As a historian, my career revolves around recreating and explaining the past with as much impartiality as I can muster, but recently I have found my professional training pulling me in directions that put me at odds with many opinions I see expressed among the Bulls’ fan base. After the Miami Heat defeated the Indiana Pacers and advanced to their fourth straight NBA Finals I tweeted subtly about my inner conflict, the historian vs. the fan. On the one hand the historian in me appreciated the historical accomplishment and screamed for a three-peat in Miami, while the Bulls fan in me began pulling me back, looking at my impartial viewing of the Miami Heat with contempt as though I had failed some Chicago basketball purity test, and maybe I did since speaking anything less than contempt for the Heat or Lebron James can be akin to heresy in the Bulls community. With that said, I don’t expect anyone to agree with the following opinion nor do I want or expect to change anyone’s mind. I seek only to offer some useful perspective by explaining how my profession influences how I view basketball and why that prevents me from despising the one team and player that all Bulls fans love to hate.
Hate is a strong word and a word that I don’t like to use. Americans hate a lot of things if you listen to them. We hate our cell phones, our cars, traffic, food, our president, politicians, and most vehemently, athletes. Nothing invokes hateful rage in some people like that rival athlete or team. With adulthood came an understanding that what hate I have can best be reserved for things like war, poverty, disease, or other things that can actually hurt me or my family. I guess that is why I have never understood the irrational hatred Bulls fans have for Lebron James and the Heat. They have broken no laws, as far as I know they do not cause undue suffering among women and children, and on a more relevant note, their success doesn’t impact a team at all if they are not engaged in direct competition. Nevertheless, many Bulls fans hold more dislike and contempt for a basketball team and one player than they hold for the perpetrators of 9/11.
I grew up when it was fashionable to hate the Chicago Bulls. As a kid I remember reading newspaper articles about it and in school on a daily basis people informed me of how tired they were of Chicago and how they wanted to finally see them lose. Many young Bulls fans never witnessed the dynasty of the 1990s but many of us who did glorify the past to the point that we only remember the parts that fit into a preconceived notion of its greatness. We look back and forget the people talking about Chicago dominating a “watered down” league, the discontent within the organization, or the fascination and predictions surrounding the Bulls’ eminent demise every year, that put under a microscope every hiccup and supposed weakness in their armor.
In a way, nostalgia has always annoyed me because too much of it prevents us from thinking rationally about the past and the present, usually ending in tedious debates with no answer over whether or not Lebron James could play in the 1990s, whether or not Jordan could drop 40 per night in today’s NBA, and the never-ending conversation about whether Jordan will ever be unseated as the consensus GOAT, a notion that sends some fans to DEFCON 1. Without a doubt the conversations are fun but nevertheless useless and hollow to me because swept aside are all of the fascinating historical factors that contributed to the development of two great players and assumes, wrongly, that each could just simply switch time periods and remain exactly the same. Could Lebron have survived in the more physical NBA of the 1980s and 1990s? The right answer is who knows, but the more fun and interesting discussion would be how the development of his basketball skills in a different environment would have resulted in a different player.
As a kid I didn’t spend my time comparing Jordan to Bill Russell, the Bulls to the old Celtics, or the 1995-96 Bulls to the 1971-72 Lakers. As a historian I try to find similarities between players, teams, and organizations with a mental note to check the passion at the door because almost all comparisons across large swaths of time are problematic. The truth is, when I was sixteen it didn’t matter to me if Jordan was the greatest ever and it doesn’t matter to me now. Likewise, it doesn’t matter to me if one day Kobe or Lebron has, by consensus, overtaken Jordan. These debates will always exist but they do not tell us much because I have yet to see a fair way of evaluating multiple players over half a century. Right now I can honestly say Jordan remains best I have ever seen play and it would be shockingly arrogant and presumptuous of me to assume that fact will never change.
When I look back over twenty-five years of my life as a basketball fan I can say that I absorbed every ounce of excellence it had to offer and I always tell others to do the same regardless of loyalties. If you are going to be nostalgic realize that, just like the Bill Russells, the Larry Birds, the Magic Johnsons, and the Michael Jordans, once the greats of this era are gone it’s over and all a fan is left with are memories and youtube videos. I am not trying to tell people how be a Bulls fan but within some circles of the Bulls community (which I love by the way) there has developed a clique that holds its own litmus test, then decides from on high who qualifies as a proper fan. After Miami defeated Indy the other night Frank Vogel said that we were watching the Michael Jordan and Chicago Bulls of this era. He was right and by admitting that perhaps I have failed the test as a proper fan by acknowledging great basketball and failing to despise the team that, for whatever reason, has been given the honor of being the Bulls’ 21st century nemesis. As for the coming NBA Finals, the historian in me always wants to see history made and three-peats are rare. However, the dejected, disappointed, and yes, somewhat jealous Bulls fan in me wants nothing more than to see the Heat swept back to South Beach. I don’t know how I will feel once the Finals start but I may just kick both devils off of my shoulders and enjoy basketball in June because the Bulls will be back in October.
Follow Lee Winningham on Twitter @jlw771