Editor’s note: CHGO Bulls podcaster Mark Karantzoulis is in Chicago this week on his first-ever trip to the United States. This is his first article on what it’s like to travel from Australia to watch a Bulls team he’s been following for over 25 years.
I started hooping during a time when basketball was emerging as a global sport.
Growing up as a kid in the 90’s, the Bulls, through the imagery and dominance of Michael Jordan, were the team many impressionable kids from Australia latched onto.
I was one of them.
I guess that makes me a bandwagon fan? So be it.
Over the years, as my love for basketball grew, so did its popularity abroad. Even so, the game remains somewhat niche in my country. Most kids play the game. They have their favourite team and players. Few are die-hard consumers of the NBA.
That reality makes it really difficult to strike up a water-cooler conversation about Billy Donovan’s rotations. My neighbours don’t care that Alex Caruso is leading the Bulls in plus-minus.
I rarely have an opportunity to talk ball with those around me. I needed an outlet. Thankfully, the Internet provided everything I required. Through online forums, blogs, social media and podcasting, I found my voice, connecting to like-minded fans all over the world.
This is why I spend so much time online. I want to be part of the conversation.
Every morning, without fail, as soon as I wake, I roll over, pick up my phone and check Twitter. I need to catch up on the discourse. What’s the latest scuttlebutt? Do I have any notifications? Do I need to tweet out an opinion before my brain has had a real chance to fire up?
I’m online too much.
It’s an affliction. Many of us suffer from this disease. Endlessly scrolling through the timeline typically leads to nothing positive. It’s a time suck. An excuse to remain in a warm bed for a precious second longer.
Usually, that’s the case.
The morning of Feb. 27 was different.
Little did I know that a direct message would be waiting for me. It was from Joshua Rosen.
I tangentially knew of Joshua. We had never met or communicated in person, though we often sparred on Twitter. It was never serious or personal. More so typical arguments fans dive into when their team is falling below expectations.
I certainly wasn’t expecting to hear from Joshua. Before I opened his message, I assumed the subject of his note would be Nikola Vucevic. Joshua wasn’t a fan of Vucevic on defense. I often countered. I assumed our previously public debates were to resume, only this time via a private message.
My assumption was wrong.
His message had nothing to do with Vucevic. Frankly, it had little to do with the on-court product at all.
Instead, to my surprise, Joshua, a long-time Bulls season ticket-holder, presented an invitation.
Over the past few months, I had made it known that I would be traveling to Chicago to catch a Bulls game in the flesh for the first time. Joshua must have noticed. I’m glad he did. Because his offer would go onto change my life.
I’ve been a Bulls fan for 20-plus years. That fact only recently dawned on me. I’ve been entrenched with the team for so long. And yet, throughout all these years, I’d never attended a game.
Circumstances made that so. After all, it’s kind of hard to head to the United Center on a random Wednesday night when you live on a different continent.
Jettisoning to the other side of the world to watch your favourite sports team is tough to justify. The financial and time commitment is extreme. But it was something I had to experience at least once in this life.
That time was now.
As 2022 drew to a close, I began planning my trip to Chicago. Flights and accommodation were quickly sorted. Tourist to-do lists were formed. The only box left to check was procuring tickets to a Bulls game. I figured I could handle this when I arrived in town. Surely I could find a good deal on the secondary ticket market?
Little did I know that, several months later, on a random February morning, lying in a direct message on Twitter, was a seat to the Bulls’ clash against the Sacramento Kings.
I needed a ticket. A season ticket-holder had one to spare. The math lined up.
I accepted the invitation. I didn’t know Joshua, but I appreciated his generosity.
Over the next few days, Joshua and I finalized the ticket transfer. An email came through from Ticketmaster. My ticket was waiting in my inbox, ready to be downloaded to my phone. After adding the ticket to my wallet, I got a chance to see where I would be sitting.
Section 101, Row A.
I had a vague idea of the seating arrangement within the United Center. From what I could gather, these seemed like good seats. After some light Googling, it turns out these were great seats.
I didn’t believe it. Really, why would anyone just gift someone they barely know a seriously prestige ticket to a Bulls game? No fucking way, man.
It had to be fake.
That was my initial instinct. No actual person is this kind. Especially not to an idiot who believes Vucevic is a competent defender.
It’s a scam. A prank, one whereby I’m the butt of the joke. The dumb, naive loser who travels over 25 hours to Chicago, ticket in hand, ready to pass through the gate, only to be left red-faced as security forcibly escort me off premise.
This thought resided in my head for weeks. It seemed too good to be true. Even after I landed in Chicago, I still wasn’t sure that my first Bulls experience would happen.
The time had come. On the night of Mar. 15, I tentatively made my way over to the United Center. Despite the trepidation, I entered the line to have my ticket checked. The closer I got, the more my anxiety grew. Now at the head of the line, I presented my ticket. The scanner prompted a green light. Turns out the ticket was real.
