In Boston last fall to speak at Harvard University, Mayor Rahm Emanuel sat in the back of a sedan as his driver pulled out of a city tunnel and pointed in the direction of TD Garden.
"The guy says, 'Over there is where the great sin occurred,''' Emanuel said, knowing the man meant Game 6 of the 2013 Stanley Cup Final when the Blackhawks rallied to beat the Bruins in 17 seconds they will be talking about for years.
The mayor laughed.
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"And I said, 'Yep, and next year the same sin will occur there again,''' Emanuel said like someone sitting in the 300 level of the United Center.
Nobody ever will accuse Emanuel of being as rabid about sports as the fan-in-chief he used to work for in the White House but he picks his spots. During a 30-minute break from budget battles last week in the mayor's office, a relaxed Emanuel relished giving his take on everything from wanting the Super Bowl at Soldier Field to running out of patience over Wrigley Field to requiring physical education for Chicago Public School students.
Emanuel, for instance, keeps in touch with Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau — "A cut above everybody else,'' Rahm called Thibs — and recently emailed him Teddy Roosevelt's famous quote about the man in the arena. He pounded the glass so much during the Hawks' triple-overtime Game 1 Cup victory last June that his shoulder still hurt when he swam the next morning. He cherishes his autographed Ernie Banks bat that sits on a shelf alongside other prized memorabilia from every Chicago sports team. He enjoys sneaking out on Saturdays to catch a high school basketball game. He can't wait for the Final Four and roots for Simeon's Jabari Parker to lead Duke there.
He loves everything about Chicago's sports identity that favors its professional teams. But Emanuel lives to enhance sports opportunities for children throughout the city, the real passion that accompanies the mayor's sporting interests.
"You don't want to get me going on that,'' said Emanuel, a father of three active children. "I could do an entire interview on just athletics with kids. This is personal.''
The professional part of his job compels Emanuel to continue pursuing Chicago's bid for the Super Bowl as early as 2019 because of the tremendous economic potential. Asked about those ambitions, Emanuel added that he also hopes to attract the NFL draft to the city.
"They have different advantages given that we have neither one so they would be great attractions for the city to bring national attention,'' Emanuel said. "We'll work on both.''
The success of the Chicago Sports Commission, which Emanuel created in October 2011, in luring events such as the 2017 NCAA Frozen Four and 2018 NCAA men's gymnastics championships gives Emanuel confidence. The draft makes sense but nobody around Chicago looked out the window last weekend and thought this would be a lovely day for a football game on the lakefront. Told the NFL got lucky with Super Bowl XLVIII because a Monday snowstorm in the New York area followed a 49-degree Sunday night at MetLife Stadium, Emanuel scoffed. He dismissed the idea of any common-sense opposition to a Super Bowl in Chicago.
"Let me say this: If you're able to make a decision where there's no opposition, call me, because I don't know any decision about anything that has 100 percent support,'' Emanuel said. "So the goal is not to find a decision that unifies 100 percent. The goal is to find a decision that moves the city forward. You don't measure it that way. Would a Super Bowl be good for the city and good for the NFL? I think yes. Would having the NFL draft here be good for the city and for the NFL? The answer is yes. The goal is to have a discussion about both.''
Any conversation will include the complicated reality that a football city as passionate as Chicago houses the NFL's smallest stadium, in terms of capacity. Oddly, Soldier Field seats only 61,500 — 8,500 shy of the NFL's preferred minimum.
"We'll work with that footprint,'' Emanuel said. "It's all a process.''
At least Emanuel has experience dealing with Chicago's idiosyncratic stadium issues — more than he would prefer. Nothing in the city's sports realm touches a nerve in Emanuel more than bringing up the overwrought battle over Wrigley Field renovation between the Cubs and the rooftop owners.
"You know how winter is testing the patience of the public? So is this. Get it over with,'' Emanuel said, his tone rising. "There is a win-win for both parties. Stop arguing. Come to a resolution so everybody can be a winner moving forward.''
The Cubs want the rooftop owners to agree not to sue, which Emanuel said he understands. The rooftop owners want their views protected. The mayor simply wants work to begin on an agreement announced last season — and believes it will start by opening day.
"As recently as last week I said to both parties, you guys finish this up. Get moving, because, you know, we've done ours on schedule,'' Emanuel said. "There is not a single deadline that was set for the city that I haven't met. … It's sitting right in front of you. Just have the leadership and courage to grab it. I think that's true for the rooftops and the ownership as well.''
Ownership always could threaten to relocate the Cubs to Rosemont if this hits another snag. It's leverage Cubs Chairman Tom Ricketts never has used. Asked if he ever considered a move to the suburbs a real possibility, Emanuel shook his head.
"I think ownership knew the advantages of a stadium with this richness, history and lore,'' he said. "There's a reason it's the fourth-most visited site in the city for a visitor. There's a richness to this not easily replicated by anyone else. I think the Rickettses know that. You don't buy a building across the street, get ready to put in a hotel and all these other things if you're thinking of moving out.''