This is something, what's happening here at old Chicago Stadium. What will happen. What could happen.
On Wednesday night the Chicago Bulls were to play the Cleveland Cavaliers here in Game 5 of the semifinals of the NBA playoffs. On Saturday the Chicago Blackhawks will play the Pittsburgh Penguins here in the third game of the Stanley Cup finals. The next day the Bulls will play the Cavs here in Game 7, if the series lasts that long. On Monday the Blackhawks will play Pittsburgh here in Game 4. Wood, ice, wood, ice—on and on like that until one or the other Chicago team falters or reaches the summit of its sport.
It could happen—teams from the same city winning the NBA and NHL championships in the same year—though it never has. Not in Boston. Not in New York. Certainly not here in the Second City, where sports fans learn early to moderate all championship expectations in deference to the fates of Chicago's major league baseball teams, the Cubs and the White Sox, which between them have not won a World Series in 159 years. And it certainly hasn't happened in aging, lore-stuffed, elevator-free, noise-racked Chicago Stadium.
But it could happen this spring, right here in the Big Barn at 1800 West Madison Street, right here in the bland brick-and-limestone joint that opened on St. Patrick's Day, 1929, and was promptly declared by the Chicago Tribune to be "the finest and largest sports stadium in America." It could even happen on consecutive days. Boom, boom! Ice, wood. Or maybe wood, ice. Nice. Unreal. Either way.
June 1, 1992
His Airness, Michael Jordan, thinks about the possibility of double champs at the Stadium, "it would be great, especially for hockey," he says. "We won our title last year, but what has it been...31 years since the Blackhawks won?" Exactly.
"Mostly, I'm just trying to understand hockey. I talked to [Blackhawk coach] Mike Keenan, and he explained it—blue line, icing. But I still don't get it."
He does get the meaning of the Stadium itself, this relic from an era so bygone that it kindles his imagination as an old newsreel would, making him think of his place in time, of men in fedoras, of cars with running boards, of old games in old uniforms, of all those years before salary caps, TV, Japanese investors, Nike. "This place is full of history," Jordan says. "Teams come in here and don't like it, this raggedy old place with little locker rooms in the basement, three or four showers, and maybe the hot water doesn't work. I love it. The mystique. It's old-fashioned basketball. I love tradition."
Home court advantage? Are you kidding? Since they started playing in the Stadium in 1967, the Bulls have won 308 more games than they have lost at home. Since Jordan Hew in from another galaxy eight years ago, they have gone 275-95 at home. This year, as of Tuesday, the Bulls were 43-7 on their own wood. And, of course, there have been 239 consecutive Bulls sellouts at the Stadium, at 19,000-plus per game. What's the Stadium worth to the team—two points per game, three points, five?
"Five?" says Jordan, frowning, calculating. "Ten points, at least. I have to put it in double figures."
And yet this is known: The Stadium, which is the second-oldest major league arena in the U.S., behind the 64-year-old Boston Garden, is going soon. In two years a new, $175 million sports and entertainment building, owned by current Stadium and Blackhawk owner William Wirtz in partnership with Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, will open across the street. The still-unnamed arena will have all the amenities, gewgaws and money-making devices we expect in our modern sporting cathedrals. And it will have the Bulls and the Blackhawks.
The old Stadium, with its wooden seats, narrow aisles, endless staircases, hanging press boxes and pipe organ the size of a small cannery, will be just a frayed memory of yore, something for a fleet of dumpsters. Forget the fact that Joe Louis fought here in 1934, or that Franklin Roosevelt was nominated for president here in '40 and '44, or that the Blackhawks played their inaugural game here in '29, or that this is the only hockey stadium on earth in which the Zamboni is driven off the rink at the end of each cleanup and through the beer-drinking crowd in the foyer to its parking place in the hallway not far from the first-floor men's room. The Stadium is a cooked goose.
"We're going to try to keep this building for concerts and smaller events, because it's so compact," says Wirtz with something less than deep conviction. "I'd say the chances are about 50-50." Folks who believe the Stadium will be standing in 1995 might want to check out the Flat Earth Society too.
