Wednesday, June 3
It's four-and-a-half hours prior to tipoff of Game 1 of the 1998 NBA Finals, and a menagerie of teenagers, some holding skateboards and wearing Michael Jordan jerseys, keep vigil on the steps of the Doubletree Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City. They stare intently at the glass doors some 20 feet away. Their goal? To catch a glimpse, any glimpse, of the Chicago Bulls.
As the team bus pulls up in front of the hotel entrance, the group of teens moves in for a closer view, maneuvering around the police cars and stationing themselves behind the bus. Inside the lobby, a Bulls equipment manager surveys the scene outside, knowing the team won't be leaving for another 90 minutes. He reports Dennis Rodman went to Crossroads Mall earlier in the day and then returned to his room to hang out and watch television. "He's a pretty normal guy," the equipment manager insists. "All the players are pretty normal. They're human beings."
Try telling that to the 100 or so people that have now packed the hotel lobby while the bus idles outside, with about 20 fans choking on exhaust fumes. One woman has been milling around the lobby since 12:30 p.m. in hopes of procuring some autographs. Even the grown men clad in Jazz paraphernalia are craning their necks to see the elevators where they hope players will emerge. And most of these people don't even like the Bulls.
A pair of muscle-bound police officers are posted in front of the doors. "Do not touch anyone when they walk by," an officer warns those who are lined up, four-deep, along the aisle, which is cordoned off by velvet, movie-theatre ropes. People are carrying camcorders and cameras, pens and paper. Among the assembled throng are hotel employees: cooks, concierges and bellhops. A couple of dozen folks look down from the mezzanine level. "It's like waiting for the Beatles," observes a man wearing a Jazz cap.
While the excitement is palpable, some onlookers begin to panic, wondering if it is all a ruse. They fear the Bulls are going to escape through a back door somewhere. Their fears are quelled somewhat when 7-foot-2 center Luc Longley walks out of the elevator. Silence falls on the lobby. A couple of people snap photos. "Who's that?" a woman asks.
The Bulls straggle out one at a time, every couple of minutes. Scottie Pippen, wearing earphones, has a bodyguard trailing behind him. There's a smattering of applause from the gallery and more pictures are taken. But the drama builds in anticipation of a Michael Jordan sighting. Soon a distinguished-looking man sporting a salt-and-pepper beard saunters past the mass of admirers. "Phil Jackson!" someone shouts. "The greatest coach in the NBA!" Maintaining his stride, Jackson smiles and nods, presumably in agreement.
The elevator doors slide open and, finally, Jordan appears, flanked by bodyguards. A collective gasp ripples through the crowd. Jordan, ever-focused, looks straight ahead and marches to the bus. Camera flashbulbs are popping, video cameras are whirring. One woman shrieks with delight after touching the tail of His Airnesses' designer suitcoat.
The loudest reaction is reserved for Rodman who, predictably, is the last player to board the bus. The crowd cheers and jeers wildly. As he disappears onto the Bullmobile, the crowd scatters. Some people run to their cars, while others occupy a spot next to the bus to gawk one last time at the players through tinted windows. Then they watch the bus rumble down West Temple en route to the Delta Center.
Welcome to the Final Tour Stop of the Chicago Bulls.
Scenes such as the one that played out at the Doubletree this week have become routine for the Bulls - ever since Jordan started winning NBA championships and starring in 75 percent of the commercials aired in this country.
The phenomenon heightened a few months ago when M.J. told the world he would be retiring after the 1998 season. The Bulls are now an American dynasty with an expiration date. This team is on the verge of joining the ranks of other national treasures that are now extinct, like Seinfeld. And the general public wants to witness history. They want to be able to tell their grandkids that they once saw Babe Ruth of their generation walk through a lobby.
With a built-in entourage in every city, the Bulls attract armies of star-gazers and hangers-on. From the hotels to the arenas, people flock just to get a fleeting glance of them.
Michael and the Bulls just might be bigger than the NBA Finals. While the Finals are a huge event no matter what teams are involved, do you think hundreds of Salt Lake residents would converge on a hotel lobby and spend hours stalking the Indiana Pacers?
"The Finals bring a lot of crowds," said Brent Allenbach, vice president of event services at the Delta Center. "But we would be naive to think there would be the same type of demand to see the Pacers."
Allenbach's job is to provide a safe, user-friendly environment for the fans, media and players who attend the Finals.
The Bulls, particularly Jordan, make that task even tougher.
"The Bulls bring additional concerns for the sheer fact people make it a life quest to see Jordan up close," Allenbach said. "He warrants extra protection. People will go to great lengths to see him."
For a regular-season Jazz game, the Delta Center employs 28 security guards. Allenbach hires 26 more for the Finals, plus the NBA has four security guards of its own.
The Salt Lake City Police Department is also heavily involved in this undertaking. Officers accompany the Bulls to and from the arena. "We typically don't escort teams to the Delta Center," explained Sgt. Jim Coleman. "People wait around two hours after the game to watch their bus go."
Last year, when the Bulls stayed in Park City for the Finals, the Highway Patrol escorted them during 45-minute trips to Salt Lake. Though Chicago took the championship, the Bulls had perilous off-the-court moments. Prior to Game 3, the team awoke to the sound of a band playing outside the hotel as a prank. Before Game 5, Jordan said he became ill after eating pizza at the hotel.
This time around, the Bulls are a Steve Kerr jumper away from the arena. Most of the players, like Jordan, spend much of their time cooped up in their rooms to avoid the general chaos their mere presence creates.
Rest assured that security at the Doubletree is tight. Not only do the hotel managers refuse to discuss the measures they take to safeguard the Bulls' welfare, they won't even acknowledge the Bulls are staying there.
But if you want to know where the most famous team in the world is, just look for the crowds.