Chicago is made for Christmastime adventures

pakatwrigleyWinter-Market-2From the Saturday, Dec. 2, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


I always say that other than summertime, there’s no better time visit Chicago than Christmastime. With the Mag Mile awash in glittering lights, State Street truly looking like that Great Street with the festive windows at Macy’s (it’s still Marshall Field’s to me) and people bundled up with an extra layer of holiday cheer, the Windy City is tough to beat in December.

In fact, so much holiday hoopla swirls about the Chicago this month that it’s impossible to do it all. But if you’re making a list (and checking it twice), here are a few things I’d suggest putting right near the top.

Christkindlmarket at Wrigley

Wrigley Field has undergone an array of changes over the past few years, but perhaps nothing is more dramatic than the addition of The Park at Wrigley – which has now turned the old ballpark into a full-blown wintertime destination..

In November, a new outpost of Chicago’s popular downtown German-themed Christkindlmarket opened at The Park, bringing the same open-air holiday village, German food and spiced wine found at Daley Plaza to the North Side.

Unlike at Daley Plaza, The Park also allows you to take a twirl on a newly constructed 8,000-square-foot skating rink. Rink fees are $5 for skaters 13 and up, while those 12 and younger are free. Skate rental costs an additional $10.

For more information, visit

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Light at the end of the Illini tunnel? I can see it

BUIt’s been a dark decade for Fighting Illini basketball.

But is there finally a light at the end of the State Farm Center tunnel?

I think so, with Brad Underwood having mercifully taken reins from the overmatched John Groce. Although, with so much youth and a lack of size, Underwood’s inaugural Illini squad may not quite reach that light this season with the program’s first NCAA Tournament bid in five years.

Then again, who knows, maybe they will.

What I do know, is that for the first time in ages, I’m actually looking forward to watching Illinois hoops. Gone are the days of tired slogans and hollow coach-speak from Groce, and in is a no-nonsense coach in Underwood who won’t sugarcoat his team’s shortcomings and actually runs a real offense.

It’s that spread offense – which made its official debut on Friday night in the Illini’s season opener at State Farm Center vs. Southern – that excites me the most about Underwood. Designed around spacing, ball reversals and hard cuts, it’s helped Underwood’s teams at Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State average 76 points and rank in Ken Pomeroy’s top 60 for offensive efficiency the past three seasons. Not coincidentally, each of those teams also reached the NCAA Tournament – a place where Illinois hasn’t danced since 2013.

Filled with complexities and nuances, I expect the new Illini offense to remain a work in progress for a sizable chunk of the season. I’m told, in fact, that Underwood has spent entire practices working only on players’ spacing without ever having them put up a single shot. And it’s because of that extreme learning curve that I didn’t sweat Illinois’ 80-67 exhibition loss to Eastern Illinois last week, nor will I stress out too much about other early-season hiccups.

It’s all part of the process. And in the end, Illinois may be too green this season to pile up the wins that they’ll need to go dancing this March.

Then again, who knows. Underwood has a knack for finding ways.

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How to embrace October baseball in Wrigleyville

CubsWinIt’s October again.

But for the Cubs – and Cubs fans – it’s also a brave new world.

No longer the Lovable Losers, the North Siders are now the Cherished Champs, and in turn, the 10th month of 2017 has a different vibe than in Octobers (and centuries) past.

As the Cubs dive headlong into the National League Division Series against Dusty Baker’s Washington Nationals, there are no goats to taunt us and no curses to haunt us. After finally winning it all, this postseason is largely gravy to me. That said, I’m greedy and want to get fat on the gravy.

I think the surging Cubs can win again, although repeating will be anything but easy. However, to make things easier for you to enjoy October baseball in Wrigleyville, I’ve compiled a few tips should you be looking to get another taste.


There’s now a new way to enjoy the postseason in Wrigleyville with the delightful Park at Wrigley hosting playoff watch parties when the Cubs are on the road. This afternoon, for example, The Park will open one hour before the 4:30 p.m. broadcast time for Game 2 in D.C.

Tickets to the event are $10 and limited to four per order, with proceeds benefiting Cubs Charities. For ticket availability for the Game 2 party and potential upcoming events, visit

If you’re looking to purchase tickets to actual playoff games at Wrigley, note that you can still register at for a chance at the World Series (should the Cubs get there). That deadline is noon on Oct. 16, with a refundable $50 deposit required to enter.

For NLDS tickets to Games 3 or 4 of on Monday and Tuesday (or potential games beyond), the good news is that prices on StubHub are running lower now than last season when the cheapest were $120 for the NLDS, $375 for the NLCS and $2,000 for the World Series. The bad news is that they tickets are still pricey at a minimum of $108 for NLDS, $209 for NLCS and $1,400 for the World Series.

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Amazon’s HQ2 could be a big win for Chicago — and beyond

amazonFrom the Saturday, Sept. 23, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


The City of Big Shoulders remains The City of Big Aspirations. But in recent years, Chicago has more often been The City of Big Losers when it comes to actually making those aspirations a reality,

It lost its bid to host the 2016 Summer Olympics. It lost its funding to build the 2,000-foot Chicago Spire. And it lost its bid to become home to the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. But, thankfully, Chicago hasn’t yet lost its nerve. And here’s to hoping that when it comes to luring e-commerce giant Amazon to town, Chicago still has some big ideas up its sleeve.

