By Dan Bernstein-
CBSChicago.com Senior Columnist
(CBS) There are only three of us watching, and we all share the same grim expression.
Granted we’re at a Blackhawks game, so it’s not exactly a surprise it’s a sparse gathering at the lone flat-screen on the United Center’s 200 level that’s showing the building’s other tenant in action, but it is the playoffs. We’re at the back of the open, airport-style lounge by one of the bars.
My head is tilted back as I look up at the dreary first quarter. Brook Lopez scores, Tom Thibodeau yells something that appears to involve his desire that the Bulls get back on defense. One of my co-viewers shakes his head and looks at the floor, and the other rolls his eyes.
They are both UC employees seemingly sneaking a peek while the hockey rages on, both clad in uniform gray sweaters, wearing credentials on a lanyard. One has a walkie-talkie holstered, the volume turned low enough to allow only a dim, barely-audible crackle.
“Is Derrick there?” I ask.
“Yeah,” the taller one says. “I don’t know why he doesn’t want to play.”
I quick-step it back around to our seats above the goal, regretting that I didn’t ask the kids for a dessert order before I left, considering stopping and texting my wife and then deciding that would be more complicated than just going back and sitting down until the end of the period.
Cell reception sucks anyway, which is what’s keeping me from monitoring the action on Twitter or NBA.com instead of making these occasional TV runs.
At least I was honest about it on the drive over, informing my family that I needed to keep tabs on something as important as a Bulls postseason debut, so dad may need to find a screen showing the game. No worries.
End of the period and I ask my kids if they need a bathroom, ask my son again to make sure, then invite him to join me in checking on the Bulls.
His eyes widen. “Did Rose come back?”
“Then I’ll stay here.”
The concourse is engorging with red Blackhawks jerseys like an artery pumping newly-oxygenated blood cells. Thousands of Hossas, Kanes and Keiths drunk on beer, hockey and hope, pushing out for pit-stops and pizza.
I’m back to the same spot, and my friends are gone.
Now there’s a man about my age with a boy around six or seven who is wearing a black, knit winter cap that says “Bannockburn” in green lettering. They are on a couch, with the kid slumped sleepily against his dad’s side. They are following the action with the kind of glum look that’s more vividly illuminating than the best play-by-play, so I’m not surprised when I register the score.
Reggie Evans makes a basket, which I accept as a proper cue to leave. I spent a brief moment considering leaving the country entirely, beginning a new life as a shopkeeper in a remote Vietnamese fishing village and embracing the ancient, local customs, but I reconsider when I realize that could put a damper on my desire to attend Bears training camp.
Back in the seat, and the action thrums, in the unique symphony of NHL hockey, something unlike anything else in sports. If you really want to appreciate the NHL game fully, try it live, with eyes closed. Masses of voices rising and falling full-throatedly over the clatters, clicks and rattles of the game. The metallic ping of rubber ricocheting off iron is followed by that “Oooooohhhhh.” The amplified organ more than vaguely churchlike. Bursts of three shrill whistles from fidgety fans urging action, shouts from the benches and the remarkable scrape of a steel blade-edge turning 90 degrees at high speed.
A stoppage in play, and one last check on the Bulls, against my better judgment. At this point, I’m now alone to take it in.
It’s a whipsaw, emotionally, going right from the live spectacle of hopeful Blackhawks action to the detached, two-dimensional disappointment on a thin, silver-colored rectangle on the wall, and it’s weird.
Half the Bulls are ciphers, the rest are mostly hurt and the one that matters is locked in an epic battle with his own mind. The opponent conjures no strong feelings. The winner of the series will be seasoned with salt, pepper and olive oil, then seared, plated, garnished with parsley and lemon wedges and presented to LeBron James.
As I watch the last seconds tick away, I’m mindful of experience teaching that such strong impressions can be fleeting, rearranging themselves or evaporating in no time, due to the kind of wild swings in fate that draw us to watching sports in the first place.
But for one night, performance, geography, expectation and the choice of juxtaposition conspired to make something once so grand seem very small, and very far away.
Dan Bernstein joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995, and has been the co-host of Boers and Bernstein since 1999. Read more of Bernstein’s columns, or follow him on Twitter: @dan_bernstein.
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