Bulls fan rock at 113 decibels Deafening noise at stadium reaches hazardous levels


Michael Jordan finished one of his moonwalks, a tongue-flapping, hand-changing, glass-banging, net-swishing layup, when Mike Dunleavy put his hands on his shoulders, the "Simon says" symbol for the abbreviated timeout.

"Hmmmm," hummed Mike Siefert, studying the quivering needle of his sound pressure level meter. "With 113 decibels, they're not going to absorb much in 20 seconds."

Los Angeles absorbed an old-fashioned slat-kicking from the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday at Chicago Stadium. Looked bad, sounded worse.

"If you're exposed to 115 decibels for 15 minutes, that can be damaging to your ears," said Siefert, manager of the speech and hearing department at Grant Hospital in Chicago.

"Government regulations limit plant noise to 90 decibels for an eight-hour day. Normal conversation is 65."

A lawn mower generates 90 dB, a chain saw 100 dB, rock music 110 dB, a Jordan moonwalk 113, a jet plane takeoff 120.

"A visiting coach had better be prepared, with pen and pad," said Chicago assistant Johnny Bach. "I know Phil Jackson had to get used to writing during timeouts.

"Somewhere, in a remote cavern of your mind, a voice is screaming, 'Can't they cut the noise down?' "

They could, but they choose not to. Steve Schanwald, the youthful director of marketing for the Bulls, likes the sound careening off the walls, loud enough to loosen fillings.

"We've got the biggest winning-point differential in the league," he said. "Some stadiums, all they've got out there at halftime is a rack of basketballs. Would you rather look at that or the Cheetos dot race game?

"We respond to the cheers, the laughter, the boos of our fans."

It happened, first game of the championship series. The Luvables swished out to center court and the music blared at 88 dB and the fans hooted.

"We had a brain cramp," Schanwald confessed later. "We like to play upbeat songs, songs the fans can clap along with.

"We didn't realize that 'Do You Believe in Magic?' would turn them off."

Did Pavlov's dog ever bite Pavlov? It was wonderful, and when the huge scoreboard displayed a "Fan-O-Meter" with a shuddering arrow, encouraging the fans to scream, I decided to bring in an audiologist who could tell the world just how noisy the self-proclaimed "noisiest arena in the NBA" really is.

"Gee," said a worried Schanwald, "we're not scientific, we're just having fun with our Bull-bleep."

The "Fan-O-Meter" doesn't measure anything but a fan's gullibility. Siefert agreed to bring his SPL to the stadium and check out the noise level through Game 2.

"Hey, it's up to 85," Siefert said, 48 minutes before game time, the stands two-thirds empty. "You have a level more than 85 in your plant you have to institute a hearing conservation program, test everybody.

"The reason it's so noisy here is that there's no place for the sound to die. There's nothing to trap the sound, except the fans.

"See those banners hanging from the ceiling [division championship flags]? If they had some made from burlap, that would deaden the sound."

There is a dreadful tradition at Chicago Stadium to screech during the national anthem. Wednesday, it made teeth ache and made Siefert's needle spurt.

"Land of the freeeee" sent the reading to 108 dB.

"A 'Beat L.A.' chant was clocked at 96 dB. And then came the pregame peak, the introduction of the Chicago players by public address announcer Ray Clay.

He saves you-know-who for last and you never hear anything beyond, "From North Caro . . ."

Siefert measured it at 108 dB, not quite snowmobile level.

At halftime I checked with some front row season ticket-holders, explained about the factory limits of 80 decibels.

"We're not in a factory," sneered a woman. "We're here to have fun. I love the noise. It motivates."

"I'm a trader at the Exchange," said a young guy in designer clothes. "I'm used to the noise. Doesn't bother me."

Ray Sons, the fine Chicago Sun-Times columnist, sticks his fingers in his ears during the anthem. He has but one good ear to give to his country.

"I've lost the hearing in one ear," Sons said, "and I want to protect the other one."

So, is Chicago Stadium a hazard to the health of anyone but the visiting team?

"A single exposure, one night, is not going to cause problems for anybody," Siefert concluded.

"It's not frequent enough, or loud enough, to cause what we call an occupational hearing loss.

"As an audiologist, I'd love to see them cut the levels down 10 points. As a Chicago fan, I can understand, it's part of the entertainment, the noise level is part of the excitement."

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