There was something of the pomp–and the tedium–of a coronation to the Bulls’ championship-ring ceremony and home opener this month. With its spotlights and repetitive musical fanfares, it was an affair so bombastic it could have been a Leni Riefenstahl production. Yet the crowd was less than ecstatic. “Oh yes, this is how it goes,” the packed house at the United Center seemed to say. “After all, it hasn’t been that long since the last one, not even the four years of a president’s term.” Most of the Bulls, as their names were called one by one, walked slowly out along the carpet through the crowd in the courtside seats to accept their rings and a few congratulatory comments from National Basketball Association commissioner David Stern (lustily booed upon introduction in a gratifying sign of life from the fans) at center court. The exception, of course, was Dennis Rodman, who has his own history with Stern; he trotted out in that distinctive high-stepping gait, grabbed the ring case with his left hand and Stern’s extended hand with his right, and ran on without slowing at all. There was no exchange of pleasantries. Then, after Scottie Pippen, Michael Jordan walked out, slowest of all, taking his time, nodding his head at whatever it was Stern was saying as they clasped and held their handshake.
Later on, talk in the press box was about how Jordan seemed to savor the moment. Now playing on a one-year, $30 million contract, he could make this his final season, his last opportunity to accept a championship ring in uniform. Then again, maybe Jordan will play several more seasons, and his slow pace was meant simply to conserve energy for the game to follow. But whether Jordan treasured the moment we certainly did, and the ceremony reminded us of what has made Jordan and the Bulls a uniquely rewarding sports experience in this sports-crazy town since his comeback. We had Jordan in his prime, and then we lost him, and when he came back we had him again, but now with a heightened appreciation for the marvelous feats only Jordan and these Bulls can perform. It’s the way we ought to watch everything and the way we watch so few things in these hectic times, when leisure pursuits have multiplied to the point where there’s no real leisure left.
The Bulls invoke our sense of aesthetic appreciation, which is in part a danger, as the temptation is to frame each moment like a painting in an art gallery–fine for sportswriters in the press box and TV viewers at home, but less than what’s expected from a partisan crowd. For most of the night this audience sat placidly with arms crossed. Its attitude of calm contentment couldn’t be spoiled, not even when the championship banner got caught on a rafter during its slow ascension to the top of the arena. Spirits were so high and confident that no one would read that as an omen; the muddled banner was discreetly pulled up into the catwalk and returned a few minutes later, pristine and wrinkle free, to its proper spot. By then all eyes were back on the Bulls.
In many ways the home opener, which was against the Philadelphia 76ers, was a typical November NBA contest. The passing was erratic, and players of both teams missed easy shots under the basket. Yet the real Bulls showed through. Triggering a play that’s becoming a staple of the Bulls in the early season, Ron Harper hit Jordan with a long pass after a rebound. It wasn’t a perfect pass: Jordan had to perform his best Lynn Swann imitation as he leaped to catch it over his shoulder. Yet when Jordan came down he executed a neat dipsee doo around the ‘Sixer defender and jammed the ball through the hoop. Jordan had his distinctive stop-and-pop shot going, as well as a freshly honed scissors-step start to his dribble. (As the world knows by now, Jordan lost weight and added muscle over the off-season so that his legs might be fresher come playoff time; he looks even more lithe and explosive now than he did a year ago–a terrifying thought to the rest of the league.) The Bulls led 27-17 at the quarter, but it wasn’t until Steve Kerr threw up a perfect two-on-one fast-break alley-oop pass to Pippen that the Bulls as a team finally executed a crisp play. That made the score 41-31. Moments later Toni Kukoc pulled down a rebound flat-footed, and as he was falling backward he heaved a two-handed overhead bounce pass through traffic to Pippen, who hurried the ball up and sent it to Harper for a three-point play on the fast-break basket, foul, and free throw.
Pippen performed the coup de grace right before halftime. The Bulls as usual managed the clock for a final shot. Pippen drove, put up a layup, and was fouled. The shot dropped, and so did his free throw. The ‘Sixers tried to heave the ball up court for one last shot. Pippen intercepted the pass near half-court, dribbled toward the three-point line, and sank the shot at the buzzer. Six Bulls points in the last 2.2 seconds, and a 62-38 lead at the half: the game was over.
We spent the second half studying the ‘Sixers’ fleet and promising rookie point guard, Allen Iverson, the six-foot (in his dreams, maybe) sprite who was the top pick in the college draft this summer after leaving Georgetown following his sophomore season. Like many younger players, he has taken Jordan’s baggy uniform look to extremes. His shorts hang down to just above the knees, and when he leaves his jersey untucked he seems to swirl around the court like some sort of Arabian swashbuckler. He’s going to be a good player, but for now he has the typical rookie point-guard tendency to drive the ball too far under the hoop where he has no shot and the defense can collapse on him, denying him the pass. He had a team-high five turnovers for the game.
