The Minnesota Twins, their fans, and their remarkable home-field advantage have made crowd noise a popular topic this season. On every channel and in every sport, the commentators are pointing to crowd noise and its effect on the outcome of the contest, whether the sport is baseball or figure skating. I've never seen a game in the Homerdome--much less a postseason game--but I'm willing to put the Chicago Black Hawks' fans, in the Stadium, up against the Twins' any day of the week. The Hawks would be spotting the Twins 40,000 people, but the Hawks would have the organ--and that would make all the difference.
The Bulls, when they play in the Stadium, no longer use the organ. It's an instrument forgotten, perhaps, during the years when there were no longer any fans to rouse during a basketball game. Instead, the team resorted to various popular songs--Michael Jackson grooves and Blues Brothers parodies--to incite what little crowd there was to do what little shouting the Bulls deserved. Times, however, have changed.
With Michael Jordan returning to defend his first scoring title, Artis Gilmore returning from exile in San Antonio, and the NBA All-Star Game/Dunkfest coming in early February, interest in pro basketball is high in the city. As if to prove the point, a record crowd of 18,688 took a trick from the Black Hawks fans at last Saturday's opening game and began cheering lustily two-thirds of the way through the national anthem. For sheer exuberant loudness, the Bulls' fan cannot match the Black Hawks', but it was a sign of health and commitment to a franchise that has always been the lesser of the Stadium's two winter renters. There were even a few women in backless dresses and high heels. They may not yet be able to match Hawks fans for fur coats and silk warm-up jackets, but the Bulls fans can be pretty avid, too.
The Bulls are still doing their tacky introduction ceremony, in which all the Stadium's lights are turned out save a single spotlight, which ushers each player out to join his teammates at midcourt. Jordan, of course, drew the loudest response, but a close second was Artis Gilmore, sent from Chicago to the San Antonio Spurs five years ago for Dave Corzine and Mark Olberding--a trade most of the Bulls' fans and many of the Bulls' officials would like to have undone a long time ago. Gilmore, at 38, is at the end of a long career, but he has returned to his NBA roots in Chicago, where he came when the Kentucky Colonels were swept away in the NBA-ABA merger. Gilmore still sports that colonel's beard--mustache with soul spot below the lower lip--although his hair, sideburns, and facial hair in general are all more tidily trimmed than in his previous tenure with the Bulls. His game, on the other hand, has grown a little more ragged, as one might expect, but he still holds one of the keys to the season's success. If he can give the Bulls quality play in a reduced role--starting center, but with plenty of time off for breathers--the Bulls can play with almost anybody in the league.
In a not unrelated incident, Dave Corzine--introduced before Gilmore, along with the rest of the Bulls' bench warmers--has become a fan favorite. Introduced "From DePaul University, Dave Corzine," he trotted out to mid-court amid great cheers and very few boos. Corzine was acquired from the Spurs for Gilmore in a move that was to make him a second-string center, but when the Bulls failed to fill the starting role in other deals, he was left in the lurch, in a position he really didn't belong in. Corzine is a fine center, a determined rebounder even if he lacks the innate talent (height, jumping ability) that makes good rebounders, and an excellent passer (always has been, going back to the days when he used to feed the Godfather, Joe Ponsetto, going to the hoop at DePaul). He is not, however, a good starting center in the NBA. He is a tremendous backup center, a fellow who can spell the starter in foul trouble or for a simple breather, while bringing out nuances in the team, but he is--how shall we say?--not a candidate for the NBA's hall of fame.
The huge crowd that came to see the Bulls' opener came to see Michael. Some also came to see the Bulls' two highly touted rookies: Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. Yet the Bulls' aficionados came with an eye on the post, where Gilmore and Corzine would split time. How well they combine is how well the Bulls will play this year--forbidding injury, of course, to Michael (knock on wood). In their opening game, Gilmore and Corzine were not to be sorely tested. The Philadelphia 76ers--lacking Dr. J, Julius Erving, who retired after last season--have what looks to be a very poor team and no real talent at center. Tim McCormick, a seven-footer from Michigan, started. Chris Welp, a big rookie from Washington, spelled him on occasion. Neither played a large part in the outcome of the game. McCormick is a no-talent from the get-go, while Welp caught an elbow under the basket (we were sitting nearby, in seats we had been offered on Friday, and heard Welp's nose go "pop," with a noise not unlike that of that plastic, bubbled wrapping paper in the hands of a child), and he was fairly tame after that.
