts that irked most of my peers, but that didn't really hinder them from teasing or making passive-aggressive comments.

So naturally, I had to defend my honor the only way I knew how: by screaming at the girl to knock it off, than go on a crying jag. One of the volunteer "lunch moms" had to walk me out of the gymnasium/assembly hall/cafeteria so I could cool off. Alas, the damage had been done: word of the incident spread throughout the school, and as the Bulls manhandled the Sonics en route to their fourth title, my last two weeks of fifth grade bordered on excrusiating. The teasing was almost constant.

As the 1996-97 school year began, the tension between me and my classmates was down to a simmer, but now I was known for being "anti-Bulls." I still wasn't rooting for them, but I never hated them per se, yet my shame kept me from discussing hoops at length. There were brief perks of derision when Chicago faced the Utah Jazz in the '97 and '98 Finals, but nothing at the level of what happened when the Bulls faced Seattle. Even though John Stockton had been one of my favorite players for the longest time, I made sure to keep my mouth shut.

Even after Jordan retired for the second time and Bulls GM Jerry Krause gutted the roster for salary cap space, the resentment lingered. The stigma of anti-fanship didn't really die out until 2000 or so, when Krause finally traded away Toni Kukoc and Dickey Simpkins, the last remnants of those championship teams. I shifted my focus to baseball and hockey, and whatever taunting I went through during the '96 Finals was either forgotten or dismissed as juvenilia. I went from a small, close-knit grammar school where I finished 6th grade with 29 other kids, to a high school where I graduated with 499 of my peers, and maybe a handful were semi-aware of my odd fanship. When the Sonics closed up shop and moved nearly 1,600 miles in 2008, I barely batted an eyelash.

So do I support the Bulls now? Yes, though not with the same passion I display for the Royals or Blackhawks. Watching this potential new dynasty blossom has been both a relief after years of losing, but also an opportunity to look back at my awkward childhood and the mistakes I might've made. In the wake of "The Decision," LeBron James and company have become the supposed villains of the NBA, which only makes this Bulls team all the easier to root for. As such, I'm also disappointed that Miami has now taken a near-insurmountable 3 games to 1 lead. If Miami wins Game 5, I'll shift my fairweather support to whoever wins the west, whether that'd be the Dallas Mavericks or the OKC Thunder... formerly known, of course as the Seattle Supersonics.

Next Week: the year in music, 1998.

*This girl came from a family of athletes, so she knew her stuff. She was later the captain of the varsity volleyball team in high school, and her older brother was a low-level draft pick by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2001.


  1. I too was bored with the Bulls by the second dynasty. I still watched, but the first 3-peat will always be sweeter, and the 1st championship is the sweetest of them all.

    As for your Sonics fanism ("icon"? Really, Stu? =P It's "logo" !) is a direct result of the explosion of the sports memorabilia industry, and a terrible, awful Chicago sports time (sans the Bulls) in the 1990's. Before about 1991 there was very little Chicago team gear available - you had to go to K-Mart or Sears to get some cheap stuff. Then suddenly these little stores & Sportmart popped up, and they had caps, shirts & jerseys of almost every team.

    Things were so bad, I was sporting caps & shirts of different teams I really didn't care about (my mom bought most that stuff because I didn't really care what I wore), and at times I dabbed in considering being a Cardinals & Brewers fan, but the Brewers moved to the N.L. & the bogosity of the 1998 HR chase, so I became Chicago 4-exclusive fan again & Dave Wannstedt getting fired made me a Bears fan again. That really sucked when Ditka was fired, tho the team was obviously in decline for years, and then suddenly the Packers fanism started infiltrating, which was awful.

    The thing about Elementary & Middle school, is the mob mentality on the social scene & in the classroom. Of course we all wanted to pick our noses, fart and scream our heads off, but we knew that if we did that, we would be social suicide & relentlessly tormented by our peers, and we were always monitoring each other under watchful eyes. Children are cruel and it's best not to be different or throw a hissy fit, otherwise there will be hell to pay. And why didn't you say "fuck you" to that girl?? I remember I had plenty of fights ragging on Cubs fans.

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