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“I would never had called him the greatest player I’d ever seen if I didn’t mean it.”
–Larry Bird, Hall of Fame forward, Boston Celtics
“I remember him walking into our locker room in Chicago and he walked right by me. And I’m like, what the hell is he coming in our locker room for? And he walked by me, walked by Kevin [Willis], and he tapped Randy Wittman on the leg and he said, ‘Lace ‘em up, it’s gonna be a long f***ing night.’ And he walked out. He had 60 that night.”
–Dominique Wilkins, Hall of Fame forward, Atlanta Hawks
“I made the first shot of the game with him on me, felt really good about that, and then six minutes into the game, he hadn’t scored. I was thinking, ‘Michael hasn’t even scored yet. I’m doing pretty well.’ And then over the next four minutes he just torched me. Made like six straight shots and then [coach] Lenny Wilkens took me out. By the end of the game he had like 48. I finished with two.”
–Steve Kerr, guard, Cleveland Cavaliers
The Chicago Stadium was a dump. But it was our dump.
We loved the Stadium the way you love your untrainable dog—unconditionally, but with moments of massive frustration, especially frustrating when it got really smelly. But considering the ancient arena’s myriad issues, how could we not be frustrated with that West Side barn, a building that, for a variety of reasons, was known as the Madhouse on Madison?
On game nights, after we made the trek from the ‘burbs to the Stadium, the first thing we had to deal with a parking lot filled with loose gravel, yards-long cracks, and foot-deep Chicago-style potholes. When we strode up the ticket booth—back in the day, we were able to buy tickets at the door, and good tickets at that—there was always a surly cashier awaiting us. The creaky hallways smelled like a combo platter of old popcorn oil and high school locker room…and sometimes, after the annual appearance by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, it was eau de elephant. The tunnels leading into the seating area were half-lit due to the Stadium staff’s neglectfulness re: burnt-out light bulbs. The paint-chipped seats were barely anchored, and the floors were sticky with spilled Schlitz beer from the previous night’s Blackhawks game.
In those early 1980s, Chicago’s on-court basketball product as iffy as its surroundings. But it was our iffy on-court product, so we dealt with it. We weren’t thrilled, mind you. But we dealt.
The Bulls, circa the first half of that decade were, more often than not, not great at basketball. Between 1981 and 1986, the franchise’s winning percentage was .382 (yuck). Even with a roster that was coached for a bit by Hall of Famer Jerry Sloan, the 1981 squad could only manage a record of 34-48. (Sloan was let go midway through the season after compiling a record of 19-32.) To be fair, even Red Auerbach would’ve had trouble winning with a roster comprised mostly of, oh, let’s go with defensively-challenged wings like Reggie Theus and David Greenwood.
When the Bulls were at home, the fans stayed away in droves, in part because they were fed up with the entire Chicago sports scene. Aside from Walter Payton, the Bears were wobbly until around 1984. Apart from a magical 1984 season that ended in tears (read: Leon Durham), the Cubs were their usual heartbreaking selves. The White Sox were an interesting team—for instance, the majority of their starting pitchers were lefties, and the majority of their home run hitters (Carlton Fisk and Ron Kittle, most notably) had zero muscle tone—but they were the White Sox, and, let’s be honest here, the vast majority of Chicago sports watchers circa 1982 weren’t watching the White Sox. As for the Blackhawks, they were a consistent playoff team, but their fan base consisted of the 20,000 people who watched their home games at—wait for it, wait for it—the Chicago Stadium.
As for the city itself, Chicago wasn’t faring much better. The national recession had hit us hard—between 1979-1989, the work force decreased by 2.8 percent—and thousands of employees were being regularly laid off, from doctors and nurses, to mass transit workers. The traditionally segregated city’s racial divide had entered uncharted territory, as Harold Washington was elected as mayor, the city’s first ever African-American leader. Washington is now a beloved figure in Chicago, but at the time, he earned mixed reviews at best, further muddying the city’s oftentimes messy racial juju.
It wasn’t an ideal time to be a Chicago sports lover. Or, for that matter, a Chicagoan.
Our city—a city that, despite the problems, we adored with all our hearts—needed something. We just weren’t sure what.
“So they’re getting off the bus, we’re done with shootaround, and we’re walking out and MJ says,‘Man, I hear that you’re not playing tonight.’ I said, ‘No, I sprained my ankle.’ He said, ‘Who’s guarding me?’ I said, ‘Anthony Peeler.’ He’s like, ‘Oh. 50.’ So I told Anthony Peeler, ‘Listen, MJ is probably going to go for about 50 tonight on you. So just don’t p*** him off. Just be cool.’ He ended up with 54.”
