Chicagoans say city not just NBA host, it's the Mecca of hoops

Views of the sun rising to illuminate the Chicago skyline from the Adler Planetarium on March 2, 2018. (Patrick Gorski/NurPhoto via Getty Images / Getty Images)

The NBA is headquartered in New York. Anthony Davis, one of the game’s biggest names, plays in Los Angeles.

Both, unquestionably, are world-class cities.

But in Davis’ eyes, they both pale to his hometown. And this weekend, the Chicago native believes the eyes of the basketball world are where they belong -- on his city.

“Chicago basketball,” the Lakers’ forward said. “There is nothing like Chicago basketball.”

Chicago is called the Second City, though no one from Chicago believes that the city is second to any other city on the planet -- particularly those who represent the city in the NBA. L.A. has the glitz and glamour of the Lakers and now the Clippers, New York has the tradition of Madison Square Garden and possibly the best-known outdoor court in the world at Rucker Park, but Chicago guys scoff at the notion that the game means more anyplace else.

That’s why hosting All-Star weekend, with the events beginning in earnest Friday, is a badge of honor for Chicago. It’s been more than 20 years since Michael Jordan and the Bulls finished their run of six titles in eight years, nearly a decade since native son Derrick Rose gave the city its last NBA MVP and five years since the city celebrated winning an NBA playoff series. Though the Bulls are not good these days, anywhere one looks in the city Bulls red-and-black gear is still being worn proudly by a steeled fan base.

“Chicago is the Mecca of the game,” Davis said.

It’s silly to argue that with anyone from Chicago, since the agreement is basically unanimous. It’s the city that gave the NBA players like Dwyane Wade and Isiah Thomas, George Mikan and Maurice Cheeks, Mark Aguirre and Tim Hardaway. It boasts Cazzie Russell and Terry Cummings, Eddie Johnson and Dan Issel, Juwan Howard and Jeff Hornacek.

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was born in Chicago. So was Doc Rivers, now the Clippers coach and a one-time NBA All-Star -- back in 1988, the last time the league’s showcase weekend was in the Windy City.

“As far as I’m concerned, Chicago IS basketball,” Rivers said.

Rivers has a story that he thinks sums up the city’s love affair -- and its affinity -- for basketball. He recalls March 4, 1978, the day that the Chicago Daily News published for the final time in its 102-year history.

Much of the paper that day was devoted to its own history, which included 15 Pulitzer Prizes. Also covered in that final paper: high school basketball from the night before.

“Basketball, even high school basketball, is important in Chicago,” Rivers said. “They were covering it on the last day of their paper. That’s how important it was. It’s very important to the city. And I was lucky enough to be part of that.”

There will be plenty of Chicago flavor at this All-Star: Davis is in Sunday’s game, Patrick Beverley of the Clippers is in Saturday’s skills competition, and Miami’s Kendrick Nunn is in Friday’s Rising Stars game. Much of the entertainment the NBA is showcasing over the course of the weekend is also from Chicago: Jennifer Hudson was booked this week to perform a pre-All-Star game tribute to Kobe Bryant and the other victims of the helicopter crash that took the former NBA players life; Chance the Rapper and Common will play big roles throughout the weekend as well; Queen Latifah is performing during All-Star Saturday.

Also Saturday, President Barack Obama - another proud Chicagoan, and like Rivers an unabashed White Sox fan in a baseball-loving city where Cubs allegiance runs deep - will be hosting a roundtable discussion with several NBA players.

It is a celebration, tempered somewhat by the ongoing mourning of Bryant -- in Chicago’s Midway Airport, someone taped a Bryant poster up near one of the gates in a busy terminal. No one seemed to know who put it there, and no one at the airport plans on taking it down, either. And this weekend also comes as the city continues to deal with a massive problem of gun violence, though the murder rate has dropped in each of the past three years.

“An All-Star in our city, it means a lot,” Nunn said. “It brings something positive to the city, and it needs it. The violence is definitely down, but anything something this good comes to Chicago it means a lot to the city. And it means a lot to me to have the chance to go back and be part of it all.”

Rivers said he thinks a quote from former Bulls coach Phil Jackson -- “It’s a city with broad shoulders” -- is one of the most appropriate ways to describe Chicago.

“The thing about Chicago, it’s a loyal sports town,” Rivers said. “The teams have been up and down, more down, but they don't go away. When you play the Bulls on the road, it's packed with Chicago fans. ... It’s a city that has grown up through sports.”