By Argie Grigorakos
In all sports, playing in front of a home fan base can lift most athletes and inspire great team play through the crowds emotion and electricity. No matter what team sport, players find themselves inspired to go beyond, as home crowds tend to motivate and push their team through great enthusiasm. No more was that electricity clearly evident than the old Chicago Stadium. Fans jammed the old Stadium in the late 80’s and early 90’s to witness the greatest player of all time, and enjoy a dynasty in the making. The “Madhouse on Madison” was a fitting name for the Chicago Stadium, as the noise of the crowd was unbelievable and overwhelming for visiting teams. The Stadium truly became a 6th man for the Chicago Bulls as the ruckus seem to bounce off the walls, and ultimately intimidate many visiting opponents.
Chicago is truly a major sports town, with fans still flocking to the current home of the Bulls the United Center, in sell out fashion game in and game out. Seats are still filled at full capacity in the arena and at times a major buzz circulates throughout the Center. The Chicago Bulls have had great success over the years at the United Center, as they usually bolster one of the NBA’s best home records when healthy, but this season has seen the team struggle on their hardwood floor, posting a 13-11 record thus far. Even though the Chicago Bulls have faced a variety of different injuries to key players throughout the season, the almost .500 record at home poses a major concern for the team as losses have come to teams well below average. For example, they have lost to the Utah Jazz by 20, the Orlando Magic by 7 and the Boston Celtics by 5 at home which is very alarming considering all teams are currently out of the playoff picture. This has caused major confusion in the Windy City as the Bulls seem to be playing with a lack of motivation and drive in front of the home crowd this season, something that they would rarely do in past years.
There seems to be other factors, besides X’s and O’s, overlooked that may be affecting the Bulls mediocre play at the UC . As mentioned the old Chicago Stadium was always rocking as enthusiasm was on full display through the crowds major roar. No matter the opponent there was a great buzz in the Stadium, and that may be due to the fact that fans were witnessing something special occurring. The Chicago fan base was in the middle of a great sports story developing as Michael Jordan and his Bulls were embarking on a run that would eventually net them 6 titles in 8 years. Animosity building in rivalries with the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons, and the New York Knicks in the late 80s and early 90s, left a hostile crowd in the Chicago Stadium that would manifest night in and night out no matter the opponent. The Bulls would seek to build momentum looking towards marquee matchups with bitter rivalries down the road, therefore most home games were taken very seriously . There was a purpose to go to the Stadium and cheer your favourite team, and the Chicago fans didn’t disappoint. Nowadays it seems that the home crowd at the UC does not have the same enthusiasm and energy that it once did. Fans may be waiting for the players to inspire them through their great play, but once upon a time it seem to be the other way around. By nature athletes feed off the energy of the venue that they are competing in and if the electricity isn’t present it can affect the overall play of the team. Years past Chicago Bulls fans have witnessed a dynasty unfold right in front of their eyes, and getting up for a January game against the Orlando Magic may not provide a reason for great excitement. Viewers may very well be able to say that the Chicago Bulls fans have been spoiled with their rich history of great success, and anything less of winning championships in the future may cause the same lukewarm response. Yes certain matchups against marquee teams and individual players around the league may have the UC rocking occasionally, but what separated the Chicago Stadium from other venues was the energy and passion present every single game night.
Another factor that may be overlooked when it comes to the Chicago Bulls home struggles is a strategy that opponents seem to have hours before tip-off. One interesting fact that may be missed, but must be influential when playing the Bulls at the United Center, is the fact the visiting teams decide which side of the court they will be shooting on to start and ultimately end the game. More than half of the Chicago Bulls home games saw the visiting teams start the contest shooting at the basket closest to the home bench (Chicago Bulls bench) and thus causing a major disadvantage for Tom Thibodeau and his players. If fans followed the Chicago Bulls closely the last few years they would clearly notice that Coach Thibs likes communicating on every possession with his squad, especially on defense. It would be hard to imagine visiting teams at the UC not noticing that, so consequently for Chicago, opponents are choosing the Bulls to defend on the side furthest from Thibs in the 4th quarter thus making it tough for clear communication to exist. The Bulls have 6 new players on the roster this season that may still be adjusting to the demanding defensive schemes Thibs has in place, thus shouting instructions from the other side of the floor in the most crucial quarter of a game may prove to be a difficult task. It would be hard to imagine that limiting Thib’s communication on the floor in any way possible is not on every scouting report this season in the NBA. However, Tom Thibodeau doesn’t face the dilemma on the road, as he has choice of what side of the floor to start and end on as the visiting coach, which proves why the Chicago Bulls post one of the best road records in the league at 17-6. In all contests on the road, Tom Thibodeau has elected to coach defense near his bench in the 4th quarter.
This past fall saw the Chicago Bulls new practice facility, the Advocate Center open up and it surely hasn’t disappointed. The building provides the team with a new state of the art facility which conveniently seats very near the United Center. The old practice facility, the Berto Center, is located in Deerfield many miles away from the UC, which made it difficult for players on game days to commute. Surely the proximity to the UC that the Advocate Center presents is very attractive to the current players on the roster and potential future acquisitions. On August 13 2012 Ben Meyerson of the Chicago Journal said about the new facility, ” A new practice facility in the city would allow the Bulls to reduce commute times for their players on game days, the release said. Currently (while still practicing at the Berto Center), the Bulls have mandatory shoot around in Deerfield and then must commute to the United Center, often in rush hour traffic”. The new Advocate Center has many benefits for the players of the Chicago Bulls, and cutting their travelling time may have been the biggest priority for the organization. However, what may have been lost in the transition from the Berto to the Advocate is the opportunity for focus the Berto Center presented as the main practice facility. Yes the travel seemed very tiring , especially on game days, but because shoot around was followed by that evening’s contest, the whole day seem to be about that night’s event. Through the long preparation for a night’s game starting earlier in the day, Bulls players sub consciously planned their whole day around that one contest. In essence their actions and state of mind on game day was plan for one thing, that evening’s opponent. With the Advocate Center being utilized nowadays the sense of urgency to get to the UC in a timely manner, and in most cases straight from shoot around, doesn’t exist as players have hours in between for preparation for that night’s opponent. They can simply relax after shoot around, and have other things occupy their time, mind and focus. Having distractions throughout the day can lead to players not having the same edge and focus once the basketball game begins.
All 30 NBA teams start their season with numerous goals in mind, which begins with striving for the best record possible in order to establish home court advantage later that Spring in the playoffs. Having the opportunity to start a series on your home court, and more importantly if needed play game 7 there as well, is crucial as the familiar confides of team’s home hardwood floor can prove to be a major deciding factor. Establishing a great home court advantage is critical as teams want to plant a seed in the heads of all opponents that playing on their court will be a difficult task. They want that intimidation to begin once the visiting team steps off their bus. For years the Chicago Bulls had established a home court that visiting teams dreaded playing on, as the energy of the crown seem to lift their team and drown the confidence of that night’s opponent. In order for the Chicago Bulls to achieve greatness this year they will need to get back to playing inspire basketball on their home turf. They will need their fans to show the same enthusiasm and energy that they are historically known for, no matter the specific opponent. The great former assistant coach John Bach cleverly once said, when speaking of returning to Chicago Stadium down 0-2 in the 1993 NBA Eastern Conference Finals against the New York Knicks, “let’s make them pay a price in Chicago”. Bach clearly knew exactly what those championship teams had at their disposal. The current Chicago Bulls team must get back to establishing a home court that is feared league wide and surely not welcoming to any visitors.