When the Bulls’ pregame introductions begin and the lights go down, the entire United Center is ringed with tiers of Roger Brown silhouettes in the skyboxes. Then, from the darkness of the seats the flashbulbs start popping, first only a few, then in bunches, and finally one glittering crescendo as Michael Jordan is introduced. After the game, reporters queue up and down the corridor outside the Bulls locker room along a line taped to the floor; once allowed in they encircle Jordan’s locker ten feet deep, with the TV camera operators in the back standing on chairs. Between those two events, while the actual game rages, Dennis Rodman is apt to steal the spotlight at any time, by falling into a courtside cameramen and patting him comfortingly on the chest or by stretching out fully horizontal while diving out of bounds for a loose ball in a game the Bulls already lead by 20 points.
The media frenzy surrounding the Bulls is part of the show–has been for several years now. It’s testimony to the quality of the Bulls’ play that, nevertheless, they usually manage to make basketball the primary attraction. Indeed, almost every day some new distraction comes along to make us recall something Miami Heat coach Pat Riley said during the 1993 Eastern Conference finals, when he was running the New York Knicks. Riley was asked if he expected the turbulence around the Bulls–back then it was the issue of Jordan’s gambling–to distract them. Riley said that to the Bulls it might not be a distraction; it might be the atmosphere they were most comfortable with. Tanned by a full decade in the spotlight, the Bulls seem as comfortable in the media glare as a starlet at Cannes. Look at bench players like Steve Kerr and Toni Kukoc as they watch from the sidelines. Both slouch during the game and stand during timeouts with the posture of 50s juvenile delinquents, as if the opponents haven’t shown them anything they hadn’t seen before. Kukoc typically adds the touch of a towel draped around his neck and tucked under the collar of his warmup jacket, giving him the look of a European man of leisure, at ease as the center of attention.
Rodman returned to action from his 11-game suspension for kicking a cameraman against the up-and-coming Charlotte Hornets. It was the Bulls’ first game after the all-star break, and the occasion brought 300 members of the media to the United Center–not counting the TV tabloid Extra!, which had escorted Rodman’s estranged father Philander to the game but had been denied formal credentials. Somehow, however, basketball proved paramount in the end.
Rodman returned unrepentant. The only thing, at first, that passed as a gesture of atonement was his change of hair color from multihued splashes (he’d looked as if he should have been playing bass with the Muppets in Dr. Teeth’s band) to a uniform greenish-yellow tinge the color of late spring wheat. Early on, when the Bulls were assigned the ball out of bounds, he flicked the ball to the nearest referee with an insouciant flip of the wrist, then slapped the ref’s bounce pass inbounds to Scottie Pippen. Later came the moment when he patted the cameraman.
In the meantime he played some solid basketball, pulling down one of his patented five-tip offensive rebounds and passing outside to Ron Harper, who hit a three to give the Bulls a 14-11 lead. The scrappy Hornets kept the Bulls focused. Rodman battled the Hornets’ Anthony Mason, another of the Bulls’ old transplanted nemeses from the Knicks, and Jordan was in a scoring duel with Glen Rice, fresh from an MVP performance in the all-star game. Jordan finished the first quarter with 12 points but Rice had 14, and Rice also led at halftime 21-19. Jordan killed the clock and sank a jumper only a couple of seconds before intermission, but the Hornets’ Vlade Divac quickly took the ball and fired a court-length inbounds pass to Mason, who drove for a layup over a scrambling Jordan. The score was 55-53 Bulls.
The Hornets took the lead briefly in the third quarter before the Bulls pulled even at 69. Then Rodman fed Jordan with a beautiful bounce pass on a baseline drive, and Jordan went up under the hoop and did one of his round-the-clock reverse lay-ins for a 71-69 lead. Kerr tried to get involved in show time with a between-the-legs trailer pass to Jordan on a 3-on-1 fast break. Truth is, Kerr looked like a flamingo laying an egg while attempting a running takeoff–the pass so startled Jordan he hesitated and was fouled on the dunk. The Bulls were playing confidently, however, and entered the final frame up 84-75 with the game apparently in hand.
Pippen was having an awful night, and the Hornets rallied. But when Pippen in the closing minutes hit one of his floating, flat-footed jumpers from the free-throw line, the Bulls led 96-91. Mason hit a prayer of a three with the 24-second clock running down, and then–the unthinkable–Jordan missed two free throws with two minutes to play. A Charlotte turnover later, Jordan got a chance to redeem himself and made both free throws, but then Pippen fouled Rice and was whistled for a technical arguing the call. Rice made all three free throws to pull the Hornets within one at 98-97 with 36 seconds to go. Jordan, taking the ball to the hoop, drew a foul and made both free throws, but after a Charlotte time-out he inexplicably left Mugsy Bogues alone outside and double-teamed Mason down low, even though the Hornets needed a three to tie. Mason passed out to Bogues, who launched one of his 5-foot-3 mortar shots right through the hoop to tie it at 100 with nine seconds left.
