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Saturday, January 28, 2023

Between nostalgia and “fascination for Jordan”, the passion for the Chicago Bulls has crossed time

At the Marcel-Cerdan Sports Center (Levallois),

We can stay on 24 seasons without a title, half of which without play-offs, with only one conference final (in 2011), while maintaining the largest attendance in the entire NBA. But also by shaking France, on the occasion of an NBA Paris Game this Thursday (9 p.m. in Bercy) which would almost steal the show at Fashion Week in the capital. The 14,700 tickets for this poster, however, hardly flashy between Detroit and Chicago, currently 14th and 10th in the Eastern Conference, thus left in 30 minutes. The explanation for this crazy effervescence seems above all to hold in two initials: and yes, MJ.

Flagship basketball commentator in France since 1985, and still at the microphone of Canal + this Thursday, George Eddy explains: “The Bulls obviously still represent the era of Michael Jordan. It was the best team in the world in the 1990s. Jordan helped popularize the NBA around the world and there is a certain nostalgia when talking about the Bulls with French fans, because MJ remains very present in all the spirits”. Head of the basketball section on beIN Sports, Xavier Vaution continues: “It’s such a historic franchise that it remains very popular even in France. When you think of the Bulls, there is this jersey, this logo, this music. At beIN, we have Eric Micoud [ancien joueur pro devenu consultant] who remains a huge Bulls follower and still says « we » when he talks about their games. »

“Winning too much became almost boring”

This visceral link with the Illinois franchise, Bertrand Landry (35), responsible for the French Twitter account of reference dedicated to the Bulls, has it since 1996, year of fifth title for the band to Phil Jackson. « As a kid, I started getting interested in basketball when Jordanmania was at its peak, » he says. It was a funny period: I watched videos of matches recorded on Canal + three days late, and I was calm: before the Internet, there was no one to spoil me. “Today, Bertrand Landry no longer imagines missing the slightest match of his favorite team, which he watches live in the middle of the night thanks to the NBA League Pass, “with a nap before and a nap after”. In 27 seasons as a supporter, this employee at Disneyland Paris, who spent a year in the Orlando park (Florida) in order to be able to attend around fifteen Bulls NBA games, is aware of having known more lows than high with his heart team.

« In 1998, after the sixth title in eight years and the retirement of Jordan, I said to myself that winning too much was becoming almost boring, and I blame myself for having thought that, laughs the one who will obviously be at Bercy this Thursday . With Jordan’s retirement, I wanted to see what could fall into place, but I was disgusted because our matches were never on Canal+ again. Fortunately, the link was kept thanks to video games, even if they were zero there too at that time. Bertrand Landry’s passion managed to resist the Corey Benjamin and Eddy Curry years, then those of Kris Dunn and Luke Kornet. No small feat.

China only dreamed of the Bulls and Jordan as early as 1987

At random on a light plate (pizza, fries, hot dog, donut), Wednesday at the improvised self-service of the Palais des sports Marcel-Cerdan de Levallois, where Bulls then Pistons were training, we were lucky enough to come across Sam Smith. And yes, LE Sam Smith almost starred in the famous Netflix series The Last Dancededicated to Michael Jordan in 2020. Suffice to say that at 74, the former journalist for Chicago Grandstandand best-selling author The Jordan Rules, had a lot of opportunities to measure the popularity of the red bull in the world. “Even though the Bulls are no longer a title-winning team, they retain the most internationally recognizable logo and branding, where the Lakers and Celtics remain essentially known in the United States, despite all their titles. “, notes the current editor for the site bulls.com.

As he recalls, the Bulls matter in the landscape of international basketball after their dynasty, but also before. Because in 1987, when American League boss David Stern traveled to China to try to sign a TV contract, « they didn’t know anything about basketball and the NBA there, but they were already talking about this bull. red and Michael Jordan,” Sam Smith assures us. Rebelote concerning the popularity of the NBA outside the USA via MJ in 1990, with its first show in France, in the small gymnasium Géo-André (Paris XVIe) in fusion, with its 2,000 fans crowded together, and its 8,000 other disappointed outside .

