If I were a sculptor, I’d use as my subject Michael Jordan, as he appeared during a break in game one of the Eastern Conference final. The Detroit Pistons were beating on Jordan every time he drove into the lane; they were shoving and pushing and even, on more than one occasion, tripping him, trying to send him down onto the court, as if applying the football strategy that, after three quarters of sustained punishment, the athletes most often dealing out the punishment will prevail in the final quarter. Jordan fell hard on the bone of his right hip early on, and after that he seemed to be almost dragging himself through the game. He’d been injured before, and he’d taken shots before, but he’d never before let it show so noticeably. It’s possible he was trying either to psych up his teammates or to draw more attention from the officials as the brawl with the Pistons began–he recovered from these injuries quickly enough to play the rest of the series–but his injured condition seemed real enough. The Tribune ran on its front page the following day a remarkable photo, Jordan in a pose out of the neo-classical sculpture of Lorado Taft. I left it sitting on my desk for the duration of the season, because it seemed to epitomize the series, giving it a tragic dimension.

Jordan has apparently just arrived at the bench. He’s taking up two seats. He’s resting only his right buttock on one of the seats–as if the other were too bruised to sit on–and he’s leaning across to rest his right elbow on the neighboring seat. His head is down, horizontal to the ground, as in Picasso’s Old Guitarist, and his right hand drips lifeless off the edge of the chair. His left hand is resting on his right thigh, offering some support, but his legs are curled back and under the chair, both ankles supine.

The title of the sculpture would be “Hermes in the Midst of his Third Labor With the Detroit Pistons,” because the Bulls, this year, for the third straight time, saw their season end in a series with the Pistons. The Bulls, it seemed, never really got over the feeling of defeat and impending doom that was so present–even via television–in game one, played in Detroit. They came close on a couple of occasions, in games four and six, played in Chicago, but the Pistons–after they won those first two games at home–always seemed to be in command, always seemed to be dictating the pace of the series even if they weren’t in control on that particular day. The series was like a game in which one team opens a big lead, then lets the other team claw back before reasserting itself at the end. The Bulls played up to their potential to tie the series twice, in games four and six, but the Pistons were always ready to regain the lead–and in the case of game seven to win the series–when it mattered.

An objective look at the two teams offered no doubt about which was better: that was one of the things most discouraging about game one. The Pistons were better than the Bulls at center and point guard, and while the Bulls were clearly better than the Pistons at off guard and small forward, the Pistons minimized Jordan’s advantage with Joe Dumars and negated Scottie Pippen’s advantage with Dennis Rodman, the best defensive player in the league. At large forward (neither player deserves the adjective “power”), it was probably a standoff between Horace Grant and Bill Laimbeer.

And that’s just the starting lineups.

The Pistons, with their swift point guard Isiah Thomas and their capable center James Edwards, and with their two best defensive players matching up against the Bulls’ two best offensive players, and, of course, with their deep bench–including John Salley, Mark Aguirre, and Vinnie Johnson (all starters on almost any other NBA team)–still seem to have been created with the lone thought in mind of defeating the Bulls. It probably seems the same to every team in the league. This doesn’t mean the Bulls had no hope of winning the series, but it does mean they were clearly the underdog, more so than any of us would have liked to believe going into the series. Through the early going and throughout the seven-game set, we got a feeling that the Pistons were always better prepared to play their game than the Bulls were. The NBA brand of basketball is so often a game of matchups and hot streaks that it can be seen as simply a matter of percentages. For instance, for the Pistons to beat the Bulls, they needed Thomas to drive consistently on Paxson–a good chance of that happening–and they needed Edwards scoring over Bill Cartwright. If those things occurred, and they did, and then either Dumars or Laimbeer was hitting from the outside, they were pretty much unbeatable. If, in addition, they got an early lead, allowing them to bring Aguirre in off the bench in a position where they needn’t worry too much about his defense, then the Bulls were sunk. (This is what happened in the final game, when the Pistons clawed to a slight lead and sent in Aguirre in a spot where Pippen was too spent to exploit him on defense, and Aguirre went crazy. Then, in the fourth quarter, with the Bulls rallying, back came Aguirre to pad the lead.)

