Chicago held the spotlight of the basketball world this weekend, culminating in Team USA’s first exhibition game in preparation for the FIBA World Cup in September. The U.S. won 95-78 over Brazil as the game also marked Derrick Rose’s first home game at the United Center since November of 2013 after being dealt another season-ending knee injury. This is my personal account of the fan experience with photos, video, and even doses of #analysis.
Step 1: Getting Tickets
What’s the one thing you need in order to see the first official game of the 2014 version of Team USA? Well, tickets of course. An hour before gametime, my college friend and fellow Bulls/D. Rose/overall basketball enthusiast Aaron and I didn’t have any. We knew we wanted to go to the game, but didn’t act fast enough to buy tickets online before they sold out and nearly doubled in price on StubHub. Our only reasonable option was to trust the United Center scalpers.
Fortunately, leaning on my experience buying scalped tickets at Wrigley Field during the Cubs’ Division Champion run in ’06-’07 gave me some extra faith that we’d find scalpers with fair prices and most importantly: legit tickets. The plan worked to perfection as we haggled the first scalper we saw to come down and sell us a couple “uppers” (ironically, a drug slang is also used for scalping tickets) for a tame $50 each. The printed Ticketmaster tickets looked legit with only the small tidbit of the ultra-generic name “Danny Jones” on the tickets giving us slight butterflies. But as we zoomed to the front of the line, the sound of the ticket scanner was sweeter than normal. Just like that, we were in the UC with about 45 minutes to soak in pre-game.
Chicago Needs Basketball, Basketball Needs Chicago
A recurring theme throughout World Basketball Festival weekend was the relationship between basketball and Chicago. Nike drove it home with this clean “Basketball Needs Chicago” t-shirt Anthony Davis was sporting and available on sale at the UC concessions. Right off the bat though, this reigned true. As we toured the first level concourse and eventually settled in our seats, we noticed a buzz in the crowd akin to a Bulls playoff game. A large part of it had to do with the return of Derrick Rose — the first time his hometown crowd would get to see him play in 9 months. But this would also be Chicagoan Anthony Davis‘ first professional game in the United Center and Team USA would also feature players and coaches with Chicago ties (Coach K, born here | Coach Thibs, coaches here | Kyle Korver, founder of hot sauce here) amidst perennial all-stars of the NBA. All things considered, plus combined with 3 straight playoffs of injury-plagued disappointment, and Chicago basketball fans were yearning for a winner to cheer for. What better choice this summer than our own country?
And bringing it full circle, who better to express how much basketball means to Chicago than Derrick Rose? The hero returned to an overwhelmingly loud M-V-P chant and delivered a brief, heartfelt speech of thanks for everyone involved and to USA Basketball for bringing the game to the city of Chicago, making it a point to acknowledge the ongoing violence that’s been affecting our youth. It was a real moment that audibly moved the crowd (that the video below doesn’t fully do justice) and we got the feeling that Rose could have kept going if he wanted to.
With our Chicago pride now at the max., and more Kanye West blaring from the speakers (Team USA came out to “All of the Lights”), the rabid crowd was ready for tip-off. Aaron and I fist bumped after 2 goosebumps moments in the pre-game alone (the speech above, and just before that, the first deafening cheers for D. Rose that drowned out his P.A. introduction). We already knew we were supposed to be here.
Oh yeah, there was a game.
The first quarter did not disappoint and right away, we got a sense of how the Team USA rotation may play out as the World Cup is now less than 2 weeks away in Spain. The starting 5: Derrick Rose & Steph Curry in the backcourt with James Harden as the 3rd guard/forward. The bouncy energy from Kenneth Faried complimenting the ultra-bouncy Anthony Davis up front. I love the dynamic of this starting 5 that brings a little bit of everything to the table with a balance of scoring, shooting, and high-energy defense. It was evident right away with Steph Curry making his first 3 shots and drawing the first “oohs” and “ahhs” of many more to come.
Since they’re my two favorite players, seeing Rose and Curry in the backcourt is already exciting, but imagining them working together as a threat to score and distribute, alongside James Harden too, creates a series of potent offensive weapons from the perimeter. I think we’ll forget that Kevin Durant was supposed to play on Team USA this year once Rose becomes a little more comfortable and assertive with these two as the World Cup progresses.
We were still waiting for our first Derrick Rose moment in the first quarter, but it was Anthony Davis who instead started his show for the hometown crowd that continued to the tune of a game-high 20 points, 7 rebounds, 4 impressive blocks, 2 jump-out-of-your-seats alley-oops, and 1 reckless all-out hustle dive into the crowd that inspired the night’s lone, booming U-S-A chant. This goosebumps moment stemmed from Davis’ game-long dominance, with the dive embodying his play and galvanizing the crowd full of Chicago and national pride. We respect the blue-collar hustle and that was one of those intangible moments that left me convinced that the hype around Anthony Davis as the next superstar of the NBA is real.