Gilmore, however, was no better. In fact, he came out a little too up for the game and drew three quick (if touchy) fouls, forcing him to the bench. In the end, he played only ten minutes and never scored a point. In a rash bet made a few weeks ago, I said Gilmore would average 15 points a game for the season; it's a bet I already realize I am almost sure to lose, along with a steak dinner at Morton's, but in the meantime my betting opponent, the Boomer, should keep me in good seats, now and then, as he did this evening, to watch Gilmore's progress.
Corzine, meanwhile, was fantastic. Last year, relegated to the role he was always destined for--backup center--Corzine played well off the bench and began to win the fans over. They had booed him persistently ever since he had failed to adequately replace Gilmore, but his hard work and almost martyrish determination in the face of such treatment has made him, in the end, a favorite. He entered the game with the Bulls already behind and quickly made a difference. Playing his game--hitting the open shot, making good, well-chosen passes, pulling down the odd rebound--he was the catalyst in the Bulls' march to an ever-expanding lead. They led by 6 at the quarter and 15 at the half, all while Gilmore sat on the bench. Corzine wound up with 11 points, four rebounds, and an assist in 30 minutes of play, including a big basket and a big rebound late in the game when the Sixers were trying to come back from what became a 20-point deficit.
They really were not in the game, however. Their one player of star quality--Charles Barkley--had a good game but not the great game he must have for them to win. Barkley, the roly-poly rebound specialist, was locked in a duel with the Bulls' Charles Oakley, who plays a remarkably similar game. Oakley lacks Barkley's outside shot, but they were one-two in the league in rebounding last year, and Oakley went about reversing the order this season with 21 rebounds to Barkley's 10. It was an outstanding performance by someone who is becoming a true NBA star and increasingly important to the Bulls. The Bulls had their off forward (usually Brad Sellers) guarding Barkley on defense, freeing Oakley up under the boards, while Oakley was giving Barkley fits one-on-one under the Bulls' basket. Toward the end of the first half, Barkley drew his third foul and went to the bench. Getting the business from the fans behind the bench, Barkley responded with the familiar "right here" gesture, pointing to his crotch. He returned to finish with 34 points, but his team's poor rebounding ruined any chance they had to challenge the Bulls.
Michael played a remarkably consistent, almost highlightless game, pumping in 36 points in 31 minutes. He also had five rebounds, three assists, six steals, and four blocked shots. No need for any other commentary. Except for one play, in the first half, on a fast break, when he got the ball at center court, where two Sixers effectively blocked his path. He passed abruptly to Pippen on the left side, sliced between the two Sixers, and met Pippen's return pass at the basket in what must have been a second-and-a-half half-court rush and elegant, punctual jam. Then, when the Sixers were attempting their comeback in the second half, the Bulls put up an air ball that the Sixers knocked out of bounds. Five seconds on the shot clock. Coach Doug Collins called a time-out to set up a play for Michael, who came around a loose screen, took the inbounds pass, and put the shot up and in with a hand in his face.
The basic combination that gave the Bulls 40 wins last season--most against teams without a good center--worked again in this opening game. The Bulls' hopes for a winning season and a better playoff performance, however, rest in the hands of Gilmore and the two rookies, Pippen and Grant. Grant is a big fellow from Clemson, in the competitive Atlantic Coast Conference. He looked impressive, especially on defense and below the boards. He may wind up being quite a help to Oakley and Sellers (who had a quiet but essential 14 points), especially in that he can help out Sellers guarding the other team's big scorer. He could be a good role player with the Bulls. Pippen, however, is in an odd spot. My college hoop scout, in fact, predicts that Pippen--from small Central Arkansas--will have a difficult transition to the pros and may not make it at all. ("Too much hype," he says.) He is, at this point, too slight to play a large role as a forward, yet Michael plays as the team's big guard. Where does Pippen fit in? In the first half, giving Jordan a breather, nowhere very well. He seemed tentative and quiet. In the second half, however, he showed a fine outside shot, and--again, with the Sixers attempting that comeback that never was--he crushed a one-(left)-handed rebound slam dunk that popped the Sixers' hopes. Pippen finished with 10 points, giving the Bulls six players in double figures. Balanced scoring? As far as the Bulls and Michael Jordan are concerned, the concept is as foreign as being in contention and filling the Chicago Stadium with fans.