Transcript

25:

Basketball
Transcript

Originally aired 06.07.1996

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/25

Act One. Bulls in Our Hearts

Ira Glass

The story goes like this. Recently I heard about this couple. He's in his 40s. She's in her mid-20s. And the way it was explained to me, they were having this conversation, and it was one of these conversations that, if you've ever been in a couple with a big age difference, maybe you've taken part in, he was saying basically, what can you see in me? You know, you are so young and energetic and I'm this older person. I'm so much more serious.

And they talked about this and talked about this. And finally, she brought the conversation to a stop by declaring, no, no, no, don't you understand? I am Dennis Rodman. You are Phil Jackson. You ground me. I am wild. You make everything all right. And that's the way it is right now in Chicago, where I speak to you from right now. Our historic championship basketball team, the Chicago Bulls, is not just the winningest team of all time, with 72 regular season wins, now hurtling through the NBA playoffs. What's happened here in Chicago is that the Bulls are now the lens through which we view all of our experiences. They're the benchmark against we're measuring everything in our lives. They've become our reality.

Today, in this hour, a dispatch from a city that has left the rest of the American culture and entered into its own little subculture, a basketball subculture. At nights in Chicago, now the Hancock building, which towers over the city, is lit a bright Bulls-red. Bulls posters and souvenirs and caps and T-shirts are for sale in every video storage and corner drugstore, in bars, everywhere. It's like living in China during the cultural revolution. Slogans and propaganda, everywhere, all uniting us as one people. The name United Center was never more appropriate than now. There we are, united behind the vanguard-- Michael, Scottie, Dennis, Phil, Luke, our vanguard, and all the others.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, I'm Ira Glass. You're listening to This American Life. And I know actually that many people who have never heard our program before around the country are hearing us for the first time today. So a quick word of explanation, the idea of this radio show is to document what's going on around the country, in these United States, using all the different forms of radio storytelling that we can think of, including documentary, monologues, found tapes, just whatever we can think of. Each week, we choose a theme. And our theme for this hour is basketball-- stories of people who have a basketball jones of one sort or another.

Act One of our show today, The Bulls in Our Hearts. Act Two, Bulls in a Barbershop. Act Three, What Basketball Means, stories of people who love the game. Act Four, Basketball and Commerce, in which, among other things, we visit Bulls star Scottie Pippen's car dealership. And Act Five, the greatest moment in radio-- ever. Stay with us.

Act Two. Bulls in a Barber Shop.

Ira Glass

Act One, Bulls in Our Hearts. As a way to measure the place of the Bulls in the conscious and unconscious minds of everyday Chicagoans, consider this case, members of the radio jury. Anaheed was watching a game with her parents. They'd driven in from Detroit, the parents did, for her 26th birthday, and started arguing over Dennis Rodman.

Just a quick word to public radio listeners who perhaps are not following our national basketball pastime as carefully as they might, Dennis Rodman is the player who you may have seen pictures of with the colored hair, the tattoos, the piercings. He's the one who was involved with Madonna for a while, possibly the greatest rebounder of all time. Anaheed's father did not like him. He's a rebel. He's a terrible man. Well, I'll let Anaheed tell the story.

Anaheed

He said, "What kind of role model is he? He's no role model. This man is the Antichrist." And I said, "I don't think he's the Antichrist, Dad."

Ira Glass

What developed between them was the biggest argument Anaheed has had with her parents since she was a child, since she lived at home. It lasted for an hour. And what was remarkable about it is that it got to the most basic issues any family argument can ever get to.

Anaheed

He said, "You like this craziness, you are just trying to go against everything of this family. You know that's not what we stand for. You're trying to go against the family. You're trying to divide yourself as much as possible from this family, by liking Dennis Rodman."

All of a sudden, I was back in high school all of a sudden. And he hadn't been so completely-- Like I mean, the fight got to the point where he was telling me, like, that I don't love him, and I'm trying to break up our relationship. He wants to have a good relationship with me. He can't even talk to me, and I don't like him, and I don't respect him. And me telling him, I don't think you listen to me, and I don't think you care about the things that I care about, and you don't even know anything about me.

Ira Glass

And it's all because of Dennis Rodman.

Anaheed

And it's all because of little Dennis Rodman.

Ira Glass

It is impossible to imagine fighting like this, Anaheed says, over any other public figure.

Anaheed

My dad and I are both big basketball fans, and we used to go to Pistons games all the time together when I was in high school, and that was sort of the only thing we had in common. And I think that the NBA to my dad is this really great organization. They're really wonderful, and he really loves the game. And to see somebody like Dennis Rodman sort of flip off the whole organization, I think to him sort of symbolizes me and my role in my family. And everything that I'm doing to him is what Dennis is doing to the NBA.

Ira Glass

Then there are the dreams. I realized a few weeks ago, actually, that even though I had not seen a Bulls game in two years, personally, and even though at the time I really didn't care less about the Bulls-- I wasn't following it at all-- the Bulls are such a presence in everyday life in Chicago-- in conversations, on the street, products, and magazines, and stuff about them everywhere-- that even I was having dreams about them. They had entered my unconscious picture of the world to that extent.

So anyway, here in Chicago just last week, I went on the radio and I invited Chicagoans to call in and record their dreams about the Bulls. And people responded.

