It's been anything but a Bulls market for collectors who joined the masses over the past 15 years and invested heavily in the franchise.
How fitting the colors of the Chicago franchise are black and red, because that has what they have come to symbolize to those who had the foresight to jump aboard the bandwagon in the mid 1980s but now face a glut of merchandise that has seen a dramatic drop in value.
Of course, most of it can be traced to Michael Jordan, who retired about a year ago. Jordan was the driving force behind the popularity of Bulls collectibles, although it would be unfair to give him all of the credit. Jordan was a dominant force in collecting almost from the time he was drafted out of North Carolina as a junior in 1984 -- and also when he signed his first Nike deal in September of that year. But Jordan and the Chicago Bulls didn't reach the top rung of NBA collectibles until they ended years of playoff frustration in 1991 by dethroning the then-champion of NBA merchandising, Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers.
It took a solid supporting cast of characters to boost Jordan and Bulls items to the top. Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright and John Paxson were key ingredients of the Bulls first set of three straight championships. After Jordan retired and went into baseball, swelling the market for his old Bulls items, the Bulls sagged but didn't fold. They made the playoffs in Jordan's first retirement year and came back again when he returned, losing to Orlando. The next three years saw three more championships and a run on all Bulls items, but it was a supporting cast of players like Pippen, Steve Kerr and Toni Kukoc who helped elevate the Bulls to the top of the collectors' wish list.
Before the strike, the Bulls franchise was worth the most of any NBA club and was the only one listed in the top 20 on Forbes' list of top franchises worth. They easily led the list of NBA collecting merchandising fueled, of course, by Jordan.
Jerry Reinsdorf, team owner, and Jerry Krause, team general manager, had vowed not to let the Bulls have the same type of dramatic fall-off that felled the once-proud Boston Celtics franchise when their three superstars, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, all called it quits in the late 1980s. The Celtics, who once dominated collectors' list for anything with the kelly green insignia dating back to the Bill Russell-Bob Cousy era of the 1950s, haven't been a "player" in the NBA since consistently missing the playoffs.
Despite the Jerrys' proclamations, collectors who saw Jordan's second retirement as the calm before the storm wisely unloaded as much Bulls materials as possible at trade and collectors' shows. But there was the feeling with Pippen, Kukoc, Kerr and others the club wouldn't have the kind of fall-off that Reinsdorf and Krause had feared.
But Bulls management became their own worst enemy. First, they chased Coach Phil Jackson out of town, eventually landing him with the current heir apparent to the Bulls merchandising mantle, the Los Angeles Lakers. Then they dumped Pippen and Kerr to Houston and San Antonio respectively for practically nothing in return. During last year's lockout-shortened season, the Bulls struggled to get to double-digits in victories, but panic hadn't settled in yet. A promise of a strong draft and Kukoc's return had some collectors believing the Bulls would be competitive this season.
The nightmare many had forecast but the Jerrys insisted wouldn't happen has, indeed, happened. The club is off to its worst start in franchise history, losing 25 of its first 27 games. Kukoc missed the first two and one half months of the season and collectors and fans alike would be hard-pressed to name more than a player or two on the starting five. Worse yet, fan and media interest has waned to the point where the Bulls have vanished from national telecasts -- always a great source of energy for collectors looking to get more for their money in Bulls items.
The Bulls could threaten the NBA record for fewest victories (9 this Year), only several years after setting the NBA record for most victories (72). They are banking upon some of the top names in the game using free agency to come to Chicago beginning next year. But the downfall has been so swift and sudden that big names like Grant Hill and Tim Duncan will most likely be scared off trying to resurrect the team that Jordan built.
Best bet: dump the Bulls items you have now, or pray that Jordan gets the itch and comes back. Even with that unlikely scenario, his "airness" couldn't pump life into this moribund franchise.