I was in.
In disbelief, I immediately texted my wife.
Yes, that is my wife, endorsing me to partake in many beers.
My wife is good. Far too good for me. Not only was she advocating the consumption of many alcoholic beverages, she was adamant that I experience Chicago.
I’m cheap. I like to save money (it’s not going well). I also happen to be introverted by nature. I suffer from anxiety. Exiting my comfort zone is extremely painful.
Though I had always wanted to come to Chicago, traveling alone to a foreign country where I knew few people scared me. But my wife gave me confidence. She wanted to see me live out a dream. In so many ways, I’m not where I am today without her. I don’t get on a plane and fly to Chicago without her.
Not only do I have a great life partner, but in my hand, I held a real ticket to a Bulls game.
Stumbling through the halls of the United Center, I found gate 101. From there, an usher guided me to my seat. As I got closer and closer to the court, it dawned on me just how lucky I was.
I knew these seats were good. I didn’t expect this.
The above photo isn’t a product of snapping a shot close to court when security turned their head. No, I had clearance to be here. This is where I would be watching the game. My seats were mid-court, right behind the scorer’s desk.
I got to the game early. I wanted to soak up the atmosphere and savor the moment for as long as I could. By chance, from a distance, I spotted my long-time friend, and now colleague, Will Gottlieb. He came over to see how I was doing. He, like I, was equally in disbelief in how good these seats were.
We chatted for a while. Seeing as he was there, I enlisted Gottlieb as my personal photographer. He obliged, taking these snaps of me with radio play-by-play announcer Chuck Swirsky and public announcer Tim Sinclair.
Anyone who follows the Bulls knows Swirsky and Sinclair. Both couldn’t have been nicer. I had known Tim a little through some Twitter exchanges. He recognized me and came over to say hello. Several people had told me how nice of a person Tim was. All were confirmed when I met him. I had heard the same about Chuck. They proved true, too.
Everyone I interacted with were so humble and warm. That continued when Will introduced me to NBCS Chicago broadcaster Adam Amin. He, too, was incredible company.
I was feeling fortunate again. Here I was, standing next to my buddy Will, with an incredible view of the Bulls doing their pre-game warm ups, rubbing shoulders with some truly kind people.
Will had to run off. I understood — his responsibilities as a beat writer take precedence to being my personal photographer. Shortly after Will left, I received a tap on the shoulder. It was Joshua. He introduced himself, shook my hand, and brought me in for a warm bro-hug.
We chopped it up before the game. We didn’t really know much about each other, but we were both Bulls fans. Naturally, we started discussing the most pressing topics concerning the team. Turns out actual conversations in human form can be much more hospitable than those that take place on Twitter. Who knew!
Joshua was as gracious in person as he was in direct messages. I tried to thank him for offering me a seat to the game. I fumbled through it. Words exited my mouth but I’m not sure I formed a coherent sentence. Perhaps you, the reader, are more articulate and better in touch with your feelings. Sometimes I can be. This time I was overwhelmed.
It was difficult to explain to Joshua how a simple act of kindness changed my life. I think he got the sense of what this all meant once he realized this was my first trip to the United States — and ultimately my first experience at the United Center.
My mind was blown and the game hadn’t even started.
The production and theatrics of the pre-game player introductions ensured I remained floored.
I know everything there is to know about this team. And yet, I learned so much from watching it up close.
Zach LaVine leaps off the television, but witnessing his athleticism in person is something different entirely. It didn’t seem real. How can someone so tall move with such speed and precision?
I also gained an appreciation for just how rare it is for a 21-year-old to be built like Patrick Williams. In every day life, Williams would be the biggest human I’d come across. In the NBA, he’s a wing. The realization was confounding.
So, too, was the fact that, rather than needing to download film from an online source in order to analyse possessions, I could simply document it all through my phone. And so I did.
In this court-side video, the Bulls run a pick-and-roll set with LaVine and Vucevic. Guarding this action is a difficult cover even for the best defenses. The Kings — not known for their defensive prowess — choose to defend the play with a standard drop coverage. Two players swarm LaVine, who immediately finds Vucevic popping out high. The Bulls get what they want; the Kings in defensive rotation, leading to an open Coby White three.
This was a very basic pick-and-roll play. The Bulls run this numerous times per game. I’ve seen them do so for years now. Still, seeing game action play out live was different. It felt real.
The Bulls battled the Kings. They didn’t win, but I didn’t care. I had seen a good, competitive game, watching it all play out from a breathtaking vantage point.
More importantly, I was in good company.
Joshua and I are two different people, hailing from different backgrounds, cities, and countries. We had never met before. He knew as little about me as I did him. None of that mattered. The Bulls connected us. Fandom connected us. Yelling on Twitter about Nikola Vucevic connected us.
I still don’t have the words to truly explain to Joshua what he did for me.
Maybe this story will help. It’s one I will never forget.