Woman 1

Maybe five or six months ago, I was at a really stressed out time at work preparing for an audit. I had a dream during that period that the auditing team showed up at my office as planned, only the chief auditor was Michael Jordan. I was really nervous and stressed out. And there's Michael Jordan in my office. And it somehow developed, while I was having a conversation with Michael Jordan about the audit, and I wasn't completely prepared, but he knew I wasn't ready, and he decided that, in exchange for oral sexual favors, he would make sure we passed the audit. And I had a conversation with my boss about it, and my boss was, like, "Well, I can't really tell you that you should do this, but it's Michael Jordan, how bad can it be?" And we passed the audit. One of the other really funny things about this is that it's Scottie Pippen who I find absolutely just adorable, not Michael.

Woman 2

I'm 52 years old. I teach at DePaul University. Last Sunday, I dreamt that I was Michael Jordan.

Woman 3

My dream was that my friend was having a bar mitzvah, and he knew Michael Jordan. And so I was going to be there at the bar mitzvah with him.

Woman 4

I'm in a hot tub with Michael Jordan. And he says to me, "I love my wife, but you're my best friend."

Ira Glass

As weird as the Michael Jordan dreams are, the Dennis Rodman dreams are way weirder. One guy called up to describe a dream in which a mob was attacking Dennis Rodman because he was a Communist. In another dream, somebody else called in to say that a woman said that Dennis appeared in a dream of hers in a feather boa in an appliance store to tell the woman that the playoffs are fixed. It's fixed. It's done. It's fixed.

Woman 5

I dreamed that Dennis Rodman was swimming in the ocean, and he was way far out, really deep. And everybody was scared that the undertow was going to drag him away.

Man 1

I had a dream that Dennis Rodman was a woman. And the two of us worked together at White Castle. Except what was interesting about Dennis was that he had no hands. And on one hand, he had a fork, and on the other hand, he had a spoon. And I felt jilted because he wouldn't talk to me. So the majority of my dream was me feeling dissed by the female Dennis Rodman with a fork and a spoon for hands.

Ira Glass

Other people weigh in with their basketball stories, coming up.

Act Three. The Meaning of Basketball

Ira Glass

Act Two, Bulls in a Barber Shop. A Chicago columnist wrote recently that the Bulls have become the city's royalty, but that does not really capture the half of it. The Bulls are like the soap opera that everyone in the city is watching, with this eccentric cast of characters that we all know. And watching a Bulls game, for most people, is a social event, where everybody swaps stories and theories and predictions.

Man 1

They gonna win.

Man 2

They gonna lose.

Man 1

They gonna sweep the whole series.

Man 2

Shut up [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. They gonna lose today. Bulls gonna lose today.

Ira Glass

Coleman Brothers is an old-style barbershop on Chicago's south side, been in business 34 years-- pictures on the walls of Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, Lena Horne and Minister Louis Farrakhan, five chairs, five barbers. I visited while the third game of the Eastern Conference playoffs was on the color TV near the door. The Bulls played the Orland Magic.

Richard Coleman, whose chair is nearest the door, was predicting a 15-point Bulls' victory. His brother, James, whose chair is furthest from the screen, is calling for a four-game sweep, Bulls over Orlando. But sandwiched midway between the two brothers, standing in the middle chair, Tommy was the lone dissenter in a crowded room of probably three dozen Bulls fanatics, some of whom, remember, were armed with razors. It took a certain nerve to placidly insist, hour after hour, that Shaquille O'Neal and the Magic were going to pull this series out of the bag.

Tommy

I like Shaq. And they having a rough time at the moment. But can't give up the shift yet. Right, can't give up the shift.

Ira Glass

Tommy's customer, Clarence, speaks up.

Clarence

He's not a fan of any Chicago team.

Tommy

They don't play no money. Chicago don't play no money. You have to fight for every penny you get. Chicago don't want to play no athletes.

Clarence

Athletes capture the spirit of the city. You know, they still work hard. They still put forth the effort.

Tommy

They'll go home broke.

Clarence

[LAUGHING]

Tommy

They'll go home broke.

Ira Glass

A week before, there'd been a big discussion in Coleman Brothers about Dennis Rodman, his multi-colored hair, his tattoos, the fact that he showed up to a book signing in drag. Guys were not crazy about all this. But faced with a microphone, nobody wanted to say anything too negative about the star rebounder. And everyone had found a comfortable way to explain his behavior.

Man 1

I think it's all right. I think they probably say, well, hey, he making money. This is the main thing, you know? Maybe he's doing that in order to make money.

Man 2

I personally don't care for his dress attire, but I think it's a marketing ploy to make more money, so what can I say?

Ira Glass

You don't think he likes to dress up in women's clothes for real.

Man 2

No, I personally don't think so. He's just doing it to get attention, and to sell more McDonald cups and--

Man 3

As far as I'm concerned, man, Dennis is not all that he make up to be. I think it's a big, old marketing thing that he doing, too, man. And you see, he done gotten rich since he got here, you know. And it's all because of this crazy stuff that he does.

Ira Glass

What do you think about him dressing up in women's clothing at his book signing?

Man 3

I think Dennis, he kind of like dressing in women's clothes. I have a feeling he does. But I don't think that the man really gay. I think if he was, he would go and tell it. He been saying everything else, so why not say that?

Ira Glass

The Bulls-Orlando game was a pretty typical Chicago viewing experience. By half time, the Bulls were ahead 10 points. And after the winningest season in basketball history, it's hard for fans in Chicago to avoid feeling the game is in the bag.

Man 1

Bulls gonna win. Go on and wait.

