It was vintage Phil Jackson. Honored at halftime of the Bulls’ final game of the season, he sat there with that bemused, distant, faintly superior smile so familiar from six championships. The smile always signaled that the job was done, the journey over, and it was time to take a step back and appreciate what he and the team had accomplished. Of course this occasion was not quite so festive. The Bulls were putting the finishing touches on an abbreviated 13-37 season in their first year since the 80s without Jackson, Michael Jordan, and Scottie Pippen and the “supporting cast.” Though the spring day had bloomed clear and warm, arousing memories of similar afternoons in which I’d driven down to the Chicago Stadium playing my lucky Jungle Brothers tape to prepare for yet another titanic tilt with the Detroit Pistons or the New York Knicks or the Portland Trail Blazers or whomever, the mood at the United Center couldn’t have been more different. I couldn’t recall the last time I had gone to a Bulls game knowing their season would end that night–they were never extended to a seventh game in the NBA finals–and no one I talked with could remember that far back either. For the record, it was at the end of the 1983-’84 season, when the Bulls missed the playoffs and set themselves up to draft Jordan. The Jackson ceremony aside, this was a very dreary occasion.
The halftime ceremony offered the pageantry but none of the excitement of the championship days, yet that seemed to be enough for most people. It was something, anyway, and the UC was fairly well populated (though with patches of empty seats at all levels). “I’ve looked forward to this all year long,” said assistant coach Tex Winter, and speaking for almost everyone he added, “It’s about the only thing I have looked forward to.” If the treacly pop song that played during the scoreboard highlight sequence seemed inappropriate to an appreciation of Jackson, and if there was a Barnumesque hokum to the proceedings (limited to an extra 5 minutes at halftime and 19 minutes total by the league, the Bulls nevertheless managed to stretch things out by pausing the clock at 13 minutes as it ticked down, for a little longer at 12 minutes, even longer at 11 minutes, and so on, until the clock halted for good at 7 minutes), no one seemed to mind, though Jackson himself, in a reference to his labeling of the sixth championship season as “the last dance,” was prompted to call the ceremony “the final grope after the last song has been sung.” He always did have a flair for the seemingly offhand metaphor that captured things in their essence.
Yet that’s not how I’ll remember Jackson best, with that bemused smile on his face. Rather, I’ll remember the Jackson who excelled at media mind games, and he gave us a glimpse of that in his speech. Master of ceremonies Johnny “Red” Kerr had introduced several speakers, but had gone out of his way not to mention Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf or general manager Jerry Krause, neither of whom was anywhere in the neighborhood. What did Jackson do moments into his speech but thank Reinsdorf by name. As he smiled up into the boos raining down, he thanked Krause as well. The boos intensified. That was the vintage moment–Jackson once again using the tools at his disposal not only to defeat but to crush the opponent he had identified.
More than the graceful play, the team flow, the pure talent and intelligence of those championship Bulls teams, this season I missed their mental edge. New coach Tim Floyd proved himself an able administrator and straight shooter, and he never did lose his sense of humor, not even when the Bulls were being walloped by 40 points. Most beat guys I know enjoyed covering this year’s Bulls more than they had the later championship teams. Yet those Bulls had a sadistic killer instinct; they used all the tools at their disposal–including manipulating the media–to make the other team squirm. These Bulls were doing the squirming.
