MJ return, Bears make for big Chi-town day

Late this morning, the Washington Wizards team bus will enter the United Center parking lot and creep its way past the most famous statue in Chicago sports history.

Jordan Struggles, but Bulls Still Lose Bears, NFL Results

When the bus stops, it's one man in particular -- one who presents a striking resemblance to the statue -- that will be the center of attention. He's sure to be hidden in his bulky silver headphones, sleek black sunglasses and perfectly pressed Italian suit.

Maniacal Chicago sports fans won't be too far behind, begging for Jordan to sign an autograph, smile for a picture, or just acknowledge their presence. But don't be fooled. These are imposters.

Deep down, they don't care about Jordan. Don't care about the Wizards. And certainly don't care about the Bulls. Though the picture of Michael Jordan returning to the United Center is supposed to stir memories, few in the Windy City seem to care.

For the most part, their minds are somewhere else, focusing on another nationally-televised event to take place some 3½ hours later, the Bears home playoff game against the Philadelphia Eagles.

Don't believe me? Just listen to former Bear Jim McMahon, a guest on Friday's Dan Patrick radio Show. When asked for his take of Jordan's return to the United Center, the Punky QB answered, "When's that going on?"

He wasn't kidding. Indeed, the red and black Bulls No. 23 jerseys are buried deep in Chicago closets these days, replaced in the sports wardrobe with Bears jersey No. 54, that of second-year linebacker Brian Urlacher.

"Jordan and the Wizards are merely a blip on the radar screen this week," said Dan McNeil, host of the afternoon show on Chicago's ESPN Radio 1000. "All anybody wants to talk about is Bears-Eagles."

Chicago's deep love for the Bears shouldn't be surprise. I lived there for 19 years, growing up during the heyday of Mike Ditka's Monsters of the Midway. I was there for Walter Payton's last game. Was there for the famous Fog Bowl playoff game of 1998.

And during the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl XX, I slapped a shiny Bears bumper sticker on the side of my Dad's 35-pound Marlin mounted in our living room. Though he was less than pleased, the sticker stayed there for 15 years, an instant conversation piece for any fan that entered the house.

Don't get me wrong, I loved the Bulls. I often zigzagged around in my driveway, tongue hanging out of my mouth, wearing one of those red No. 23 jerseys. I pretended that I could touch the net, never the less dunk.

But football in Chicago always carried a special feeling. It's this city's pastime. It's near the core of its blue-collar roots. With the Bears, who have been around since 1920, there's an unmistakable lineage, passed along from generation to generation. The names strike a special chord.

Halas. Grange. Nagurski. Butkus. Sayers. Payton. And now, Urlacher.

No offense to Bob Love, Jerry Sloan or Chet Walker, but the history of the Bulls, a relatively young franchise that started in 1966-67, pretty much starts and ends with Jordan. And even that feeling is different.

Remember, it was originally Bears fans, not those of the Bulls, that Saturday Night Live mocked with their Super Fans skits. Only after the Bears fell apart, Mike Ditka was fired and the Bulls rose to prominence, did the skit George Wendt & Co. start praising His Airness. And even then, they still worshiped Ditka.

The skit was funny because it was true. Guys who love greasy deep dish pizza, dipped Italian beef sandwiches, a chunky bratwurst and a cold can of Old Style aren't that far-fetched in the Windy City. And they all love the Bears.

After all, in what other city would the local paper, in this case The Chicago Sun-Times, advertise an orange and blue wedding dress with the words "Bears" stitched across the front?

Only one. The same city where it has long been said that Chicagoans would trade all six Bulls NBA Championships for one more Super Bowl victory.

"Even if it was Jordan coming back with the Bulls, I don't think it would change anything this weekend," said McNeil, who has worked in Chicago sports radio since 1985, the year before the Bears won Super Bowl XX. "The Bears have too much of a history with this city. Even when the Bulls were winning championships, people yearned for the Bears to return to glory. And now that they have, everyone has lost control."

The Bears spent much of Jordan's Chicago days in deep hibernation, woke up, shocked the football world with a 13-3 record this season and won the NFC Central. Saturday's NFC Divisional Playoff is the Bears first home playoff game in 11 years.

And there's nothing -- not Jordan, not the annual Cubs convention, not an NHL showdown between the Blackhawks and Dallas Stars on Sunday -- that can get the city's attention away from it.

"The Cubs are the second-most popular team in town, usually there are stories and a buzz about their convention, but you haven't heard a word about them, either. It's all Urlacher, McNabb, Jim Miller, Hugh Douglass. That's it," McNeill said.

Few days in Chicago sports history can rival this one. There was May 6, 1998, a foggy afternoon in which Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood struck out 20 Houston Astros, tying the Major League record and later that night, the Bulls suffered an embarrassing 78-76 home loss to the Charlotte Hornets in the NBA Playoffs.

Or there was Oct. 6, 1993, the day Jordan announced his first retirement, the White Sox lost 3-1 to the Toronto Blue Jays to fall behind 2-0 in the ALCS and the Cubs fired manager Jim Lefebvre.

But even those days came with little anticipation. This date, Jan. 19, has been circled since Jordan announced his comeback in September. A thicker, bolder circle was added last week, when the NFL schedule makers announced it was the day that the Bears would host their second-round playoff opponent. Since, then it's been pure pandemonium.

Just ask the ticket brokers. Max Waisvisz, owner of Gold Coast Tickets in Chicago, has seen prices for Jordan's Chicago return plummet with the rise of the Bears. Courtside seats that he purchased for $1,000 piece he's now praying to sell for $400. A suite that Waisvisz paid $15,000 for and hoped to sell $350 tickets to, he's now giving away for $150 per ticket.

And the Bears? Though prices have dropped a tad in recent days, Waisvisz said that seats with a face value of $50 to $80 are selling for anywhere from $200 to $600.

"It's the Bears and Bulls, I feel like a stock market broker," said Waisvisz, who said he plans on attending both games. "For the Bulls, it's been horrible. I'm just trying to sell, sell, sell. Get as much money back as I can."

Jordan's individual place in Chicago's illustrious sports history is unmatched. After all, Jordan was the ultimate winner. His persona spread the globe, representing Chicago as something more than the bang-bang home of Al Capone and corrupt politicians.

The Bulls success gave Chicagoans, which have long felt slighted by their flashy counterparts from New York and glitzy counterparts from Los Angeles, something to brag about, something at which their city was unequivocally the best.

But even that apparently only gets you so far. Chicago may have loved Michael Jordan, but they have always been in love with the Bears.

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com.