Man 2

Ha ha. No, Orlando won't come back. They're too banged up.

Man 1

Bulls gonna blow them out in the second half. Bulls gonna blow them out by at least double digits.

Ira Glass

Except, of course, for one person, bravely standing alone, against all odds, scissors in hand, a toothpick dangling from his lips, Tommy.

Tommy

Orlando coming back, win by five. It ain't over till the fat lady sing.

Ira Glass

People stream in and out of the barber shop. Everyone comments on the game. In the second half, when Michael Jordan takes a nasty spill, a customer shouts, "Superman's down!" The man sitting next to me introduces himself as Mr. Popcorn, a customer of Coleman's beginning 34 years ago, and a former high school basketball player himself.

Mr. Popcorn

That's what I played, basketball, baseball, football.

Ira Glass

So when you see these players, is there some player who you really relate to the way they play?

Mr. Popcorn

I relate to Michael Jordan. That's the way I would play. Play it hard, man. You know, a guard. Get the ball to the guy who can shoot, you know.

Ira Glass

The effect of the Bulls on the local economy is usually measured in millions of dollars, but it extends to 1,000 small shops like this one. Mr. Popcorn says that if the Bulls take the championship, he's going to sell Bulls T-shirts himself. And before long, he asked me the question that he asked a lot of customers at Colemans.

Mr. Popcorn

I have a Bull watch. Would you like to buy one?

Ira Glass

No, no.

Mr. Popcorn

What you mean no? I'm going to sell it to you cheap because you're a radio guy.

Ira Glass

Nah.

Mr. Popcorn

I thought you said you was a Bull fan.

Ira Glass

I am.

By the third quarter, I am the proud owner of a Bull's watch, marked down from $12 to $5. By the fourth quarter, with two minutes left on the clock, the Bulls leading by 17 points, and Michael Jordan apparently already sent to the showers, even these die-hard Chicago fans started making jokes. "What else is on?" one guy asked. "What's on the other channels?"

James pays off a bet he'd actually made against the Bulls with Mr. Popcorn. Guys start talking about a sweep, a sweep, that is, of four games in a row. And when the final buzzer goes off, it turns out that Richard's prediction, a 15-point spread, is exactly where the game turned out.

Richard Coleman

What did I tell them before the game started? What did I tell you?

Ira Glass

15.

Richard Coleman

I told you they was going to win it. They gonna run away with it. Orlando, they're just an inexperienced team that doesn't have the experience to play with the Bulls.

Man 1

Oh, you said 15?

Richard Coleman

That's what I said before they started.

Man 1

Did anybody bet you? Somebody should have took that.

Richard Coleman

I told you they gonna win. And if I tell you-- don't ever forget this-- if I tell you an elephant roost up a tree, you better look up there, you gonna see an elephant.

Ira Glass

Tommy looked around at the celebrating with a smile. I asked him for a final verdict on the Bulls.

Tommy

Seattle, they gonna take it.

Ira Glass

Man, you just don't give up, do you?

Tommy

Seattle gonna take them old men. Quote. Seattle, they gonna take it. Quote.

Clarence

Seattle gonna get the same thing the Magic's getting, a whooping, old-fashioned whooping.

Ira Glass

Then we all looked up, and through the plate glass window in front of the barber shop, we saw a car pull up. A guy climbs out with a brand-new broom in his hand, and strides toward the barber shop.

Man 1

He bringing the broom to Tommy.

Ira Glass

The guy walks in and stands, broom in hand, near the door.

Tommy

What's the problem?

Derek

I told you I was going to come back up here now.

Man 1

Hey Tommy, you didn't think they was going to sweep, huh?

Tommy

It ain't no sweep.

Derek

Tommy, I can't hear you, man. Did you see the bull run down the street? Was Shaquille on it?

Ira Glass

The guy's name is Derek, a regular at Colemans.

Derek

Tell him I got to go home and celebrate, man. Me and all my Bull friend buddies, we going to to go celebrate. You going to jump on the bandwagon sooner or later, Tommy. We gonna make a believer out of you. No [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Ira Glass

Tommy's unnerved.

Tommy

I've already talked to Gary Payton, and boy, we gonna do it in 4-2. Gary Payton, Seattle.

Ira Glass

You gotta respect somebody who'll publicly argue against what may be the best basketball team ever to play the game. It takes a certain amount of guts. But soon enough, this Bulls team will have to fade, especially given the age of players, mostly in their 30s. And it can be a sobering thought that, years from now, when all these guys are watching some new incarnation of the Bulls, this is the moment, this is the time right now, that they're going to remember together.

One of the other customers, a guy whose name, I think, was Edgar, sat in Richard's chair, the electric clippers whirring, and contemplated this.

Edgar

You should be happy that you can say that, hey, I was sitting there watching them when they did all that. So I know I am. Tell my grandchildren when I get real old, you know, I was there when the Bulls won all them games, probably I'll say I went to a couple of games, you know.

Ira Glass

Yeah, remember those days when Michael Jordan was still playing at his peak? Remember when Rodman was the only guy in the league with multi-colored hair? Remember when they were on that legendary team together, Dennis, Michael, Scottie?

Edgar

That's how it's going to be, for everybody that was here when the Bulls was doing this. That's how it's going to be.

Act Four. Basketball and Commerce.

