60/30: No. 7, United Center

Andrew Unterberger is traveling all about North America, seeing basketball games. Here’s his report from Chicago…

Heading to the Windy City after a brisk autumn day in Indiana, I got a rude awakening to the fact that in some parts of the country, the weather had actually started to feel like November. Rather than use the brainpower to try to remember how I usually dressed in past years for cold and rainy weather, I figured I’d stick with the unzipped-sweatshirt-and-tee uniform that I’d more-or-less adopted for the first two weeks of my tour and just kind of gut it out. The decision had mixed results, to say the least, as I quickly remembered why I was so thrilled to be spending the great majority of the month of December driving around the deep south. Good thing I’m heading to balmy Milwaukee and Minnesota after this, I guess.

I met up with my friend Tal, an ex co-writer of mine at an online music magazine, and a big Bulls fan whose father had Bulls season tickets at near-courtside. Before the game, Tal was extremely eager to show me around Chicago, giving me an impromptu driving tour of his home city. Not only did I learn extensively about the city’s tallest buildings and geographical breakdowns, I got a quick crash-course in Chi-town radio, in particular classic-and-contemporary R&B radio station V103 (102.7), which Tal couldn’t stop raving about (and for fairly good reason). I also got to see the outside of Soldier Field for the first time, and was surprised how closely this legendary, old-school football arena resembled some sort of flying saucer. Guess it’s a post-millennial renovation thing, I dunno.

Anyway, it was quickly time to get out to the tightly-packed United Center to see the Bulls take on the Wizards, in a highly-anticipated showdown between two of the last three top-overall picks, and a couple of hoops kindred spirits in both style and background in Derrick Rose and John Wall. In terms of straight on-court action, it was probably my most highly-anticipated game of the trip thus far.

The Stadium: There’s certainly nothing too glamorous about the exteriors of the United Center, which size aside, is a fairly flat and unassuming building in a relatively run-down part of the city. Outside of the famous Jordan statue — which might be in competition with the Rocky monument outside of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for the most obligatory pose-imitation photograph in the continental U.S. — there ain’t much to look at. Inside, though, the arena definitely had presence — nothing gaudy, just a solid color scheme and a number of booths that quietly announced the team’s history with authority. (One table allowed fans to take photos with mock-ups of the team’s six championship trophies, a subtle not-so-subtle reminder that that recent history aside, the Bulls were still the most dominant basketball team of my lifetime.)

Once it came time for starting lineups, I was relieved to find out that the Bulls’ player introductions were still preceded by that impossibly low hum, introducing the wonder of Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius” — easily my favorite NBA team intro routine. There’s just no comparing with the excitement and tension caused instantly by the sound of that low hum, followed by that twinkling, spectral guitar line and the piano stabs punctuating it. If that shit doesn’t get you pumped up — even accompanied with some relatively-lame computer-animated footage of actual bulls running around and causing havoc — then chances are, there’s not a Jock Jams megamix in the world that could get under your skin. It might not whip the crowd into the frenzy that it did during the Jordan years (“It’s less shitty, but much less loud,” Tal said of United compared to the old Chicago Stadium. “It’s not as scary as it used to be”), but it’s still among the class routines of all pro sports.

The Game: Rose vs. Wall might not have ever quite lived up to the “Anything you can do, I can do better” type back-and-forth that you always hope will develop when two great players with similar positions and skill sets face off against each other, but it was certainly far from a disappointment. Both players were stunning in their speed, grace and craftiness around the basket, and there was certainly a decent amount of testiness between the two — my favorite moment between the two came early in the game, when Rose essentially stuffed Wall on a breakout layup attempt, but Wall still managed to power the ball into the basket. Rose grabbed the ball out of bounds and instantly snapped the Bulls’ offense into action, like he couldn’t wait to get back down the court and get those two back on Wall at the other end. Needless to say, that’s the kind of urgency you want to see from your star players in the NBA.

And there’s no question that Rose is well on his way to being one of the leading lights of the league. He took a little while to really get going, as teammates failed to connect on the open looks his kick-out passes got them, and I counted at least three layup drives of his that were cruelly negated by Wizards big man JaVale McGee in the paint. But you just knew that there were eventually going to be moments of Rose doing stuff around the basket that seemed practically impossible, and sure enough, there were a couple plays in the second half — thankfully close to where we were sitting, even — where his body control, patience and hang time at the cup caused me to want to jump out of my seat. He ended with a team-high 24 and eight, though the best highlight of the night actually belonged to Wall, whose alley-oop and-one to McGee over the Bulls’ Kyle Korver caused the entire building to go breathless with horror and amazement.

The game’s real star — or real story, in any event — might not have been either young point guard, but rather a comeback-hopeful Gilbert Arenas off the bench for the Wizards. With Washington trailing significantly in the second half, Wall grabbing some minutes on the bench, and the rest of the team struggling offensively, Gil entered his default takeover mode. He started shooting from the outside with impunity, and connecting on most of them, going 7-10 from deep and ending up with 30 points for the game, making things interesting at least during the contest’s final minutes. After one three-point bomb in the fourth, Gil even pulled out the ol’ Can’t-Feel-My-Face gesture, a particular favorite of old buddy DeShawn Stevenson’s, and a clear reminder that no matter how serious and selfless Arenas ever claims to be while in the middle of an image rehabbing, Agent Zero is always lurking just below the surface.