Jordan’s ultimate paparazzi target in 1997 in Paris

Yes yes, from 1990, before His Airness’ first NBA title in 1991, as well as the fabulous Dream Team of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. And then there is this McDonald’s Open in October 1997 in Bercy, the culmination of the star status of number 23 in Europe, then called « God » in the French press. Sam Smith perfectly remembers the atmosphere around the Bulls’ two victories against PSG Racing (89-82) and Olympiakos (104-78): « People were excited by absolutely all of Jordan’s gestures: they saw him like an acrobat. He had the attention of the whole room, all the time. Then pivot of PSG Racing during this tournament, Eric Struelens shares this observation.

Clearly everyone wanted to see Jordan. Personally, this match is in the Top 3 of the best memories of my career, even if Scottie Pippen and THE phenomenon Dennis Rodman were missing. We were lucky to have a huge media coverage around us that evening. So I wanted to show myself in front of the Bulls, to see if one day I would have the opportunity, why not, to play in the NBA. »

The answer will unfortunately be negative for our Belgian interior, then 27 years old, and present despite himself on some stunning highlights from Jordan, author of 28 points in a match finally hung (89-82). Did he take the opportunity to take a selfie (even before the word was born) with MJ, in the middle of the Intercontinental de Paris IXe, where all the teams resided? “No, we saw him very little and it was not my style to bother him for a photo, loose Eric Struelens. I had much more contact with Steve Kerr and Luc Longley in the hotel lobby. When we went out the main door, there were always people hanging around hoping to see him, and paparazzi on the lookout. But Jordan had his way out, and the police weren’t letting go. »

Belgian pivot Eric Struelens had the chance to face Michael Jordan at the McDonalds Open on October 17, 1997 in Bercy.
Belgian pivot Eric Struelens had the chance to face Michael Jordan at the McDonalds Open on October 17, 1997 in Bercy. – GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP

4,000 euros of Cuban cigars bought in the center

Including for one of the rare outings of the Bulls star that week, to buy 18,000 francs (4,000 euros)… of cigars. But why this oddity exactly, when he also locked himself in his hotel room for four days? The end of the story is obviously for Sam Smith: “He absolutely wanted to buy Cuban cigars because there was an embargo against Cuba here, so he couldn’t buy any in the United States. So he wanted to refuel. Anyone would have had all their cigars confiscated at the airport, but not Michael Jordan. Likewise, he never received a single fine in Chicago while collecting speeding tickets. »

Amazing privileges that also built the legend of his majesty in Chicago, and thus allowed his franchise to remain forever apart. « The Bulls are still extremely popular around the world, » said DeMar DeRozan, the team’s winger in 2023 and the main asset of this irregular group battling to qualify for the play-offs. It all started with Michael, and now we have the honor of coming full circle by returning to Paris for a match. And this in the presence of several hundred American fans who had come from Chicago « especially for the match and not to visit the city » (according to Sam Smith).

Around DeMar DeRozan, the Bulls posed again in front of the Eiffel Tower this week, just over 25 years after who you know.
Around DeMar DeRozan, the Bulls posed again in front of the Eiffel Tower this week, just over 25 years after who you know. – NBAE Getty Image

Programmers no longer tear off the Bulls

However, if beIN Sports and Canal + (in clear) will go all out to broadcast this poster on Thursday, the Bulls are no longer necessarily favored by programmers in France during the rest of the year. « We have to be in the culture of the moment, and since the Bulls are not terrible today, nobody is chasing their absolute programming on television », specifies Xavier Vaution. An implacable logic, which contrasts with the unreasoned passion carrying away so many fans around the world.

“Today, there remains this fascination for the Bulls because of Michael Jordan, who is like a character from mythology, sums up Sam Smith. There’s a « let’s stay close to the team Jordan played for » side to some fans. And no matter where the Bulls travel in the United States, you see team jerseys worn all over the room. And there is no doubt that this fascination for the number 23 will succeed in the feat of lasting even longer than the American embargo against Cuba.

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