"The basket seems bigger at the Stadium," says Jordan, continuing his defense of the condemned. "I started my career here; I want to finish here."
Sorry, Michael. The 21st century beckons.
"It all comes down to money," he sighs finally.
Of course. His own, too. Jordan makes more than $3 million a year from the Bulls and millions more from endorsements and the like. Wirtz and Reinsdorf simply want to cash in on Jordan's awesome skill and popularity, to build for the future while this white-hot commodity sizzles. Will the new arena have soul? Probably not. But will it have skyboxes, of which the Stadium has none? You better believe it.
"Two hundred sixteen of them," says Wirtz, "on three levels." And when a person or a corporation signs on for a skybox at between $70,000 and $175,000 a year, the signer gets the booth for both Bulls and Blackhawks games—whether both are wanted or not. This is cross-promoting at its most elemental and mercenary, and it's working better than the owners dreamed it would. "Out of all the sky-boxes, we have only 10 left," says Wirtz. "And of the ones that are gone, most are on five-to eight-year leases. And the builders just broke ground."
Out on the golden wood floor with the red foul lanes and the five red snorting bulls' heads (two by each foul Stripe, One raging at the center line), in the dim light of late-night postbasketball deconstruction, stands a bespectacled, white-haired man in a Blackhawk jacket, silently observing the 20 or so men who are readying the Stadium for the next day's hockey game. The workers stack chairs, sweep debris, coil wires, roll carpets and prepare to remove the 255 sections of basketball court and dozens of black eight-by four-foot sheets of plywood resting under the court and atop the ice. The man watching is John Fett, the building manager for decades. He is in his late 60's. He knows everything about this place. He's here in the mornings, in the afternoons, in the wee, wee hours. He's here until the work is done. Which is never. The stories he must know.
Fett turns to look at a person introducing himself and asking if Fett has a moment to spare.
"I don't talk to reporters," the old man snarls.
"I don't tell anybody what goes on here."
"It's like a good-looking broad," he snaps in a near rage. "If you knew what goes into making her look that way, you wouldn't want no part of her!"
And off storms a man who looks like a kindly sitcom grandpa. Looks. How they can fool you. And what nonsense is that, comparing this creaky place to a good-looking woman?
Hmmm. A loud woman, perhaps. You could certainly make that comparison, because there is no louder arena in all of sports than Chicago Stadium. The noise is a result of the fans' exuberance, of course, but it also has to do with the layout of the building.
Seats rise from the Stadium's floor level to the surrounding brick walls in a shallow oval. Hanging over the mezzanine area, however, are two of the steepest and closest-to-the-action balconies you will ever negotiate. "It's like the fans are sitting right on top of you, right out over the ice," says former Blackhawk superstar Bobby Hull. "It's fantastic." Indeed, sitting in the second balcony and watching a game is akin to clinging to a mountain face and watching goats frolic on a ledge below. The ceiling of the Stadium is corrugated metal underlaid with girders, struts, catwalks, heating and air-conditioning ducts, and huge and mysterious louvered, boxlike things. Sound goes up there, finds nothing to absorb it and comes roaring back like an avalanche. The inside of the Stadium is similar to the inside of a can. And when the world's largest organ kicks in for a Blackhawk game—or when the Bulls turn off the lights, crank up Cirrus by the Alan Parsons Project and introduce the starting lineup while a spotlight shines and fireworks burst from above, and public-address announcer Ray Clay screams, "And from North Carolina, six-foot-six, Michaeeeel...."—the howl inside the building becomes something transcendent and nearly solid, like a plank you could rest your elbows on.
"There is no other building like this," says Keenan. "In the locker room you can feel the energy of the crowd. The shape of the stands, the steep seats—the audience interacts with the players, and the sound just reverberates. It can be painful, especially when it bounces off the glass behind you. Nobody can hear you, and sometimes I have to go down and grab, pinch or shake a player to let him know I want him on the ice."
