By Ted Cox

The low point of the basketball season–or so a Bulls fan could only hope–came early last week when, after a humiliating 32-point loss to the Knicks in New York, the Bulls announced that Scottie Pippen would miss several games. The drubbing they could write off as simply a long-overdue bad day, but the loss of Pippen was more significant. He was suffering from tendinitis in his right knee and also a balky back. Since spinal surgery almost snuffed out Pippen’s career before it started, in 1988, the Bulls took both injuries seriously. The papers mentioned the next day that Pippen’s estimated ten-day recovery put the Bulls’ pursuit of a record 70 wins in jeopardy. After that bit of hand-wringing, however, no one mentioned the record. Even last Friday, after the Bulls had gotten over their initial jitters by posting a couple of convincing victories, no one was speaking of the topic. From coach Phil Jackson’s postgame media conference to Toni Kukoc, Michael Jordan, and Luc Longley in the locker room, it didn’t come up; even more amazing, no sports reporter asked about it.

That didn’t mean it wasn’t on people’s minds. If anything, last Saturday’s gritty victory in New Jersey against the Nets showed that the Bulls were as aware of the record as they had ever been. Rather, it showed that the Bulls regarded the record the way a devout Christian might regard the issue of his or her salvation: as something to be greatly desired and not in any way taken for granted, something to be respected to the point of not considering it. They were aided in this self-disciplined delusion by a couple of controversies.

The Bulls got back on track, after their loss to the Knicks, with a remarkably routine win over the Washington Bullets at the United Center a week ago Wednesday. It seemed to suggest that an injured Pippen had been more hindrance than help, and that with that obstacle removed the Bulls could return to form. Pippen had scored 25 points in a home victory over the Golden State Warriors on the first of the month, but he’d scored either 11 or 12 points in each of the next three games–about 10 under his average–finishing with a woeful 5-of-16 shooting performance against the Knicks. Kukoc replaced him in the starting lineup against the Bullets, and instantly things went well. He scored 16, as did Longley, and Jordan took up the remaining slack with 37 as the Bulls won 103-86.

If there was ever a least-bad time for Pippen to miss ten days, this was it. After the Bullets the Bulls were scheduled to play four games in five nights–a home game Friday against the Denver Nuggets followed by games in New Jersey against the Nets and in Philadelphia against the 76ers and then a game back home against the Sacramento Kings. None of these were .500 teams, and only the Kings clung to a playoff spot, the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference. The Bulls hoped that Pippen would then be able to return to action for the grudge match at home against the Knicks on Thursday. But there are no comfortable stretches for a team chasing 70 wins, certainly not a sequence of four games in five nights. Every game is essential, and it’s as important to protect against overconfidence when playing patsies as it is to prepare well for stronger teams.

What’s more, the Bulls began that stretch against the only National Basketball Association team they hadn’t beaten this season. The Nuggets, however, were embroiled in a controversy of their own. The NBA had just come down hard on Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, a devout Muslim who had objected to standing for the national anthem. Sixty-some games into the season, the NBA said stand up or sit down and be suspended. After missing a game Abdul-Rauf was back and standing for the anthem at the United Center, although adopting an Islamic prayer posture that had the Bulls’ fans hooting as if they thought they were there to see a Blackhawks game.

That sideshow over, the Bulls put together a game of sustained brilliance. They began with a set play for the center, the way they used to for Bill Cartwright, and Longley scored on a sweeping hook over the Nuggets’ intimidating Dikembe Mutombo. With Kukoc at small forward instead of the more fluid and improvisational Pippen, the Bulls ran their triangle offense to perfection. It was as if their style of play had gone from Ornette Coleman or Sonny Rollins to Dave Brubeck–or at least mid-60s Miles Davis. On their final possession of the first quarter, Jordan drew a double team out near mid-court and passed on the wing to Kukoc, who immediately passed the ball on to Dennis Rodman, wide-open under the hoop, for the lay-in, giving the Bulls a 32-20 lead.

