Fans flock to Festabulls event

It may not have had the buzz generated by Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen in the earliest days of its existence, but the 2010 version of FestaBulls, the annual Chicago Bulls charity fundraiser, still had plenty of excitement to offer fans who were willing to ante up the $250 it took to walk through the doors to the party last month.

   Begun in 1987, FestaBulls started out as a small, low-key event in a local pizza joint. At that time, the Bulls were fortunate if they drew 100 people to the event, even with Michael Jordan in attendance. There was a silent auction with a couple of small items in it, and a live auction with a few nicer items like a Jordan game jersey.

   One year the Jordan gamer sold for $5,000 and Jordan signed it right in front of the lady with the winning bid. Since then, it is doubtful that any Jordan game jersey or uniform has sold at FestaBulls for less than $10,000, and in the heyday of these things, the full uniform was going for $40,000.

   In the good old days, game-worn uniforms of the other Bulls players would also go for solid prices, like the $5,000-plus that it would take to get Scottie Pippen’s signed uniform, or the $3,000 tag that would usually get hung on Horace Grant’s  signed uniform. Even the benchwarmers’ autographed game-worn uniforms would go for prices over $500. But those days are now gone forever.

   At this year’s event, the big deal was a Derrick Rose second-year autographed game-worn uniform that sold for $1,700. No other uniform went for more than about $400 or $500, and many went for as low as $200 or $300. In fact, a couple of them, with minimum required bids of $200, attracted no bids at all.

   Other items, such as unworn jerseys signed by NBA stars like Kevin Garnett attracted a bit more action, but nothing to get excited about. Nevertheless, the Bulls managed to sell enough items at good prices to make the auctions a solid success. And the fans who posted the winning bids seemed happy to score genuine NBA stuff with genuine player autographs to add to their collections. It was clearly a win-win situation.

   The really exciting thing about this year’s edition of FestaBulls was the change in venue. After years of holding the event at a downtown pizza parlor, the Bulls shifted to their indoor practice facility at the Berto Center in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield, Ill. But as much fun as it was to mix with the players at the Berto Center, FestaBulls always seemed a bit crowded when it was held there. And once the players  finished their dinner and left, people would quickly lose interest and drift away.

   In order to raise the excitement level a notch, a couple of years ago the team shifted FestaBulls back into the city, to the playing floor at the United Center. But the lighting and acoustics were difficult to work with, and the players did not seem to enjoy partying in the building where they worked. So this year, FestaBulls was moved to Chicago’s world-renowned Shedd Aquarium, and the fans were given the same superb treatment they might expect at a top-of-the-line charity fundraiser. That meant, for the first time, that they had valet parking, gourmet food (those Cherries Jubilee were outstanding) and a show presented by the aquarium’s performing dolphins (note, by the way, that fish was not served for dinner).

   Among the benefits delivered by the new venue were enhanced accessibility to the silent auction items and the elimination of long lines for player autographs, the latter resulting from the staggered seating of the players around the various exhibit halls in the aquarium. And the players generally seemed to be in a playful mood, mixing easily with the fans and signing everything held out to them. A few of the players, like rookie James Johnson, even took the time to ask people where they wanted their items signed, in what color ink, and whether they wanted personalizations. Posing for photos was also a given, with several players throwing in peace signs or rabbit ears if folks weren’t watching too closely.

   One of the big guys, Jerome James, took a little time from mingling with the fans to answer a few questions about how he liked being with the Bulls and attending his first FestaBulls dinner. “I love it,” he said. “This organization treats the players with dignity and respect, which I like. And the fans could not be any nicer. I grew up in Florida and really did not have a rooting interest in any particular team. In fact, I did not actually attend an NBA game until I played in one. But everyone was aware of the Bulls because of Michael Jordan and Scottie and the others, so I am happy to follow in that line of players.”

   As for dealing with autograph hounds and other collectors, James just laughed. “I enjoy signing things for the fans. If I can make them happy by doing that, that is great. Especially, the kids. You know they look up to us as role models, whether we like it or not. So we need to act the part and do the right things so they won’t be disappointed in us.”

   When it comes to collecting, James said he has never been the kind of guy who would go out of his way to get stuff like jerseys or autographs from other players, but he did say he would make an exception for Jordan. “Yeah,” he said, “that is one autograph I would ask for.”

   Other new Bulls players, like Acie Law and Devin Brown, are still young and unspoiled, which meant that they were invariably polite to the fans. Whenever anyone would come up to them to ask for an autograph, or to ask them to pose for a photo, their answer would be a straight up, “Yes, ma’am,” or “Yes, sir.”

   Even the veteran players seemed to be enjoying themselves this year. Kirk Hinrich and Brad Miller had on their smiley faces, as did Joakim Noah and Chris Richard, former teammates at the University of Florida. A few Bulls alumni also showed up for the event, which made for some lively banter for the benefit of the fans. There is nothing like standing around listening to Bill Wennington, Dickie Simpkins, Randy Brown and Pete Myers regale the fans with tales of their former exploits, especially the stories about how Jordan demanded that they bring their “A” game every night. Even John “Crash” Mengelt, a fan favorite from the time before Jordan, was in attendance, along with Sidney Green and the team’s first big superstar, Bob Love.

   Coach Vinny del Negro and his staff were also on hand to greet the fans, as were the team’s broadcasters. And Harold Ramis, the Hollywood actor and director, who is getting ready to star in yet another “Ghostbusters” sequel, was a guest again this year. Ramis is a huge Bulls fan and even volunteers to help them out at times with their various community events.

   By the end of the evening, many thousands of dollars had been raised for CharitaBulls, the team’s charity arm, from the ticket sales and the auctions, even though very little Jordan-related stuff was up for sale.

   The bottom line, therefore, was that FestaBulls 2010 was another success story for the team, and Dave Kurland and his community relations staff deserve to take a big bow for all their hard work. Now, here’s hoping the Bulls get a nice big playoff boost in May and June to give Kurland and his people the buzz they need to score another big victory for CharitaBulls in 2011.

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