4,800 miles to nowhere: Croatian Bulls fan flew to Chicago for ‘97 Finals ticket he didn't have
The story of Gojko Antica, who got to see Chicago, but not the Bulls.
“He’s grateful that he got a trip to the United States, but he’s disappointed.”
How far would you go for tickets to the 1997 NBA Finals? For one 29-year-old Croatian Bulls fan, that question was not metaphorical. It was literal. His answer: about 4,800 miles. All on a promise for a Finals ticket that, apparently, did not exist.
On June 13, 1997, the day that the Bulls would go on to win their fifth championship, the Tribune’s Nancy Ryan had the story of Bulls fan Gojko Antica, who flew from the Croatian capital of Zagreb on the premise that he had won a newspaper contest that would allegedly provide him with:
Round-trip airfare on Air France from Croatia to Chicago
Hotel accommodations for a week
One ticket to an NBA Finals game
Antica won the NBA-themed contest through daily newspaper Slobodna Dalmacija out of Split, Croatia, Toni Kukoc’s hometown. According to Ryan’s story, after Antica won the contest, the newspaper delivered him plane tickets and promised to reimburse his hotel stay. He couldn’t make the trip in time for Game 1 at the United Center on June 1, and hoped to make Game 2 on June 4.
His confidence in the newspaper was buoyed from a phone call he had June 3 with Bulls scout and fellow Croatian Ivica Dukan. Ryan’s story does not make clear how they ended up speaking, and the timeline seems to be off, saying that they spoke June 3 and that Antica landed at O’Hare on June 2.
Unfortunately the story is also not reported anywhere other than the Tribune, but it does come with a quote from Dukan, who told Ryan that week about the phone conversation he had with Antica:
“(Antica) said, ‘When I come to Chicago, I’m going to call you. And I said, ‘Well, you can call me, but I can’t promise you anything about a Bulls ticket.’ I called my guy for tickets, and he said there is no way I can get tickets.”
That phone call was the end of the matter for Dukan, but not for Antica, who managed to get himself on a flight to Chicago on a wing and a prayer and the clearly erroneous assurances of the Croatian newspaper. Unable to procure a ticket, Antica instead watched Game 2 and the rest of the Finals on TV with an assortment of, as Ryan writes, “friends of friends and distant relatives.”
“He’s grateful that he got a trip to the United States, but he’s disappointed,” said Nada Popov, a Croatian-American who lived in Northfield and served as translator for Antica, who spoke little English. Antica connected with Popov through mutual friends.
The notion that Antica could swoop in and snag a Finals ticket, or that a Croatian newspaper could get them, should have probably seemed too good to be true. Bulls tickets were the hottest score in sports and had been for some time. In October of 1988, the Miami Herald reported that Bulls ticket prices had risen from a high of $15 the year before Jordan joined the team to a high of $135. By the time MJ retired and the dynasty was dead, courtside seats at the U.C. were going for $450.
Jordan was great for the rest of the league, too. In 1989, the Bulls increased ticket revenue for their opponents by a total of $1.3 million compared to their average game against any other team.
That was the second year of what would become the team’s 610-game consecutive sellout streak, including the postseason. Six years later, when rumors of MJ’s comeback from baseball heated up, the Atlanta Hawks sold 1,800 tickets in seven hours for the upcoming March 25 Bulls-Hawks game in Atlanta, while the Pistons sold 2,000 tickets for the Bulls-Pistons game in Detroit on April 12.
During the Bulls-Hawks series in the second round of the ‘97 playoffs, scalpers sold $65 300-level seats at the U.C. for $350, and speculated that they could have gotten $500 for a Bulls-Knicks playoff series. In 1998, the Bulls again showed their popularity in Atlanta, as the Hawks drew an NBA-record 62,046 fans for a Bulls game, including 8,000 newly installed seats that did not reach the court.
Finals fever was so great in 1997 that a Jazz fan from San Antonio spent more than $300 apiece on two tickets to Game 5 in Utah, and promptly got mugged for them, unarmed, the day before the game.
“The guy grabbed me by the arm, grabbed the two tickets and shoved me up against a tree and drove off,” 48-year-old Cam Hoyle told the Salt Lake Tribune. “I can’t believe someone would go that far for a $28 ticket,” he said, apparently not seeing the irony of the statement.
That was the level of madness around Bulls tickets in the 1990s. Game 2 of the ‘97 Finals — the one Antica thought he would attend — was the 487th consecutive sold-out Bulls game. The 488th consecutive sell out was Game 6, June 13, the day of the Tribune’s story. Antica was still staying with the Popov family in Northfield at that point, with Nada Popov taking Antica with her downtown several times when she went to work. He spent his time sightseeing, including a trip to the Field Museum.
The family planned to eventually take him to the United Center, just to see it.
Postscript: I have tried to track down Gojko Antica, and while I’ve got leads and have reached out to someone by his name, I have not yet connected. I’ll let you all know if I do!
The article does not specify whether he flew direct from Croatia to O’Hare, where he supposedly landed at 5:30 p.m. on June 2. The flight from Zagreb to O’Hare is about 15 hours.
Is this an international date line thing?