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What up, Bulls Nation. Hope y’all are doing alright, and not feeling too down after the Bulls’ quick playoff exit. Isn’t it odd how the playoff series against the Bucks kind of mirrored the regular season? It started so well, and expectations were raised. Stealing a game in Milwaukee, along with Khris Middleton’s injury, suddenly gave Bulls fans hope for a much greater outcome than what we originally expected.
Then it all came crashing down, just like the final third of the season.
It’s almost cruel how it all unfolded. Teased with something so promising, only to see it fade away with a whimper. Now that it’s over, we’re left with some fond memories of a fun season, but the sting and bitter aftertaste of defeat is what holds stronger and lingers longer. The pain of getting a step closer to that elusive taste of victory while still feeling so far away is a tough part of sports fandom.
But it’s also an unavoidable part of it. Dare I say, even a beautiful part of it? The teams and players we love and support have to pay their dues and go through heartbreak before they taste victory. Championships rarely happen without that step. Those of us true diehard fans go through all of those hardships and heartache with them. But the pain and frustration of working hard and failing make the delayed success that much sweeter.
Picture this: Michael Jordan, weeping as he finally clutches the Larry O’Brien trophy in the summer of 1991. That image is iconic. So iconic that I have it printed on a t-shirt I wear often. The story behind that image is what makes it so powerful. Because every NBA fan knew what MJ had to go through to get to that moment. One step closer, and defeat. Another step closer, and defeat. Game 7 of the conference finals … another defeat. Then finally … the hurdle is cleared. The combination of joy and relief is overwhelming. And Michael weeps.
It’s something I’ve come to greatly appreciate in my life. Not just as a sports fan, but as someone with their own goals and lists of things to accomplish. You grind, you hit a roadblock. You grind some more, another roadblock. You grind harder … roadblock. But you keep grinding. Keep trying. Because what other option do you have?
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
– Samuel Beckett
It’s the Pecking Order.
I recently had a birthday, and my parents sent me a birthday card. On the front of the card was a picture of a man pushing his car along a desolate country road. There was a sign next to the road that read: “Next gas 210 miles.”
The inside of the card read: “The joy is in the journey.” And beneath that, scrawled in my dad’s unmistakable chicken-scratch handwriting: “… and now you are cruising!”
I choked up as I read it. Firstly, because of how much my parents have supported me my entire life. They know how hard I’ve grinded to make things happen, especially since changing careers and starting from scratch in my late 20s. Every roadblock I hit as I tried to make this sports media thing happen, there they were. Supporting me in my journey. They’re the best parents a son could hope for.
Secondly, I choked up because that simple piece of wisdom resonated in that moment. It’s so damn true. This birthday came shortly after the launch of CHGO, a milestone moment in my career that I grinded my ass off to reach. The joy that came from relishing that moment was all about remembering every moment — good and bad — that preceded it. I was Michael, and that birthday card from my loving parents congratulating me on a big accomplishment was my Larry O’Brien trophy.
It took Michael seven years after entering the NBA to win his first championship. It took me seven years after starting from scratch in the sports media world to get this job at CHGO. I didn’t have to take hits from Mahorn and Laimbeer, but I took my fair share of licks in other ways. Part of the journey. Bitterness before sweetness. Frustration before elation.
Without that step … would the satisfaction feel the same?
My Bulls fandom started with instant gratification. By the time I was in kindergarten, the Bulls had won their first championship. The summer after kindergarten, the Bulls repeated. Then Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen represented the USA on the Dream Team that won gold and made the world fall in love with basketball. Then the third title. There was the short stint of heartache when the MJ-less Bulls got screwed by Hue Hollins in 1994, and the Orlando Magic spoiling MJ’s comeback in 1995. Then another three-peat by the time I was 11.