It truly was a lost season. The Vancouver Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers had worse records, but the Bulls led the league in negative point differential, averaging more than nine points less than their opponents. They achieved Krause’s goal of missing the playoffs and setting themselves up for a lottery pick in the NBA draft. The question is, what else did they achieve? They got Floyd acclimated to the league, and they tried out several young players. But it’s unclear if any are championship caliber talents. Brent Barry proved himself a dumb player and a mediocre talent, averaging 11 points but making less than 40 percent of his shots from the floor. His multiyear contract could be an albatross. Other players seemed to improve but more than likely were basketball mirages. Just because a player looks good on a bad team doesn’t mean he’s the sort one wants to keep around. Dickey Simpkins and Randy Brown thrived with increased playing time, but neither established himself as a starter worth retaining. Rusty LaRue endeared himself to fans with his enthusiastic play and his Curious George haircut, but he shot even worse than Barry. Of the rookies, Cory Carr and Corey Benjamin both showed flashes of talent. Carr is a muscular, low-to-the-ground player with a jackhammer dribbling style, but as a point guard he wasn’t much of a playmaker. Benjamin, taller and more elegant, was said to be the best athlete on the team, but the off guard frequently seemed lost in the fray. Forward Kornel David, the Hungarian import, displayed much less natural ability but a great deal more court sense. If only he and Benjamin could be blended they’d make one good player between them.
No, the meager joys of this season came mostly from the veterans. Power forward Mark Bryant led the team in shooting percentage and was a steadfast presence day in, day out. Unfortunately, he just turned 34 and is not a player to build around. Championship holdover Ron Harper, probably on his last legs at the age of 35, was an inspiration throughout the season. His knees seemed to stiffen by the moment, calcifying from night to night, and he suffered a broken nose toward the end, yet he soldiered on, bandage across the bridge of his nose, averaging 11.2 points a game. His 25-point explosion the last week of the season led the Bulls in their upset of the Miami Heat; watching Miami coach Pat Riley steam on the sideline was a sadistic pleasure that kicked in like an old addiction. Best of all was Toni Kukoc. He led the team in scoring, rebounding, and assists, in spite of being the only true offensive talent the other team had to concern itself with. He was reported to be thinking of a return to Europe at the end of next season, however, so whether he’ll be the bridge between the Bulls’ last championship era and the next–if there is one–is far from clear.
The final game was the usual disappointment. Most discouraging about the Bulls this season was the way the other team seemed to dismiss them at the outset. The good teams worked hard early, blew the Bulls out, and then inserted scrubeenies to mop up; the bad or lazier teams tried to take the night off from the beginning and found themselves eventually struggling to bring their best game to the fore. They usually did so, and the last game, against the Orlando Magic, followed that pattern. Orlando had already established its playoff seeding and had little to play for. They led the Bulls for most of the game and pulled away in the fourth quarter to claim a 103-83 victory. The key player in that push was none other than Horace Grant. Unlike any single player left on the Bulls, he displayed a sense of when the game was to be had–a killer instinct. Though he was booed in the introductions by fans who remembered his leaving the team after the first three championships, and was booed again each time he made a shot from the field (he finished with 14 points, tied for the team high), I had to admire the way he suddenly began playing the Bulls’ old full-court defense late in the third quarter, filling passing lanes and pressuring the ball just inside the half-court line with that awkward, birdlike waving of his. That, I thought, is a championship player.
So it was that in their last game of the season the Bulls were overshadowed by ghosts of the past: Grant on the floor and Jackson from the moment he reached the United Center. He arrived just as the Bulls were taking the floor for their warm-ups, and as they trotted out, every eye in the stadium was turned to the scoreboard TV showing Jackson and his family getting out of their limo. Still, if this was the last grope after the last song at the last dance, it was also the last tinge of afterglow. After the season-ticket holders had waved good-bye to their neighbors (perhaps never to see each other again) and Floyd had done his last media conference and the players had left the building, I walked out to the floor as I had after each of the Bulls’ three championships won at home and looked up at the dim lights of the arena and thought of Jackson’s bemused smile. It all seemed to signal the end of something, a sense of disappointment and deprivation, and the start of something resembling acceptance. It was then I dared to think what all Chicago fans inherently think.
Many days later I sat on my front porch on a warm spring evening as I had sat six times before, only this time smoking a pipe–a much more contemplative instrument than a victory cigar. And with nary a horn honking or a firework blasting or a shouter shouting, I thought the same thought with a renewed sense of wonder: Wait till next year.