Take one or the other, but not both. Either the Cubs were right to keep an aging team around for a creaky curtain call of a season after making the playoffs the year before, or the Bulls were right to crash the franchise and rebuild from scratch after their sixth NBA championship in 1998. Consistency says you can’t have it both ways. Me, I happen to think the Cubs were right to bring back their team intact–relying on Kevin Tapani and Rod Beck and Lance Johnson and, yes, even Gary Gaetti to do the same as they had the year before–and I think the Cubs’ record attendance this year bears me out. People didn’t expect this bunch of geezers to achieve the same results–not after Kerry Wood went down with a splintered elbow in spring training anyway–but they were happy to come out and see them again, especially with Sammy Sosa repeating his 60-homer season. The Cubs’ 1998 playoff appearance was a gasping miracle anyway–there was (and is) precious little to rebuild on, even with Sosa and Wood. Why not just enjoy the afterglow?
If you do take the Cubs to task for not trying immediately to rebuild, how can you criticize the Bulls for doing exactly that, especially if you allow that there was no way for them to bring back Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson for another season. Yes, Jordan and Jackson and Scottie Pippen had earned the right to pursue championships until they were beaten, just as they had insisted after the 1997 championship, and it would have been something to see them try to steal a seventh title in the lockout-shortened 1998-’99 campaign. But call it acceptance or maturity or whatever, I’ve come to believe that Jordan and Jackson really had had enough after 1998 and were not about to be lured back, much less to demand a return, especially once Jordan hit such a perfect final note. The idea of bringing back Pippen and Steve Kerr and Luc Longley for a curtain call would have been something short of afterglow–more like trying to smoke a cigarette crushed in the heat of passion.
So here’s a bold notion. Let me suggest that different circumstances surrounded the Bulls and the Cubs, and each team did what was best for itself and its fans–the Cubs by lingering over a small moral victory, and the Bulls by moving on to other (if not better) things. If that’s not the sort of controversial stance that sells newspapers, consider me grateful that this newspaper is free.
Jerry Krause, the Bulls’ general manager, has built up quite a bit of fan enmity over the years, largely through his clashes with the popular Jordan and Jackson and Pippen. Despite that, I think most Chicago fans approach the current Bulls with an open mind, as demonstrated by the continuing streak of sellouts, something every sports reporter in Chicago believed would end this season. Krause certainly has pulled his share of boners over the years, such as Dennis Hopson and Jeff Sanders and Corie Blount and Dickey Simpkins (twice). Yet he also has excelled at adding just the right players to the foundation of Jordan, the one player he hadn’t brought to the Bulls’ championship teams–from Pippen and Horace Grant to Bill Cartwright and John Paxson and Kerr and Toni Kukoc and Ron Harper and Bill Wennington and, of course, Dennis Rodman. Yes, Krause was a bit overeager to get the post-Jordan rebuilding process going, but can anyone really blame him? Having done it twice with Jordan–and receiving precious little credit because of Jordan–Krause wants to prove he can do it without him.
What makes the Bulls interesting now is that the rebuilding could go either way. The Bulls are a team of pieces, with little heed being paid to the overall look or to continuity. Krause is building them bit by bit, and the longer he leaves gaping holes the better (up to a point), because failure makes it easier to fill those holes in the college draft, in which the worst pick first. The Bulls have two very promising rookies in first-round draft picks Elton Brand, the first player chosen out of college this summer (remember Krause and his gleeful little dance when it was announced the Bulls had won the lottery?), and Ron Artest, a project who just turned 20, but there’s precious little left from the glory days beyond Kukoc. Unfortunately, all three of those players are natural forwards. Barring some inventive coaching by Tim Floyd, only two can play together at a time. The trade of Kukoc is already a hot rumor.
Krause entered the year with no real center and no real point guard. So he patched over the holes with two favorites from the Bulls’ first three championships–Will Perdue and B.J. Armstrong. It was like taping a pair of classic movie posters over floor-to-ceiling cracks in the walls. And when Armstrong entered the season on the injured list after arthroscopic knee surgery, one crack wasn’t even hidden. The Bulls wouldn’t be going anywhere with Randy Brown, the team’s only true point guard, and with Perdue coming off the bench to back Simpkins at center. Things were only marginally better at shooting guard, a position that Krause brought in former Westinghouse High School and Bradley University product Hersey Hawkins to fill. The popular Hawkins, at 33, was entering the twilight of his career.