Ira Glass

Act Three, The Meaning of Basketball. I wonder if it would be possible to make up a more pretentious name for a section of a radio program, The Meaning of Basketball. The fact is, the meaning of basketball is whatever each player and each fan makes of it, right? Stay with me here, OK? Loving sports, I am arguing to you right now, is like any kind of love. It's idiosyncratic and there's no way to account for what happens to grab your imagination and your heart about a game.

In this act of the show, we bring you a couple of stories from different parts of the country. And we begin right here in Chicago. I know that will be, at this point in the show, a tremendous surprise to you. We begin here in Chicago, an explanation of one particular pleasure of the game.

David Isaacson

There is no greater pleasure than being a Bulls hater in a Bulls-loving town.

Ira Glass

David Isaacson is a Chicago playwright, and he is not just any Bulls hater. He's a Bulls hater of the most reviled kind in Chicago. He is a fan of the Detroit Pistons. In 1988, '89, and '90, the Bulls lost the NBA playoffs to the Pistons, a team that most Chicagoans see as thuggish, dirty, and worst of all, whiney.

David Isaacson

How to describe the sweet, sweet pleasure of entering a drinking establishment full of established drinkers, and proudly letting out a roar whenever the diminutive Detroit guard Isiah Thomas scooped a layup high off the backboard into the basket, or Vinnie "The Microwave" Johnson would launch a shot with, oh, three of four opposing players hanging from his thick arms and legs, or Joe Dumars covering the great god Michael Jordan would, through fainting, decoying, and overplaying, manipulate MJ into the waiting arms and oh-so solid body of Bill Laimbeer.

To let out a roar as those around me grumbled, all the time harboring grandiose notions that, in so roaring, I was courting a barroom beating at the hands of, say, those five beefy guys at the bar with a pitcher of Old Style, the identical number 23 red-and-white jerseys, and, shaved into their crew cuts Anthony Mason style, the letters B-U-L-L-S, respectively.

To stand alone against a sea of popular opinion, to be associated with a great malevolent force, shady underground figures, the Detroit Pistons, this was a spectacular seduction. To be a Pistons fan in Chicago, like being a Navy fan at West Point, or a Dodgers fan in Manhattan in the old days, seemed heroic. I was Pancho Villa on a border raid, Bartleby the Scrivener telling his boss, I would prefer not to, Brando in the Wild One rebelling against, what do you got? It was the same contrary impulse, however, the thrill of being the lone fan, that turned my girlfriend against me.

Accepted into an elite east coast graduate school, she suddenly found herself surrounded by elite east coast fans of the New York Knickerbockers. Though up to this point, her interest in the Bulls had consisted wholly in the observation that point guard B.J. Armstrong was so cute, and, in an almost obsessive curiosity, regarding that odd bald patch in the middle of center Bill Cartwright's beard. Her grad school experience turned her into a raving rooter for the team that I so proudly despised. In a world of Knicks lovers, she chose to be the lone fan of the Bulls.

Watching games with her became an unsettling experience. When our teams would clash, I would catch her eyeing me strangely, as if contemplating which Bill Laimbeer thrown elbow or Rick Mahorn cheap shot I was complicit in, in what ways I, the bully by association, might have wronged those near and dear to her, and subsequently, what punishments or deprivations she might legitimately inflict on me in response.

This year, as every one in the world now knows, the Bulls won 72 games and lost a mere 10, making them, numerically at least, the most successful team of all time. It is also the year I, without meaning to, traded in the great and noble pleasure of publicly hating the Bulls in every bar, tavern, and speak easy of this beer-swilling town for the rather common, tawdry pleasure of joining the masses in whooping up every Jordan jumper, Pippen put-back, and Kukoc [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

And why? Well, for one thing, three of my old Pistons have joined the current version of the Bulls. John "Spider" Salley, who can still block a shot with the best of them. James "Buddha" Edwards, who, at the age of 40, still successfully practices his specialty, the fade away chip shot from the paint. And of course, Dennis "The Worm" Rodman. I've always loved his sloppy relentless enthusiasm on the court. But what's won me over lately is his T-shirt collection. Recent slogans have included, "I'm not gay, but my boyfriend is," and "I don't mind straight people, as long as they act gay in public."

But more than that, I think one can say that, for me, familiarity has bred respect. Most of these Bulls are my age or older. Jordan's my age, and as my body changes, as joints respond less readily, bruises take longer to heal, and hangovers get harder to cure, I have grown to appreciate MJ's ability to recreate himself. The mad dash fearless dunking of his youth has been replaced by safer, more adult practices. Watch as Michael becomes a post-up player. Watch his transformation into a master of the three-point heave. See Michael learn and perfect the unstoppable Larry Bird fade away.

Facing the cameras for the gagillionth time, following a perfect evening spent revealing the tragic flaws of yet another squad of opponents who had been, until meeting the Bulls, flirting with respectability, Jordan, Pippen, and their teammates exude a pungent, delicious aura. Invincibility is, inevitably, sexy. These are Bodhisattvas, approaching Buddhahood, utterly at peace with themselves, and yet at the same time, striving mightily for the next level of enlightenment. Gone for me the rebel's glory. Gone the exalted status of an arch-antagonist. Gone the thrill of withstanding the Bulls fans contumely. Woe, woe is me. Go, go Bulls.

Ira Glass

David Isaacson is a Chicago playwright. And now we have for you this rap, part of which seems to be a burgeoning genre of music that perhaps you have not heard of, basketball stars doing raps, some of them, most of them, profoundly mediocre. This one from Seattle Sonics star Gary Payton.