Coach Phil Jackson “doesn’t like to call time-outs in that situation because it gives the defense a chance to set up,” Kerr said afterward. He was explaining the final play to just a few reporters, as most were packed around Jordan’s locker waiting for him to emerge from the trainer’s room. “So I saw Scottie with the ball, we all spread the floor, and he decided to give it to the Messiah, and it was a good decision.”
Jordan, out beyond the three-point line, shimmied left, shimmied right, leaped, and rattled the shot off the back of the rim and through the hoop–automatic.
“Ho hum,” we said to Daily Herald beat writer Kent McDill after the game. “Who hasn’t written this one up a hundred times before?”
“I just punched up A4 on my laptop,” McDill said.
From there the Bulls ran roughshod. In their next game, in Atlanta, the Hawks’ Christian Laettner tried to mimic Jordan’s heroics but missed a last-second three-pointer, giving the Bulls an 89-88 win. Then they whipped the Orlando Magic 110-89 in front of a national TV audience. The Denver Nuggets came to town playing thoughtless Western Conference basketball and the Bulls outran them 134-123, the highest score in the league in this season of defense. Pippen had a career-high 47 points. Next, Pippen poured in 17 in the first quarter against the Bullets; Jordan, on the other side of the teeter-totter, scored 18 of the Bulls’ 24 fourth-quarter points (including 15 in a row) in the 103-99 victory on the road.
The Bulls came home the following night, last Saturday, to play the Golden State Warriors. If ever there was a game likely to be overwhelmed by the sheer pandemonium surrounding the Bulls, this mismatch was it. Yet the Bulls played stunning basketball. Kukoc, who passed for more yardage in this one game than the Bears’ Dave Krieg did all season, completed four lovely, long, arcing passes for fast breaks: two to Jason Caffey and two to Pippen.
The two to Pippen were both glorious. The first came off a Kukoc steal in the backcourt. He dribbled out and down the sideline to just beyond the half-court line, then hung out a long, lead alley-oop pass. The ball was up there, lingering, lingering–for whom?–when Pippen came leaping out of a crowd like the lead dancer in a ballet company, grabbed it, and was fouled as his shot bounced hard off the back rim. He made just one of two foul shots, but that made the score 90-69. Moments later, Kukoc sent a long pass over Pippen’s far shoulder as he ran down the right side of the court. Pippen snared the ball one-handed, dribbled once in stride, and leaped for an easy lay-in.
The whole game was show time. Jordan still had the laser going from outside after warming it up late the night before against Washington. He scored 15 in the first quarter and 14 more in the third on the way to a game-high 34 on 13-of-19 shooting. Pippen, Jordan, and Kukoc came down on a three-on-none break, and Pippen took it all the way, finishing with a reverse dunk. Harper left a fast-break trailer pass for Caffey and a ripping jam. This one was over early, and it ended 120-87.
The only distraction was a Rodman tiff with the refs. After not drawing a single foul in the first half, Rodman was whistled for three quick ones in the third quarter, with a doubtful technical thrown in for good measure, then was called on a double foul with the Warriors’ Andrew DeClerq. He was noticeably upset, and on the verge of a blowout–more likely always when the Bulls are up 20 points and he knows he can take the rest of the night off with a (relatively) clear conscience. Any other coach would have sat Rodman on the bench, where no doubt he would have stewed before exploding when he returned to the floor. Instead, Jackson replaced center Luc Longley with Kukoc, meaning that Rodman had to switch to guard Golden State center Felton Spencer, who had six inches and at least 45 pounds on him. The message was clear: If you have trouble concentrating on the task at hand, here’s a bigger challenge to keep you occupied. It wasn’t until Rodman picked up his fifth foul that Jackson replaced him.
Now is the time of the season when the competitive teams separate themselves from those with nowhere to go, and blowouts become commonplace. Jordan was asked if it was difficult to play out the string, if maybe it wouldn’t be better to start the playoffs now.
“I don’t think we want to start looking ahead to things,” he said. “I think we just want to keep constantly challenging ourselves, no matter who we’re playing against. If we have that approach, it makes us a better team when we have to dial it up.”
After months of lingering a game or two behind the 72-win pace of last year’s team, the Bulls’ sixth straight victory allowed them to catch the 1995-96 team at 48-6 after 54 games. “Probably, it’s more impressive this year because it’s been a lot more of a grind,” Kerr said. “Last year was fresh and exciting. This year everybody’s expecting it, and teams are coming after us harder. It’s not as exciting as it was but we’re still right there, so it’s probably a bigger accomplishment this year.”
Kerr said that putting together back-to-back 70-win championship seasons would establish the Bulls as the greatest team in NBA history. The Bulls’ pursuit of that goal will bring heightened scrutiny (as if it could get any higher). And, of course, there is the lingering specter of Rodman.
Yet as Kerr said after the Golden State game, “It’s not going to bother us. It hasn’t in the last two years [since Jordan’s return from baseball] and it’s not going to start now. I don’t really pay much attention to it.”
That’s the Bulls: shooting coolly from outside in the middle of a media cyclone.