There was a time when I would drive to a Bulls game playing the Jungle Brothers’ Done by the Forces of Nature on the car stereo. It was jumping yet thought-provoking hip-hop–music to thrash the Detroit Pistons by. Last week I drove to the United Center playing My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless. One of my favorite albums of the 90s, it’s dissonant, wispy, ethereal, and mind numbing–music to be anesthetized by. It turned out to be the perfect choice.
One has to erase all memory of the championship Bulls to appreciate the current incarnation of the team. The Bulls seem to understand this; they’ve done away with the championship-era highlight reel they used to put on the scoreboard TV before introducing the starting lineups. Unfortunately, this month Scottie Pippen finally returned to town with the Portland Trail Blazers, and the Bulls responded in diplomatic fashion with a lights-out introduction and a short, career-comprising big-screen video–set appropriately to Green Day’s ironic kiss-off, “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”–that refreshed all the old memories. Not coincidentally, the game that followed was the low point of the Bulls’ season so far.
Pippen aroused memories of his own on the floor. He finished with a very humble line in the box score–11 points on five-of-nine shooting, with six assists and three rebounds–but as usual it was how he made the players around him better that served as his main contribution. The Blazers played a swarming, double-teaming defense inside that seemed constructed by Pippen courtesy of his mentor, former Bulls assistant coach Johnny Bach. On offense, he typically drew a double team and found the open man. Just before the half, Pippen stung the Bulls with one of his classic ploys. Catching a long fast-break pass just to the side of the basket, he was blocked by the Bulls’ Corey Benjamin. Pippen dribbled out, apparently to wait for his teammates to set up the half-court offense, then spun down the baseline past Benjamin for a lay-in and a foul from Chicago rookie Ron Artest. Pippen completed the three-point play for a 47-28 Portland lead at the half. In the second half he executed the coup de grace, circling wide on the dribble, drawing the Bulls’ attention, and then throwing up an effortless alley-oop pass to Rasheed Wallace, who put Portland ahead 62-37.
The Bulls lost 88-63, and it’s how they lost that was discouraging. They took defeat in stride, letting the Blazers cruise down the lane for slam dunks with nary a hard foul. The game lowered the Bulls’ record to an abysmal 2-26, putting them well on the way to a new record for fewest victories in an 82-game National Basketball Association season only four years after they set the record for most victories with 72. As promising as rookies Artest and Elton Brand have been from time to time, it seemed what they were learning was mostly how to lose.
Fortunately, the Bulls still have one player who can make his teammates look better. Toni Kukoc returned from two months on the injured list with back spasms and in their next game led the Bulls to a 77-66 victory over the Washington Wizards, halting an 11-game skid. Then the Bulls went to Washington and beat the Wizards again, 110-103, their first 100-point game of the season. Kukoc scored 33 and passed out ten assists as four other Bulls scored in double figures, including Brand and Artest. Back home, the Bulls beat the Boston Celtics in convincing fashion, 96-79, Kukoc scoring 23 with eight assists, Brand scoring 26 with 14 rebounds, and Artest chipping in another 14 points. What’s made it so difficult to gauge Brand and Artest’s progress this season is that they’ve been surrounded by players too unskilled to allow the rookies to demonstrate what they’re learning. Bringing out the best in others has always been Kukoc’s forte–his nickname back in the European leagues was “the waiter,” for his way of dishing the ball to teammates–and Kukoc made an immediate difference in the Bulls. That’s the amazing thing about basketball and its chemistry–a single player can have more impact on a team than in any other sport because he can transform the players around him.
