It doesn’t do justice to the intense passions involved between the Bulls and the Detroit Pistons to call their series of battles over the past few years a rivalry. The Bulls and the Pistons–and their fans, across the country–have developed such hatred for one another, such conflicting styles, strategies, and criteria, that theirs is the sort of enmity found only in the high-pitched emotional traumas of classical tragedy. If the Bulls’ second annual five-game victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round of the playoffs was simply putting a younger brother–a younger, more emotional, but less experienced and, in the end, a mite lazy sibling–back in his place, then moving on to the third annual conference title series against the Pistons was, at least in the minds of the Bulls and their fans, like fighting for the conscience and direction of the family. The Bulls have prepared for this series from the earliest point of the season as if it were ordained by fate; they begged to meet the Pistons even after Detroit fell behind the Boston Celtics 2-1 in their second-round series; and in the end, after the Pistons won the next three in a row to advance, the Bulls embarked on the series with a steely and almost chilling sense of purpose. They were out to slay the father: no more, no less.
The Pistons have dominated the National Basketball Association for two seasons and have intimidated the league for longer than that. They are aging, however, and they saw their record decline this season thanks to injuries and inconsistent spurts. Yet anyone who doubted their ability need only have tuned in to their last three games with the Celtics. The Pistons got back into the series with a win at home after losing the previous game in Detroit, they pulled ahead with an upset in Boston Garden, and they dismissed the Celts with an overtime victory at home last Friday. Isiah Thomas, back from a wrist injury and suffering from hamstring problems, rallied the Pistons with two incredible shots in overtime: one, a desperate three-pointer off the backboard as the 24-second shot clock was about to expire, the other a long jumper just inside the three-point line, off-balance, on the dribble, and clutch all the way. The old man had a buzz on and the belt off and was advancing on Chicago with but one day’s rest to once again show who was boss.
Yet where the Pistons have watched their talents diminish over the past year, the Bulls have watched theirs mature. Their main hopes for turning the tables on the Pistons were based on home-court advantage, but also on the newfound talents that allowed them to claim that home-court advantage in the first place–the developing abilities of Horace Grant and, even more so, Scottie Pippen, and the sudden maturation of bench players B.J. Armstrong and Will Perdue. As the series began, Bulls fans had to believe that the Pistons would be unprepared for just how good Pippen has become, that Armstrong would finally overcome the hero worship he’s displayed in the past whenever placed on the same court as Thomas, and that Perdue would simply but absolutely catch the Pistons by surprise. In the first game last Sunday at the Stadium, that is exactly what happened.
The Bulls, as usual, came out quickly. The Pistons, as one might expect, looked a little flat and weary. The Bulls forged a 20-8 lead by changing their defense each time the Pistons got the ball and by displaying an almost cavalier attitude concerning who would be guarding Bill Laimbeer from moment to moment. The Bulls led 24-13 at the quarter and 45-37 at the half, after longtime Bulls-killer Vinnie “the Microwave” Johnson had his usual hot streak.
The larger meaning of the game wasn’t lost on anyone; it couldn’t have been. This is not mere rivalry that the media are expected to hype; this is a battle for the future of the sport. Michael Jordan made that point both on the court and in an interview played during the NBC broadcast: he displayed an uncharacteristic willingness to mix it up orally and physically with the Pistons’ Dennis Rodman and Mark Aguirre, and he told a television interviewer that the Pistons had intimidated the league for years with their style of play and that the discouraging thing was that other teams were now emulating the Pistons’ roughness. Jordan was out to prove nothing less than that his artistic, creative, improvisational style was the way basketball was meant to be played.
The Bulls may not share those convictions to a man, but throughout the season and throughout the playoffs they seemed unified enough when it came to how they were to approach basketball in general and beating the Pistons in particular. The formula for success included not getting into side scrapes with the opposing teams, jawing at the referees only as much as was necessary to get a fair shake, and–in the end–simply playing basketball. The funny thing about the first game with the Pistons was that after Jordan led the way in the first half he went flat in the third period, when he did not score, and others had to carry the game along with their reliance on their natural basketball skills.
