Flying out of O’Hare not too long ago, we made a steep turn on takeoff and circled back directly over the city. Seen from above, the new United Center looked to be about three times the size of the old Chicago Stadium. So it was with some trepidation that we finally resigned ourselves to seeing a game at the new arena last Friday night. There wasn’t much choice in the matter; it was the opening game of the Bulls’ season.

The Chicago Stadium was one of the great arenas in all of sports. It was, of course, a loud and lusty place, definitively Chicagoan, with every bit as much character as the late Comiskey Park. It was also, apparently, a good deal more functional than the old Comiskey, in that it required a lot less upkeep from year to year. Still, its passing didn’t cause the trauma Comiskey’s did. It could be that because the United Center was bought and paid for by the Bulls and Blackhawks, rather than by the state in an extortion deal, the move seemed much more a legitimate business decision, irksome but not unjustified. It could be that although the Stadium had character, a lot of that character was invested in how dysfunctional it was–noisy, cramped, smelly, and always with something of a musty feel to it. Even in the dead of winter the place had all the charm of a sultry summer Chicago afternoon.

We’ll miss the old place, but we have to admit that the new place is a lot better than we expected. It has all the amenities and the well-thought-out traffic patterns of the new Comiskey Park (the two areas where the new Comiskey really shines). While the new Comiskey sandwiched its three levels of sky box seating together in the middle of the grandstand, thus heightening the upper deck and skewing the sight lines up there, the United Center has layered its three levels of sky boxes evenly between the mezzanine and first balcony, between the first and second balconies, and finally at the top. That’s a subtle but profound message for the average fan: a blue-collar Joe or Josephine, sitting at the back of the upper balcony, can take comfort in the idea that there are muckety-mucks above with even worse seats.

While the new seats are, on average, a good deal farther away from the action than the old Stadium seats were, the sight lines are actually a little bit improved. We were sitting in the upper-deck press box, which in the United Center is at the top of the upper balcony. The upper balcony is steep, but then again so was the upper balcony at the Stadium. Those seats seemed to pitch a fan right down on the action, which is part of what made the Stadium such a claustrophobic place. The new upper-balcony seats offer more of a panoramic view, but the game remains fairly immediate. The players and their personalities are readily identifiable, even without the images on the eight-sided, multiscreen scoreboard, and that’s important, because the United Center as a whole–amenable as it is–is a place without a personality.

This year’s Bulls may not have an excess of talent, but they have character to spare. We’ve become an instant fan of Larry Krystkowiak, the tall, thin Montanan brought in from the Orlando Magic to replace Horace Grant at power forward in what amounted to a trade of free agents. That’s a clear step down in quality, but Krystkowiak seems almost perfect for the Bulls considering –considering that he is a functional, heady offensive player who fits into the Bulls’ triangle offense even better than Grant did; considering that the Bulls are basing their quick-job rebuilding plan on the rapid development of either second-year player Corie Blount or rookie Dickey Simpkins, neither of whom is quite ready to start yet; considering, in short, that Krystkowiak is a cog waiting to be replaced by a bigger, better piece of machinery.

Krystkowiak runs flat-footed, like a dad playing against his sons in a church league, and he hops around on defense in the manner of someone trying to hail a boat from across the lake. But, offensively at least, he is fundamentally sound. He sets picks and cuts to the hoop off others’ picks, and on the fast break he runs on the wing with deceptive speed. He fits, while still having a very identifiable character. And in the first quarter of the Bulls’ opener against the Charlotte Hornets last Friday, he scored four quick baskets and led the Bulls out to an early 16-9 lead.

It was a typically ugly early season basketball game. (The only thing uglier than November basketball is October hockey, something we’ve been spared this year.) In fact, it was probably a little uglier than the opening-night games we’ve grown accustomed to; after all Michael Jordan is now two seasons removed from the sport, and the Bulls’ new starting lineup included not only Krystkowiak but Will Perdue, the ugly-duckling center who has grown up to be not a swan but just a very big duck. While ungainly, both Perdue and Krystkowiak pride themselves on teamwork, and the Bulls’ starting lineup was one of the few groups with any sort of chemistry on this evening.