Gary Payton

[SINGING] Living legal and large, GP's the man in charge. He's got game on you. Coming up as a youngster, the G had faith. I always pray to God that I make it one day. And now my dreams are alive. My mama used to tell me, you gotta strive and try to be the best that you can be to survive. Now I'm living legal and large, got a fat bank account and a bunch of credit cards. Making the opponents bow down on the floor. If you want to hum [UNINTELLIGIBLE], it's because I love the sport. Half the fans yelling for joy because I'm bouncing the ball on 'em like Shanaynay. They call me Payday. The big ball handler. Yeah, yeah, what you want. Slam dunk, hit a three. Talk a little junk. Huh. It's all good if you're feeling inferior, because I'm superior, much better than the average brother. Me and my crew sticks tight when we step in the clubs, we're not getting the [UNINTELLIGIBLE], right. Living legal and large, I'm the man in charge.

Ira Glass

Coming up, trophies, the strangest basketball dream of all, and more, in one minute, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And this week, as every week in our program, we have chosen a theme. We've invited a variety of writers and performers to take a whack at that theme. And this week is the Chicago Bulls. Let me get some music going here for this, when I say their names. This week is the Chicago Bulls.

[MUSIC - "ROCK AND ROLL, PART 2" BY GARY GLITTER]

There we go. Doesn't that give a satisfying feeling to hear it? It's just one good reason to do a show about the Bulls, that you can play this song over and over. This week, as the Chicago Bull's careen past the winningest season in basketball history, through the NBA playoffs, our theme is basketball. And let us ask the question again, what is the meaning of sports? The answer, trophies. Well, looked at it in one way, that's the answer.

You know, you compete, you try to win, you make it through the regular season, through the playoffs. The further you get, the bigger the trophy-- sort of. The problem is that trophies do not age well. The further you get from the triumphant moment when you win the trophy, the uglier the trophy becomes. Until, after decades, they just look like dusty, aging clutter, carrying no glory, no numinous power.

Well, one of our producers, Nancy Updike, talked to a friend of hers, a big amateur basketball player, about all this.

Nancy Updike

When I met up with my friend Mary to talk about basketball, she was having some trouble with her trophies. She'd just moved to a new apartment, and her new place was small, so small that a bunch of high school trophies would just dominate any room they were in. She had the trophies in a box in the living room, and we sat on the floor pulling out fake silver statuettes of girls in coolots, reaching ever upward, hopeful and fit, like in Soviet propaganda posters.

Mary Conway

So can't you see, like, feeling really tough walking home with something this big, especially if you hold it like this?

Nancy Updike

Sure. Grab that baby by the base.

Then she found one that was not like the others, sort of hard to understand, actually. Picture this, a thick slice of wood, sanded and shellacked and mounted with a miniature rim and backboard, and then, leaping across the front, a stick figure made of roofing nails going in for a slam dunk. Mary identified this as her 1978 girls varsity team trophy from Cardinal Dougherty High School. And the girls, she said, had not been pleased with the trophy at all.

Mary Conway

It's ugly, isn't it?

Nancy Updike

Yeah, it is truly-- It's so damned--

Mary Conway

We were all really unhappy. We wanted, like, a traditional--

Nancy Updike

Will you give it to me?

Mary Conway

[LAUGHS] Yes.

Nancy Updike

I love it. I want it.

Mary Conway

We would rather have had, like, the also ugly but much more acceptable old version of trophies than those trophies.

Nancy Updike

Oh, sure. Oh, sure. I mean, if you're a 13-year-old girl, you don't want to be walking home with that. You want that.

Mary Conway

Right, right.

Nancy Updike

--that's a trophy.

Mary Conway

You want something that goes up high in the sky, not something that is a slice of a tree.

Nancy Updike

You don't want a tree slice.

Mary Conway

A slice of a tree with a nail stick figure soldered together, doing the one thing that you know you'll never be able to do-- dunk.

Nancy Updike

Was that something that you all discussed?

Mary Conway

Oh, yeah. And we also thought that that was the only reason we'd never been in the NBA. Luckily for us, we all thought, well, you know, we're really some of the best players on the face of the Earth. You know, when you're a 16-year-old girl who's playing at a tough Catholic league school, like you think, yeah, we're good enough. I'm just as good as Maurice Cheeks. And you know, the Doctor would like to play with me, Doctor J. And we could attribute our lack of success in the NBA to the fact that we were girls, soon to be women, who would never dunk. And that's all that was keeping us from it.

Nancy Updike

Mary handed me the wood-sliced trophy. And when I reached to touch the stick figure, I realized that one of its feet was on a pivot, so I could actually make it go in for the dunk. Once I discovered this, it was impossible not to do it over and over and over. The trophy was completely hypnotizing, a disturbing artifact from an artistic period best forgotten.

Mary Conway

The art of the late '70s, especially in Catholic religion textbooks and churches and stuff was so ugly.

Nancy Updike

Who knew there was even a genre of late-'70s Catholic textbook art worlds. You know, that whole scene.

Mary Conway

I'm afraid I've been so influenced by it, it's like, you know--

Nancy Updike

I need to walk away.

Mary Conway

--those little ink drawings that are just a little bit off on-purpose. You know what I mean? And the on-purposeness of it is just, like--

Nancy Updike

It makes you want to grit your teeth.

Mary Conway

--oh, help me. Yeah, right, right. You can always hear a Cat Stevens song playing in the background.

