Fire’s Frank Klopas witnessed how Bulls raised Chicago’s international profile
Klopas played in Greece from 1988 to 1996 and saw how Chicago became known for Michael Jordan and the Bulls, not Al Capone.
When Frank Klopas joined Greek soccer club AEK Athens in 1988, the Bulls were a rising power and Michael Jordan was ascending to international superstardom. But Jordan and the Bulls weren’t the first image of Chicago that came to mind for Greeks.
“When you’d go anywhere in the world [and] you talk about Chicago, everybody back then would first say Al Capone,” Klopas said with a laugh. “That’s the first thing everyone says, and then it’s, like, the Bulls and Michael Jordan.”
By 1996, when Klopas left fellow Greek side Apollon Athens for Major League Soccer, the Bulls had established themselves as one of sports’ greatest dynasties, and Jordan was unquestionably the biggest sports star on the planet. The ESPN documentary “The Last Dance” has recounted the Bulls’ rise; Klopas witnessed how the dynasty years changed the global perception of Chicago.
“That’s what a guy like Michael was able to do,” said Klopas, now a Fire assistant coach. “He put basketball on the world map and also Chicago. It wasn’t just everyone thinking about the mafia and Al Capone. Now they were talking about Michael Jordan and the Bulls.”
When Klopas went to Europe after a career with the indoor Sting, there weren’t a lot of soccer players who followed the NBA. But there was interest in watching the best.
Jordan and the Bulls were the best, so Klopas’ peers paid attention.
“Anytime there was an opportunity in Europe when they would show the Bulls or the NBA, the next day the guys in the locker room would drive me crazy,” he said. “Michael Jordan this, that. You can imagine.
“It was incredible. He [connected] basketball and the city of Chicago . . . it would come first in people’s minds.”
Born in Greece, Klopas settled in Chicago with his family and has become a key part of the city’s soccer culture. He was a star at Mather High School, then with the Sting, even appearing on a SportsVision promotional poster with Jordan, the Blackhawks’ Doug Wilson and the White Sox’ Greg Walker.
He came back to the city in 1998 to join the nascent Fire, helping them to an MLS Cup title and scoring the decisive goal in that year’s U.S. Open Cup final. He has since served the Fire in a variety of roles, becoming an assistant coach this offseason after working as their TV analyst from 2016 to 2019.
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Anybody who has listened to Klopas on the air or chatted with him knows how proud he is of his Chicago roots. And in the ’90s in Greece, he heard people and teammates associate Chicago with greatness.
“I grew up in the city of Chicago, so to hear anything about Chicago in terms like that where the Bulls did great or it’s a great city . . . I never stopped talking about how great the city was whether Michael Jordan was there or not,” Klopas said. “I knew that I lived in a special place, but it’s always great to feel proud of your team.
‘‘The Bulls won those championships, and you were proud to have been a part of the city of Chicago.”