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The top 10 stories in Chicago Sports 2023: Justin Fields and Connor Bedard dominate conversation in another disappointing year

Kevin Kaduk Avatar
December 29, 2023

Like the year that preceded it, 2023 wasn’t a great one for the Chicago sports fan.

The only team that finished above .500 was the Cubs, the only team that made the playoffs was the Sky and two squads were bad enough to secure the top pick in their respective drafts — take a bow, Bears and Blackhawks!

The Bears then started the 2023 season with a four-game losing streak while the Bulls lost 14 of their first 19 games. Meanwhile, both the Cubs and White Sox were sluggish to start an important hot stove season for both squads.

That’s not to say there weren’t glimmers of hope in Chicago sports. The Blackhawks won the right to draft generational prospect Connor Bedard, who has been living up to the hype and then some. The Bears started to look like a real team sometime in the late fall, even if we don’t have a definitive answer on Justin Fields. Even the Bulls have started to come around, ironically after star player Zach LaVine headed to the bench with an injury.

Hopefuly 2024 will be a much more memorable year. But before we move on, let’s take one last look at the stories that defined Chicago sports in 2023 …

10. Injured Lionel Messi a no-show in Chicago for sold-out game

Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports

Lionel Messi’s arrival in the MLS ranked as one of the world’s biggest sports stories this year, and he figured to arrive in Chicago for Inter Miami’s scheduled match against the Chicago Fire at Soldier Field on Oct. 3. Chicago soccer fans responded with a craze akin to Taylor Swift’s appearances on the lakefront this summer, snapping up every ticket in the stadium at inflated prices and guaranteeing the club its largest crowd ever. Alas, Messi was hurt for the late-season, midweek match and didn’t even make the trip to Chicago. The fans still came out, though, and were rewarded with a 4-1 win by the home team and discounts to return for more soccer in 2024.

9. Pat Fitzgerald’s tenure unceremoniously ends at Northwestern

(Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports)

Prior to this summer, few college football coaches enjoyed more job security than Pat Fitzgerald. A standout on the 1995 team that reached the Rose Bowl, Fitzgerald had spent 17 years leading the program to wildly varying levels of success. But that marriage ended in early July after the school announced Fitzgerald had been relieved of his duties following a two-week suspension for hazing allegations from past players. Fitzgerald has maintained that he didn’t know about the hazing within the program and filed a $130 million wrongful termination suit against Northwestern in October. He was succeeded by defensive coordinator David Braun, who increased the team’s win total from one to seven and won the school’s bowl game over Utah last week. Braun was named Big Ten Coach of the Year.

8. Zach LaVine’s injury changes complexion of Bulls’ season

(Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports)

After a disappointing 2022-23 campaign, Chicago Bulls leadership decided to largely run it back in 2023-24, preaching the values of continuity among its Big 3 core. It didn’t pay off early, though, and a slow start led to the camp of star player Zach LaVine leaking that he was increasingly open to a trade. The report seemingly took a toll on the Bulls, who fell to a 5-14 start and looked destined for an awful season. But then an unexpected thing happened: LaVine hit the IR with a foot injury, and the team responded in his absence with Coby White flourishing in an increased scoring role and Patrick Williams starting to take the jump that many had been hoping for. As of this writing, the Bulls are 14-18 — 9-4 since LaVine’s injury — and playing for a fanbase that has regained its interest. It’s hard to tell where this goes once LaVine returns — will another team surrender a haul the Bulls want? — but at the very least, it has kept the team relevant heading into the new year.

7. Deaths of Dick Butkus and Bobby Hull

(Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports)

There were few giants who loomed over the Chicago sports scene over the last 60 years quite like Dick Butkus and Bobby Hull. Both upper-echelon Hall of Famers in their respective sport, Butkus and Hull were considered legends in town by multiple generations. Hull, however, died in January, and Butkus followed in October, shrinking the number of standout Chicago athletes from the ’60s to a handful that includes Billy Williams, Ferguson Jenkins and Glenn Hall. Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz also died over the summer, passing ownership of the team to a fourth generation of the Wirtz family.

6. Kenny Williams and Rick Hahn fired during 101-loss White Sox season

Both Kenny Williams and Rick Hahn enjoyed Pat Fitzgerald-like security for the last two decades as they helped run the Chicago White Sox for their loyal boss, Jerry Reinsdorf. But everyone seemingly has a limit — even Jerry — and both Williams and Hahn saw their employment terminated on Aug. 22. The headline was the biggest in a disappointing season, but the timing was also suspect. Both men were allowed to shepherd the White Sox during the trade deadline, and their in-house successor, Chris Getz, was quickly named before a wider search could be conducted. Getz got right to work trying to remake the organization, saying goodbye to one-time cornerstone Tim Anderson and orchestrating a five-player swap for reliever Aaron Bummer. Time will tell if Getz can outrun the shadows of both Williams or Hahn, but neither left a very high bar to clear in the end.