–Byron Scott, guard, Los Angeles Lakers
“He was such a talent that if you didn’t come and play on the defensive end, he could get 60 on you. If you did come and play hard and play aggressive and made him fight for everything he did or everything he tried to get, he’d get 30.”
–Mitch Richmond, Hall of Fame guard, Sacramento Kings
“I begged to guard him because I think he had 30-plus in the first half, so I couldn’t do any worse. Mike looked at me like, what are you doing. He said, ‘Harp, I respect you. You’re a pretty hard-nosed defensive player, but it’s way too late for you. I’m already hot. He went on to get 55.’”
–Derek Harper, guard, New York Knicks
The 1983-84 Bulls posted a record of 27-55, at the time the second-worst in franchise history. During an NBA era in which defense was optional, they could manage only 102.4 points a game, good (or bad) for 20th in the league—and please note that at that point, there were only 23 teams in the Association. Their roster was filled with reluctant rebounders—center Dave Corzine was the only player to average more than 7 boards a night—and forward Orlando Woolridge was their lone regular rotation player to put up a field goal percentage that topped .500.
Nonetheless, we trekked out to that jacked-up stadium, despite the fact that it was an Isle of Misfit Hoopsters. Why did we so often make the drive from the Wilmette to the southwest side? Because we were basketball lovers, and that’s what basketball lovers do—support their team.
On the plus side, entry into the Isle of Misfit You-Know-Whos was dirt cheap, and we had our pick of tickets. Since the sight lines in the lower level of the Stadium were suboptimal, the first row in the first balcony was our favorite place to sit. Tickets were so easily accessible that a center-court seat up in the 200 section—which now costs upwards of $150—set us back a mere ten bucks. It eventually rose to fifteen.
That said, the Association had more than its fair share of greats, and we took advantage. We watched our hometown semi-heroes lose to, among others, Isiah Thomas’ Detroit Pistons, Sidney Moncrief’s Milwaukee Bucks, and, of course, Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics.
Those 1983-84 Bulls finished with the second-worst record in the league, which led to them owning the third pick in the draft, and man, the 1984 draft class was stacked. We’d watched Akeem Olajuwon do scary things at the University of Houston, and goodness gracious, did we want to see him in a Bulls uni. We were all but certain he’d be gone before we picked, but we were cool with that (sort of), as we would’ve been content landing either of the studs from North Carolina, Michael Jordan or Sam Perkins…but, to our credit, we thought that Jordan had more upside. We also liked Auburn’s Charles Barkley, but we were concerned about his lack of height and excess of weight.
The only wild card was Sam Bowie, who none of us liked. The University of Kentucky center was slow, awkward, and fragile, but for some reason, a goodly number of NBA scouts thought he was going to be the next Bill Walton. We hoped and prayed that the Bulls didn’t employ one of those talent evaluators.
Luckily for us, the Portland Trail Blazers—who had been looking for another Bill Walton since they had, y’know, Bill Walton—owned the second pick of the 1984 draft, so after the Houston Rockets, to nobody’s surprise, grabbed Olajuwon at one, the Blazers snatched up Bowie, who they were praying would become Walton 2.0.
So Jordan to the Bulls it was.
“The thing I respect most about Michael is that he understood that people were coming to see him. He took it seriously. I can remember certain exhibition games: We’re in Lincoln, Nebraska. He accepted that people were there to come see him play. He played and he wouldn’t beg off of it. I don’t always see it in the game today, where guys say that these fans are here to see me.”
–John Paxson, guard, Chicago Bulls
“One time he started counting backwards,” Smith says. “He said something like ’38’, and I didn’t get it. Then he said ’36,’ [and I thought] ‘Wait a minute, wait a minute, he goin’ backwards. And when he gets to zero, he had 40 points.”
–Steve Smith, guard, Atlanta Hawks.
“Michael was light years ahead of everybody intellectually. People might have been just as physically gifted as he was, but he was the PhD in the classroom.”
–Isaih Thomas, Hall of Fame guard, Detroit Pistons
Tickets at our venerable dump of an arena were still easily accessible during M.J.’s rookie season, so we were able to catch plenty of games. We always made it a point to hit the Stadium when the Bucks—one of the unsung units of the era—came to town, as they were super-fun to watch, plus there was that whole border-state rivalry thing. (At that time, the cold war between Illinois and Wisconsin sports loyalists was intense. We didn’t like the Packers, they didn’t like the Bears. But they liked our pizza and we liked their bratwurst, so it was ultimately all good.)
More often than not, Michael was brilliant, but the team wasn’t, finishing the year six games below .500; Jordan was so awesome during his Rookie of the Year campaign that folks tend to forget just how messy this Bulls team was. That said, there were plenty of messy teams in the league, so the Bulls squeaked into the postseason, where they faced those darn Bucks.