Back to the main attraction though. Mason Plumlee followed Rudy Gay as the next guy off the bench, indicating he’ll make the team ahead of DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Drummond — a bold move because of the talent discrepancy, but Plumlee proved he fit his role nicely. Derrick Rose. It wasn’t until the close of the first half when we saw D. Rose unleashed. We saw the Derrick Rose of old, and we saw the Derrick Rose of new reports — media member after media member, and coach after coach, having raved about Rose’s athleticism and play during Team USA camp — all in the span of 4.6 seconds. You may already know the play I’m talking about — a coast to coast drive that spanned 4 dribbles and one pretty floater off the glass that swished through the net at the buzzer — but you definitely haven’t seen it captured in the raw by our own Teddy Waffles, at the game too.
And I’d be remiss not to post the crossover and layup that warranted the rare double roar from the UC crowd. Though the Phantom Cam may expose a travel, it does doll up the mid-air walk that Rose performs before laying it in with the left hand.
The Chicago Pride continued heavily throughout the second half with Davis‘ aforementioned dive and dominance, Rose playing 15 of the game’s final 20 minutes, and Chicago legends like Common (seen here talking to Steph Curry about how he and Rose can be the backcourt for the Bulls too, maybe) and Scottie Pippen earning especially loud cheers. The game ended at 95-78 as the U.S. ratcheted up their defense (intense all the way throughout) to pull away in the fourth. The final result became a footnote to an overall night that had a heavy Chicago feel to it — Rose‘s return, Anthony Davis as player of the game, Coach K, Thibs, and Kyle Korver receiving louder cheers than popular all-stars James Harden and Damian Lillard, and even old and new Bulls rivals Nene, Anderson Varejao and Kyrie Irving receiving boos — Bulls fans are ready for more basketball.
Post-Game, wherein we meet the fans
Contributing to the unique hometown experience of the game was what happened immediately after the game. Walking down the stairs and out the United Center, we followed quite possibly the truest old-school Bulls fans representing this fantastic Starting 5 of various Bulls era players.
After a lengthy talk about the strategies to buy vintage Champion jerseys, we proceeded to snap another picture outside the UC — the one-time only photo of Derrick Rose in Team USA gear on the new digital signage that’s a fresh, modern addition to a stadium that is suddenly older than most of the arenas in the country now.
On the walk back to my car, we met an older gentleman with a Brooklyn Nets shirt who was confused — for another reason besides the Brooklyn Nets shirt, ha. In a hard-to-understand accent, he asked us where the nearest train station was and we said just a few more blocks east on Lake. Walking the same direction to my car, (Pro Tip: Grab a free spot on Lake, there are plenty available and I like the trade-off of $22 parking for a measly 2-3 block extra walk.) he said he’s a fan from Brazil who came into Chicago for the game. What! That’s amazing. What national pride he has to travel all those ways to see his team play basketball against the ultra-talented U.S. We wished him well and to get more out of his stay in our lovely city, while independently marveling at how this Team USA vs. Brazil game brought together some of the game of basketball’s biggest fans.
The TL;DR Takeaways
1. Derrick Rose is back! On the court, there’s moments of rust and a lack of fluidity, but the explosion, the creativity, and the defense are in 2011 MVP glimpses. Gone too are the skeptics questioning his reluctance to come back, while returning is the adoring love of his hometown fans — and if you belong to each group, you know who you are. Here are the full Derrick Rose highlights (and constant love from the Chicago fans.)
2. After watching Steph Curry in person, I hope he dribbles and shoots every time he touches the ball, even if he’s 35 feet away, and upon each shot, I expect it to go in. This is a fantastic, recurring moment of excitement for the fan in-person.
3. Anthony Davis may be the 3rd best basketball player in the world today. His length, bounce, and athleticism are other-worldly and that’s combined with a natural instinct for the ball on offense or defense, a silky smooth jumper, and the intangible hustle exemplified by the obliteration of the front-row. Off Davis alone, I think our frontcourt will be in good shape in Spain.
4. Chicago is a basketball town! I mean, we all knew this already, but Chicago is most certainly on the highest of levels that I’m sure we’ll share with New York City, where the U.S. plays their next game on Wednesday. To put the icing on the cake for the city, look at how Jordan Brand perfectly captured and amplified the buzz, and for me, capped off an amazing night.