Nancy Updike

As a kid, Mary played basketball mostly with her older brother, Daniel. The two of them roamed around the city together looking for pickup games whenever they could, all summer, every weekend, even at night, because the court down the street had lights. It was a way to get out of the house, to escape the chaos of 11 kids in a working class Irish family in a too-small house on the edge of Northeast Philadelphia. Basketball was a place of clear rules and gestures that always made sense. And home was a place where you could get hit for no reason, or find yourself still hungry at the end of a meal. Mary remembered being hungry a lot growing up, a fact always cheerfully denied by the nuns at school.

Mary Conway

The message was, you couldn't be hungry because your parents are saints. And they especially directed it to our family and all the other families that had a lot of kids in them, that our parents were saints because they worked so hard to provide for us. So I thought that I was just extraordinarily greedy that I would want to eat when I was hungry. I think that playing basketball was a way to say, you know, if I could use my body in this way, that got me status and attention and a certain amount of prestige, then my body was OK in a way, even though it was-- I mean, I was way too skinny when I was a kid.

And it was cause for concern for the school nurse a couple times. And playing basketball was a way to say, you know, you're not going to have neural damage from being malnourished. You're just going to have these other minor malnourished problems.

Nancy Updike

Another good thing about basketball was that it was cheap. Mary bought the family a rim and a basketball for their backyard when she was only seven or eight, using her first communion money, $65 in $5 increments from everyone in her huge family. The only equipment she really needed and could never afford were good shoes.

She always had those supermarket checkout line shoes with the hard plastic soles that were completely embarrassing, of course, but also had no grippability. So she would be running down a court and go sliding and be called for traveling. So one year, she got up the courage to ask a girl down the block for her old shoes.

Mary Conway

Her name was Karen, and she had really nice Beta Bullets, high tops, white. And I wanted her sneakers because I knew she was getting new ones. And in our neighborhood, there is the practice of throwing your old sneakers up over the telephone wires when you're done with them. And most of them were hardly worn out at all. I mean, a lot of them, you could see that there was tread missing, but it's not like you had ripped through the top of them.

And I'd asked her for them, and she said, yeah, that she would give them to me when she got her new ones. I thought that it was a little bit weird that I would ask somebody for their used shoes, but we had other clothes that were used from other people. And she was tough, and she kind of had this-- she seemed like she'd be the kind of person that could keep something like that to her and would know what it meant. And she did. She never told anybody, except, of course, the most important person that she shouldn't have told, her mother.

And her mother got really upset and told her that she couldn't give them to me. And there they were, hanging up on the telephone wire, my sneakers.

And I'm sure that her mom did that because she was afraid that if I came home with a pair of used sneakers that it would be insulting to my mother. I'm sure that they all had this understanding of themselves, like you don't insult one of your peers by giving their kids your crappy shoes even though they're better than the crappy shoes that you bought for them.

But there were always really beautiful sneakers hanging up on the wires, and there was no way to get them, no way at all. They just floated up there. And you know what? I think that's when I decided that platonic idealism was true. There really was a perfect thing that I would never experience, at least while I played in that Catholic league. And only I could see them for what they were. They only saw worn-out tread. I saw a season of unforeseen high statistics.

Nancy Updike

We talked for two hours about basketball. And we kept returning to the dunk, that special thing boys can do and girls can't. And the cruelty of the dunk on that wood-sliced trophy, a dunk by a stick figure made of nails, driving home their 18-year-old sense of frustration. They could be the best ball handlers, the best guards, and it didn't matter worth a damn because they couldn't dunk. All of that captured forever in the last trophy most of them would ever receive.

Mary Conway

I think it was really kind of thoughtless in the way that thoughtless things can sometimes have a really nasty edge to them. And we had a woman on our team who was African-American who was, like 6'3, and she couldn't dunk the ball. You know what I mean? It was like there was no one that we knew who could dunk the ball, not a single woman that we knew. And we knew some tall women. We knew women who were in college. I mean, I used to have a dream, a recurring dream that I dunked the ball.

Nancy Updike

What were the circumstances?

Mary Conway

I was on the baseline.

Nancy Updike

I'm so glad you asked.

Mary Conway

I was in the same position all the time. And it wasn't like kinds of dunks that you see in real life, like that even the best players can do. This was a spectacular dunk, because I didn't just get my hands up over the rim, I sailed over the rim with my feet and got above the basket and just slammed the ball down through the thing. My whole body was above the rim.

Nancy Updike

Wow.

Mary Conway

And stayed inbounds the whole time.

Ira Glass

Mary Conway, talking with our own Nancy Updike.

[MUSIC - "OH VERY YOUNG" BY CAT STEVENS]

You know, we were going to play the Cat Stevens here as a joke, but it sounds really good. [LAUGHS] You know, because she mentions Cat Stevens in the piece. We don't have time to actually play it, because we have another appointment. And our appointment is with--

[MUSIC - "SHOOT PASS SLAM" BY SHAQUILLE O'NEAL]

This is a rap song by Shaquille O'Neal of the Orlando Magic, part of our continuing survey over the course of this radio program of rap stars, basketball stars.

Act Five. One More Dream.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Basketball and Commerce. OK, sure, Michael Jordan has his multimillion dollar Nike and Gatorade endorsements. Dennis Rodman has a national bestselling book, a McDonald's deal. In contrast, the Scottie Pippen Dodge store on Western Avenue in Chicago is, I will argue, the most modest product endorsement in the NBA. It's a car dealership selling Intrepids and Neons and Dodge 4x4s. And right now, during the playoffs, the showrooms are filled with balloons and basketball players made out of balloons. The windows are painted with the words "Playoff Payoff." But mostly, it looks like any other Dodge dealership, a little rundown, with posters of Scottie and Bulls insignias here and there.

