Bulls welcome energetic fans back to United Center with blowout

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Sights, sounds from energized UC on night of fans' return originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

When Yorkville, Ill. resident Andrew Madden heard spectators were soon to be allowed back in the United Center, the 36-year-old father of two didn't hesitate.

He and his 10-year-old son, also named Andrew, had been to "three or four" games last season and weren't going to miss another chance before this one expired -- especially with younger Andrew's favorite player, Zach LaVine, suiting up.

"As soon as they got them, I was like the first person in the queue," the elder Andrew said.

More than an hour-and-a-half before the Bulls tipped off a Friday night matchup with the Boston Celtics at the United Center, the Madden family -- both Andrews, mother Krystal and eight-year-old Olivia, attending her first ever Bulls game -- were the first in line outside the North atrium as well.

They may well have been the first fans in the building since March 10, 2020, the last game the Bulls played before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the league's 2019-20 season.

On Friday, 3,339 broke that 423-day streak. From 5:30 p.m. until tipoff time an hour later, they trickled into their socially-distanced seats -- food, beverages and, in a few cases, white noisemakers in hand.

Rob Schaefer

For the first time since March 2020, the United Center opened itself to the public, allowing a limited capacity of fans.

Some came from their respective pockets of the city. Others, from a bit farther.

Lifelong Bulls fan Nick Geice, 37, and his wife Bernadette, 37, drove 40 minutes from their Indiana home to catch the action. Though they noted the traffic was tough, both reported excitement to be there. 

All red garb (a Michael Jordan jersey with an NBA Finals patch for Nick, Derrick Rose threads for Bernadette) screamed as such, as did their plans to potentially try and make it back for a May 16 matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks.

"I've seen Jordan, (Scottie) Pippen, (Dennis) Rodman, all them players. Seen Rose, seen (Jimmy) Butler, now I get to see (Zach) LaVine and (Nikola) Vučević," Nick said. "I had to."

Nick figures his first game at the United Center came when he was about 10 years old, smack in the thick of the dynasty years. But Friday marked a special enough occasion to dust off one of his most prized possessions: A gray Bulls hat signed by Ronnie Brewer, Bill Wennington, John Lucas III and Ömer Aşık.

Normally, Bernadette noted, it's kept stored away in a display case.

Rob Schaefer

Nick and Bernadette Geice, awaiting entry into the United Center before Friday's game against the Celtics.

The United Center intentionally designated entry points for attendees depending on ticket location, and charted paths of travel to concessions, restrooms and seats. Vendors took contactless payment. A mask mandate except while eating and drinking was in effect. Attendees completed a health screening through the CLEAR mobile app prior to entry.

Tom Trulist, 40, and Matt Netrefa, 40 -- both Chicago residents -- said they arrived early in case of delay, but that the entry process "took no time at all" once they found their entrance. 

Their first stop was the lavatory, then the bar for a beer.

"The greeting we got from the ladies up at the counter, you could just tell how genuinely excited they were to be back. She said she's been here for 30 years," said Netrefa. "It kind of felt like everybody on all sides was very excited."

The early highlight, Trulist added, were the commemorative shirts draped over each seat -- black, with red writing that read: "Welcome Home."

"This is like the biggest thrill ever, just seeing these," Trulist said. A former season-ticket holder, he estimated he'd been to roughly 150 Bulls games before Friday's.

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For media members that spent the first five months of the season filing in and out of the 200-level perch in eerie silence, what ensued was almost surreal. 

First, there was Zach LaVine welcoming fans back with a brief speech moments before lineup introduction, to raucous applause.

"It was cool, going out there to be able to talk from the heart and let them know how we feel personally," LaVine said after the game. "Me speaking for the organization is big, and I appreciate that. Hopefully they (the fans) understand how much they mean to us."

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The Celtics' starting five each garnered boos to varying degrees, with Marcus Smart's ringing the loudest. Then, came a fervent reception for the Bulls. In what figures to become a staple chant, Vučević received a resounding "Vooooch" from onlookers. LaVine soaked in a cascade of cheers last.

Compared to the robotic, piped in crowd noise that echoed across hollow concourses all season, it could have been an avalanche.

And that would have been fitting, given the beatdown the Bulls levied on the Celtics throughout. After vying back and forth for the duration of the first quarter, the hosts pulled away with a 30-18 second. Coby White made four of his eventual seven 3-pointers in the period, each drawing crescendoing calamity. 

"The fans were lit tonight," White said. "You could tell they were excited to be back and we were excited to have them. It's a lot easier to go on those runs when you got people behind you."

The Bulls maintained a double-digit advantage most of the way to the finish line. But after the Celtics punched back, a 12-0 fourth-quarter run featuring a LaVine dunk and steal, five-point flurry from White, then a cap-it-off corner triple from LaVine, both iced the contest and marked the zenith of the arena's frenzy.

"The (Bulls) organization has done as good of a job as you possibly can trying to create an environment in a situation with no fans," Billy Donovan said. "The feeling today was a lot different than previous games."

"It just makes such a huge difference," Vucevic said.

Three more home contests remain -- against the Brooklyn Nets on May 11, Toronto Raptors on May 13 and Milwaukee Bucks on May 16 to close the campaign.

For now, Trulist put it best, likely for all parties involved.

"Just happy to be back," he said. "Just thrilled to be back."

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