The Bulls’ championship ring presentation ceremony, which took place before last Saturday’s home opener, seemed slightly more self-satisfied this year than last. It had a pace of its own, more of a saunter than a swagger. The public address announcement was muffed at first, catching the Bulls still downstairs in the locker room. When they did begin to emerge, led by the departed Cliff Levingston and Craig Hodges in street clothes, they stepped out, one by one, into the spotlight and trotted or walked–but mostly walked–to center court to receive their rings and congratulations. The fans–the usual 18,676 of them–loved it, of course, but the players seemed to be enjoying it even more, especially the raising of the championship banner, performed by the players themselves. That was the enduring image of the night: those 12 tall men all reaching for the highest spot on the rope to pull it down and elevate the emblem of their achievement. There’s something in the pure pageantry of something so contrived and artificial; that’s what a banner like that is for. I’ll remember the players hoisting it until the day the Chicago Stadium is torn down, which unfortunately will not be long from now.

Yes, self-satisfaction was the mood of the night, shared by the fans; as game time approached, I could actually hear Michael Jordan introduced for the first time in memory. And in the end even a poorly played loss couldn’t diminish that mood, perhaps because the tension of last season’s playoffs–which ended not five months ago–was still fresh, noticeable in its absence. So the Bulls suffered one of their typical early season home losses to an undeserving team, this time the Atlanta Hawks, this time on opening night. So what? There’s plenty of time to worry later–like in May.

Sid Luckman presented the ball for the opening tip-off, and there was something unusually apropos in that. This little bit of ceremony, copped from baseball’s throwing out the first pitch, is normally an unsuccessful translation from one idiom into another. Yet with Luckman it worked. Sid Luckman, after all, I mean, Jesus H. Christ: even for a Chicago sports fan who never saw him play the name is magical. Remember, in the best couplet in “Bear Down, Chicago Bears”–“Never forget the day you thrilled the nation / With your T formation”–it was Luckman who was recruited by George Halas specifically to run that system. And it was Luckman who led the Bears–like the Bulls–to back-to-back championships, in 1940 and ’41, the first in amazing fashion on the road (73-0 over the Washington Redskins), the second impressively at home (37-9 over the New York Giants), so the parallels in choosing him for this occasion were many and valid. Before the game, I couldn’t have said for sure whether he was dead or alive; but there he was, in the flesh, his flattened nose making up for any authenticity lost in the dyeing of his hair. He ambled out to center court and waved to the fans as he walked off, then curled his arm conspiratorially around the attractive Bulls representative ushering him along. May all the members of the Bulls be remembered as fondly years from now.

The Hawks are coached by Bob Weiss, the Bulls’ supersub during the Dick Motta glory years of two decades ago. His introduction went almost unnoticed by the distracted fans, who are usually attuned to local connections, whether they be those of a former Chicago pro player or a local high school or college star. What a difference failing to win a championship makes! Weiss is still bald, of course, but his wide-frame glasses and dressy suits give him a professorial air these days. The Hawks are not expected to be very good this year–they have Dominique Wilkins, looking lean and mean following his rehabilitation from a torn Achilles tendon, and that’s about it–but Weiss had them scrapping and ready to play, and they pulled off the upset.

The Hawks have always had miserable uniforms. Their insignia, which appears on their shorts, is supposed to be a hawk in profile, but it looks more like Pac-Man in mid-chomp. In addition, this season they’ve gone to a typeface on their jerseys that makes them look like cereal boxes. With their orange colors, they might just as well say “WHEATIES” as “HAWKS.” The backs of the Bulls’ uniforms, meanwhile, have an unusually opulent appearance this year; there’s a silky look to the red names and numbers, which perhaps will be lost after they’ve been through the wash a few times.

With each accurate shot slithering its way through fresh nets, and ragged play dictated by inconstant performance, this was what head coach Phil Jackson would later describe as “definitely an opening-type game.” “It wasn’t pretty basketball,” Michael Jordan admitted. The Bulls scored the first six points, and it was a pleasure to again see Jordan and Scottie Pippen out in the open court, cutting toward the basket like two knives being sharpened against one another by a chef. Yet the Bulls soon took to watching and went flat. The Hawks scored the next nine points. After a short-lived rally by the Bulls the Hawks ran off another spurt, with an overlooked Wilkins waltzing right down the lane for a jam, followed by guard Morlon Wiley scooting past the Bulls for a lay-in on the fast break, giving the Hawks a 26-15 lead and actually triggering more than a few boos. How soon they forget.

The second quarter was even worse. The Hawks scored the first 14 points, giving them a 22-point lead at 42-20. Pippen and Jordan were subject to fits and starts, center Bill Cartwright was lost in the ozone, and Horace Grant was playing an uncharacteristic awful game. He was ineffective on offense, and on defense he played a substantial part in allowing the Hawks’ Kevin Willis 16 first-half points and 26 for the game.

So we settled in to examine the new Bulls. Rodney McCray, the ten-year veteran obtained from the Houston Rockets during the off-season, looked ill at ease playing behind Jordan and Pippen at guard and forward. He also was found to resemble Stacey King in his ample caboose and in the grim expression he works onto his face when entering the game. Rookie guard Corey Williams looked cat-quick and excitable in the third quarter; he hit an open jump shot to get the Bulls back to 75-68, then hiked up his shorts and went to intense work on defense; but the Hawks scored the last five points of the quarter to hold the lead at 80-68.

The fourth quarter was sloppy, exciting basketball. Several times Jordan and Pippen rallied the Bulls with steals and pressure defense only to boot the ball away on offense. The Bulls rallied to within three, at 83-80, then watched the Hawks pull back out to 93-84. The Bulls scored the next six points, only to watch the Hawks get back to 98-90. Then the Bulls ran off an impressive nine straight points, taking the lead when their full-court press produced a steal for Grant, who dished it out to Jordan, who, after slowing the tempo, missed a shot. Both Grant and Scott Williams missed tip-in tries before Grant came down with the ball and flicked it out to Pippen, who buried a 20-foot jumper.

Then, however, with just under a minute to play, McCray was called for a stupid foul of Paul Graham, who made both free throws to put the Hawks back in front, 100-99. That’s how it ended. On the Bulls’ last possession, Jordan came down and was stuffed from behind by Wilkins on a last-second shot. “We just didn’t space the floor right, and consequently Michael got his shot blocked,” said Jackson. The referees called a jump ball, and Wilkins–who is Jordan’s equal as a leaper while holding a two-inch advantage on him in height–won the tip with a second left to give Atlanta the win.

The Bulls were unfazed by the loss. “It’s impossible to play well early in the season,” Jackson said, “unless you’ve gone into training camp with total overall running sessions so that your conditioning is so much better than everyone else’s that it stands out.” He said that with a tone of distaste, the way a gourmet might point out that the dinner and salad forks were switched as he sat down for a feast.

Jordan was smiling and relaxed and, it seemed, just happy to be back talking basketball, even if it was analyzing a loss. “I just didn’t anticipate Dominique coming at me,” he said of his last shot. Then he laughingly shrugged off the last jump ball by saying, “I meant to step on his foot.”

Pippen stood up and called out across the locker room, “Who’s got the rings?” On this evening, with a routine reestablished and a full season ahead, that was all that mattered in the end.