It’s #ChiHoopsWeek on SLAMonline! Check the site all week long for a variety of features about players, leagues and teams from the Windy City.
One thing you can’t accuse Chicago of lacking is perspective.
For every Isiah Thomas or Derrick Rose, there’s a Ben Wilson or Jereme Richmond. For every Dwyane Wade or Anthony Davis, there’s an Imari Sawyer or LaRue Martin. For every three-peat of championships, there’s a torn ACL in the Playoffs that leaves the city in mourning.
Triumph and tragedy, pleasant surprises and bitter disappointments, it all goes hand in hand when it comes to basketball in the Windy City, an equal-opportunity proving ground where grade-schoolers can be appointed as the next big thing and even favorite sons can be challenged if there’s any perception that they aren’t living up to the billing.
Chicago is a big city, but it’s also the Midwest. For the most part, people don’t put on airs, and doing your job without fanfare, even in the face of adversity, is what’s celebrated. That’s embodied in the Chi’s NBA team, the Bulls, whose present-day version have earned respect all over for their blue-collar approach, but hold a different significance for the loyalists who show up to the United Center in freezing temperatures, through thick and thin. Fans have a low tolerance for bullshit and a feel for when players leave it all on the court, regardless if it’s aesthetically pleasing or not.
Part of it goes back to the standard Jordan set back in the day, but it’s mostly related to the inner toughness needed to survive in a city with day after day of below-zero weather throughout the winter and heartbreaking levels of violence. The latter certainly isn’t the reality of every Chicago resident, but the daily reminders of its presence does lead to a mentality where the heart of a beloved local product like Rose can be questioned by his own, while the on-court persona of less-talented teammate Joakim Noah is seen as more reflective of the city’s spirit.
From a historical perspective, Chicago has always consistently produced top-tier talent, going back to George Mikan and Sweetwater Clifton, then Cazzie Russell and streetball legend Billy Harris, all the way to the era of Zeke, Mark Aguirre and Terry Cummings, the likes of Antoine Walker and Juwan Howard in the ’90s, and the list goes on, with Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander next in line. Even the one aspect in which present-day Chicago basketball doesn’t measure up, the college game (no in-state schools made it to the NCAA Tournament last season), its history is strong: Loyola’s historic 1963 champions, DePaul’s strong run during the Ray Meyer era, the Chicago-influenced “Flyin’ Illini” squad. Let’s not even bring female ballers, like WNBA superstars Candace Parker and Cappie Pondexter, into the discussion.
It’s not like Chicago doesn’t have down years or every player gets the hype machine treatment. But that ever-present spirit of competition that’s been passed down through generations just has a different, indescribable feeling here, with the same energy for a game at the United Center being present at a pro-am league, an almost survival of the fittest quality. There’s a fierce pride in how the game is played in Chicago and with not only the Bulls’ recent success with Tom Thibodeau on the sidelines, but the high-caliber players the city churns out year after year, it’s fair to say that there’s no better basketball city around.
New York’s claim to fame for the crown has been dubious for a minute, with the combination of the Knicks’ ineptitude and the lack of recent homegrown talent to come out of the Big Apple, and while L.A. and its outskirts are actually in the midst of somewhat of a renaissance, with the Clippers on the rise, the Drew League’s stature getting bigger since the lockout and young guns like Paul George, James Harden and Russell Westbrook taking over as OG Paul Pierce’s career comes to a close, but with apologies to those cities, as well as the whole DMV (B-More and the Tidewater region included), Philly and always-underrated Seattle, they simply don’t compare to Chicago.
It’s a territorial place, both on and off the court, but one thing any Chicagoan can agree on, no matter where their loyalties lie, is that ballplayers in the city always go hard. That’s the one quality, more than any definable talent, players always know to bring, whether it’s trying make a name for themselves at a Christmas tournament or when LeBron and the Heat are in town.
People are a little spoiled here, having seen Mike in his prime and arguably the No. 1 high school player in the country four out of the last seven years. But given the aforementioned tradition, they have a right to be.
Chicago does have a chip on its shoulder, simultaneously resenting and never believing its “Second City” moniker, something that simply doesn’t translate to the basketball court.