The sound level in the Stadium has been measured at 130 decibels, which is louder than the water thundering at the foot of Niagara Falls or the noise of a rock concert. It is louder than a propeller plane at takeoff or a speeding subway train. It is the same, essentially, as the sound of a machine gun being fired next to your head. And no doubt the noise level has gone higher than that. In Game 5 of this year's NBA championship quarterfinals, when loathed New York Knick center Patrick Ewing fouled out with just over three minutes left to play, the Chicago crowd roared so loudly, venting all its resentment of those frighteningly tough New Yorkers while the P.A. system blared Hit the Road, Jack, that the sound raged beyond vibration into pure innerear hurt.
Every Stadium-goer has his own opinion on the "loudest moment ever." Some say it occurred during the last home game of the Bulls-Golden State Warriors Western Conference playoff final in 1975, when the hometown team, led by Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan, seemed poised to gain the NBA Finals by force of sheer will. (They didn't make it.) Some say it was the night in '83 when the banner with Bobby Hull's number was hoisted into the Stadium rafters. Some say it was last season, at the height of the gulf war, when the national anthem preceding the NHL All-Star game turned into a howl of nationalistic fervor. Bulls public relations director Tim Hallam says the loudest moment was during a standing-room-only Bulls-Knicks game in '81 that started at the unusually late time of 9 p.m. to accommodate TV. "It was a big game," Hallam explains. "And people had two more hours to drink." That same year, according to Brian McIntyre, then the Bulls' p.r. director and now p.r. chief for the NBA, New York Times writer Sam Goldaper could not transmit his story during a Bulls-Knicks game because the sound waves generated by the crowd garbled his computer's phone signal.
"There's no question it's the loudest place in sport," says former Bulls coach Doug Collins, now an NBA analyst for TNT. "I remember a game against Cleveland when we were down about 15 points and the crowd started screaming and the players felt it, and we rode that electricity to a win." When Collins was coaching, he always lost his voice by midseason. "Not from yelling, just from trying to talk to the players," he says. "Four home games, and I was done. During timeouts you couldn't hear a thing, so I just wrote notes on a chalkboard." Current coach Phil Jackson has developed a wide assortment of grimaces and hand gestures and a piercing two-fingered whistle to communicate with his charges through the Stadium din. Still, his playoff voice has degenerated to a rasp.
Blackhawk radio announcer Pat Foley must wear earphones and speak through his microphone to converse with his broadcast partner, Dale 'Tallon. "And we're only six inches apart," says Foley. "Listeners complained to me that they couldn't hear our broadcast, so finally I told the engineers to turn down the crowd mike. And they said, it's down. All that noise is coming through your mike.' "
As a special treat for opposing teams, the Blackhawks have installed a foghorn under the center-ice scoreboard, with trumpets pointing in four directions. Following Blackhawk goals, the horn blasts a sound like that of the Queen Mary bearing down on a dinghy. The report has more than once brought unsuspecting skaters to their knees. "When they put in the horn, in 1983, you'd see a lot of guys flinch," says Foley. "I mean, it's an oceangoing freaking horn from the Wirtzes' yacht, The Blackhawk. One time we scored, and debris was coming out of the stands and 18,000 people were on this poor goalie, and then the horn went off—and the kid hid in the net."
The look of this place: shiny red seats, red-and-black walls, black ceiling, red aisles, black railings—everything in black and red, the colors of the Bulls and the Blackhawks, painted a thousand times, as if the Stadium were an old pizza parlor or a sleazy hotel catering to afternoon honeymooners and drunks. Doesn't anybody know that red and black don't become an old lady?
And yet there is a tidiness here. A concern to make each outdated object in this 63-year-old room look usable and somehow cared for. The ceiling is dark and forbidding, but it does not appear to be filthy—nothing ghastly dangles. A couple of years ago a crew came in, covered the floor and all the seats of the Stadium with plastic sheets, climbed to the rafters and blew everything off the ceiling and beams and catwalks with air hoses. After finding no corpses or treasure or mutant animals, the crew proceeded to paint everything up there black. "This place has been kept up," says Chicago Sun-Times hockey writer Herb Gould. "You look up at the ceiling at Boston Garden, at the gunk there, and it'd make you vomit."