Kukoc was playing with tremendous confidence, raining threes from his usual spot, to the right-hand side of the arc, and driving the lane to set up teammates for easy hoops. Rodman, of course, had reached a point where he was playing with too much confidence. (He was to be reined in the following night, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.) Some of this playing, such as his tendency after defensive rebounds to flippantly leave his dribble for a trailing teammate–the way a rich man might drop his bags at the curb for a redcap–was eminently entertaining. His tendency, once or twice a game, to take a long offensive rebound out beyond the three-point arc for a wild heave at the basket, was endured good-naturedly by Jackson and the other Bulls, especially when he kept it to moments when the game was in hand. The play of the game, from that perspective, took place late in the third quarter, when Rodman came down with one of those long offensive boards, lined himself up to shoot, and then passed diplomatically across the court to a wide-open Kukoc, who nailed a three to give the Bulls a 76-62 lead and all but put the game away. Rodman saw Kukoc’s shot on line approaching the hoop, lifted his arms, and then went dancing down the court as if he had hit the shot himself–a selfless bit of empathy that really captured the way the Bulls were playing.

With everyone moving up a slot to grab a share of Pippen’s playing time, Steve Kerr, Jud Buechler, and especially Randy Brown all performed well off the bench. Brown, a defensive specialist assigned to keep Abdul-Rauf in check, even contributed ten points, his first double-digit game since joining the Bulls. With five Bulls scoring in double figures, Jordan had a relatively easy time finding open shots and hit 14 of 22 from the field. At one point, the Nuggets were so concerned with stopping everyone else that they left Jordan uncovered, and when was the last time that happened? Kukoc found him, and Jordan hit the shot for a 92-74 lead on the way to a 108-87 final.

When the Bulls first started convincing people they had a shot at 70 wins, along about mid-season, every writer who came around to admitting the possibility felt compelled to add “if they don’t suffer a major injury.” Now, here was Pippen down, and everyone else was flowing into place to fill his role. Kukoc, of course, had sought to start all along, and Kerr’s role as deadeye distance shooter really didn’t change. Yet Buechler was especially impressive: with his solid outside shot and his consistent devotion to duty–night in, night out, he brought the same energy level off the bench–there was something of the naval ensign to his play. Maybe it was the way his high white socks made one think of dress whites. Anyway, all was still going according to plan. Or so it went until Saturday night, when the Bulls’ goal of 70 wins was put in greater jeopardy than ever.

They were in New Jersey to play the Nets, a poor team trying to find its sense of rhythm with a new big man, seven-foot-six-inch center Shawn Bradley. It seemed like a routine game–until Rodman, who had kept himself more or less in control the entire season, got himself thrown out in the first quarter. It was a bogus call made by a team of no-name referees. They called Rodman for a technical foul on a play where he showed a fit of pique after a Jersey basket, hurling the ball in anger, a violation usually considered delay of game, then hit him with a second technical–meaning automatic ejection–after he argued a bad foul call. Rodman then went ballistic, butted the referee with his forehead, stripped off his jersey, stomped on it, and overturned a cooler of fluids behind the Nets bench on his way out.

This behavior eventually produced a six-game suspension from the league, which redoubled the Bulls’ problems pursuing 70 wins. Yet that night they were simply concerned with beating the Nets. The team remained composed–Jackson, in fact, hung his head and laughed out loud after Rodman’s ejection–but they were on the road, without their two starting forwards, with their top backup power forward, rookie Jason Caffey, also out with a sprained hip, and against a fired-up team. Every other team in the NBA would have put this one in the tank and gone on to Philadelphia. Yet, after trailing 52-46 at the half, the Bulls came out determined. They turned up the defensive pressure and clamped down on the Nets. Jordan took it on himself to collapse into the lane and pull down rebounds, amassing a Rodman-esque 16 on the night. That extra expenditure of energy took its toll; while Jordan finished with a game-high 37 points, most of those came early, and he shot miserably in the fourth quarter. Yet Buechler came off the bench to score 11 points in 14 minutes, Kerr added 10, and Bill Wennington–fresh off the injured list himself with bone spurs in his ankles–added a couple of critical jump shots down the stretch. The Bulls took the lead and held it, and Jordan preserved it with four straight free throws in the final minute.

The Bulls’ 97-93 victory was probably the most dramatic win of the season, yet it was overshadowed by all the hooha over Rodman. In fact, Sam Smith’s story in the Tribune the following day spent so much time on Rodman it barely even discussed the game or the outcome.

Still the Bulls had rolled on, without two of their star players and without a proper power forward on the active roster, now needing to finish 13-5 to set the record. By the end of this weekend we should know if they’ll attain it.