I had heard of how opening-day baseball fever captivates Chicago, changing the entire pitch of the city and marshaling in spring with a welcome trumpet blast. I had heard of how, when Cubs and Sox season approaches, the red meat tastes more succulent, the Old Style hops emit a brighter flavor, the cheeks of 86 distinct ethnicities—no matter how melanin-deficient or -abundant—get rosier, and the barbershop poles spin with the fervor of a Depression-era Dust Bowl tornado. Having witnessed this citywide enthusiasm firsthand for the past three years, I can say that indeed this collective passion, even if it doesn’t magically paintbrush Chicago into the idealized epicenter of Americana that we would all like to see it as, is powerful and enchanting.
Smack dab between Wrigley Field and U.S. Cellular Field, however, a much more mystifying and impressive feat of sports zeal is being achieved. Quietly and routinely, the Chicago Bulls are again ushering hordes of fans into the United Center, to once again rank, for the fifth year in a row (probably longer, though I don’t have the stats to prove it), in the NBA’s top five teams in average attendance per game. Just to be clear here, this is damn remarkable. The Bulls, as a team of professional basketball players, epitomize mediocrity. They have made the playoffs only once in the last eight seasons (last year, which was the only season since Michael Jordan left that they have finished with a record above .500) and currently hold a 33-40 record, good enough for fifth in their division.
I use the Bulls’ attendance achievement in efforts to debunk one of the larger myths surrounding the NBA: that the league needs its big-market teams to succeed. For the purposes of this treatise, “big-market teams” refers exclusively to the major teams in the three most populated cities in the U.S.—the Chicago Bulls, the L.A. Lakers, and the New York Knicks. (Houston is fucking giant, though not as populated as the other guys. Miami is a monster, but no one cares about sports there. Boston comes close due to the vast importance of “pro-basketball culture” to the city, but I’m not trying to talk about Boston, because I have issues with this girl from there.)
Conspiracy theories are often put forth about how Commissioner David Stern has “fixed” the draft, bribed the referees, and changed the rules of the game, all for the benefit of big-market teams. When a star player in a small market, such as Kevin Garnett of the Minnesota Timberwolves, becomes grumpy with his current situation, immediately the talking heads start devising elaborate schemes to ship the player off to New York or Los Angeles. A young stud, such as the Toronto’s Chris Bosh, nears the end of his contract and the prospect of free agency, and suddenly that player is rumored to be eyeing a bigger city. Even when Kobe Bryant, emblem of the Lakers’ Tinseltown snark, became a free agent two years ago, the story of his probable return to the Lakers (which eventually did occur) was not sufficient: legitimate media speculation arose that he would leave the Lakers for New York, Chicago, or—get this—the other Los Angeles team, the Clippers.
Despite the push for the fat cats to get fatter, a correlation between on-court success and revenue for these teams appears nonexistent. (League-wide revenue, by the way, is at an all-time high.) Not only the Bulls but also the Knicks, the Enron of the NBA, currently in last place in the league and sucking in ways far beyond the realm of mere basketball, and the Lakers, mired in patchiness and the constant discomfort surrounding the cult of Kobe’s personality, will finish in the top ten for average home attendance for the fifth year (at least) in a row. And, OK, there are some confounding factors here, like the fact that bigger populations should, by default, equal more attendance, or that tourism is higher in these cities, or that all of these teams can boast rich histories of former dynasties, or that there is simply a greater draw due to the higher likelihood of spotting, say, Topher Grace at a game in any one of these cities than at a game in Cleveland. Nonetheless, the continued willingness of these cities to support their hometown crap is commendable, and this faith demonstrates that neither the world nor the league stops when these teams plummet.
I would argue that nationwide interest in these teams hasn’t tapered off much, either. The troubled Knicks get just as much ink for being a dysfunctional mess headed by the Ghidrah of Larry Brown, James Dolan, and Isaiah Thomas as they did during their pedestrianly competent Allan Houston years. The hatefulness/excellence of Kobe provides an omnipresent story line for the Lakers. And while, admittedly, public interest in the Bulls has waned somewhat, the possibility of the Bulls’ potential “return to glory” is a popular narrative that rears its head every year, allowing SportsCenter and similar outlets to show the MJ highlight reel ad nauseam. What big-market teams bring to the league is not wins and losses; it is their mere existence as organs of their respective cities that provides intrigue. So it should matter little how well these teams are actually playing the game.
To return to the myth itself, the major recent impetus behind the notion of needing big-market success has largely resulted from the huge TV-ratings drop that the NBA playoffs took once the New Jersey Nets, San Antonio Spurs, and Detroit Pistons started making regular appearances. (Note that until the Nets and Spurs met in the 2003 finals, 18 out of the last 21 finals had featured at least one of the big-market teams.) Erroneously attributed to the failure to feature big-market teams, this ratings plunge, a closer look will reveal, is due not one bit to the physical location of these teams. Rather, it is the mind-numbingly workmanlike and low-scoring style of play that Nets/Pistons/Spurs teams have provided over the past few years and their lack of star-quality players that have kept the masses away. I have no doubt that smaller-market teams with flair and charisma could go toe to toe with any big-market team. If the sex-machine-paced Phoenix Suns and the clinically delirious Washington Wizards were to meet in the finals (or, more realistically, the Dallas Mavs and the Miami Heat), TV ratings would go through the roof.
Now, to be honest, even I’m bored with Spurs-hating and I was trying to avoid that territory. The point I was hoping to make, which at this point seems a bit tangential, is a much broader one: The success of big-market teams doesn’t matter, because basketball—specifically NBA basketball—is the lifeblood of big American cities. Despite the popular wisdom that baseball is the proud eagle’s favorite sport, that Dave Concepcion is our native son, and that Mel Allen is a man worthy of enshrinement on the brand-new 35-cent piece, basketball more subtly and more honestly slithers through the back alleys of every American city, providing the coal and steam that make this country work.
Note that I am getting dangerously close to erroneously equating basketball with jazz, or to expressing some ridiculous monolithic notion of what urbiculture entails, a practice against which my colleague Bethlehem Shoals has warned me repeatedly. My argument, however, is much less misinformed, though it’s also perhaps far more convoluted: (Deep breath.) Because basketball is the only real sport that can be played by oneself and with minimal materials/space required (i.e., you can play it in the city), hoops, like no other sport, defines the paradox of the isolate among the masses. And because this paradox is so uniquely urban-American (that grand old United Statesian emphasis on individualism existing, bizarrely, in the midst of cities so huge, citylike, and chain-store-conformity-inducing), basketball simply is the American big city. (Note: It is not “the streets” or “soul” or “hood.”) Basketball as an extension of these cities keeps on keeping on eternally and habitually. And thus, the success of the big-market teams is ridiculously superfluous.
No matter how long the big-market teams slump, the Association will continue to thrive financially and popularitywise, and Ben Gordon jerseys will adorn the streets of Chicago just as plentifully as Andrew Bogut jerseys continue to quilt Milwaukee’s Croatian shtetls. We should relish the fact that the league’s best teams currently reside in more exotic locales, such as Memphis, Dallas, San Antonio, New Jersey, and Detroit, areas that are far more deserving of the national spotlight. Happily as well, the league’s youth movement is sprouting from the smaller markets. Denver’s Carmelo Anthony, Orlando’s Dwight Howard, Phoenix’s Amare, New Orleans’s Chris Paul, and Cleveland’s own LeBron are the stars of tomorrow. So let the basketball ethos of the megalopolises plod along humbly as it has since Dr. Naismith invented this game, and let the smaller markets bask in the promise of all that is to be theirs.