"You wouldn't believe how much better the Stadium is now than when I came here in 1958," says former Blackhawk great Stan Mikita, whose retired number hangs from the ceiling with Hull's, Tony Esposito's and Glenn Hall's. "Floors were warped, nails stuck out of wood. In the locker room there were no cubicles, just folding chairs and nails for your clothes." The Wirtz family, which has owned the Stadium since 1934 and the Blackhawks since 1954, has always been accused of being cheap. "I remember Arthur Wirtz [William's father, who died in 1983] delivering his most famous line," says Mikita. "Somebody said, 'We need some paint for the seats,' and Arthur said, "We don't need paint, we need asses.' " The Winzes' reputation for stinginess is largely a vestige of the way Arthur, son of a Chicago cop, made his fortune—buying real estate cheap, paying Depression-era prices for bankrupt or cash-strapped buildings and then maintaining them well enough to squeeze out a profit. That is how he got the Stadium itself, buying it with partner James Norris after the man who built it, Paddy Harmon, died in a car crash and the building teetered toward bankruptcy.
"The Stadium reminds me of each of Arthur's buildings—solid brick and stone structures taking up most of a city block," says Jonathan Kovler, the Bulls' general managing partner from 1975 to '85. "He just made good buys, paying 20, 30 cents on the dollar. He wasn't interested in sports, really, but he had to come up with events to fill this place." And he did, peppering the Stadium with almost every sporting event known to man, from six-day bicycle races to ice shows (he fathered the modern skating spectacles by signing three-time Olympic gold medalist Sonja Henie to a $70,000 contract in '34) to pro wrestling. Mixed in were political and musical events that brought everyone from John F. Kennedy to Elvis Presley through the narrow doors. The Stadium was sturdy, nothing ornate. It still doesn't have a main entrance, just a series of tiny marquees over glass doors in front of turnstiles.
But time has enhanced the Stadium's charm, even though it has no restaurants, video replay screens or television studios. And both the Blackhawks' and the Bulls' front offices are touchy about being perceived as wreckers of tradition. In a current TV ad for the Chevy Blazer, Michael Jordan drives slowly around the Stadium, gazing at it fondly and saying, "I love that old building. I mean, people were talking about doing a new building. You know, to me, that's home. Just because of the way it's built. Every scat is a good seat...." When the spot was first aired, the firm of Eisaman, Johns & Laws, which created it, received a conference call from various Stadium officials requesting that Jordan's sentence about "doing a new building" be dropped, because it made the owners seem greedy and insensitive. "We're looking at changing that right now, trying to figure out what we replace it with," says the ad's co-director, Rino Liberatore. He notes that Jordan's words were unscripted and heartfelt.
Clearly, this building has been maintained by someone who feels it is more than an aging cash cow. And that must be John Fett. But who is he? There is no mention of Fett in the Blackhawks' or the Bulls' media guide. "He won't even let us take his picture," says Blackhawk p.r. director Jim DeMaria. All that is known about Fett is that he was an Air Corps pilot in World War II and once managed some of the Wirtzes' movie theaters, occasionally visiting the Wirtz farm in Ivan-hoe, Ill., to screen movies for the family. He ramrods the Stadium's metamorphosis from hockey arena to basketball court—or vice versa—in as little as three hours, and Bill Wirtz calls him "a clean-freak." But why is he so ill-tempered?
"All I know is that one day he went by me and said, 'Youth. It's wasted on the young,' " says Blackhawk assistant p.r. man loin Finks, 26.