Because the Windy City is due for a big win.

Earlier this month, Amazon sent politicians, real estate brokers, urban developers and job seekers across North America into a tizzy of excitement when it announced plans to spend $5 billion to build a second headquarters ­– dubbed “HQ2” – that will be fully equal to its Seattle home base and could create 50,000 new jobs.

For a city and state in dire need of such an economic shot in the arm, the reasons for Chicago to pursue Amazon are obvious. And despite Illinois’ rocky political and financial climate, there are plenty of reasons for Amazon to choose Chicago. Its requirements include 8 million square feet of space (check) in a metropolitan area of at least a million people (check) within 45 minutes of an international airport (check), accessible to mass transit (check) and close to major highways (check).

Amazon also wants a “stable and business-friendly environment,” which will require some serious spit shining from civic leaders before bids are due Oct. 19. But, hey, that’s where those big ideas come into play.

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Another bad season for Monsters of Midway? Grin and Bear it


From the Saturday, Sept. 9, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


From 2010 to 2014, the Chicago Cubs lost 464 games, finished in last place every season, and made the Friendly Confines a downright hostile environment for winning baseball.

It was a brutal stretch to be sure. But with the benefit of hindsight, every Cubs fan would gladly endure it all over again considering how during the next two seasons all that losing led to 200 victories and a World Series championship.

Enter the Chicago Bears, who from 2014 through 2016 have gone 14-34, finished in last place every season and made Soldier Field a losing battleground for winning football. As the Bears prepare to kick off the 2017 campaign on Sunday against Atlanta, we may be in for more of the same.

But, because of the Cubs, I’m actually A-OK with that.

Following the NFL Draft this past April, my opinion – ­­­which ran quite contrary to popular one at the time – was that I actually liked what the Bears did. It appeared to me that general manager Ryan Pace was executing a plan during the draft to acquire the young offensive talent – including quarterback Mitch Trubisky – that he and his staff had targeted, no matter the cost.

I wrote that I had no idea if it will work out – nor do I today, although Trubisky has looked very promising – but I was more than willing to let this plan play out. I still am. And, not unlike the Cubs, I think that plan may involve losing big again in 2017 to pave the way for more high draft picks in 2018, this time with perhaps a heavy focus on defensive talent.

We’re yet to see whether Pace can prove to be a gridiron version of Theo Esptein and bring an elusive Super Bowl championship to Chicago. But for what’s been a directionless franchise for far too long, I’m pleased to finally see some direction with the Bears. And if that leads to another awful season in 2017, that may actually prove to be best in the long run.

After all, just ask Cubs fans.

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Frustrated Illini: U. of I. fails to lead on Native American issues

Screen Shot 2017-08-31 at 11.09.23 PMFrom the Saturday, Sept. 2, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


I used to be a Fighting Illini.

Now I’m just a frustrated one.

And it’s not nearly so much because of the University of Illinois’ many losses on the football field and basketball court in recent years as it is from all the ways my alma mater continues to fail the vast majority of its alumni and fans.

As well as Native Americans – but not in the way most think.

Last week, news broke that U. of I. had abruptly banned the “War Chant” music – a rhythmic drum beat and hand clapping – from all Illini sporting events, including football games where it’s been a defensive third-down fixture for decades, but won’t be for today’s season opener.

Critics argue that War Chant is offensive to Native Americans and that supporters should get over it because it’s “just a song.” Supporters of War Chant, meanwhile, argue that it indeed is “just a song” and critics should get over taking offense to everything. Personally, news of the ban left me with a mix of emotions ranging from sadness to frustration to exhaustion. But mostly I was disappointed.


Because with this deeply complex issue, the truth is that U. of I. banning War Chant isn’t really just about a song. Rather, big picture-wise, it’s yet another step in the university’s maddening campaign to eradicate all things related to this state’s Native American heritage rather than find ways to better embrace it.

As readers of this column know, I’ve long been a defender of the Chief Illiniwek tradition, but I’ve also always acknowledged how the Chief was never perfect. And for decades it was the enormous failure of the university’s administration to not work toward developing the beloved symbol into a true educational tool that could raise awareness about Native American heritage and tangibly benefit their communities.

In May 2013, the Council of Chiefs – a group comprised of the men who once portrayed Illiniwek – did that work independently by submitting a plan to the U. of I. administration that would have brought back an adapted version of the Chief for twice-a-year, on-field appearances for a two-year trial basis. The Peoria of Oklahoma, one of the original tribes of long-vanished Illini Confederation, expressed a willingness to be involved with adapting the Chief tradition, but only if the university itself was on board with the idea.

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Weighing in on ‘War Chant’ & What It Really Means

Screen Shot 2017-08-31 at 10.52.26 PM

On Wednesday morning, I joined The Jeremy Werner Show on ESPN Radio in Champaign-Urbana to discuss the University of Illinois’ decision to ban its “War Chant” music from Illini sporting events but how the issue runs much deeper than a drum beat and football. You can listen to the podcast of my segment by clicking here.