5. Cubs hire Craig Counsell away from Brewers, fire David Ross after playoff push falls short

Nov 13, 2023; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Craig Counsell (L) receives Chicago Cubs jersey from Jed Hoyer (R), Cubs President of baseball operations as he is introduced as a new Cubs manager during a press conference in Chicago.
(Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports)

What happened on the morning of Monday, November 6 may have been the most surprising story in Chicago sports as Cubs president Jed Hoyer hired Craig Counsell away from the Milwaukee Brewers and said goodbye to World Series hero David Ross in the same move. Will the switcheroo pay off? The Cubs are certainly paying Counsell as if it will and the ex-Brewers manager would seem to be an upgrade over the oft-questioned Ross. The 2023 Cubs themselves were the only Chicago squad to finish over .500, but a swoon in May put them too far behind the 8-ball to finish off a comeback run against Milwaukee — they finished nine games behind the Brewers — and they finished one game behind World Series runnerup Arizona in the Wild Card standings. Perhaps Counsell can help them close that gap, but they’ll need to maintain a lineup that could Bellinger-free come Opening Day.

4. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane say goodbye in different ways

All good things must come to an end, and the Blackhawks did the once unthinkable by saying goodbye to franchise legends Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane within months of each other earlier this year. Kane was sent to the New York Rangers in a trade on Feb. 28, while Toews got a final victory lap at the United Center in April before taking the 2023-24 season off. The duo won three Stanley Cups in Chicago together, each securing spots on our top 25 Chicago athletes of all time list and reserving spaces in the United Center rafters for Nos. 19 and 88. Their departures had an uncanny sense of timing with young Connor Bedard waiting in the wings to usher Blackhawks hockey into its next great era.

3. Ryan Poles secures big haul from Carolina for No. 1 pick in NFL Draft

The Chicago Bears hadn’t picked first in the NFL Draft since 1947, but then Lovie Smith and the Houston Texans beat the Colts on the final day of the season, gifting the 3-14 Bears the draft’s top spot. One year later, the Bears still haven’t picked first in almost 77 years, because Bears GM Ryan Poles orchestrated a trade with the Bryce Young-hungry Carolina Panthers that netted the team wide receiver DJ Moore, the ninth pick in the draft (Darnell Wright), a second-round pick in 2023 (Tyrique Stevenson), a first-round pick in 2024 and a second-round pick in 2025. The 2024 first-rounder could well be the No. 1 pick … unless Poles decides to trade it again, of course.

2. Connor Bedard infuses hope into Blackhawks franchise

There’s no question about the greatest day in Chicago sports this year. That would be May 9, the night the Chicago Blackhawks won the 2023 NHL Draft Lottery and sent all of the Chicago hockey world into a frenzy — CHGO studios included. Bedard’s arrival gave the Blackhawks the biggest possible piece for their rebuild, setting the franchise up with a cornerstone on par with Sidney Crosby or Connor McDavid. His performance over the first few months in the face of intense pressure, scrutiny and ridiculous rumors only reinforces that thought.

1. Justin Fields, Justin Fields, Justin Fields

It seems almost silly that anything could outrank the Blackhawks landing Bedard, but ask yourself about the last day when you didn’t hear Justin Fields’ name mentioned at least 100 times. The talented quarterback remains a lightning rod for debates in town as his third NFL season has featured a lot of dizzying highs, some questionable lows and another injury that forced him to miss multiple games. The Bears’ ownership of the Panthers’ No. 1 pick — and a possible drafting of either Caleb Williams or Drake Maye — only increased the volume of the story. Everyone in town has an opinion on what to do with QB1, and with the NFL Draft not being held until late April, Fields stands to occupy a large amount of oxygen in 2024 as well.

Honorable mentions:

  • Cody Bellinger wins NL Comeback Player of the Year
  • Bears trade for Montez Sweat, sign defensive end to long extension.
  • Kevin Warren leaves Big Ten to become president of Bears.
  • Bears finalize sale of Arlington Park.
  • Bears defensive coordinator Alan Williams and running backs coach David Walker leave team under mysterious circumstances.
  • Big Ten adds Oregon and Washington, bringing school total to 18.
  • NASCAR stages first Chicago street race in less-than-ideal weather.
  • Kelvin Kiptum breaks world record at Chicago Marathon.
  • Sky make playoffs after midseason departure of James Wade, hire Teresa Weatherspoon as successor in offseason.
  • Corey Perry dismissed from Blackhawks after “unacceptable conduct.”
  • Liam Hendriks returns from cancer battle before season-ending elbow injury.
  • Jason Benetti leaves White Sox broadcast booth for Tigers.
  • Pat Hughes inducted into broadcasters wing of Hall of Fame.
  • White Sox decline Tim Anderson’s option for 2024.
  • Mallory Swanson tears patellar tendon, missing out on World Cup and changing fortunes of Red Stars’ season.
  • Laura Ricketts-led group buys Red Stars.
  • Fire hires Frank Klopas as head coach again, miss out on playoffs on season’s final day.

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