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Chicago stars, like fame itself, come and go

Houston Rockets forward Josh Smith and Chicago Bulls forward Nikola Mirotic battle for a rebound. | AP file photo

“Mirotic is here,” my 17-year-old son said, as we settled into our seats at the Civic Opera House Saturday night before the debut of Lyric Opera’s production of Puccini’s “Tosca.”

I pulled out my iPhone. News!

“Are you tweeting that?” he said, slightly aghast. “I mean, I think it was Mirotic. It looked like him.”

I adjusted my tweet accordingly — “Bulls power forward Mirotic spied at opening of ‘Tosca.’ Or tall guy who looked like him” — and showed the phone to my boy. He nodded. I hit “Tweet.”

Famous people are, by definition, interesting. If Bulls players are now hanging out at the Lyric — Pao Gasol took teammate Nazr Mohammed to “Anna Bolena” last month — I want everyone to know. Maybe my coworkers won’t have that look of befuddled pity mixed with fear when the subject comes up.

Of course fame is relative. Renee Fleming was also there Saturday. The star soprano’s acclaim dwarfs Nikola Mirotic’s, not only in the opera world but in the world in general. She did sing the National Anthem at last year’s Super Bowl.

She was also harder to spot in the sellout crowd (“Tosca,” by the way, is fantastic. Tatiana Serjan. Vissi d’arte. Tears in my eyes). I only heard that Fleming was there (From two reliable sources; otherwise I’d leave the door ajar that it might have just been some lucky woman who merely looks like Renee Fleming). At the first intermission I scanned the crowd, easily found the one guy 6-feet-10 with a full beard. Yup, Mirotic.

He stood a dozen feet away. “You want to meet him?” I asked my kid. I’ve used my good offices to introduce him to Derrick Rose, Joakim Noah and the best player on the team, Jimmy Butler. You meet celebrities, a bit of their fame rubs off on you and you feel better about yourself.

“He’s with his wife,” my boy observed. “We should leave him alone.” I admired that. The greatest favor you can do celebrities is to not molest them in public. And as we gazed in his direction, the opera patrons indeed seemed to ignore the athlete, though given this crowd, they might have also ignored the full Bulls squad, in uniform, playing a scrimmage.

Some of our restraint might reflect his position far down the greased pole of fame. Having met Nikola Mirotic will be of limited utility in the years to come, unlike my story about interviewing Michael Jordan in the Bulls locker room and having no idea who he was. I’ve been telling that over and over, often to the same person, for more than 25 years.

I haven’t yet had someone reply, “Michael who?” But that’s coming. Fame is not only relative, it’s fleeting. The biggest stars never quite devolve into nobodies, but the circus of public attention does pack up and move on.

Madonna once transfixed the world; now glimpses of her flash here and there, though whether that is intentional, a Garbo-like seclusion, or she’s got six publicists puffing madly on her flickering flame, well, I can’t say I care much, and neither do you.

My colleague over at the Tribune, Pulitzer-Prize winner Mary Schmich, wrote an interesting column last week pointing out “There are no celebrities in Chicago.” Oprah? Gone. Jordan? Gone. “Hugh Hefner?” she writes. “Moved to LA. Barack Obama? Moved to D.C.”

She concludes her column with, I believe, a misstep, suggesting reluctantly that the city’s one true celebrity is Rahm Emanuel. It might seem like that, and he does have solid connections in the stratosphere of money and power. But if celebrity means that regular folk care about you, that ain’t Rahm. My agent just spent six months trying to sell a book about Rahm, and the publishing world’s reaction fell into two camps: a) Nobody cares about Rahm Emanuel, and b) his brother’s book sold just 4,000 copies for Random House.

I’m not criticizing Mary. I just want to draw a different conclusion from her premise, maybe move the ball forward a few yards from where she left it. She is correct, Chicago does not have any real celebrities now. But, as she notes, we did: Oprah and Jordan and Al Capone and such. And it will again, as Obama is a reminder. Maybe he’ll move back here. If not, someone else will arrive, or arise. Chicago will never have the galaxy of stars found around Los Angeles, because they have the movies. Nor can we match New York’s density. But we will have a few. Making us lucky, because seeing them come and go teaches us: fame fleets.

It fleets for individuals. When I taught journalism at Loyola, I asked the 21 students in my class if the name “Mike Royko” meant anything to them. One hand went up.

And it fleets for cities. Chicago won’t be a lesser place if the Obamas settle in Hawaii. It’ll be better. We’ll all be spared the stress of bumping into the former president, of having him blow past us in line at Starbucks. The glitter celebrities bring is more than offset by the hassle of having them. Lack of celebrities is just another reason Chicago excels as a place to live. Don’t tell them.