Still, despite the valiant efforts of Arenas, the game was fairly in hand for the Bulls for most of the second half, and they held on for the 103-96 victory. Tal claimed that after the final horn sounded, he saw the Wizards’ Kirk Hinrich (making his first return to the United Center as a visiting player, and getting a nice tribute from the team and ovation from the fans for his seven years of service) discussing post-game plans with the Bulls players on the court. I bet Kirk wishes those plans included a meeting with Jerry Krause and a mulligan on the salary-dump trade that sent him to be the level-headed overseer of the dysfunctional situation in Washington.

The Fans: It was a pretty packed house for the Saturday Night game, probably edging Quicken Loans Arena for the best home turnout I’d seen during the trip thus far. The crowd wasn’t as quite as rowdy as I might have hoped — with memories and stories of how insane the fans would get during the 90s championship years, I was hoping that this year’s team (quite arguably the best group the franchise has fielded since Jordan’s final departure) had earned a similar level of fervor. But while the fans were obviously into it, there was clearly a long way to go to get back to that kind of craziness. Still, better than it was earlier in the 21st century, or so at least I heard. “You can feel the energy when you go out to get a beer,” said Will, a fan sitting in our row. “People are excited again about this team, way more than they were, like, five years ago.”

Will and his cousin Doug were both feeling fairly up on the team in general, particularly the two players coming to be the new faces of the franchise in Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah. I asked them about Rose, currently averaging nearly 24 and 10 for the season, and what they thought his ceiling might be. “Give me a jump shot, in the fourth quarter,” said Doug. “And then there is no ceiling.” (For the record, I tend to feel similarly.) It was talking about Noah that seemed to really get them excited, though. “I think Joakim Noah is unbelievable right now,” said Will. “He’s a joker, and a guy who plays hard. That’s Chicago.” Talk of the failure to trade for Carmelo Anthony, or even to sign one of the big-name free agents over the off-season, failed to dissuade their enthusiasm. “No, you know what? Fuck those guys, they didn’t call back,” exclaimed Will. “We’ll keep Noah all day.”

Both those guys and Tal had nothing but good things to say about new coach Tom Thibodeau as well. “They don’t let people get to the basket anymore, they play defense, and the ball movement….” raved Tal. “The improvement is visible.” (I agreed — all five players on the court for the Bulls at any given time seemed willing and able to share the ball, and the endless barrage of long twos that the team used to settle for during the Vinny Del Negro years had turned into three-balls and drives to the basket.) As for expectations for this season, they seemed to be tempered (“The Eastern Conference semi-finals,” agreed Doug and Will. “After that, it’s all gravy”) but kept open-ended by the fact that the team is still yet to get back a key part in power-forward free-agent landing Carlos Boozer. “When he gets back, and he’s healthy,” said Tal, “They’re gonna be really fucking tough to beat.”

Also Worth Noting: Much as I appreciate the tension it can add to the final minutes of otherwise-unexciting basketball games, I have to question some of the consequences and lessons learned of stadiums offering free-food giveaways (in the case of Saturday’s game at the United Center, complimentary Big Macs) for the home team scoring 100 points, or holding the away team to under a certain amount. As is frequently so with such promotions, the suspense over whether the Bulls would land their fans free McDonald’s swag quickly began to supersede that of whether they would actually win the game, as the building let out a collective groan on a Keith Bogans three-point attempt that would have gotten Chicago to the century mark. When Joakim Noah finally hit a last-minute free throw to push the team’s tally to triple digits, it was greeted with the biggest cheer of the evening.

I mean, come on guys. It’s one thing if you’re watching the Nets last year and don’t have all that much else to cheer for. It’s another thing when you’re fielding a legitimate playoff contender with two all-star perennials to-be on the roster, and you’re still getting more excited for two all-beef patties and some trimmings. You can do a little bit better than that.

Most Popular Jerseys: Rose by far of the currents, and Jordan of course of the throwbacks — though #23′s presence was much less overwhelming in the building than I expected. Good for you, Chicago — new team, new era, new stars. No reason to dwell in the past anymore.

Swag Acquired: A “Los Bulls” red fitted. I always appreciated those Noche Latina unis. (My second red hat in a row, though — need to remember to get some diversity up top at later stops.)

Sirius / XM Jam of the Day:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zTM2MOs_efw

Amy Holland – “How Do I Survive” (80s, XM 8). Super-smooth 80s pop one-hit wonder. If listening to it gives you Doobie Brothers flashbacks, there’s a good reason for that — not only was Holland’s album produced by head Doob Michael McDonald, but the two would eventually end up getting married. #35 on the charts this week in 1980, apparently.

Heading up north next, to properly Fear the Deer in person. I dunno, if they’re anything like the lame ones that hang around my old neighborhood in suburban Pennsylvania late at night, chances are I’ll just find them kind of annoying.