The Bulls returned to Chicago last Friday to play the Atlanta Hawks as the news broke that Michael Jordan was exploring buying a piece of the Wizards and taking over the team as general manager. This seemed a rash and excessive reaction by Jordan to the no doubt irritating spectacle of seeing the Wizards lose twice to a team he didn’t play for any longer, but there’s no denying his competitive instincts, as Chicago fans well know. Me, I was inured against anguished memories of Jordan by the feedback-heavy rock and roll in my car (the aforementioned My Bloody Valentine), and I arrived ready to concentrate on the game and the Bulls. At first, the Bulls repaid that attention, even though they’d had their three-game winning streak snapped earlier in the week by the New York Knicks. (The Knicks opened a big lead, but then the Bulls–in marked contrast to their surrender to the Blazers–threw a fourth-quarter scare into the Knicks’ scrubeenies before falling 95-88.) Whether driving into the lane or in the low post, Kukoc found ways to distribute the ball to his teammates. Artest and especially Brand got off to good starts. Brand scored by ducking under the veteran shot blocker, Dikembe Mutombo, and danced down the court pumping his fist and all but shouting, “I did it! I did it!” Later, he would bump, bull, and bounce his way off Mutombo before hitting a sweet fadeaway jumper that trickled in in his trademark fashion. (Brand’s buckets seem to hop on the rim like a circus clown before falling through the hoop.) Dickey Simpkins, by contrast, found the lane open, drove to the hoop, and was so intimidated when Mutombo stepped in his way that he meekly passed outside to a covered shooter. (Not to put too fine a point on it, but when the Bulls get serious about being competitive again, Simpkins has to be the first player to go.) But the Bulls got some good play at center from Chris Anstey, yet another project, a 25-year-old seven-footer from Australia who has only been playing basketball a few years, and led 44-39 at the half. Artest was doing a good job on defense helping out against the Hawks’ high scorer, Isaiah Rider, and the Hawks, at 12-21, weren’t all that threatening to begin with.
Things quickly went bad in the second half. The Hawks spurted to tie the game at 51. Bulls coach Tim Floyd called a time-out and inserted Dedric Willoughby at point guard, but the immediate result was a 24-second violation. The Bulls, to a man, looked worried. (Artest has a particularly bad poker face; his eyebrows seem to fold back like a cat’s ears.) “Here we go again,” they seemed to say. By the end of the third quarter the Hawks had grabbed a 65-57 lead and seemed to have the game in hand.
In the fourth quarter, however, Floyd found some chemistry with a lineup of Anstey, Brand, Kukoc, Artest, and Matt Maloney, who just happens to be the answer to my buddy Bonnie’s question of earlier in the week: “Who’s the cute new guy on the Bulls?” Maloney is a third-year NBA player out of Penn, slow-footed but heady, just the sort of guy general manager Jerry Krause loves, and when the Houston Rockets cut him loose, Krause pounced on him. Personally, I think he looks like a jock version of Tony Dow from Leave It to Beaver, but we all have our own concepts of cuteness, and I like the way he patrols the court, neck stiff and head held high like an up-periscope submarine. On joining the Bulls he immediately played a key role in the latter two of their three straight victories, and he’s a proper point guard, something the team has lacked even when B.J. Armstrong and Randy Brown are healthy, which they haven’t been. Unfortunately, he was suffering through a terrible night against the Hawks and couldn’t hit a shot–until he finally sank a three-pointer to make it 79-75 Atlanta with just under four minutes to go. Kukoc, Brand, and Artest were all doing their usual things, Anstey was displaying sudden agility at the boards and a shooting eye from outside, and when Maloney hit, he seemed to complete a circuit. The Bulls had a chance. Kukoc, isolated, scored to pull the Bulls within two at 81-79, but then was stripped on the next possession while driving for the tying hoop. Moments later he missed a three-point basket that would have put the Bulls in front with 90 seconds to go. The Bulls’ slowness showed, they couldn’t get defensive stops, and the Hawks eked out an 89-83 win. The same thing happened the following night, when the Bulls rallied and had a chance to beat the Houston Rockets but couldn’t get the stops they needed. In the last minute they finally did, but twice Maloney inexplicably lost track of his teammates and went one-on-one with his defender. Perhaps he was trying too hard to play the hero against his old mates, but in any case he missed both shots. The Rockets prevailed, 93-90, and the Bulls fell to 5 and 29.
For all their defensive liabilities, Anstey, Brand, Kukoc, Artest, and Maloney showed promise, and if I were Floyd I’d give them a chance to develop more chemistry together with abundant floor time, perhaps even as the starters. If there’s one thing Kukoc reminded Bulls fans of on his return, it’s that in basketball the win-loss record is perhaps the worst way to gauge development. Young players like Brand and Artest can show progress even as their team keeps losing, thanks to the gaping holes at other spots. Right now it’s development, not wins, the Bulls must look for.
If that sounds blasphemous to Bulls fans who can’t forget the six championships (those “fair-weather, front-running” fans the team now disdains in its TV ads), the key is studied detachment. On my way out of the United Center after the loss to the Hawks, I steered clear of the Michael Jordan statue, only to look up and find the temperature reading on the parking-lot sign to be an accursed 23 degrees.
Damn! Caught myself remembering again. Quick, Watson, My Bloody Valentine!