Chicago will step up to the Mike one last time

When Jordan plays his final game here, fans will look back on an era when the city was something other than the home of Capone.

Chicago boasts miles of lakefront beaches, five-star restaurants and hotels, and cultural offerings worthy of world-class status. But for much of its existence, Chicago has stood in the shadows of other metropolises such as Los Angeles, with its glamour of celebrity, or New York, which lays claim to the title of cultural capital.

Besides, it's hard to be cocky about Chicago's dark winters, the brutally humid summers, and the flat Midwestern scenery.

The Michael Jordan era, however, wiped away that feeling of being second best. Indeed, for a while in the 1990s, Chicagoans could strut and gloat. Jordan, one of the most recognized faces in the world, was theirs, and he gave Chicago something they'd never had: a winning sports franchise, and a dynasty at that.

Friday night, Jordan returns to Chicago, this time with his Washington Wizards, for his last time as a player. The event is giving Chicago fans a final chance to say thanks and goodbye, and to reflect on the transformative effect that the Bulls' greatest player has had on the Windy City.

"During the winter months, for a few hours a week, you got to forget about the weather, your ... job and other worries, and rally around the Bulls," explained Bruce Beddard, in a classically flat Chicago accent, as he stood by his United Center seats before a recent Bulls-Knicks game. "For nine years, five to six months a year, we were a winner."

In that decade, the Bulls won six championships, from 1991-93 and 1996-98. When Chicagoans traveled abroad, "Capone" was no longer the first word out of a stranger's mouth. It was "Jordan."

"I saw the frenzy when I got here and I think it gave the city something to be proud of, to rally around," says Jordan's former teammate, John Paxson, who played on the first three championship teams. "Michael had his own charisma; the rest of us kind of grabbed his coattails and went along for the ride."

Chicago Tribune sportswriter Sam Smith started covering Jordan when MJ arrived in September 1984. Chicagoans, he explains, take an almost perverse pleasure in their sports teams' failures.

While the Cubs haven't been to the World Series in almost 100 years, fans pack Wrigley Field. The crosstown White Sox haven't won the series since 1917. The Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl in 1985 and the Blackhawks earned a Stanley Cup in 1961, but neither has repeated since.

"So you have this historic expectation of failure in sports, and here comes this guy, handsome, with a great smile and someone you can be proud of," says Mr. Smith.

Even if their teams have a less than stellar record, Chicagoans embrace their professional athletes who do perform well. And those athletes - from Walter Payton to Gale Sayers, and Ernie Banks to Sammy Sosa - have understood and reveled in the love.

"If someone becomes big, the fans feel like they own them," explains Chicago public radio sports reporter Cheryl Raye-Stout, who points out the two lockers MJ used in the Bulls locker room - no teammate wanted to be next to him because of the media frenzy.

For Chicago fans, the time to show appreciation is running out. During the Washington Wizards' last visit in early January, their star was given a nearly three-minute standing ovation by fans, who cheered every time he scored. As his teammates laughed, Jordan soaked up the pregame applause and bit his lip, tears welling in his eyes.

"These people helped me grow," said Jordan after that game. "They gave me great appreciation today and I can't say thanks enough. It makes me feel like I wish I was back in the [Bulls] uniform," he said, dressed impeccably in a black silk shirt, tie, and suit, accented by a large, diamond-studded hoop earring.

Any time he steps into the United Center, said Jordan, he feels that way. "It's tough not to see me in the red and white."

When the Bulls won that first championship, explains longtime fan Mike Mitka - who brought his two young sons to the Jan. 2 Bulls-Wizards games so they could one day say they saw Jordan play - people were surprised. "He was good, but we didn't think he'd repeat. But to go on and repeat and become the greatest basketball player of all time, well, it was fun to be in Chicago and have that."

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