Guess what? While I definitely enjoyed witnessing all those championships, the instant gratification in no way prepared me for the rest of my sports fan life. I got used to winning far too easily. Thus, the 24 years of my fandom since the last Bulls title have felt like a long and often unwinnable battle. I guess that’s the price — and the lesson — of getting what you want right away. Realizing the world doesn’t normally work like that, accepting it, and trying harder. [Or rooting harder. Even though I rank the Bulls above the Cubs in my Chicago sports fandom, watching the lovable losers finally win it all in 2016 was so much more satisfying. Because of what it took and the time spent getting there.]
I had a similar experience of instant gratification in my first career. I mentioned to y’all in a previous column that I used to be an actor. When I quit playing sports in high school [because I wasn’t very good at them] I needed a new passion and quickly fell in love with theatre. I did all the school plays, and being on that stage gave me the same rush as competing in sports. I was hooked. Four years of college and a *super useful* drama degree later, I moved back to Chicago to begin my “acting career”. Whatever that might be.
Turns out, I got lucky. Really lucky. I landed the lead in the first professional audition I went to. It wasn’t anything bigtime that the average Chicago theatergoer would recognize. Not the Goodman or Steppenwolf or anything like that. No, it was a low-budget production of the film-to-stage show Point Break LIVE! Yeah, that Point Break. The awesomely bad ’90s action movie about a young FBI agent Johnny Utah (Keanu Reeves) trying to infiltrate and take down a gang of bank-robbing surfers and their spiritual leader Bodhi (Patrick Swayze). I played Swayze playing Bodhi. We cast the role of Johnny Utah from the audience at the start of every show.
Don’t believe me? See for yourself.
It was wild. Every weekend after working my day job waiting tables, I would throw on a blonde wig and a pair of board shorts and go crashing around a tiny theatre filled with super-soakers, wind machines, prop gunfire and blood packets. In front of a rowdy, inebriated and jubilant audience of diehard Point Break fans. I can’t begin to describe how much fun it was.
That show ran in Chicago for over a year. I didn’t do many other acting projects. I was happy with what I had. Honestly, I was also afraid that whatever I did next wouldn’t be as fun. I decided after awhile that I was ready to leave Chicago and explore a new city. So I moved to Los Angeles. That’s where actors go, right? A few months into living in LA, I had a similar routine. Waiting tables, and going out on some auditions when I could. Not a whole lot of action. Not much work put into the acting part.
Then I got lucky again. This time, it happened to coincide with the terrible misfortune of someone else. The woman who came to Chicago to launch and direct Point Break LIVE! was based in LA, where there was also a long-running production of PBL that was still going. She called me one day out of the blue. “Hey, I know you moved to LA. Are you here now? The actor who plays Swayze for us out here got in a motorcycle accident and broke several bones. He’s okay, but he can’t perform. Can you come in tomorrow for a rehearsal, go on stage Friday and take over the role indefinitely?”
You can’t make this shit up.
So there I was, playing Bodhi again in a different city. Having a blast with my new castmates, entertaining drunk Point Break fans every weekend. Running barefoot down Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood for some of the chase scenes outside our bar/theatre venue. I did that for another six months.
Right around the time I was deciding I didn’t like living in LA, our production took an extended hiatus while the venue was being renovated. I did some soul searching, and realized I needed to move on. I needed to challenge myself with something different. And it wouldn’t happen here.
So I packed up and moved to New York, where I reconnected with some college theatre friends who had started their own theatre company. We wrote, directed, produced and acted in our own material. We crowdsourced, we fundraised, we workshopped and rehearsed our material for weeks and months on end. Sleepless nights building sets. Publicizing ourselves in any way we could, hanging flyers around the city. It was a lot more work than the Point Break gig but so much more gratifying.
Turns out that four years of studying drama in college teaches you loads about the history of theatre and the craft of performance, but not much about the work that goes into the life of an artist. I had to learn that by living it. By working a lot, and by failing a lot. But man, the satisfaction of those New York shows when our company got to take a collective breath after a performance and bask in all the work we had done. Priceless.
While living in LA and New York, my Chicago teams were always what connected me to home. My roommate and I in LA [shout-out Trev!] got Sunday Ticket so we could watch our Bears kickoff at 10 in the morning. As many weeknights as we could, we’d stream Bulls and Blackhawks games. Jumping around our living room after every Rose dunk or Toews goal.
