My mother was not what you’d call a sports fan. She had eight kids, six girls, and while I would never claim that this fact alone made our house a sports-free zone, it clearly played a part. We had estrogen in the air, thick as the scent of Lemon Pledge on cleaning day. We had Joni Mitchell and “Masterpiece Theater” and macramé. Georgia O’Keefe on the walls. Feminist tomes on the bookshelves.
We didn’t have a lot of balls.
Throughout my childhood, I don’t believe I ever saw my mother sit down to watch a televised sporting event, other than Wimbledon or the Olympics. Until one winter, when I came home on a break from college to discover that my Ingmar Bergman-loving, jockstrap-scorning mama had opened her heart — and, in effect, her newly empty nest — to a band of sweaty giants, led by a bald superhero named Michael Jordan.
Now, we lived in the suburbs of Chicago — “Chicagoland,” as it’s known by locals, as if the Midwest’s largest metropolitan area were one of the themed sections of Disney’s Magic Kingdom — and you could argue that every Chicagoan with a TV and a pulse caught at least a mild case of Bulls fever in those days. But my mother was never a joiner. If anything, the faintest whiff of what “everyone” was doing, wearing, or caring about was usually enough to send her in the opposite direction.
But those Bulls. They could not be denied.
Naturally it started with His Airness. Mom spoke of M.J. the way I’d only ever heard her speak of her artistic and musical gods — Michelangelo, Picasso, Pavorotti, Dylan. Except, with Jordan, I detected a different sort of breathlessness. The fact that she was speaking this way of an athlete — a basketball player, no less — seemed to make her a bit giddy, like the bookworm who discovers she’s harboring a crush on the football captain.
If it had only been about Jordan, it would have been understandable — anyone could see that the guy was a phenom. But Mom took on the whole gang, as if adopting a new (and, let’s face it, genetically superior) brood: Dennis Rodman, the rascal, who could be forgiven for his tacky orange dye job, but not for dating Madonna. Scottie Pippen, with that Modigliani face only a mother — my mother! — could love. Stevie Kerr, an adorable pipsqueak at 6’3”. And the gangly Serb Toni Kukoc, whose name, when Mom intoned it, sounded like a mouth full of caramels. It was astonishing. For the first and only time in my life, I could imagine my mother with a house full of boys.
She never really delved into the technicalities of plays, but it was clear that she recognized the beauty of teamwork, of great athletes well coached and clicking together. The thrill of victory (A three-peat! And then another!) was undeniably part of the allure, but so, I sensed, was the joy of stumbling upon a new passion, discovering that you could care about something you didn’t think you could care about.
Mom had confessed to me once, many years earlier, that she had always thought of herself as noncompetitive; she just didn’t get it, the whole competition thing. Until something — a tennis lesson, I think it was — made her realize, with a kind of fascinated horror, that she was so competitive, she couldn’t allow herself to compete. She stopped taking tennis lessons.
There’s a reason we speak of things we love unreservedly as our “weaknesses.” My mother needed a few of those; at least, for me she did. Her effortless style, her artistic and political convictions, her apparent lack of concern for what others thought of her — all in, they formed a charismatic but somewhat impenetrable package. Caring about a sports team, even one as unstoppable as those Jordan-era Bulls, made a lovely little chink in her armor. She was in her 60s, and she had finally allowed herself some skin in the game.
My parents left Chicago in ’95, and it must be said that my mother’s Bulls obsession was exorcised not long thereafter. Jordan retired; coach Phil Jackson moved west; and Mom moved on, too. Maybe I dishonor the true believers by even granting her the label of “Bulls Fan,” for such a fair-weather stint. Real fandom — especially in Chicagoland — begins when your team starts to lose.
But like any great love, my mother’s fling with Michael and the boys left its mark. Lexington, Kentucky, where my parents relocated in retirement, has its own basketball culture, and while Mom never entirely adopted the UK Wildcats as her own, her ability to talk hoops helped ease her transition into Bluegrass society. It also gave her a nice — if at times feisty — point of conversational entry with the Duke fanatic who would become my husband. I think it even brought her a little closer to her own husband.
My father had long since given up trying to get her interested in his beloved DePaul Blue Demons. But he would always have the memory of those years when, together, they ran with the Bulls.
Shannon Barr is a freelance writer. In another, slightly better dressed life, she was a copywriter, creative director, and marketing pro, mostly for a little company called Condé Nast, publishing what used to be called “magazines” and now seem to be known as “media brands.” A proud contributor to The Relish she has also contributed morsels of prose to Esquire, New Woman, and other media brands. Armed with an MFA in nonfiction writing from Columbia, a BA in English from Yale, and a very supportive family, she is at work on her first novel.