With the return of Scottie Pippen, the swagger returned to the Bulls. They had always retained a certain air of confidence; after a slow 8-7 start they persistently improved to 24-11 before Pippen’s return a week ago last Saturday. Yet with Pippen that natural confidence took on an added dimension, sort of puffed out its chest–and that is entirely his contribution. Michael Jordan is a supremely confident athlete, but like a panther he seems to be slouching, even when he’s just strolling out to center court for the tip-off. Pippen, by contrast, stiffens his backbone and struts like an alderman when he takes the floor. Opponents report that he is the one most likely to recite the Bulls’ accomplishments–their five rings and five championships–at a critical juncture. With Pippen, the intimidation factor returned to Bulls basketball.

Last week they brushed aside the Seattle SuperSonics–the team with the best record in the National Basketball Association–then toyed with the Houston Rockets with catlike insouciance in a nationally televised game on Sunday. By the end of that contest the Bulls were 28-12, neck and neck with the Indiana Pacers for best record in the Eastern Conference at almost the midpoint of the season, and Pippen was beginning to feel fully at ease on the floor.

All the Bulls’ early season doomsayers can now kindly put ketchup on their anxious words and prepare to eat them–a recipe for a well-deserved bellyache if ever there was one.

Pippen’s panache was clear every time he joined them as they came off the sideline, but never more so than at the beginning of the Rockets game at the United Center. Jordan stepped out to center court, tapped fists all around, and exchanged a quick but businesslike greeting with his good friend Charles Barkley. Pippen, who likewise has a friendly but competitive relationship with Barkley, followed Jordan onto the court and gently held Barkley by the waist and said something into his ear that made him laugh out loud. Later on, with the Rockets scrambling to get back in the game, Pippen dribbled the ball up against what he knew was a trapping defense. He quickly gestured to Scott Burrell to move into the far corner, then put his head down and dribbled forward like a man going through a revolving door into a blizzard. As he crossed the center-court stripe three Rockets closed on him–Barkley included. Pippen kept coming. Waiting until the last moment, he made a bounce pass to Burrell, who cruised down the baseline unmolested for a slam dunk. Pippen, who had seen the whole play in advance, turned and clapped his hands in Barkley’s face.

“You know Charles is going to come in and try to be the bully with a nationally televised game,” Pippen said smiling afterward. “We just try to keep him in his place.”

The Rockets game was about as good as midseason basketball gets, a marquee match-up with tactics taking a backseat to star presence and Jordan and Barkley battling it out like a couple of old lions on the savanna–with Pippen, of course, the difference, as Barkley was missing his injured top-quality teammates Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. Barkley was surprisingly humble in the locker room before the game. “I’m just not as good as I used to be, because I’m older,” he said. “I used to be a great player. Now I’m just a good player.” And the statistics, at a glance, seemed to bear that out, for he was averaging just 16 points to go with his 13 rebounds a game. Yet when the game started Barkley–perhaps goaded into an angry response by Jordan and Pippen–took over for Houston; the offense ran through him. Time and again he backed in on the basket over Dennis Rodman or Jason Caffey or whoever was guarding him, as single-minded as a cigar-chomping truck driver squeezing down a tight alley to a loading dock. Then, faced with Pippen, he’d stop and swish a jumper from outside. It was a wonderful performance.

Yet not as amazing as Jordan’s. Where Barkley bumped and bruised his way to the basket, Jordan flittered on the outside, calmly arching shots through the hoop, or he’d drive the baseline for a nifty little layup delivered with English that spun it off the backboard and through the basket in a way that utterly confounded the Rockets. For a while Barkley did his best to equal Jordan shot for shot. But the contest was never in doubt because Jordan had Pippen on his side.

The Bulls hit almost everything they threw up in the first quarter, taking a 34-18 lead. Jordan made six of seven shots, and Pippen and Luc Longley combined to make all six of their attempts, both of Pippen’s coming from beyond the three-point line. In the second and third quarters the Bulls grew “lackadaisical,” in the word of coach Phil Jackson. They maintained a ten-point lead for most of the second quarter, but Jud Buechler had to hit a three off a long inbound pass from Toni Kukoc with two seconds in the half to make it 56-45 Bulls at intermission.

