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updated: 6/2/2014 8:36 PM

A lot of pride and a little spare change

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His name is Willie and his station has been on the south side of Madison Street between Wood Street and the United Center.

He mostly wore a knit hat and jacket even in the heat. Sometimes he puffed on a cigarette.

Willie sat in a wheelchair with a white paper cup in his hand. On his lap was a "The gospel of Jesus Christ son of God" sticker from his church.

"We gotta win tonight," he said before Game 2 of the Bulls-Wizards playoff series in late April.

My goodness, despite all his obvious problems Willie cared whether the Bulls and Blackhawks won their playoff games.

Upon further review it became clear why: Willie needed the United Center tenants to keep winning so they would keep playing and his source of income wouldn't dry up for the summer.

Sports teams are important to the local economy. Restaurants, taverns, cabdrivers, ushers, vendors, security guards and others depend on them for income.

So did Willie.

This spring's playoff rides ended for him Sunday night with the Hawks' loss to the Kings.

Willie has been out on the sidewalk for all but a couple of the Bulls and Hawks games I attended this postseason. All he asks for is some spare change or maybe even a spare dollar bill.

Some people like Willie you notice and some you don't. Some you give a buck and some you walk past trying not to make eye contact.

To me, Willie was hard not to notice. There was a proud look about him, and we proceeded to make brief small talk most nights.

Once Willie wasn't out there before the game, and I couldn't help but wonder why. Ah, but then he was near the media parking lot two hours after the final horn, sitting in a drizzle, smiling that tired smile of his.

"Got here late," Willie explained.

It was a relief to see him again. Willie seems to smile more than most of the more affluent athletes, fans and journalists who populate the United Center.

Willie said he spends nights at the Salvation Army downtown. For my own selfish sanity I prefer to think of him as "between homes" rather than "homeless."

Anyway, how does a 60-year-old man in a wheelchair get to the United Center on game nights?

"Bus," he said matter-of-factly, lending a face to the term handicap accessible.

Glitzy sporting events swirl around towns across America with consumers paying huge amounts of money to watch millionaire athletes compete.

Right next door or down the street or around the corner or wherever, the Willies of the world set up shop.

Willie reminded me of a homeless person I came across in Seattle during the 1996 NBA Finals.

"This is mine," he said, pointing toward a body of water.

He noticed my quizzical expression.

"I was in the Marines," he explained. "This is mine."

Back to the 21st century: I pointed to Willie's wheelchair and asked whether he had been in the military.

"No," he said. "Legs just gave out five years ago."

What did you do before that?

"Worked in a hospital," Willie said. "Cleaning floors."

I rarely pull for anyone to win anymore, but I pulled for the Bulls and Hawks this postseason. You see, business was better outside the UC for Willie than at his other customary location downtown.

You doing any good out here these days, I asked one night, pointing to the white cup.

"Doing OK," Willie said. "Doing OK."

How much is OK?

"About $40," he said.

Willie didn't show up last Wednesday. He said Sunday that he had stayed "at the house," meaning the Salvation Army.

The Hawks' season ended suddenly with a Game 7 loss, and Willie was gone by the time I emerged from the United Center.

I never had a chance to wish him a happy summer.

Be well, Willie.

mimrem@dailyherald.com

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