Believe it or not, I have something in common with Michael Jordan. Besides being world-famous and fabulously awesome, that is. We’ve both rocked the rock at the United Center. (That’s me, above, getting beaten off the dribble!)
A couple years ago, I participated in the Barbara Armstrong MS Half Court Classic. It’s a co-ed, 4-on-4 half-court tournament played at the United Center, with all proceeds going to benefit the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. (Sign up to compete or volunteer now!) It is held in honor of former Bull B.J. Armstrong’s mother, who suffers from MS. I was jazzed about contributing to a good cause, of course, but what really got me juiced up was the opportunity to play ball at the UC. To trod the same storied hardwood as Jordan and dozens of other greats (and not-so-greats)…that’s one of those hoop dreams that every pickup baller has, right?
Now, the tourney is, technically speaking, co-ed, and they claim that “all skill levels are welcome.” But here’s a little secret: Very good basketball players show up – few of which are women, most of which are tall and scary – and they come out expecting to win (or to kill you trying). Our team, “The Witnesses” (so named because the team captain was from Cleveland and obviously loves LeBron James), was made up of me, my buddy Evil Ted, a guy who looked like a lumberjack and two short, skinny girls with what you’d call “limited experience” playing basketball. When I saw the first team we had to play leaping and dunking their way through a layup line, I figured we were monumentally screwed.
As it turns out, we pulled off a couple rather improbably victories to win our bracket and advance to the championship round, where we lost a close game to the team that had won the tournament two years prior. It was one of those crazy underdog stories, and you could tell that our opponents — who openly laughed at us before the games started, by the way — were stunned when we put ‘em down. That first team I mentioned, they were still talking (bitterly) about it when I walked past them a couple hours later.
If it turns out anybody is interested, I’ll tell the whole story sometime. But for now, I just want to describe what it was like to compete on the court inside the house that Jordan built. It was cold (due, no doubt, to the ice rink maintained below the court for Chicago Blackhawk games). The court was huge. It was hard to draw a bead on the basket because there was nothing but open space behind the backboards (this resulted in the most airballs I’ve ever seen in a single day of hoops…nobody on any team got a good feel for shooting until a few games in). And it was just, you know, cool. I could go on, but I asked Evil Ted to jot down a few notes and he wrote a book instead. So I’ll let him tell the rest of this tale:
United Center 4-on-4 MS Tournament — By Evil Ted
Usually when I enter a professional basketball court as a spectator, I find it looks puny. This is most likely because I tend to have seats in the 300 Section, and because the seven-footers trampling around make the court look cramped. Entering the United Center as a player, however, I found myself struck by how large and imposing it felt. Beyond the professional dimensions of the court itself, the open space of the seating area surrounding it — dwarfing the volume of any gym where I’d ever played before — conjured a feeling of agoraphobia, bordering on vertigo.
In the initial shootaround, it was difficult to focus on the rim and net. The densely-lit basket and backboard were more pronounced against the distant surroundings. This gave the basket a shrine-like appearance that added gravity to each shot.
Fortunately, once the games began and focus turned to the opponent, the enormity of the stage faded. With the first successful pick and roll, it was just basketball…but it also wasn’t just basketball. It was basketball played under flawless conditions. The floor was perfectly clean, sneakers squeaked — none of the sliding and gliding that happens on a typically substandard pickup court — and the vibrant lighting added a hyper-reality to the look of everything and everyone.
One team we played had a small cheering section. It was only ten people or so, but their presence elevated the importance of that particular game. It caused me to consider how exhilarating it must be to play ball in front of a full house, or even a half-full house, or even a quarter-full house.
Playing basketball in the United Center was like flying first class. Since then, I’ve always flown coach, but I’ll always remember what it’s like to sit in that big, cushy seat, get the hot towel treatment, and eat filet mignon.