Now, for the Bulls to have succeeded against the Pistons, they needed both Jordan and Pippen to get hot–a doubtful event in Pippen’s case, playing opposite Rodman–and they needed either Cartwright hitting inside or John Paxson hitting outside. They needed Grant knifing in for some offensive rebounds, and they probably needed some adequate bench play–either Stacey King on the inside or Craig Hodges on the outside.

The difference between the two teams was that while the Pistons had a fairly good chance at succeeding at what they had to do to win, the Bulls were always rattling the dice against the odds. What made the series so aggravating is that when things began to go right for the Bulls, everything began to go right–as one might imagine against a complex defensive team like the Pistons. Detroit coach Chuck Daly was ready to give Pippen and Hodges the outside shot. When they were hitting those shots, the Pistons had to extend their defense. That, in turn, opened room for Cartwright and Grant inside, which in turn kept the Pistons from double-teaming Jordan on his drives.

When the Bulls played well, they made it look so easy; they had a chance to win that series. If Hodges had put together two good games, or if Paxson had been healthy and hot for game seven, the Bulls might yet be playing.

Should the Bulls have made a deal at mid-season to bring in a veteran scorer off the bench? No. The cost would have been too high; Jerry Krause was right to stick with the three rookies, in the knowledge that next year–not this year–will probably be the Bulls’ peak season. Can the Bulls improve themselves enough to challenge the Pistons even a year from now? That seems more in doubt now than it did just a month ago, but it’s possible: if King and Will Perdue can improve enough to trim Cartwright’s playing time to a point where, like Edwards, he’s playing in offensive spurts; or if King himself improves enough to claim the starting power-forward post (and if Grant is willing to become a supersub on the level of Detroit’s Salley); or if B.J. Armstrong can give the Bulls a legitimate starting point guard; or if–and here’s some early cold-stove-league speculation–the Bulls can sign Adrian Dantley as a free agent, and if his broken leg is healed enough to allow him to come off the bench as an Aguirre-type dose of instant offense, then the Bulls can challenge the Pistons for league domination next year. But the Philadelphia 76ers will be better after the draft, and the Cleveland Cavaliers will be much better with Danny Ferry, and the teams out west in Portland and Utah will still have those monster centers who give the Bulls so much trouble, and right now that all seems so wearying to contemplate.

This was the season the Bulls became Chicago’s team. With the Bears fading and with the baseball season by nature drawn out and relaxed and relatively moderate in intensity, and even with the Blackhawks on the resurgence and once again filling Chicago Stadium, the Bulls were the toughest ticket in town. This was the first season in years that I didn’t pay my way in at least once to see the Bulls–I couldn’t–which meant, merely, that if I wanted to go see them I had to sit in the press section and act subdued. One of the pleasures of fandom is giving oneself up to the abandon of the moment, to screaming–the way fans of the Blackhawks scream during the national anthem–just for the thrill of hearing one’s voice mixing with myriad others. That pleasure made all the more impression on me this season, when it was denied. I even found myself enjoying the Benny the Bull scoreboard video in which a well-muscled, boxing Benny spars and trains and runs up stairs and leaps against a flag backdrop. And like most fans, I became addicted to Tommy Edwards’s peculiar stresses and intonations during the player introductions (before he left for a radio job in another city). This season, the intensity of the fans caught up with the overproduction of the moment during the intros. The lights going down, the music going up, the spotlights spinning round, all that seemed appropriate, as the cheering rose and sustained itself during the introductions, when each player’s fans gave their own particular timbre to the cheering: Horace Grant (faithful), Scottie Pippen (excited), man in the middle Bill Cartwright (encouraging), John Paxson (appreciative), and, of course, number 23, from North Carolina, Michael Jordan, and everyone is on their feet, and the applause and shouting are pouring down, and I’m sitting behind a table at the far end of the court with the other sports reporters, feeling that applause wash over me, too, and thinking, “Yes, of course, no wonder he can do the things he does. Anyone might be able to if he heard that sound and knew it was meant just for him–even a statue.”