Pippen all but blew the Pistons off the court. Where Jordan had made his points about how the Bulls were going to bury the Pistons explicitly in the first half, Pippen made the same points implicitly in the third quarter. He wore a stoic expression. He took the open shot and hit it when it was given him. At all other times he took the ball straight to the hoop. When he was fouled and didn’t get the call, he picked himself up, went back to the other end, and stole the ball.
The Pistons rallied behind Johnson and Aguirre, and even pulled ahead at 61-60 on an Aguirre three-pointer, but the Bulls’ bench put together an 11-2 run. Perdue hit a lean-in basket from just inside the free-throw line; Armstrong stepped into the wake of a Pistons’ double-team on Pippen and hit an open shot; Craig Hodges sank a three-pointer. Jordan returned early in the fourth quarter with the Bulls having reclaimed the lead, and he protected it with his basketball skills for a 94-83 victory.
A few final words about the Sixers’ Charles Barkley: I love to watch him play. Moody as he is, it is clear in every second he is on the court that he loves to play basketball. He should be the first person chosen for the 1992 U.S. Olympic basketball team for that reason and because he epitomizes the strengths and the excesses of the U.S. citizen. Over 100 years ago, Mark Twain and Henry James staked out their literary turf with depictions of U.S. citizens abroad. The American was naive, forthright, fresh, and uncynical. Barkley displays the modern-day equivalents of those qualities. He is brash, emotional, rude, unfettered, and exuberant. The whole world should see him play. He is the contemporary American, love him or leave him.
In the interest of equal time–and in the interest of not dwelling on disappointments–I caught up with both the Cubs and the White Sox last week in the Windy City Classic, played for the first time at Bill Veeck Stadium. Neither team performed particularly well in the first month and a half of the season, so the annual exhibition game was a good place to get reacquainted with them: everyone would play, if only for an inning or two, and there would be plenty of minor-league phenoms around to revive a general interest in baseball.
The White Sox starter Bob Wickman was the most-impressive phenom. Up from Class A, he struggled in the first inning, allowing three hits, but got out of the frame without being scored on and went on to shut out the Cubs for all six innings he pitched. Still, I can’t say he looked ready to join the White Sox. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff; he simply pitched well and within himself. And the Cubs were as apathetic about this exhibition game as they have been in the real games.
The Windy City Classic isn’t much of a ball game, never has been. What it is, first and foremost, is a chance for the fans on one side of town to see how the other half lives. I think, year in and year out, the Cubs fans outnumber the Sox fans in games played on the south side, and vice versa. It was especially true last week, as Cubs fans came down for their first look at the Veeck.
I got my first look at the Veeck’s home-run fireworks. The Sox have a team based on strong pitching, built by Larry Himes to play in Comiskey Park, and they’ve struggled at the Veeck, which seems already to be establishing itself as a hitter’s park. I hadn’t yet seen a White Sox homer in the new stadium until Cory Snyder hit one in the second. The fireworks are comparable to Comiskey’s, but they seem so much less festive at the Veeck for some reason, without the natural boundaries of the upper deck of the bleachers. (The fireworks at Comiskey always seemed to have to work so hard to get up above the upper deck.)
Since it didn’t matter who won or lost, the Cubs’ biggest problem this season–the ineptitude of their now banished manager–didn’t come into play. In the first game of the season, Don Zimmer allowed Danny Jackson to hit for himself late in a close game, then Jackson went out and had to be removed the next inning anyway as the Cubs lost. Last week, I saw the Cubs blow a twin of that game, as Shawn Boskie walked a tightrope for six innings, allowing 13 base runners but only two runs, before Zimmer allowed him to lead off the bottom of the sixth. Boskie, of course, made an out, the Cubs scored a run in spite of spotting the Atlanta Braves an out, to close to within a run of the lead, but then Boskie gave up a home run to the first batter he faced in the seventh and was removed. The Cubs went on to lose.
A friend said after opening day that Zimmer would cost the Cubs ten games this season with his managing. It appears the Cubs’ front office was just as apprehensive. But Zimmer can’t be held responsible for the 7-2 loss to the White Sox.