SPORTS

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November 27, 2007

Challenged by other fans, team loyalty just gets harder in college

November 10 was my birthday.

The Chicago Bulls were playing the Toronto Raptors.

Toronto point guard Juan Dixon started running out the clock.

Toronto 101–Chicago 71.

It had to be the worst game in Chicago Bulls history that I've ever witnessed.

Well, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. I should probably start at the beginning. The journey is half the fun, right?

About an hour and a half before tip-off, a friend and I decided to go to the game.

As we rode the Green Line north to Ashland, Peter asked me why the Bulls were good. Why they hadn’t traded Joakim Noah, Ben Wallace, Ben Gordon, and whomever else the Lakers wanted for Kobe Bryant. Why the Bulls would make the Finals this season.

The answers: Because the Bulls play with heart, because the Bulls didn’t want Kobe, because the Bulls don’t need Kobe.

We got to the United Center, purchased our standing-room tickets, and climbed to the top of the 300 level in time for warm-ups. I turned back toward the court, and there they were.

Luol Deng. Ben Wallace. Tyrus Thomas. Kirk Hinrich. Ben Gordon. In classic Ben Gordon fashion, he had his warm-up shirt tucked in. Joakim Noah. In classic Joakim Noah fashion, he had his hair tied back in the craziest ponytail that I have ever seen.

And then it started.

They couldn’t pass. They couldn’t find an open man. They couldn’t dribble. They couldn’t get to the basket. They couldn’t make their lay-ups. They couldn’t hit their jumpers. They couldn’t rebound. They couldn’t defend.

In short, the Chicago Bulls played like fourth-graders playing at recess. I would compare them to the University of Chicago Maroons playing the San Antonio Spurs, but I wouldn’t want to offend the Maroons.

So, after over 20 minutes of Thabo Sefolosha missing jump-shots and Joakim Noah stumbling under the basket, Juan Dixon was mercifully running out the clock.

As the buzzer sounded, I couldn’t help but think to myself, I just watched an entire half of Viktor Khryapa.

And I couldn’t help but feel cheated and embarrassed. Even as a bum in the nose-bleed section who was too cheap to buy a seat, I felt personally affronted.

This was my team.

I watched them lose 59 games four years ago.

I sat through the stellar performances by Dragan Tarlac and Khalid El-Amin and Kornel David and Dalibor Bagaric.

Last season, all the critics could say about the Bulls was that they didn’t have a franchise player. No Nash or Duncan, no KG or AI, no Dirk or LeBron.

But in this fantasy era that we live in, where statistics have become more important than the players themselves and where teams don’t matter at all, I cared about the Bulls.

So, as Juan Dixon was running the clock out on this horrible defeat, I had a choice to make.

One option would have been the obviously right choice if you asked most of that night’s United Center fans: Jump on the Kobe bandwagon. Forget the Baby Bulls, I want to win right now, and I don’t care who I have to trade to do it.

The second, however, is the obviously right choice if you asked the fans who have clung to hope for this team since Michael Jordan left after 1998: Stick by your team. If Luol Deng ever needs your support, now is the time.

As we rode the Green Line back to Hyde Park, my head in my hands, Peter had the same questions as before. This time, though, he didn’t ask them.

Even though he had that you’re-an-idiot-for-thinking-that-Luol-Deng-is-an-elite-player look, I know he felt my pain. He has to defend his Golden State Warriors, a 5–7 club that will struggle to make the playoffs this season.

Maybe that’s the responsibility of a sports fan in college: defending your team.

Surrounded by students from around the country, I need real reasons for cheering for a team. I can no longer just assume that people like Luol Deng. Last year, he was simply known as the Bulls’ best player. Now I know him as the best off-the-ball cutter in the league.

Really, though, there’s very little rationality behind my support of this Bulls team. Thus far, this team has been one of the least exciting that I have ever watched. Deep down, though, I trust this team, and I have faith that they’ll pull out of this slump and climb back to the top of the East, maybe even the NBA.

So, no, it wasn’t the greatest birthday, but in the long run, that’s okay. Luol Deng’s birthday is April 16, the last day of the regular season. I’ll have to give him a call. I’m hoping it will be one of congratulations.