My brother and I found a Bears bar we loved in Manhattan. We’d be there every Sunday, singing “Bear Down, Chicago Bears” after every touchdown and high-fiving people who went from being strangers to fast friends because DA BEARS. We’d go to the Garden for every Bulls and Hawks game, and Barclays when the Nets hosted the Bulls in Brooklyn. [Now that I think of it, I told y’all the story in a recent Pecking Order of the time I nearly missed my entrance for a play I was in because Nate Robinson went nuclear in a triple overtime playoff game.]
All that to say, while I was learning what it meant to put the work behind your life’s purpose, I was also realizing that I wanted to make being a Chicago sports fan my life’s purpose. As passionate as I was for the theatre, it didn’t compare to the passion I felt for my Chicago teams. A few of my theatre friends were kind enough to point that out to me. “Peck, you’re a good actor and all. But you seem to care way more about your teams winning.”
How right they were.
So I moved back to Chicago, knowing nothing about how sports media works but ready to work my tail off to build something. After a six-month training program that taught the very basics of broadcasting – most of which was already common sense to someone with an acting background – I didn’t really know what to do. Kind of a similar situation to when Point Break ended. “Now what?”
I found an online radio website [shout-out BlogTalkRadio!] and started my own show. ChiTown Chatter. Three nights a week, I’d do an hour-long talk show on online radio sharing my thoughts on what was happening in the world of Chicago sports. I’d scrawl pages of hand-written notes for every episode. I think maybe seven people listened to it, and they were all friends or family. But I kept grinding.
A freelance writing gig for a Chicago sports blog. Grind. Then launching a podcast. Grind. Then jumping on as co-host of another podcast. Grind. Then that podcast got picked up by a larger network. Grind. Then a weekend radio show at a tiny station in Evanston. Grind. Then a TV show?! Grind. Then broadcasting Bears games for a startup app. Grind. Then pandemic. Grind. TV show cancelled. Grind. Broadcasting Bulls games for the startup app. Grind. Take over as podcast producer. Grind.
Then a DM from some guy named Brandon, the CEO of ALLCITY NETWORK. Now CHGO.
That was one hell of a journey. And it’s long from over. Jordan won five more championships after all the blood, sweat and tears led him to the first one. Who knows where my career will take me from here. All I know is that the grind can’t ever stop. Because that’s where the joy comes from.
It’s this life experience that has me feeling sorry for those Bulls fans who couldn’t appreciate this season for what it was, because they demanded more. I know it’s not all Bulls fans, it may not even be the majority. But I heard enough complaining over the final two months of the season to know there’s a significant portion of you that walked away from it feeling bad, angry, annoyed … because why? They didn’t win it all? Didn’t make a deep run? So many of you in Bulls Nation can’t seem to grasp the undeniable fact that the team put work in and made progress. They went to the playoffs for the first time in a long time. Is there more work to do before the Bulls are real championship contenders again? Hell yes. About 210 miles of it. But they got out of their broken-down car, dug their heels into the asphalt and started pushing.
Try to find joy in that. It’s not that hard. There isn’t nearly enough joy in this world when it can easily be found in simple things. As much as we all talk and debate and scrutinize, being a sports fan really is a simple thing. We watch the sports we like, and root for the teams we like. Sure, building a winner takes time. And nothing is perfect. Don’t rob yourself of that simple joy because things aren’t perfect. Don’t for a second waste the moments that come during the trying. The grinding. Pushing your stalled ride with tired legs and sweat dripping down your brow because you refuse to stop where you are. Those moments are what make the journey worth it.
I’ve experienced instant gratification, and I’ve experienced long, hard, toiling work that leads to gratification. As a sports fan, and as a human being. One is insurmountably better than the other.
The joy is in the journey.
Don’t believe me? Ask Michael. I’m sure he’d tell you the same thing.
See Red. Be Good.
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