Trade winds still could blow for Cubs in 2017

June 29, 2012; Bronx, NY, USA; Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Jose Quintana (62) throws a pitch during the first inning of a game against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-US PRESSWIRE
June 29, 2012; Bronx, NY, USA; Chicago White Sox starting pitcher Jose Quintana (62) throws a pitch during the first inning of a game against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-US PRESSWIRE

From the Saturday, July 15 editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


So, what do you do about a problem like the Chicago Cubs?

Well, on Thursday we got an answer: You deal for Jose Quintana.

But while acquiring the 28-year-old southpaw from the White Sox does help the Cubs both now and in the future, it alone doesn’t solve all of the ills impacting the 2016 World Champions, both now or in the future.

The good news is that I don’t think Theo Epstein & Co. believes that it does, either. Rather, the Cubs brass knows that there’s still work to be done for the organization. And if getting Quintana enables the Cubs to accomplish some of that work now while still being able to compete this season, that’s great. But if the team can’t get its act together before the July 31 trade deadline and cut into Milwaukee’s division lead, I’m all for doing more deals now to reload for 2018.

Because, when it comes down to it, I’m much more interested in maximizing the Cubs’ championship window than trying to merely maximize a mediocre season. And to this point, that’s exactly what 2017 has looked like on the North Side.

If we’ve learned nothing else, it’s that Major League Baseball championship hangovers are real. There’s a reason why no team has repeated since the Yankees in 2000. It’s really, really hard to do. And after being pushed to the limit before finally ending the most infamous title drought in sports history followed by a short and hectic offseason, the Cubs have looked spent all season. They’re not as healthy, not as hungry, and not as sharp as they were last year.

Now, could they still turn it around? Sure. But the goal isn’t to simply be better than the Brewers in the NL Central, it’s to be better than the Dodgers or Nationals in the NLCS. And if by month’s end the Cubs can’t show that they still have that potential, the smart organizational move would be to be to trade the impending free agents Wade Davis and Jake Arrieta for valuable assets that can either help the team in 2018 or be flipped as trading chips to get more pitching.

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Snapshots from a Croatian vacation

CroatiaFrom the Saturday, July 1, editions of The Daily Journal (Kankakee, Ill.) and The Times (Ottawa, Ill.) …


Curling along the shoreline across the Adriatic from Italy, Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast lies 5,000 miles from Chicago. But growing up as a Bulls fan during the 1990s, it seemed in some ways like it was only 1.8 seconds away.

That’s a Toni Kukoc reference for you youngsters.

(Look it up.)

Ever since Kukoc – aka, the “Croation Sensation” – joined the Bulls in 1993, the season after Michael Jordan retired for the first time, and then went on to play a key role during the team’s second “Three-Peat” run, I’ve known of his hometown: Split. But I never imagined then that one day I’d actually visit Kukoc’s homeland, or find the once war-torn nation to be filled with such remarkable natural beauty and man-made magic.

Last week, however, my wife and I did just that when we spent a week vacationing along Croatia’s breathtaking southern coast making stops in the ancient cities of Split, Hvar and Dubrovnik. Along the way, we saw a few things.

Chicago connections

Every time a Croatian cabbie, doorman or tour guide asked where we hailed from, their response to mine was basically the same: “Chicago! Toni Kukoc! He still has a home there!”

That he does, as since 2015 Kukoc has worked as special advisor to Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Beyond basketball, the Croatians we met also knew of Chicago for its nickname (“The Windy City”), the Cubs and even the Bears.

Blissfully, not a soul invoked the name of Al Capone.

Playing ‘Game of Thrones’

If anything has put Croatia on the global map these days, it’s dragons.

Fictional ones, of course.

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Chicago’s ‘606’ remains a (public) work in progress

In advance of its opening in 2015, the advertising signage around Chicago promoting The 606 – the ballyhooed new elevated park winding 2.7 miles through the city’s Northwest Side atop a defunct freight line – promised to “Raise More Than Your Heart Rate.”

But two years later, I find it still fails to make my pulse quicken.

This past Tuesday – 6/06, get it? – was the anniversary of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s $95 million public works project named for Chicago’s ZIP Code prefix. Built atop the abandoned tracks that follow the path of the Bloomingdale Trail, The 606 slices through the Bucktown, Wicker Park, Humboldt Park and Logan Square neighborhoods traditionally filled with middle- and working-class families, and in more recent years an influx of hipsters.

It was originally sold as Chicago’s version of New York’s High Line, which transformed dilapidated train tracks on Manhattan’s West Side into a spectacular outdoor space built for long strolls and filled with great people-watching and breathtaking city views. Having visited the High Line, I was excited about that type of venue opening within two miles of my condo in West Lakeview. But when I first visited The 606 shortly after its debut, I was disappointed to discover just how stark it was. Trees and plants along the trail were still spindly and squat. Sedges and prairie grasses weren’t yet planted in many spaces. And the path felt a lot more paved than it did plush.

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