The date was November 7, and the Bulls were playing the Philadelphia 76ers in a game they’d go on to lose 106-85. Coach Bill Cartwright led a dismal roster that included names like Marcus Fizer, Eddy Curry, Eddie Robinson, and Lonny Baxter. Ugh.
Just another night.
Then, at one timeout, something different happened. The whistle blew, and a group of flamboyantly dressed overweight men ran out to the middle of the court. The music started (“YMCA,” by The Village People, natch), and the men started their routine: Rubbing their ample bellies. Pulling up their shirts. Gyrating. Dancing (kind of). Sweating.
And then, after roughly 90 seconds of corpulent song and dance, they were gone.
Thus began nine years of the Chicago Matadors, a ragtag group of CTA bus drivers, actors, and mortgage compliance officers. There was just one non-negotiable rule to be a Matador: You had to be large. Very large.
The inspiration for the Matadors came from Mark Cuban, the marketing-savvy owner of the Dallas Mavericks. Bulls execs purloined the idea, created the Matadors, and the rest is history.
Until it wasn’t. The Bulls dropped the Matadors last year.
This is their story, as told by key participants.
Mark Cuban, Owner, Dallas Mavericks: I was at a game in Seattle and this very large man stood up and started dancing. The crowd loved it. I thought that if they loved one guy, they would love a whole bunch of guys dancing and making fun of themselves.
Steve Schanwald, Executive V.P., Business Operations, Chicago Bulls: The Dallas Mavericks had a similar group — I believe it was Mark Cuban’s idea. We thought it was great, so we stole it from them.
Cathy Core, Director, Luvabulls, Jr. Luvabulls, BullsKidz, and Swingin’ Seniors (former Matadors director): I was only hesitant because I wanted to make sure it could be done properly, so it wasn’t too mocking. I wanted to be sure it was done in the right spirit. Their first appearance at their first Bulls game was after many weeks of strenuous practice to ensure a spectacular debut.
Al “Big Al the Ladies’ Pal” Cruz, Matador 2006–2012 (sports a Matadors tattoo on right arm): I saw an ad on a website, and it said, ‘Hey, if you’re big and you like to dance, come on out.’ So I told my wife I was going to help somebody move, and I went straight to the United Center…. I didn’t want her to discourage me, to say ‘You’re too old, you’re too fat.’ I just wanted to do my thing.
Everette “Michael” Jackson, Matador 2009–2012: Actually, I didn’t find out about the Matadors — they found out about me. I went to a Cubs game, fully enjoyed myself, and then went to a bar after the game and there was this big open dance floor. I was like [in drunk voice], ‘Why is no one dancing?’ So I just started dancing in the middle, and it was just like a movie. Everyone started dancing.
Some Bulls execs were in the corner and they saw me, and they came over to me and said, ‘You should be a Matador.’ And I didn’t know what they were talking about. I was too inebriated to know what they meant, so the next day I was googling this with some buddies and saw what it was about, and I was like, ‘Let’s do this.’
I auditioned, and I made it.
Kevin “The Man-Machine” Blanchard, Matador 2003–2012: I remember our debut game at the United Center — we walked out on the court and just anchored these poses. Announcer Steve Scott introduced us, and I’m just hearing the crowd cheering, and seeing people on their feet… tears just welled up in my eyes. And I’m like… I can’t believe this is happening. [His eyes start to dampen.] And the thing was, I told people in high school, ‘I’m going to do something for the Chicago Bulls.’ And… it was my moment.
For men who’d been living largely anonymous lives, performing at center court of Bulls games was a surreal experience.The Matadors’ success spread quickly, and soon they were on TV shows including “Live! with Regis and Kathy,” “Inside Edition,” and more. The Matadors rubbed elbows with NBA stars and celebrities, and their fame even spread to Europe.
Cruz: We went to Greece — a couple times, actually. We performed in a European all-star game. We went out there with some Luvabulls and had a blast. We entertained, we went sightseeing, we went partying, and everything in between.
Core: They were very well received in Greece. It was a phenomenon, actually. People loved them, embraced them. They had a really good time.
Jackson: The earlier Matadors went to Greece — that’s part of the lore. I was kind of bitter that we never took any of those trips, but the sponsors just fell off. I was always hoping for that, but it didn’t happen.
Blanchard: I’ve had the chance to sit down and chat with Derrick Rose. I’ve chatted with Andres Nocioni, I’ve had a chance to talk to [Joakim] Noah, the announcers, the coaches. Good people. They’ve always told us how much they liked us.
Jackson: I made fun of LeBron James because was wearing some capri sweatpants, and I thought that was a poor fashion choice. He makes too much money to go out in public like that. So we surrounded him with gnomes. We kind of got in trouble for that, but he laughed it off. But Reggie Miller… man. He was not a nice person.
Vince “The Big Fish” LiFonti, Matador 2009–2012: Our routines were a minute, a minute-forty at the most. You’re out there, boom-boom-boom, you’re done. But when everything is in sync, you wish it would go on forever.
Blanchard: Man, it was a state of euphoria. When the crowd was feeling it, that just amped me up even more. The smile would just come on my face. And I’d be like, ‘OK, you like that? Check THIS out!’
We always gave them something new — even if we did the same routine, we’d just throw in something they ain’t never seen before just to get that pop.
Bernie “Thicky Martin” Salazar, Matador 2004–2005 (“At-Home winner of NBC’s “The Biggest Loser,” 2008): It was truly liberating.