It was in the third quarter that Barkley got rolling. He picked off a Jordan crosscourt pass in the lane, pointed at Jordan as if he were playing a pickup game in the school yard, then calmly dribbled down and launched a three to cut the lead to 69-63. Pippen responded in kind a few moments later, but then found himself guarding Barkley. Barkley backed away from the basket instead of toward it and hit a long jumper over Pippen to give him 24 points to Jordan’s 25 and make the score 74-68. He couldn’t resist blowing Pippen some shit, too, as they jogged down the court.

That was when Jordan answered. Kukoc stole the ball from the Rockets and dished ahead to Jordan, who pulled up, popped, and bumped chests with Barkley. Jordan then drained the last shot of the quarter over a Houston double-team to make it 82-70. Pippen opened the final quarter with a finger roll down the lane and through traffic to make it 84-70. From there, the Rockets whittled away at the lead, with Barkley doing much of the damage, though he had some costly struggles at the free-throw line (missing 5 of 16 shots for the game). The Rockets got to within three points, but then Jordan hit a three–the situation seemed to call for it–for a 93-87 lead. He added the piece de resistance a few minutes later, taking a lead pass from Longley off a steal. He pushed the ball ahead into a three-on-two against the retreating Rockets, with Pippen and Scott Burrell on the wings. Jordan waited, waited, then dished left to Pippen, who went in with a pile driver of a dunk to reinstate a double-digit lead at 102-91 with three and a half minutes left. Pippen sealed the game a minute later with his pass to Burrell to beat the triple-team trap and make it 104-94. The Bulls cruised home 106-100. Barkley turned in a courageous performance, scoring 35 points on 11-of-14 shooting with 14 rebounds, but Jordan had 45 and Pippen added 23, with 10 assists. It was, he said, the best, most well-rounded game of his comeback.

Still, it was by no means the Bulls’ most impressive victory in that stretch. That belonged to a less intense but more convincing win over the Sonics the week before. The Sonics were coming in at the end of a grueling road trip, but with the league’s best record at 28-8. The Sonics, of course, lost to the Bulls two seasons ago in the NBA finals, and like every other Western Conference team that suffered the same fate weren’t the same afterward. Seattle coach George Karl seems to regard his games with the Bulls as a test of wills, and he had his team well prepared. At the end of the first quarter both teams suddenly put on a burst, each trying to manage the clock to get the final shot. It was the Bulls who won that struggle, though the Sonics still led, 30-29. But the Bulls were just warming up. They won this game in typical fashion, with a run to end the first half and then a spirit-crushing run to open the second. Only Jordan played well, scoring 40 points–though Rodman’s 17 rebounds were essential–and Pippen suffered through a rusty 3-of-15 night from the field. The Sonics outscored the Bulls in the first and fourth quarters. Yet the game was never really in doubt, because the Bulls dominated in the middle, when champions dominate. Karl looked a beaten man.

Funny, but it seems not merely days and weeks but seasons ago that Pippen insisted he would never again play for the Bulls and demanded to be traded. He stayed loyal to his teammates and vice versa, and the fans urged his return. His comeback was sudden and unannounced. Before the Bulls’ home game a week ago Saturday against the Golden State Warriors he suddenly appeared on the scoreboard television in uniform as the Bulls were gathering outside their locker room to run onto the court in single file. It should have been expected–this was the Bulls’ fourth game in five nights, they needed the extra help, and Pippen could use a game against relatively weak opposition to recover his court legs before going up against the Sonics. Yet it came as a surprise all the same, in part because Jackson and the Bulls had been playing possum, saying Pippen needed weeks more before he could even consider returning to the team. “It’s Scottie! Scottie!” people gushed in the stands as the Bulls did their “game time” chant. No, it was no tape from last season; the Bulls trotted out and there was Pippen with them, taking warm-ups, and even, as it turned out, his place in the starting lineup. In an inspired choice, the Bulls’ public-address disc jockey played Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” as Pippen took his place in the pregame layup drills as if it were just another night at work. When he made the Bulls’ first basket of the game, the reconciliation was complete and the swagger was back–on the floor and in the stands. #o