It's funny when people visit Chicago for the first time and say they "love" the city. As a Chicagoan, you kind of understand, but in your heart you know these people really don't know why they love the Chi. In your mind, they have an idea, but they really don't know.
I've always found sports (and food, but that's for another column) is the best way to sell Chicago to anyone who has a love for the games.
In the case of future No. 1 draft pick and reigning NCAA Player of the Year Blake Griffin, his love affair with the city started with his love for the Cubs. He said that growing up, Sammy Sosa was his guy. And from Sosa, corked bat and all, Griffin developed a certain affinity for the city. So when Griffin came to Chicago a few weeks ago to participate in the NBA's version of an NFL combine, I was able to be his tour guide and give him a better understanding of why he's so right to love Chicago.
I just hoped to redirect his love toward the right baseball team in the city before the day was over.
I took him to Wrigley. Had to. For anyone from Oklahoma who has been a Cubs fan since the "Sosa days" and had never been to the Sistine Chapel of baseball, this had to be the first stop. I showed him the spots: Casey Moran's, Murphy's, the Cubby Bear. We went to Wrigleyville Sports so he could see (and maybe purchase) an authentic Cubs jersey. Maybe get one personalized. Something with his name on the back that was better than the one the Clippers are going to slide on him Thursday night.
I also let him walk on Sheffield Ave. Told him this was where the Bucket Boys get down, where the beautiful coeds stroll and where the die-hards used to stand (still do) whenever a power hitter comes to the plate. Gloves on hand. He'd seen it on TV, and now he was standing there.
"I always wondered what that was like," he said while standing on the street where many of Sosa's (now officially tainted) bombs landed.
He was able to look inside from right field. He could see the grounds crew getting the field ready for a game that was less than three hours away. He could see the mound. And just standing there looking at Griffin's face, you could see the joy of a kid living out one of his dreams. It was a look of "I never expected to actually see this." It was the look all Chicagoans love to see when we take visitors on tour. It's one of those looks you wait for.
But as a true Chi ambassador, I couldn't stop there. There were other stops to make, other landmarks to see, other experiences to be a part of. My plan was immaculate. I planned to take him to hang out at the black man's church, the barber shop. Take him over to the world-famous Timeout at Shannon's on Monroe, not just to introduce him to how a grown man's sports conversation goes down in Chicago, but to see if some of the NBA refs who go there to get their domes clipped would be sitting in any of the chairs so Griffin could get to know them early. You know, so he could possibly avoid some of those rookie calls that are destined to come his way.
After that, I planned on taking him to Succezz, NBA player Bobby Simmons' urban couture boutique on Michigan Ave. to check out some limited-edition Jack Purcells before he signed his shoe deal; get him some of Chicago's own Sneaker Fiend gear, drop $180 on a embroidered V-neck tee, get his Kanye on. Then my plan was to take him to Carson's Ribs. Why there? Because the walls there tell the entire history of Chicago sports. If anyone wants to feel the true impact sports has on this city, take them there. It chills spines.
My final plan included taking him to the new sports bar called Theory on Hubbard. On the day we hung, LeBron was playing the Magic. I wanted to watch Griffin watch LeBron and see if he saw what everyone else saw. That would have been an experience in itself. Especially knowing that in just a few months, Griffin will be facing that dude face-to-face. I wanted to see if there was fear or anticipation in his eyes.
I could have taken him to the East Bank Club, or the spot where the real ballers ball at LeClaire on West 44th Street. There's The Cell, where he could have seen an official World Series banner and I could have broken down the saga of the relationship between the Sox and the Cubs. There's Soldier Field. There's Ditka's. There's Harry Caray's. There's One SixtyBlue. There's the Batcolumn on Madison.
I had all these grand plans for Griffin. I wanted him to get a complete feel of why this would be the best sports town he'd ever go to in his life and the best one in the world. Then I come to find out after we left Wrigley, we only had an hour left to hang.
My mind spun: Where's the one place in Chicago that would blow the mind of a kid about to go No. 1 in the NBA draft? What is that one thing Chicago has that no place else in the world has, the spot that could make someone cry once they've seen it? I needed that place.
So I took him to see The Statue.
There's something about seeing in person that structure of Michael Jordan outside the United Center that almost -- especially if you play basketball -- feels like you've made a pilgrimage. I've seen it happen to many ballplayers. This time, I watched it happen to Griffin.
He walked around it. Read the inscriptions. Soaked in the stats. For a while, he just stood there. So did I.
In the car ride back, we simply talked about life. The life I've had, the life he's about to have. And in a brief two-hour tour, I was able to give the NBA guy who's got "next" a chance to understand why he developed a hidden love for a city he'd never been to before. It made him understand why he fell in love with the Cubs in the first place. As I told him before we said peace, "It wasn't the player you were in love with; it was the city. You just didn't know it."
Now Blake Griffin knows how the rest of us in the Chi feel every day of our lives.