Once upon a time, Chicago was the city of Ditka, Ozzie and Lou.
Now, it’s the city of Lovie, Robin and, um, Dale.
Once upon a time, Chicago hung on every syllable that rolled off Michael Jordan’s tongue, was enthralled by each Sammy Sosa heart tap, and boasted enough colorful gridiron characters to spark not just a Super Bowl, but a Shuffle, too.
Now, the city’s biggest sports star is a silent, wounded Bull, its baseball rosters may as well be the Witness Protection Program, and the football team has traded its punky QB for a grumpy one.
Yes, once upon a time, Chicago’s sports idols were fascinating.
Now, they’re…wait…who are they again?
So, what in the name of Harry Caray’s ghost happened? Where have all of our compelling sports personalities gone? Where are the egos? The charisma? The sex appeal? The sizzle? And what, exactly, does this transformation say about us?
We were jilted by the International Olympic Committee—and Oprah. We have leaders who think we should be jazzed about a NATO summit coming to town. And, last year, when Forbes ranked the most powerful celebrity athletes in the world, no one in Chicago made the list.
I happen to think Chicago is the greatest city in the country. Period. But when it comes to our Q Score—the industry standard for measuring a person’s consumer appeal—we’re seriously lagging. There are no Tebows here. No LeBrons. No Linsanity.
It’s not supposed to be this way. We’ve never been able to compete with the glitz of L.A. or the power of New York—except when it comes to our sports figures. In that regard, we’ve usually had a nice lineup of first-tier stars, with that critical mix of good guys (Gale Sayers, Walter Payton, Rogers Hornsby, Bill Veeck, Ernie Banks, Stan Mikita) and bad guys (Shoeless Joe Jackson, Dennis Rodman, Leo Durocher).
But, now, scan the current rosters of Chicago’s five major pro sports franchises and count the number of athletes you’d consider A-list stars. I come up with just three: Derrick Rose, Brian Urlacher, and Jonathan Toews. And when it comes to personality, you’re lucky if that trio generates a quartet of interesting words.
On a chatty day.
There are other athletes in Chicago who register nationally. Think Jay Cutler, Devin Hester, Julius Peppers, Patrick Kane, Alfonso Soriano, Paul Konerko, Joakim Noah, and Kerry Wood. Wood cursed out a reporter the other day, which put him back on the national radar—for a blip. But it’s still difficult to call him or any of the others real head-turners.
It’s even more difficult to call any of them first-tier celebrities, although Cutler may have climbed a step or two thanks to his reality star fiancée.
Can you imagine any of the men on this list gripping your attention for an hour-long TV interview? With his various eccentricities (tennis-playing father, French upbringing), Noah might. But Joakim is no Rodman. Hell, he’s probably not even Carlos Zambrano.
Truth is, if you had to pick one active Chicago sports figure to fill an auditorium or a five-page magazine profile, it probably wouldn’t even be a player, or even a coach. It would be the Cubs’ president of baseball operations, Theo Epstein. And let’s face it, Theo’s not all that scintillating, either. He’s just new.
Considering this dearth of big-time sports personalities in Chicago—still America’s third-largest market—you’d think that some brash young hotshot would jump at the chance to roll into town and take over.
But no. LeBron James turned his bearded cheek. Dwyane Wade did the same—and he’s from here. Orlando’s Dwight Howard made it pretty clear this winter that Chicago was not the place to build his “global brand.”
Why doesn’t Chicago capture their fancy? Perhaps not enough palm trees?
Henry Schafer, the executive vice president of The Q Scores Company, a New York-based firm that measures the appeal of personalities, characters and brands, has a theory about why the Windy City might be blowing cold for top jocks: No one can live up to the standard set by Michael Jordan.
“The city of Chicago has never had a follow-up star even close to Michael Jordan,” Schafer said. “For a variety of reasons, Jordan remains such an icon and really hasn’t lost any luster since his retirement, even with his lack of success as an NBA executive. It really hasn’t had an effect on his image.”
Maybe it is true that Chicagoans still haven’t “gotten over” Jordan, and everyone else pales in comparison. Or perhaps it’s true that MJ’s specter still looms so large over the city that major stars—NBA ones, in particular—opt for a different scene to make their name. Or maybe we’re just in a slump.
None of this is to say Chicago teams can’t succeed without star power. But if the Bulls had won it all this season, I still would have missed the cigar-smoking, stuff-strutting of the Jordan and Scottie Pippen era.
In a recent Chicago Tribune column about the decline of Chicago’s celebrity, Phil Rosenthal theorized,
“Chicagoans have worried about Chicago’s image and its standing practically from the day settlers first tugged themselves from the mud at the mouth of the Chicago River.
“That’s been the impetus for so much of what we’ve brought and built here to showcase the city, whether it’s staging the World’s Columbian Exposition, building the hemisphere’s tallest skyline or agreeing to host this May’s NATO summit. We want the world to think well of us all. A greater problem, perhaps, is that too many people don’t think of us, well, at all.”
In the past, they’ve at least thought of our sports stars. But not now. And for even die-hard Chicagoans, it can be difficult to survey this colorless sports landscape and not get at least a little nostalgic.
Perhaps we lack compelling sports personalities simply because we’re nice. We don’t pry.
We don’t stalk.
Maybe that speaks well to our character.
But it’s sad, too.
Heroes are supposed to be bigger than life.
Where have you gone, Dick Butkus?
Our city turns its lonely eyes to you.
* * * * *
DAVE WISCHNOWSKY is a Chicago writer and columnist who currently writes a sports blog for CBSChicago.com and formerly worked as a Metro reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune. His other work can be read here and at wischlist.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @wischlist.