CHICAGO — In order to understand how any sporting event could possibly be larger than Michael Jordan's return to his former home arena, you must first know this: The Superfans who filled those "Saturday Night Live" skits with Chicago sports references were not fictitious. Such people actually exist. In mass quantities.
From that point, remember this: Their primary allegiance, the first object of their affection on their initial appearance, was Da Bears.
Now the Bears have a home playoff game for the first time in 11 years, one that happens to start 31/2 hours after Jordan and the Washington Wizards tip off against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center on Saturday afternoon. But that little bit of made-for-television scheduling is the only time the Bears come after Jordan this week.
The breakdown of conversation topics--in the media, the bars and the barbershops--goes (1) Bears; (2) Philadelphia Eagle quarterback Donovan McNabb, a Chicago native, comes home to play the Bears; (3) How will the Bears stop McNabb? (4) The last time the Eagles and Bears played at Soldier Field, in the infamous Fog Bowl.
You want a true-blue (and orange) Chicago sports fan? Check out Bill McClaren. McClaren, 42, was at the Bull-Hornet game Tuesday night with his 9-year-old son Nick. Bill wore a 1993 NBA Finals cap and a Bear jersey. It was No. 41. That's Brian Piccolo. This man is old school.
His dad had Bears' season tickets since 1946 and Bill's been going to games since 1966. And he'll be at Soldier Field on Saturday, to see Da Bears.
"They are Chicago," McClaren said. "As much as Jordan meant, I'd take one Bears' Super Bowl over all six basketball championships. I think football is just the fabric of our town. Nothing against basketball, but the Bears are everybody's team."
The Bears are older, their ties to the city are deeper, their names more legendary. Halas, Butkus, Payton.
The difference between the Bulls and the Bears is like the difference between something you bought and something you inherited. And since the NFL schedule-makers all but forced fans who want to be there into an either-or decision, they are voting for the Bears.
It's been a mixed blessing for ticket brokers, who had scooped up ducats for what Gold Coast Tickets owner Max Waisvisz said was "supposed to be one of the bigger sporting events in Chicago history"--the Jordan game.
Then the Bears made the playoffs, and Waisvisz can't get rid of courtside seats he bought for $1,000 and a suite for which he paid $15,000. Bear tickets with a face value of $50 to $80 are going for $200 to $600.
"Bears' tickets are selling great," Waisvisz said. "We're having a slow time with Michael Jordan's return."
Perhaps by the time the weekend rolls around, talk will get to Jordan. But in this sporting feast he's become the appetizer. Or maybe a side dish.
He was the man who gave this town sustenance throughout the 1990s, bringing six NBA championships and worldwide acclaim to Chicago. The game's greatest player called this city home. For a town that always had a bit of an attitude because it wasn't quite as big-time as New York or as glamorous as L.A., that meant more than any other civic bragging point.
My time in Chicago spanned 1988-1994. In other words, I arrived 21/2 years after the Bears won the Super Bowl and left a year after the Bulls' first three-peat.
When I first got here, I couldn't help but notice this town's obsession with the Bears. Team apparel everywhere. It seemed as if every player had a promotional appearance on Tuesdays.
The day after they made a stirring comeback against the New York Jets on "Monday Night Football," a TV station interviewed a group of nuns, who agreed the victory was nothing short of miraculous. Nuns.
All of those Bear jackets, scarves and gloves gradually gave way to Bull championship T-shirts and caps.
The Bulls were winning, the Bears were losing and worst of all, Da Coach, Mike Ditka, was fired. The team lost its identity. Soldier Field's fabled columns might as well have crumbled into Lake Michigan.
Media coverage tilted toward the Bulls, reaching its absurd peak when television news helicopters followed the team bus up I-94 to Milwaukee for live coverage of the Bulls on their way to set the NBA record for single-season victories in 1996.
But when Jordan left two years later, so did the interest. It ought to tell you something that when the Lakers--featuring two superstars, former Bull coach Phil Jackson and the best record in the league--played the Bulls last Saturday, neither the Chicago Tribune nor the Chicago Sun-Times sent a columnist to the game. They were busy focusing on the Philadelphia-Tampa Bay game to get a handle on the Bears' next opponent.
Bear linebacker Brian Urlacher's No. 54 has replaced Jordan's No. 23 as the must-have jersey.
I even saw an African American wearing an Urlacher jersey the other day. How often do you see a brother wearing a white player's jersey? That's love.
To outsiders, it might seem like the renewed mania for the Bears (prime example: an orange-and-blue wedding dress with "Bears" stitched across the halter top pictured in the Sun-Times) is a sign of dementia. In reality, it shows that life in Chicago is returning to normal.
J.A. Adande can be reached at: email@example.com.