Windy City Bulls developing franchise from ground up

The Windy City Bulls have not only been developing a D-League team in their inaugural season, they've also been building a franchise from the ground up.

And, like their high-scoring and fast-paced league, taking it slow is not an option.

"There's a lot of moving parts when you're an expansion team," said Windy City Bulls head coach Nate Loenser. "From the time the Bulls decided to go into the realm of having a D-League team, the work behind the scenes, it's been a great experience.

"We have players here who are at different stages of their careers. We have guys fresh out of college, guys who've played overseas and guys who've been in the NBA."

In many respects, the NBA Developmental League is to the NBA what the minor leagues are to Major League Baseball. It's a system to better develop pros as well as an affordable option to grow the game with new fans.

And growth is definitely part of the league's game plan. Founded in 2001, the league has 22 teams and will expand to 25 teams next season.

As of last week, 28 D-League players have been called up to NBA rosters this season. According to league officials, 135 former D-League players made the NBA Opening Night rosters, representing 30 percent of the league. The Bulls have two former D-League players on their roster in guard Isaiah Canaan and center Cristiano Felicio.

Like many minor league franchises, however, the players aren't the only attraction. To build their new fan base at Sears Centre Arena, Windy City Bulls officials have held numerous promotions such as a "Heroes Night" in which police officers and firefighters played a game before the Windy City Bulls tipped off.

"We've just passed the one-year anniversary of having staff on the ground in Hoffman Estates. The response has been very good from the community and we've been able to deliver on the experiences and the aspects throughout the offseason," said team president Brad Seymour. "We've been really satisfied on how we've been able to extend the Bulls brand out into the community here, and provide the suburban market what the United Center experience is about but certainly with our own twist."

The Windy Bulls experience, Seymour said, caters more to the families of avid basketball fans.

"We have folks looking for entertainment as a whole," he said. "We figure 70 to 80 percent of our fans are here for something other than basketball.

"Becoming inventive in our community has been at the forefront of our mission. From the basketball side, you're watching guys who are a step away from the NBA. They are playing here one night, and in the NBA the next. From a basketball fans' prospective, you're getting the best of both worlds."

The Windy City Bulls still have nine games left in their 50-game season. Some of the players have local ties. Will Bynum, who was a star point guard at Crane High School, played 11 seasons professionally bouncing between the NBA, CBA and the EuroLeague. The Bulls have also sent players such as Denzel Valentine, Jerian Grant and others to polish their game with Windy City.

Forward Alfonzo McKinnie, who starred at Marshall High School, was named a D-League All-Star and participated in the D-League Slam dunk contest this season. Having a veteran such as Bynum on the team has been beneficial in the locker room, McKinnie said.

"They show us the right way to do things. They teach us what we have to do to get to the next level," McKinnie said. "This season has been a roller-coaster in terms of dynamics. The team has been solidified, so the team we have now, is the team we're going to finish the season with."

McKinnie, who played at Wisconsin-Green Bay, enjoys playing close enough to home so his family can see him play.

"It's a great feeling. I've been away for so long and to play for this type of stage, for them to watch has probably been the most beneficial thing this season. Just having them there cheering I think helps me get through the season," McKinnie said.

And basketball fans who are new to the D-League are in for a surprise, he said.

"When they come to a game, they see the talent level and they go back and do some research on the guys we have in our league. They see they we're in a high-level league."

The Windy City Bulls have nine more games to play in their inaugural season, including six home games at Sears Centre Arena. Photo courtesy of John Alexander/Windy City Bulls
Alfonso McKinnie, shown here with a young fan, grew up in Chicago and has spent this season with the Windy City Bulls. Photo courtesy of John Alexander/Windy City Bulls
Denzel Valentine played a few games for the Windy City Bulls this season. The league expects to expand to 25 teams next year.. Photo courtesy of John Alexander/Windy City Bulls
Princess Night is just one of many promotional events this season at a Windy City Bulls game. Photo courtesy of John Alexander/Windy City Bulls
You can't have a pro team without a mascot, and the Windy City Bulls mascot loves to entertain the crowd. Photo courtesy of John Alexander/Windy City Bulls
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