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Dinner With the Bulls

The annual FestaBulls dinner was held recently, giving fans an up close look at Chicago Bulls players past and present, with Derrick Rose and Scottie Pippen leading the way.

Historically, the Cubs were the first professional sports team in Chicago to have an annual fan convention, followed by the White Sox, Bears and Blackhawks, in that order. Surprisingly, the Bulls have not yet joined that crowd, opting instead to host an annual dinner for their fans called “FestaBulls,” the proceeds of which go to benefit the team’s favorite charities. This year marked the 22nd anniversary of FestaBulls, and like most FestaBulls dinners in the past, it sold out.

Begun in the early years of the Michael Jordan dynasty, FestaBulls has always had spectacular drawing power because the team’s full complement of players and coaches are required to attend. This has meant that through the years, fans attending FestaBulls have had nearly opportunities to score autographs from some of the best players in the NBA, including Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Jordan.

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This year, the big gun was Derrick Rose. The fact that Rose is a legitimate MVP candidate, along with his naturally pleasing personality, have made him a popular figure around town and around much of the league. This growing popularity may alter things a bit in the future, but at this year’s FestaBulls, it was still possible to go through his autograph line several times. Rose said he still enjoys signing for fans, and the fans continue to be polite in his presence.

This year, the dinner was brought back to the United Center because fans enjoyed the experience of roaming around the playing floor while mingling with the players. The players also seemed to be more relaxed because of the familiar surroundings and went out of their way to be friendly to the fans. In fact, it was not unusual to see the players hang out with fans before and after dinner, talking basketball and discussing the team’s prospects for the rest of the season. Only Rose seemed anchored to his chair because of the numerous autograph requests.

In addition to Rose, Carlos Boozer was getting his fair share of autograph requests, as was the new coach, Tom Thibodeau. “Tibbs,” as he is known to the players, was extremely friendly and polite, taking care to thank fans. Even Pippen, who is now a goodwill ambassador for the team, spent quite a bit of time mingling and signing things. He actually looked like he was enjoying himself, which was quite a change from the old days.

Several alumni, such as Tom Boerwinkle and John Mengelt, also came to FestaBulls at the invitation of the team and agreed to sign for fans. Each of the players and alumni also seemed to take great pleasure in posing for photos with the fans, at times even helping to arrange family groupings in the photos to get the best possible shots.

For serious collectors, the highlight of the evening was the live auction, followed by the silent auction. This year, there were several attractive items in the live auction, including the “Ultimate Derrick Rose Collection,” which contained a signed, game-used Rose rookie jersey, among other things. The package eventually sold for $5,200, although, a full game-used, autographed Rose rookie uniform went for $3,100 in the silent auction.

It was difficult to reconcile the two, except to say that the winner of the latter uniform probably got one of the all-time bargains ever at a FestaBulls dinner. It was reminiscent of the time that a woman purchased a Jordan game-used jersey for $5,000 and had Jordan sign it in front of a couple of hundred witnesses, while the team photographer took pictures of the signing. A couple of years after that, signed Jordan game jerseys were going for more than $20,000, and the signed full uniforms were going for $40,000, showing just how prescient the lady had been.

Most of the other autographed, game-used uniforms were going for much less than Rose’s at this year’s FestaBulls event. In fact, in the silent auction, you could get the uniforms of such lesser-known players as Ronnie Brewer and Keith Bogans for a few hundred dollars apiece, which was nothing compared to the prices that used to be realized during the championship years for the uniforms of Jordan sidekicks like John Paxson, Bill Cartwright and Luc Longley. Dave Kurland, the long-time Bulls front office executive who gathers and oversees the auction items for FestaBulls and other team events, was generally pleased with the revenue generated by this year’s auctions.

By way of background, when asked how the team goes about gathering the stuff that is placed in the auctions, Kurland confirmed that all of the Bulls’ stuff comes right from the locker room or from the team’s archives.

“During the season,” Kurland said, “most of the players will get two sets of each uniform. That includes the white home uniforms, the red road uniforms and the black ones they wear on special occasions. The players get to keep one of their uniforms each year, and we put one in the FestaBulls auction. Some of the uniforms also get traded to other teams for items from those teams that we can then put into the FestaBulls auction. And, of course, we have some stuff in our archives that we can pull out from time to time to add to the mix.”

Examples this year of stuff from the archives were an autographed Rodman jersey and signed Toni Kukoc uniform.

The players speak, sort of

Because the players were enjoying being able to interact with the fans so much, it was not easy to get them to break away for interviews this year. So, for the most part, all you could get were the quick sound bites from players like Brian Scalabrine who said he appreciated the opportunity to meet the people who make it possible for him to lead the life he does. “I am definitely grateful,” he said.

Omer Asik, a former European player who now fills the back-up big man role for the Bulls admirably was equally grateful, and also thrilled that he has been able to fit in so seamlessly with his first NBA team. Kurt Thomas, who is close to being the oldest active player in the NBA, seemed to be having the time of his life at FestaBulls, acting almost like a rookie caught in the headlights.

Besides Pippen, Boerwinkle and Mengelt, other Bulls alumni in attendance this year were Stacey King, Sidney Green, Rick Brunson, Kendall Gill, Bob Love, Ed Pinckney, Randy Brown, Dave Corzine, Mickey Johnson, Adrian Griffin, Bill Wennington and Toni Kukoc.

Kukoc received the biggest round of applause from the fans other than Pippen and Rose, which was evidence that Bulls fans are not likely to soon forget the guys who brought them and Chicago all of that championship glory in the 1990s.