I figured I should have a real Bulls fan with me when I visited, so I brought Beau O'Reilly, a Chicago playwright and musician and actor who's been on our program here a few times, and a Scottie Pippen fan. He pressed the owner of the dealership, Nick Farschi, for details about Pippen. But really, what's the guy going to say?

Nick Farschi

Probably one of the nicest people you ever get to meet.

Beau O'reilly

He seems publicly to be a very soft-spoken person, very kind of quiet person usually.

Nick Farschi

That's exactly how he is. He's real soft-spoken. He hardly ever gets mad. And when he does get mad, then you'll know.

Beau O'reilly

What does he drive?

Nick Farschi

I think he owns a Porsche, and a Mercedes, and a Land Rover. Occasionally he drives a conversion van in the summertime.

Ira Glass

Note that only the last of these, the conversion van, can actually be purchased at the Scottie Pippen Dodge store. When offered a chance to lie and push some Dodge product, owner Nick Farschi actually seemed to answer our questions honestly, to his credit. He admitted that Scottie only drops in once every couple months, that Scottie is paid a fee for the use of his name, and the business has increased a total of 10% or 15% since they put Scottie's name above the door. People do come in hoping to meet Scottie, or simply to get near the Scottie Pippen magic.

And Nick Farschi said that, during 1994, when Scottie had a bad year on the court, walked out of a game with 1.8 seconds left, was arrested for carrying an illegal gun, was accused of domestic violence, well, sales did suffer.

Nick Farschi

The business slowed down a little bit. People were nervous. It was almost like a disaster [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

Ira Glass

Live by the celebrity endorsement, die by the celebrity endorsement. And there is, after all, something a little strange about buying a car from a dealership whose spokesman can sometimes be a bully on the basketball court. I mean, would you want the salesman to knock you around the way that Scottie hurls himself at, say, the New York Knicks. Mr. Farschi says this question misses the point.

Nick Farschi

When people come in here, they're not in competition with Scottie, so that's-- When they come in here and buy a car from him, they're on Scottie's team.

Ira Glass

And one way the Scottie Pippen Dodge store makes you feel like you are on Scottie's team is that they let you visit his private office, built specially on the premises, with glass windows looking out onto the showroom. Mr. Farschi was kind enough to open it up for Beau and I.

The office is paneled with dark, expensive-looking wood. It's much more luxurious than Mr. Farschi's office, though it's clear from the moment you enter that no one does any work here. There are no papers, no clutter. On the wall are a few not-terribly significant mementos, a picture with the '93 Olympic Dream Team, a license plate with Scottie's number, 33, on it. There's a mini refrigerator, though Beau and I didn't have the nerve to look inside. Beau did take a peek at the private bathroom and saw Scottie's toilet. The most personal positions in the office are a picture of Scottie's dogs, and some amusements.

Ira Glass

What's the parrot?

Nick Farschi

That's just a toy. It's just a toy that he plays with when he's here. When he's here, usually he shoots hoops on the wall, and he practices.

Beau O'reilly

He shoots like a little Nerf basketball?

Nick Farschi

Yeah.

Beau O'reilly

But how does he play with the parrot? What does it do?

Nick Farschi

It just repeats everything around that you say.

Beau O'reilly

Oh. [LAUGHS] Well, that's convenient. Can we get it to talk to us?

Nick Farschi

Sure.

Beau O'reilly

Let's try it.

Nick Farschi

Try it.

Beau O'reilly

You push the button?

Nick Farschi

Now just say hello.

Beau O'reilly

Hello, here we are at the Scottie Pippen's store.

Parrot

Hello, here we are at Scottie Pippen-- Hello, here we are at Scottie Pippen.

Beau O'reilly

Ah, yep, yep. We're here in Scottie Pippen's office at the Scottie Pippen store.

Parrot

We're here in Scottie Pippen's office.

Beau O'reilly

Ha, that's great.

Parrot

Ha, ha, ha, ha.

Beau O'reilly

I can see him playing with that all day. Well, here, we'll leave a message for Scottie.

Parrot

Well, here, we'll leave a message for Scot--

Beau O'reilly

Thanks Scottie, for letting us visit you here in your office here at the Scottie Pippen store.

Ira Glass

Mr. Farschi guesses that if Scottie does well and the Bulls win the NBA Finals, it could mean as many as 15 or 20 extra Dodge vans, trucks, and cars sold from this store. If the Scottie Pippen Dodge store is the most understated Bulls-related business, in this, our fair city, with no TV ads, barely any Bulls hype, the most garish manifestation of the merchandising of basketball is downtown on Michigan Avenue, a combination shoe store and museum called Niketown.

Niketown is the size of a small department store, reportedly grosses $2.5 million in sales each week. Inside, there are statues of athletes in midair, a 20-foot banner of Michael Jordan with a quote from William Blake underneath, display cases with sports memorabilia, slogans everywhere, like "Play to Win," "Total Body Conditioning," "Test Your Faith," on long banners hung in a mock socialist, WPA style. When you go inside Niketown, there are 18 separate pavilions, each with its own kind of sight and sound environment, like a real basketball court floor, and the sounds of squeaking sneakers on hardwood in the area that sells basketball stuff, the sound of tennis balls being hit in another area where they sell tennis stuff.

