Chicago now bullish on hosting 2020 All-Star Game after 32-year hiatus

Franchise accepts challenge of holding league's mid-season classic

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

CHICAGO – Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban managed to dodge a situation back in 2010 that might have irritated his season-ticket holders, what with the NBA bringing the All-Star Game to Dallas that year.

Cuban wound up with a win-win: He stood on principal for his most loyal fans, folks who routinely get displaced either from their usual seats or from the arena entirely when the league takes care of sponsors and VIPs attending the annual showcase. Yet he satisfied the NBA without leaving Mavericks fans on the outside in what proved to be an ice-storm weekend.

The answer? The event was at Cowboys Stadium, the Taj Mahal of NFL stadiums operated by Jerry Jones and less than a year old at the time of the NBA’s rental.

An unprecedented and outrageous capacity crowd of 108,713 – accommodating Cuban’s 10,000 season-ticket holders easily – dwarfed the 16,573 attendance from Reunion Arena in 1986, the event’s previous stop in Dallas. The video screens alone at the retractable-roof behemoth are 160 feet wider, extending 33 feet beyond each end of a 94-foot regulation basketball court.

By contrast, Chicago’s NFL stadium, Soldier Field, is an open-air venue. Staging a basketball game in February, down at the Lake Michigan lakefront, is out of the question. Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf long disliked the area and had no interest in antagonizing his most devoted customers after the 1988 game held at old Chicago Stadium. That left the Chicago Bulls in the same bind as most other NBA markets.

Do they decline the opportunity to host All-Star Weekend entirely, to make sure they don’t annoy most of their customers? Or do they host the event, squeeze as many fans into the building as their share of tickets allows and hope the majority of Bulls fans enjoy secondary attractions or a TV view no different from the game being played in Los Angeles (2018) or Charlotte (2019)?

“It’s part of the issue for the home team,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver conceded Friday at United Center, where the league made it official that Chicago would serve as host city in 2020 after a 32-year gap.

“We’re bringing in people from all over the world. We, of course, need those seats,” Silver said. “It’s a balance. My sense for the season-ticket holders, many of them whom I’ve talked to, I don’t think their ultimate deal is, ‘We’d rather not have it all if we can’t have our same seats.’”

Adding and spreading events across multiple days and nights – from the rookie-sophomore game to All-Star Saturday competition (dunk, skill and 3-point contests), from All-Star practices to a celebrity exhibition – while offering the annual NBA Jam Session as an accessibly public backdrop is a way to accommodate a maximum number of attendees: Bulls faithful, NBA fans in Chicago and out-of-towners willing to brave likely frigid temperatures and possible snowstorms.

There’s the trend of the NBA christening new arenas with the big event too, and as Silver pointed out, United Center qualifies. Old Chicago Stadium still was in operation back in 1988, with the House Michael Jordan Built six years away.

Michael Reinsdorf, the Bulls’ president and chief operating officer, acknowledged the limitations the host team faces. Typically, teams conduct a lottery that pleases some, annoys many.

“We have 22,000 seats here,” the younger Reinsdorf said, “I’m not even sure we get a couple thousand seats. The NBA controls it all. … I don’t really know whether it helps or hurts us from that perspective.”

But All-Star Weekend reminds the league, fans and worldwide viewers of Chicago’s strength as an NBA market – something the Bulls still might not be demonstrating during its rebuild. It generally has a positive financial impact on the city and the neighborhood where it is held, factors that brought Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel and Walter Burnett Jr., alderman of the 27th ward, to Friday’s news conference.

And it offers a goal for some Bulls players to participate in some capacity – say, Lauri Markkanen as a 3-point contestant or even All-Star and a 2018 or 2019 lottery pick in the Rising Stars game – on their home court, if not precisely in front of a home crowd.

“I look at this maybe as a way for us to use this as a little motivation,” Bulls vice president of basketball operations John Paxson said, “for a few of our young kids we have really high hopes for.”

First, though, there came the challenge. Convincing the elder Reinsdorf to fund and tolerate this rebuilding plan, with those 22,000 voting with their wallets for 41 games each season, might have been easier than persuading him to stick a toe in All-Star waters.

“What did I do?” Michael Reinsdorf said. “I’m serious, my son Joey and my daughter [Jenny]. Joey likes going to the games to watch the games. My daughter and other son [Harry] like to go to see who’s at the games. … I tried to explain to my dad – I don’t think he’s been to an All-Star Game since 1988 – the difference now than what it was like when we hosted it last.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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