Krause clearly was hoping for a second straight bad year, the better to add another bumper crop of top rookies. And he didn’t just hope. As general manager he could do something about it; he could field a half-built team. Compare this year to the spring of 1986, when Krause urged Jordan to sit out the end of the year with his healing broken foot, rather than return and hurt the Bulls’ draft status. Jordan would have none of that; he came back to lead the Bulls into the playoffs and score 63 points against the Boston Celtics. It would be another year before Krause could pull off the draft-day coup that brought the Bulls both Pippen and Grant.
The question is, are Brand and Artest players one can build a championship team around? Brand is big, but at 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds he’s not all that big for a power forward. He has a wide wingspan and big hands, which hang almost to his knees. Both are qualities Krause looks for in players, going back to Pippen and beyond. But power forward is perhaps the most difficult basketball position to predict greatness at. Big players who are soft or have no drive are sometimes lost there (think of Pervis Ellison, Rashard Griffith, and Krause’s own Brad Sellers), while smaller players with determination, such as Rodman, Charles Barkley, and Paul Silas, excel. Brand runs the floor well. In the Bulls’ opener against the New York Knicks, he blocked a shot by Larry Johnson, ran out, and took a return pass from Kukoc for a lay-in at the other end. But he still carries a lot of baby fat, and his body–especially in the arms and shoulders–lacks definition. Everyone agrees he has the tools, but does he have the determination to be great?
Artest is even rawer, and there are times he looks completely befuddled. Yet he has an instinctive offensive game that’s equally good whether he’s shooting from the outside or knifing to the basket. In that first game he stood up under the heavy pressure of playing opposite Latrell Sprewell. Infamous for having choked coach P.J. Carlesimo a few years ago while he was with the Golden State Warriors, Sprewell led the Knicks to the NBA finals last season and regained his stature as one of the game’s top players. He glowers on the court, and with his hair braided to shoulder length in back in the manner of the leather fringe of a Spartan helmet, he has a ferocious presence. Artest, with his wide-eyed gaze, traded hoops with him. He hit a three-pointer toward the end of the third quarter to trim the Knicks’ lead to 59-55, and Sprewell came right back and forced a three-point play. Floyd took it as a learning experience. “I was pleased to see him come back and get some quality minutes against a guy like Sprewell,” the coach said. “I’m sure there were some lessons learned.”
The Knicks won the game comfortably, 89-74, but Artest and Brand scored 14 apiece and impressed. Keep in mind, each is only 20 after leaving college early. They seemed as uncertain in the locker room surrounded by reporters as they had on the floor surrounded by Knicks. But Artest offered up the remarkably mature thought that perhaps it is better to lose, because the natural human impulse is to forget mistakes when one wins.
He’ll get ample opportunity to test that theory. The opener turned out to be one of the Bulls’ better early games. They were the only winless team in the league until their sixth game, last Saturday. Brand and Artest played so poorly they spent most of the night on the bench, and it was reserve guard Fred Hoiberg, scoring 11 of his 19 points in the fourth quarter, who led the Bulls to a 92-91 win over the Boston Celtics. Boston’s a team that fell almost as far as the Bulls–and has stayed there. Hoiberg, a fifth-year veteran who played for Floyd at Iowa State, looks like a keeper–the new Jud Buechler.
The key to recovery will be finding a center and a point guard, and perhaps a free-agent shooting guard to start ahead of Hoiberg next year, without losing Brand and Artest to apathy in the meantime. It’s Krause’s call, and that’s how he wants to play it. He can’t fare any worse than the Bears, who went through several mediocre years trying to remain competitive before the team finally collapsed for lack of talent. Someone should have totaled that team and started over.
Death forces all of us–even sports fans–to reassess things. Walter Payton had such a strong personality as a happy warrior that it tended to overshadow his achievements. His death, especially when it came as he chose, beyond the public spotlight–perhaps out of pride, just as likely out of a selfless desire to have fans remember him as a vital player, not an ailing human–cast his achievements in relief. As the records were recited and the highlights replayed–highlights showing him running for speed in the broken field and for power up the middle, showing him catching the ball in the flat and passing the ball on the halfback option, showing him blocking like a Hall of Fame guard when he didn’t have his hands on the ball–I, like many fans, found myself thinking too late that, yes, here was the greatest football player who ever lived. We should have known it all along.