Core: I always enjoyed them very much. They were very high-spirited and dedicated and prideful in the job they did. They always made sure they were portrayed properly, and the Bulls organization was portrayed properly, and it was good, wholesome entertainment. And they didn’t take themselves too seriously. That was a big plus.
Were there special moves?
LiFonti: Oh, definitely. My move was the belly wave. [He lifts up his shirt and makes his ample belly undulate from top to bottom.]
Jackson: I used to do a little shake, a little shimmy. I’d play ‘hide the arms’ [moves arms behind his back] — like, ‘Where are they coming from now?’ I learned that in show choir, in high school.
Cruz: I didn’t have a move, but I created my own persona. I wore a matador’s hat — I got it from Spain. I dug that. I was the only Hispanic on the team at the time, so I carried that with me.
Salazar: We did a “Greased Lightning” number, and I was the chunky Danny Zuko.
Of course, not everyone loved the Matadors.
Chet Coppock, host of Chicago Blackhawks Heritage series and Notre Dame football games on WLS, and author of the book Fat Guys Shouldn’t Be Dancin’ at Halftime: I thought it was an atrocity. There was something… not repulsive, but ugly about the whole thing.
These guys were living, breathing billboards for heart disease and obesity. I’d see the guy with the red mohawk, and I’d think, ‘Is that really how you want to go through life? Do you really think you’re going to get the key to the executive suite by being a Matador? I don’t think so.’
I have a lot of respect for the Chicago Bulls marketing department, but I thought they really dropped the ball on that one.
David Axelrod, Director of the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago and former Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama (and Bulls’ season-ticket holder since 1976): As a guy who’s on the pudgy side himself, I always thought the celebration of girth at an athletic event was a bit incongruous.
But others saw a positive image for overweight people.
Peggy Howell, public relations director, National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance: I think it’s terrific that these fans feel the freedom to express their enthusiasm in support of their team. Their body size is irrelevant. They obviously spent a good deal of time choreographing and practicing their routines, and I imagine the team and and other fans find them entertaining and appreciate their dedication. Kudos on them!
Schanwald: People will have all kinds of opinions on everything under the sun. I saw the crowd really enjoying it. So we saw that it added entertainment value.
Salazar says his experience with the team gave him the strength to audition for “The Biggest Loser,” which he won and netted him $100,000. He currently weighs 180 pounds, which is 120 pounds lighter than he was at his heaviest.
Salazar: Before the Matadors, I would walk into a restaurant and look for the most secluded table. I had really low self-esteem, which was brought about by the weight.
But the camaraderie of the Matadors made me feel like I didn’t have to suck in my stomach, and I didn’t have to pretend to be something I wasn’t. No one in that locker room was OK with their weight, but we understood where we were. And it really helped me.
I mean, every one of us was the guy who didn’t get picked, or got made fun of at recess. So we had this wealth of fat jokes just stockpiled. I was like, ‘OK, I’m going to get made fun of, but it’s OK because it’s coming from someone like me.’
Once, one of the guys turned to me and said, ‘Look at you, standing there all fat. I bet you knew Burger King when he was a prince.’ I loved that.
It opened my eyes and told me I was more than my weight, and it was OK to feel comfortable being in own skin.
The Matadors were part of the Bulls’ in-game entertainment for nine years. Then the team decided to pull the plug at the end of the 2011–2012 season. The Matadors performed for the last time on April 28, 2012 — the same day that Derrick Rose blew out his knee.
Schanwald: We simply thought it was time to move in a different direction. It had run its course. Our game presentation has always evolved and will never stop evolving.
Core: Sometimes, a group just runs its course and you need to shake it up a little bit. You need new acts, new talent. Keep everything fresh. I think that’s what happened.
Most of the Matadors were devastated when their time in the spotlight suddenly ended.
LiFonti: We were all depressed [when it ended]. The response we were getting from the crowd for the last few years was great. The first five or six years of the Matadors, we did a lot of shaking, a lot of lifting our shirts. But the last three, four years, they brought in a new choreographer and it was more about the dance. It’s been less about taking our shirts off. We really felt like we were a dance team. We really felt good about it.
At least one Matadors wasn’t too sad to see the Matadors’ run end, however.
Jackson: I was kind of negative about [being in the Matadors] after a couple of years. I was going to try to quit because I wanted to get my life together and get my health back… and they would load us up with food, we would do eating contests throughout the city. It just wasn’t conducive to me trying to lose weight. So I was going to try to get out of it, to try to get skinny and try to get a new life.
And has it worked?
Jackson: Yeah, it has. I’ve lost about 40 pounds so far. I’m still trying to do better.
By and large, the Matadors enjoy their memories — and there’s still the hope that things aren’t quite over yet.
LiFonti: It was the best three years of my life.
Cruz: It allows me to look back and say ‘I’ve accomplished what I’ve wanted with my life.’ I’m 48 years old, and I could have been sitting in my living room, getting bigger. But this allowed me to be myself and who I really was, and I didn’t have an outlet for that. This gave me that outlet, to go out there and be silly and have fun.
Core: I was very sad to see them go. Very much.
Do you miss them?
Core: With all my heart, and my funny bone, I miss them.
LiFonti: We’ve been talking about getting back together — a couple colleges have been talking to us, the Bikini Basketball League is interested. So we’re working with them on doing some more stuff.
Blanchard: I always said, if ever the day should come that I have kids, I’ll be able to pop a DVD into the player and tell my kids, ‘Your dad did this. And the crowd loved him.’
Cruz: I almost look at it like, we’re not done, we’re just waiting to get called back when Derrick Rose comes back. We’re hoping. We’ve got to work our way back, and just see if there’s a place for us.