In what seems shocking now, we were able to score tickets for Game 3 on the day of the contest—it’s even possible that the game wasn’t sold out. Jordan was brilliant throughout, racking up 35 points, 8 boards, 7 dimes, and 4 steals. Chicago native Terry Cummings was just as good for the Bucks, albeit in a slightly different manner, scoring 37 points on 15-of-20 shooting from the field, and 7-of-8 from the stripe.
To this day, we still reminisce about the end of that fourth quarter, when M.J. and Cummings traded basket after basket after basket. Turned out that Jordan hit the last shot, so the Bulls squeaked out a 109-107 win. The memory of that grueling one-on-one battle remains one of our most cherished from the Madhouse on Madison, Version 1.0.
Here’re some random early-career M.J. moments that, decades later, are still in etched our memory banks:
November 10, 1987: The Atlanta Hawks, led by the eternally bouncy Dominique Wilkins, fell to the Bulls in a nail-biter, 94-92. The entire night, Wilkins wouldn’t stop shooting—he chucked up 28 shots, bricking 15 of them—so in the fourth quarter, every time he touched the rock, we’d scream “Shooooooot.” Our entire section picked up the chant, one of our proudest moments at the Madhouse.
February 20, 1987: Magic Johnson and his mighty Los Angeles Lakers visited the Stadium, one of the few games during the early Michael years that tickets were at a premium. We had literally the worst seats in the house, those being second balcony, last row, corner, obstructed view. Jordan was in I’m-gonna-do-this-all-myself mode, scoring 33 points on a rough 11-of-27 shooting performance. On the other hand, five Lakers topped 15 points, and they stomped the Bulls 110-100, a score that didn’t reflect the game’s lopsidedness.
December 29, 1988: In one of our greatest evenings of basketball viewing, we watched Scottie Pippen tip in a buzzer beater to lift the red-and-black over the Patrick Ewing-led Knicks by a final of 108-106. The Jordan/Pippen tandem was brilliant that night, teaming up for 60 points, 15 rebounds, 10 assists, 4 blocks, and 4 steals; they shot a combined 24-of-45 from the field and 12-of-16 from the line. We had phenomenal seats for that one—lower deck, sixth row center—and after Pip’s tip-in, we spiked our soda on the ground and hurled our program into the air. We’re 90% sure that the program landed on the court.
Those are just three of our classic moments from our dump of an arena.
We could probably write a whole book of ‘em.
If you’re an M.J. fanatic, you probably could too.
“We were with the Dream Team, and for three days in a row, my team beat his in practice. So I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Hey, if you don’t turn into Air Jordan, we’re gonna blow you out [again] today.’ His eyes and tongue got real big, and he came out of the huddle and hit a three. Then he came down again and hit another three. Then he came down the right side, took off, then David Robinson took off, and [Jordan] said, ‘Okay, I’m just gonna sit here in the air, because I know David Robinson is gonna go down.’ David went to the ground, then [Jordan] 360’d and dunked it. It was one of the three greatest shots I’ve ever seen…and it was during a practice!”
–Magic Johnson, Hall of Fame guard, Los Angeles Lakers
When Michael became firmly entrenched in Chicago, it felt like the city was a better place to live.
Yeah, the Windy City political landscape of the late-80s was still super-corrupt, and yeah, the national recession was still a thing, but M.J.—along with the suddenly-scary Chicago Bears—tangibly brightened Chicago’s mood. You see, Chicago is a Sports City—capital “S,” capital “C”—and when the teams are rocking, the fans rock right along with them. (That said, the hardcore fans also rock when the teams stink, just not quite as hard.)
On November 4, 1994, the Bulls played their first regular season game at the United Center, a shiny new state-of-the-art arena that’s currently not as state-of-the-art as it used to be. Sure, it’s a perfectly functional barn, but it’s devoid of any Chicago Stadium-esque personality. It’s clean, there aren’t any burnt-out light bulbs, the bathrooms rate a solid B+, and it smells like overpriced tacos and deep-dish pizza.
It’s a snooze. We miss the Stadium.
Basketball-wise, the Chicago on-court product hasn’t been transcendent for many, many years, and if the recent iterations of the Bulls were housed at a grungy place like the Stadium, it would be like the pre-Michael vibe all over again: We’d be able to easily get tickets at the door, and a third of the seats would be empty.
But when we were young, and when M.J. was bouncing off the ceiling night after night after night, the Chicago Stadium was electric. For a couple of hours during each home game, Michael Jordan transformed that dump into the most beautiful building in the world.