Reporting Dave Wischnowsky
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By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) So, the Bulls are leaving the Berto Center in Deerfield and planning to build a sparkling new practice facility somewhere in Chicago – perhaps even right next door to the United Center.
That’s great news for team owner Jerry Reinsdorf (it saves him cash by consolidating team operations). That’s great news for the players (Derrick Rose’s commute from the Trump Tower to the UC is three miles, versus 25 to Deerfield). And that’s great news for the city of Chicago (you can bet Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s civic coffers will be receiving some financial benefit from the move).
But what exactly is great about it for the fans?
Nothing that I can clearly see. But I do have a suggestion: When the Bulls come “home,” they should open their practices up to the fans. At least to some of their fans. And at least some of the time.
On Wednesday, the team officially announced it will be leaving Deerfield, home to the team’s offices and practices for more than 25 years, in favor of a new facility inside Chicago’s city limits that currently has no construction timetable but will be privately funded.
News outlets have reported that team and real estate sources have indicated that the Bulls are considering creating a restaurant- and entertainment-based complex just to the east of the United Center that would be modeled after the popular “L.A. Live” area located outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
And in a press release, the Bulls said this new facility “could include additional features that would allow the team to expand its use of the building, particularly during non-practice times. Some ideas under consideration include event and educational space, and greater digital and video production capabilities.”
All of that sounds great, too. Such a multipurpose complex could further invigorate the Near West Side neighborhood around the United Center that’s improved noticeably over the past several years, but residents could certainly still benefit from further upgrades.
However, this new restaurant-and-entertainment complex – which actually was first proposed back in April and is expected to be jointly funded by the Bulls and the Blackhawks – was likely to be built, whether a new basketball practice facility is part of it, or not.
So how does the idea of the Bulls running defensive drills at the place make the facility any better for the team’s fans?
This week, I asked a couple of friends originally from Deerfield just how much of an identity the Berto Center has created for the Bulls among residents of the North Shore community.
Their answer: Not much.
My friends’ take was that since the public can’t actually watch the Bulls practice at the private Berto Center, the team’s tangible impact in Deerfield has been greatly diminished.
Chicagoan Danny Weiss, 26, a Deerfield native, said his hometown’s connection to the Bulls, “was just a matter of being close to where they trained. I don’t think any residents had any attachment to occasionally seeing Joakim Noah get takeout from Woodfire Chicken.”
On Wednesday, Fran Spielman in the Sun-Times reported that Emanuel said during a non-basketball event that he pitched the idea of the Bulls move to Reinsdorf by telling the team owner: “Come home to sweet home Chicago. You are a Chicago basketball team. What are you doing practicing all season in Deerfield? Let the people in Deerfield come down to Chicago and spend some money to see a team if you want to see them practice in the off-season.”
Now, I’m not sure if Spielman was just paraphrasing Emanuel’s statements (it sounded like it), or if the mayor actually said those exact words (Speilman did use quotation marks). The statement, after all, doesn’t quite make sense, since the Bulls don’t really practice during the “offseason.”
Nevertheless, the point that struck me was the thought of letting Bulls fans actually watch the team train. Before the team built the Berto Center in 1992, the players actually spent the previous seven years practicing on a single court at the Multiplex health club in Deerfield, a considerably high profile setting for pro athletes.
“You almost had direct access to see players walking around Multiplex while you were working out or playing,” a man named Carl, who owns Deerfield’s Joy of the Game basketball clinic within view of the former Multiplex, told the Chicago Tribune this week.
And it would be nice for fans in Chicago to have more direct access with their beloved team. This past December, after the NBA Lockout had been resolved, the Golden State Warriors invited fans to visit for an “Open Practice” as a sign of appreciation.
And when the Bulls do build their new facility in Chicago, I think their return could be made more meaningful by allowing a set number of fans to attend a free “Open Practice” at least once or twice a month.
If the team is concerned about prying eyes, it could ban video, live Tweeting and cell phone usage from fans during the practices. Or the Bulls could simply schedule drills on “Open Practice” days that don’t require a thick cloak of secrecy.
In any case, I think it such a move would be a positive gesture to the thousands of fans who pack the United Center for every Bulls game – or, perhaps even better, a positive gesture to the team’s fans who can’t afford tickets.
In a release this week, Reinsdorf explained that, “The mayor stressed that the Bulls’ brand is important to the city, nationally and internationally, and that the Bulls represent the spirit and competitive grit of Chicago. He thought centralizing our team assets inside the city limits would be a show of our ongoing commitment to Chicago.
“We have been contemplating how to address the growth limitations of our practice facility for awhile, so the mayor’s timing and ours seems to make sense.”
It would make even more sense if the new practice facility also showed the Bulls’ ongoing commitment to their devoted fans, as well.
With open (practice) arms.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.