I smile after wrapping up another cell phone conversation with my dad. I haven’t talked to him this much in my entire life. After just about every Bulls game this season, one of us calls the other to discuss our favorite plays in the game, adjustments we hope to see in the next, and just the general joy we both feel when it comes to this current team. We’ve been experiencing a basketball drought in Chicago for over a decade, but this season has filled us with elation, and we just have to share the good feelings with each other.
I know we’re not alone either. Derrick Rose was voted the Most Valuable Player this year, Tom Thibideau won Coach of the Year, and the Bulls had the best record in the league this season. They haven’t been this successful sine the Jordan ’90s, when, unfortunately, my dad and I couldn’t have the relationship we have now.
Michael Jordan’s Bulls were an essential part of my childhood. Before I became an angsty high-schooler with punk rock aspirations and spiky hair, I was a skinny little Bulls fan with Nike Air Max’s and a Scottie Pippen jersey. While my mom and dad were fighting their way through an ugly divorce, I was out in the driveway pretending I was MJ. Jordan’s heroics made what should have been a tumultuous time for me just a little bit easier to cope with.
“10 seconds on the shot clock, Chicago down one but with possession. He brings it up the court. Seven… Six… Five… here’s the crossover, the drive… Three… Two… the shot is up… It’s good! At the buzzer! Bulls win! Bulls win!”
Yeah, this is what I would pretend, when the Bulls weren’t doing it in real-time.
Perhaps my favorite memory growing up is that last shot Jordan took against the Utah Jazz in the ’98 Finals. At that career-defining moment, every Chicagoan leapt out of their seats and screamed into their ceilings. Over and over again throughout that entire decade we experienced some of the greatest moments in sports history, and we were a proud city. No matter what difficulties plagued our personal lives, we were happy when we were Bulls fans.
Sadly, I couldn’t share these moments with my dad back then. I was living with my mom, and I only saw my dad once a week. MJ’s last game wasn’t on a Friday or Saturday night, so we couldn’t watch it together. Even though my dad probably took just as much joy in that moment as I did, the tension between him and my mom was always thick enough to keep me from developing a deep bond with either of my parents.
I knew my dad loved the Bulls though, and I wanted to share that love with him. He had the Bulls bumper sticker on his truck. He had the official championship t-shirts. But we didn’t go to games together. We didn’t discuss coaching tactics. I was a Bulls fan, and so was he, but we lived in different suburbs, and we didn’t talk on the phone.
When a kid’s parents hate each other, it creates a viciously awkward situation for the child. Is there a right or wrong side? If I call my dad, will my mom yell something derogative that he’ll hear on the other end? If I stick up for my mom when my dad yells at her, will he yell at me in retort? Adult relationships are awful, complicated things. Especially when (as the old cliché goes) kids are in the middle of it all. It took growing up a little bit myself, and forgiving a little more, in order to learn this.
Now I, too, am a complicated and awful adult. And I like this current Bulls team even more than the ’90s dynasty of my childhood. Not simply because they play magnificent team ball and are led by a fellow South-Sider, but because now I can finally share the experience of Bulls basketball with my dad.
We’re just two men who love the Bulls, but we both feel like kids again.
My dad never used text messages until this season, but only during Bulls games, usually parroting one of the local announcer’s catch phrases: “Cherry pie!” “Mr. MVP!” “Bench mob!” “TAJ!” My siblings marvel at this development as if he just gave up meat for vegetarianism.
He’s one of those dads who hates to use email for anything. I’m not sure if he even knows what Twitter is yet. He was a carpenter for his entire life until a back injury forced him into an early retirement a few years ago. Hard work and physical activity are what my dad is all about, so the very thought of those 50-year-old, thick-calloused fingers texting cute messages on a cell phone that he doesn’t even know how to set up a voicemail for is downright valiant. I don’t know if he realizes it, but he missed the potential father/son experience between us during the last Bulls championships. It’s not that he didn’t want it, but the circumstances kept us both timid. Now, we’re seizing the moment. That is, we’re taking the Bulls by the horns.
Sports are exciting only if they are experienced within some sort of group atmosphere. Sure, while I’m by myself I can pretend I’m hitting the last-second shot of a championship game on the rim above my garage door, but it’s just that: pretend. When a real, professional team sets out to win a championship for the pride of their city, the community comes together in genuine camaraderie. The flags come out on porches. The shirts and hats all turn to crimson. The lights atop the Hancock and Willis Towers are lit bright red. Families that might not have talked much before the season suddenly come together behind their team and high five each other. And there is excitement. And there is the thrill of competition.
After the Bulls won their first playoff series a few weeks ago, Dad sent me a text message that I’ll never forget: “It’s been an incredible season so far, and it’s been an honor to be able to share it with you.”
We really didn’t see it coming. At the start of the season, we didn’t predict the Bulls would be in the Eastern Conference Finals this year. We didn’t think our hometown hero would be the league MVP this soon either. But now that it’s here, there’s no way we’re missing it again. This time, we’re experiencing this thing together. This is for us. “Go Bulls.”