Jordan dropped a three-pointer on the ‘Sixers with a little of his one-hopping, hand-held-high, wrist-flexed body English to push the score to 75-49, and the final was 115-86. Philadelphia’s Jerry Stackhouse, the team’s whippersnapper phenom last year, was never a factor. He added his 9 points to Iverson’s 15, both on 4-of-13 shooting. Jordan had 27, Pippen 22, and Harper, who calmly pumped in four three-pointers in the first quarter alone, finished with 19.
The Bulls romped through the first two weeks of the NBA schedule at 6-0, the best start in franchise history. Coach Phil Jackson attributed it to the Bulls being a veteran team–virtually intact from the season before–that fell rapidly into its routine. The Bulls did things automatically that other teams were still thinking about. This showed most obviously in the large number of baskets scored on long passes, as members of the Bulls ran out on the fast break while other teams forgot to get back and play defense.
Yet Jackson’s explanation doesn’t give the Bulls enough credit. It especially minimizes the contributions of Jackson himself and of Jerry Krause, the general manager who put the team together. As we watched the Bulls, at the home opener and later on TV, we kept marveling at what a talented team they are–talented not in the usual sense of being great leapers and fast runners (so-called natural athletes), but in their basketball sense. Krause has put together a team of players with exceptional court sense. When the Bulls are playing well and the opponents are playing poorly, as was the case against the ‘Sixers, every long rebound seems to fall into Bulls hands. Backup guards Kerr, Randy Brown, and Jud Buechler, who kept corralling those rebounds, were all picked up as free agents by Krause, who outbid what little competition there was for their services. Yet all three are important pieces of the team, expertly deployed by Jackson.
Jackson’s coaching came to the forefront last week against the Detroit Pistons. The Pistons, like the Bulls, entered the game undefeated. Doug Collins appears to have done a good job of rebuilding the team around talented small forward Grant Hill. Yet the team does not have a true center, so the Bulls came out pounding the ball down low to Luc Longley. He scored 16 points in the first quarter, and the Pistons grew so preoccupied with guarding him that they neglected the perimeter. At the end of the game Longley was still stuck at 16 points, but Pippen and Kukoc had also scored that many while Jordan “chipped in” 15. The Bulls had won 98-80 and it was comically easy, in the manner of those Three Stooges routines where Moe hits Curly in the belly, Curly covers his stomach, Moe hits him in the face, Curly covers his head, then his stomach, then his head, and so on.
The best and most convincing victory for the Bulls in the first two weeks involved Jordan and a mental challenge. It was a grudge match against the Miami Heat, who lost to the Bulls in a first-round sweep in last season’s playoffs. The Heat of course are coached by Pat Riley and led by center Alonzo Mourning, both longtime nemeses of the Bulls, and they were ready. The Bulls were playing the second of back-to-back games, having come from Chicago after beating the Vancouver Grizzlies the night before. The Heat took control early, leading 30-19 at the end of the first quarter and opening a 15-point lead early in the second. Yet the Bulls showed flashes of brilliance even then, including a spear-it-and-dunk-it one-handed alley-oop jam by Jordan, who clearly was feeling sharp. As in the ‘Sixers game, the Bulls ended the first half with a rush and a flourish. Again they worked the clock down for a final shot–a Pippen three-pointer, good. Again the opponents forced a long pass trying to get a final shot. This time Jordan intercepted it, dribbled quickly toward the three-point line, and sank a jumper. In the final minutes of the half the Heat had not only blown their 15-point lead but had seen the Bulls go from two points down to four up, 57-53.
Sometimes it doesn’t seem fair.
Jordan quashed the Heat’s spirit–what was left of it–with the first addition of the season to his career highlight film. He faked the Heat’s Sasha Danilovic, easily enough accomplished, and drove the baseline. At the free throw lane he was met by Mourning. Jordan went up, turned his back to the basket, absorbed the contact–and there was plenty of it–with his body, and tossed the ball blind up over his head. It bounced twice off the rim and dropped benignly through the net. Jordan, well aware that this was an all-time keeper, walked around nodding his head, his lower lip hanging out, then sank the free throw to give the Bulls a 67-53 lead. Moments later he faked Danilovic with his patented palmed-ball pass, drove into a double-team at the free throw line, leaped, and knocked the shot down as Danilovic slapped his forearm. Again Jordan added the free throw, making it 72-56, and the Bulls coasted home to a 106-100 victory. Jordan finished with 50, and after almost every basket he trotted past Riley shaking his head or otherwise finding ways to aggravate the coach.
After the home opener writers at the news conference were already asking Jackson if the regular season was even necessary. Jackson responded that it would be his duty and the players’ to guard against complacency. The Bulls have accomplished that so far, but fans must guard against the same.
So let the season drag on, through each timeless moment. Clear spaces on the walls of the mind. The Bulls are back in action creating masterpieces. For people lucky enough to score a ticket however, remember to cheer now and then. A player, after all, is not a painting.