Finks leads the way now through the Stadium's aisles and stairways, pointing out novelties: the tiny ice rink, 15 feet shorter than the NHL standard of 200 feet, ideal for the Blackhawks' bruising. close-checking style of play; the viewless mezzanine seat—Section G, Row U, Scat 7—that is directly behind a steel beam; the 69 steps to the first balcony; the 107 steps (gasp!) in a separate, windowless stairwell to the top of the second balcony; the 19 steps down from the playing area to the first basement landing, with no railing for the first eight steps (tumbled down by many an athlete) and with an overhang that puts anyone taller than six feet (and how many basketball players and men in skates are shorter?) in grave danger of caving in his forehead.
It's three more steps down to the bottom level of the Stadium, where Jackson and Keenan meet the press in the black-and-white-tiled hallway that leads off to locker rooms, cul-de-sacs, unopenable doors and entraillike fissures where you wouldn't want to go without heavy boots and a flashlight. And a weapon.
What secrets lie down here? Why do the stairs in the Blackhawks' weight room rise directly into the ceiling? What is behind that freezer door across from the Bulls' locker room? "There are hollow spots in our walls," says Blackhawk associate coach Darryl Sutter. "I'll hit one sometimes and scare Eddie Belfour by telling him it's a tomb for old goalies." A few years back, the Wirtzes ran out of Scotch at a party they were holding upstairs. On a hunch, Bill Wirtz grabbed a set of keys and unlocked a door that hadn't been opened in a quarter-century. Voila! There sat cases of Black & White Scotch from the '30s.
Farther along is the lone auto ramp into the guts of the building, a brief tunnel so narrow and low that the Blackhawks had to have their equipment truck custom-built so it wouldn't get stuck inside. There are no rats visible here, which is good. "I never saw a rat, but I heard them." McIntyre has said of his Stadium years. There arc no mice to be seen, either. The latter are mostly taken care of by the resident cat, Kat, cared for by Zamboni driver Danny Ahern. (One mouse that Kat didn't snare, however, recently died inside Finks's office computer. "My machine wouldn't boot up," says Finks. "The repairman found the mouse on the hard drive and vacuumed out the fur.") Kat has the run of the place until just before game time. "Then I lock her in my office," says Ahern. "You never know about fans."
No, you don't. Neighborhoods, either. The one around the Stadium is a bad one, dotted with gutted homes, barren lots and crime-infested housing projects. Most people coming to the Stadium would never see this area were it not for the games. "We get people walking in, saying, 'Hey, I just parked for free over at the condos!' " marvels police lieutenant Walter Conrad, who oversees the 45 uniformed cops who work Stadium events. Most of the dummies, he notes, are Bulls fans. "Hawks fans are street smart, but Bulls fans are more of the yuppie type." Collins once left the Stadium late at night after a game, got into his car and noticed that a security guard was being jumped by a mugger. Collins corralled the mugger with his car and held the man against the fence with his bumper until the police arrived.
But the Stadium rises above its surroundings like a tanker in a stormy sea, its hold providing a user-friendly stage for premier athletes. Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali both showed their stuff at the Stadium, and Rocky Marciano knocked out Jersey Joe Walcott here in the first round in 1953 to retain his heavyweight crown. Ring announcer Ben Bentley remembers that moment vividly: "Men in Italian silk suits, women in fur jackets. Smoke from all the cigarettes like a haze over the lights. Then it goes dark. Then the spotlight hits the champion as he gets into the ring. Then I say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, this is the main event of the evening!' "
Memories cling to the Stadium like grit. Temperature stories? How about the Bulls-Phoenix Suns game in 1970, when the boiler broke and the Bulls returned from halftime wearing their overcoats? Then there was the seventh game of the '71 Stanley Cup championships, which the Blackhawks lost to Montreal because the Chicago goalie couldn't see the puck in the fog created by the hot air on the ice. Disgusted, Arthur Wirtz had installers put in twice the amount of air-conditioning the building needed.
Intensity stories? I low about the scrawny, 6'2" Norm Van Lier chasing 6'9", 225-pound Portland Trail Blazer Sidney Wicks around the Stadium court with a folding chair? "He popped me in the throat real good," says the still feisty Van Lier. "I was going to use that chair. I didn't grab it to look pretty."