As the writer, Andrew Levy, points out-- it's from a piece he wrote-- "The buying of goods invokes a sequence of events and images that make the purchase itself playful. Items move from the fourth-floor storeroom to the cashier stations through clear plastic tubes rimmed with green neon that suggest, as they are meant to, the cartoon future of the Jetsons. The direct purchase of goods is designed to appear to be an afterthought. The retail areas are cramped compared to the open atriums designed for the display of art and statuary. And the store's design requires every entering customer to be distracted by considerable aesthetics before reaching any locale where Nike items can actually be purchased. There are whimsical, anarchic features everywhere in Niketown. Tropical fish swim in a 22-foot, 1,000-gallon tank behind the hiking shoe display. A bank of nine television screens embedded beneath the floor nearby flashes images of glimmering swimming pools and waterfalls. It is seductive and very effective at creating sales."

Jeff Dorchen

[SINGING] I've been down to Niketown. I've been down to Niketown. I want to shake this angst I found when I was down in Niketown, down in Niketown. I felt so cyberpunk as I was walking down the hall. They got the [? Trial de Turin ?] in the toilet stall. I got the semiotic cross-training homesick blues. Hey buddy, is there somewhere quite where I can focus on some shoes? Now, what is that? Is that a talisman or a artifact of grammatology of some kind? Is that a subject, object, dislo-- Oh, it's a shoe? No, I'm sorry. I'm just so old that I get bewildered and stuff with all this gestalten you've got whizzing around here. Say, what-- Just, would you remind me what a shoe is again? Is it some kind of a-- Is it a phoneme? Is it a penumbra? Is that a-- Is that the shoe itself, or is that the idea of shoe? I nearly drowned in Niketown. I nearly drowned in Niketown. I just can't shake this angst I found when I was down in Niketown, down in Niketown.

Ira Glass

The song styling of Jewboy Cain, aka Mr. Jeff Dorchen.

Act 5.

Ira Glass

Act Five, One More Dream.

Brett Grossman

This dream was probably the biggest dream in my life as far as changing the way I was.

Ira Glass

We began this hour with dreams about the Bulls. And the most intense dream that anybody came to us with about the Bulls came from a guy named Brett Grossman. In his dream, Michael Jordan appears both as Brett's dead father and as Christ, healing and taking away pain. Brett says that he's had other dreams where Michael Jordan is crucified on a cross made of baseball bats.

But in this dream, the one that changed his life, there are kind of two big scenes. One is this traumatic event in Brett's life, where his father died when he was a kid, which he feels a lot of pain about. And the other is this scene where there's a huge coliseum, like a Roman coliseum, and in the middle there's a basketball court, and there's Michael Jordan on the court alone, trying to make a shot, trying to jump and lift off the ground.

Brett Grossman

And I'm feeling like Michael Jordan, something is grabbing him, pulling him down. And he's just, with all his strength, he's just jumping as high as he can. And it's like there's this pressure from below that's just ripping on him, pulling him down. And he's just suspended in there, as if his will and the pressure of the world and the gravity are at complete odds and smashing against each other, and his body is just ripping apart.

And the whole entire crowd erupts. Everyone's screaming, going crazy. But it's this maniacal-- It's like we're all watching someone being killed. And every time the ball dribbles, my pain becomes a little less, and Michael Jordan is just grimacing. And no one's going to help him, and I'm sitting there feeling like my pain is becoming less and then lessening. And there was all this pain that Michael Jordan had absorbed for me. And somehow, Michael Jordan, though, had, for this one second, basically neutralized a pain that I had felt my whole life, and this pain with my father, and a pain of just your existence, of being alone.

And for this one second, I could feel it. It was the first time in my life that I ever-- and I woke up from the dream-- I ever realized that that's a possibility, that pain is something that you don't necessarily need to feel all the time to understand it.

Ira Glass

Why Michael Jordan? If you're going to have a dream like this, why Michael Jordan?

Brett Grossman

Because there's thing, there's Michael Jordan, and you see it in his eyes. And it happened during the Miami series of this year. I don't know how it is, but his eyes turn inward. He becomes very serious and solemn. And you feel that he is taking everyone on the team and just taking all their faults, all their backaches, all their problems, all their ego trips, and he's cushioning them for them. He's saying, "Look, I'm Michael Jordan, I'm going to win the game, you know that, stop. Just let it all loose and we're going to win the game."

And I mean, I'll be at home watching the game on my chair, with my bottle of water, going crazy. And I see Michael's eyes and suddenly it's like, OK, I can relax, he's going to win it for me. And that feeling, it's crazy, but that feeling is something that I think you get from a god, and you get that from, whether false or not, you get that from a religion and an idol.

Ira Glass

That here's somebody who's going to solve my problems and heal my pain.

Brett Grossman

Heal my pain and take away the indecision. There's nothing to worry about, because he's going to win the game.

Ira Glass

Well, hopefully, we Chicagoans will get to see that look in Michael Jordan's eyes again soon.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced by Peter Clowney and myself, with Alix Spiegel, Nancy Updike, and Dolores Wilber. Contributing editors, Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, and Margy Rochlin.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

If you would like a copy of this program, it is only $10. You can call us at WBEZ. That phone number, 312-832-3380, again, 312-832-3380.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Torey Malatia. I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of This American Life.