When coach Phil Jackson went to the Bulls’ bench the lead dissipated. Toni Kukoc had his usual problems getting into the flow. As a basketball player, he is almost the antithesis of a Krystkowiak. He is clearly talented, but because of that he has trouble subsuming his talents to a team system, especially one that can be as mechanical as the Bulls’ triangle offense. Put him on the fast break and he is a thing of beauty; at one point he passed up an easy bucket on a three-on-one break to present the trailing Scottie Pippen with a slam dunk. But in the offense he has a tendency to stand around, and considering the inconsistency of his jump shot he is not the sort of player simply to be spotting up from 18 feet out.

He is also a player without a real position. Six feet 11 inches tall and even thinner this year than last, he’s too tall and not quick enough to play guard, while being too slight and insubstantial to play power forward. Pippen, of course, is the small forward. So Kukoc and the Bulls go into each game in search of a chemistry that is even more intangible than for most NBA teams, which at least know what positions their players are playing and what roles they’re trying to fit.

That’s the thing about this year’s Bulls: if they develop a team chemistry that works they may become unfathomable to other teams, because they’re dealing in unconventional concepts. There is no traditional driving, dealing point guard in the Bulls’ system, just as there is no dominant rebounder on their roster. That makes their chemistry all the more elusive because it’s unwritten. Jackson and the Bulls are working on a form of alchemy that will either revolutionize the game or produce a losing season.

Jackson had his best success on this evening throwing Kukoc–against almost all logic–in at power forward and even, at one juncture, at center. He could do so because the Hornets’ usual starting center, Alonzo Mourning, was on the bench in street clothes with what the Bulls’ official score sheet referred to unceremoniously as a “strained right big toe.” Charlotte power forward Larry Johnson, meanwhile, labors under a recent ankle injury and a lingering back problem from last year. He is not the player he was when he first adopted a dress and a pillbox hat as “Grandmama” on his shoe commercials.

Jackson therefore was able to play either Krystkowiak or Kukoc at power forward with some confidence that they could keep Johnson from taking over the game. When crunch time came, in the fourth quarter, Jackson even went–as often as possible–to an offense-defense substitution scheme, playing Kukoc and Krystkowiak when the Bulls were inbounding the ball and defensive specialists Greg Foster and Blount when the Hornets were bringing the ball in. The Bulls got the lead, held it, and went on to win 89-83.

Yet as well as those tactics worked against the depleted Hornets, they will not work for the Bulls every night–which was proved the following night when the lowly Washington Bullets came into town. In the late going Kukoc was not able to restrain Washington’s power forward, Tom Gugliotta, who went on to lead the Bullets to an overtime victory.

The Bulls have no real beast under the boards. They’ll struggle this season when they don’t shoot well from outside, and they’ll have a generally difficult time with teams with strong centers or power forwards. They’ll be more erratic than they were last season; they’ll function only as well as they succeed in melding their diverse personalities. Put them down for 45 victories, with the odds that they’ll surpass that total much lower than they were a year ago.

Still, they’ll give the United Center a very human face. It would be too harsh to call the new arena antiseptic, but it is an awfully corporate place, all tidy and streamlined. It’s a quality that keeps insinuating itself in various ways throughout the arena, but one that the Bulls have been transcending. For instance, when the newly retired John Paxson was called on to hoist the Bulls’ three championship banners into the rafters at the United Center it soon became apparent that the rope he was tugging on had no connection whatsoever to the lines that were pulling the banners up. What a cheap show-biz ruse. Yet we looked down and Paxson was standing there, smiling somewhat bashfully, no longer going through the motions of tugging the rope but simply looking up at the banners as they rose. Somehow the undercutting of this moment, in which he was supposed to be heroic, made him seem not less human but more, and the scene both comic and touching.

Likewise, the new sculpture of Jordan at the east side of the United Center is a stiff work, enormous in almost every sense of the word. As a graceful gesture, it’s a failure. Yet that doesn’t keep people from filing past it, and we highly recommend that every fan’s first visit to the new arena start there. It’s not the sculpture that creates an atmosphere; it’s the attitude of the fans as they stop, look up, and talk out loud about their memories of Jordan. Despite itself the statue succeeds in creating the desired mood: one of a shared reverence for the past. Its awkwardness is part of its charm. If it were perfect it would seem even more corporate than it does. As it is, it goes a long way toward establishing this new stadium as a place where we’ll be willing to invest our memories in the future.