And speaking of action, how about the 1932 NFL title game played in the Stadium, which thereby became the league's first dome? Forced inside by a blizzard, the hometown Bears whipped the Portsmouth Spartans 9-0 on an 80-yard field of dirt trucked in for a circus; the winning touchdown came on a five-yard pass from Bronko Nagurski to Red Grange.
Finks unlocks a storage room and rummages through a dusty pile of black-and-white photos. Here's one of the 1931 Blackhawks. Small pads. Lumpy noses. A player named John Gottselig has a head like a car with its doors open. Why don't these photos hang in a place of honor?
"Don't know," says Finks, who found a large photo of the Blackhawks' 1938 Stanley Cup champs in a forgotten room like this and hung it over his desk. "Maybe there will be a place in the new stadium."
George Anderson, organ technician, walks up to the second balcony, enters the men's room, unlocks a door and climbs three flights of metal ladders to a catwalk that takes him to a platform over the center of the Stadium. This is where the 4,000 pipes of the world's largest organ are housed, just under the roof, in four louvered chambers the size of master bedrooms. In another room a turbine as big as a van is roaring, building up the wind to power this musical beast, which took 24 railroad cars to transport from builder Daniel Barton's Oshkosh, Wis., factory to the Stadium in 1929.
The organ reportedly can put forth a volume equivalent to the sound of 25 brass bands of 100 pieces each, and Anderson's job is to repair the pieces of the orchestra that happen to blow. The organ console itself is far below him, on a perch off the first balcony, hooked to these pipes by 5,000 miles of electrical wire. Keyboard player Frank Pellico, who studied under Al (Nine Fingers) Melgard, the original Stadium organist, prepares to go to work on the eight keyboards and myriad tabs, buttons and pedals before him. Anderson enters a chamber, and suddenly the floor is bouncing, chains are swaying, and tremolo boxes are vibrating like cages filled with wild animals. Pellico is playing something snappy, and the sound rattles your internal organs.
During a break Anderson speaks about his deep love for pipe organs. It is mentioned to him that the Blackhawks are not going to take the organ with them to the new building, citing an estimated moving cost of $11 million. Anderson snorts. "They didn't ask my company to make a bid," he says. "We'd move it, take the fee and retire." He knows that organ music is hokey, that rock 'n' roll is what goes best with hip, big-time sport. "It's my guess." Anderson says sadly, "that they'll be happy to be rid of the organ."
Before the second game of the Campbell Conference final between the Blackhawks and the Edmonton Oilers on May 18, national anthem singer Wayne Messmer stood in the organ loft like the figurehead on a ship, facing the Stadium crowd and the teams standing at attention on the ice.
Messmer was in something like a trance, and before he could get three words into the song, he was deafened by the keyed-up, shrieking fans. After that he sang from memory, since he couldn't hear his own voice. Coming down from his perch, he wiped sweat from his face and said, "The worst part is that I can't be in the crowd, experiencing it myself."
The Blackhawks came from behind to win 4-2 and take a 2-0 lead in the series. Later that night Bill Wirtz sat in his Stadium office pondering recent events.
"This building is magic." he said. "When it goes, I'm going to cry."
The catalyst for change came in 1989, Wirtz said, when he saw the Detroit Pistons' Palace of Auburn Hills. "I asked Jerry Reinsdorf then if he wanted to talk lease or partnership. He said partnership, and that's what we have. One hundred forty million dollars from foreign investors, $17.5 million from the Blackhawks, $17.5 million from the Bulls."
Wirtz took a sip of Scotch from a glass bearing the Blackhawk logo. Fett won't be going to the new building, he said. By Fett's own choice.
A Stadium worker who demanded anonymity had said that morning. "Mr. Fett hears those cranes across the street every day. He hears the end of this building. And he hears his own end too."
Well, that could certainly make a man ornery. But it could also make a man joyful. Think of the memories, Mr. Fett! Think of the things that happened here!
And think of what yet may come.