The Bulls own the Bucks, but while the Bucks dominate the Pistons, the Pistons can’t lose to the Bulls. The Knicks can’t be beaten at home, but neither can the Cavaliers, and they win frequently on the road as well. The Celtics are crippled, but who’s to say they can’t knock off anybody if they can get Larry Bird back and adjusted to the new team?
As the National Basketball Association season heads toward the stretch, the jockeying for play-off position is more important this year than it has been in the recent past. With the descent of the Boston Celtics and the weakening of the Los Angeles Lakers, the league’s two powers are suddenly mortal. While baseball and football fans sometimes bemoan parity and the lack of a dominant dynasty to root both for and against, the concept of parity wears well in basketball–maybe because in the NBA parity means 17 teams of relatively equal strength and eight lambs that share time traveling from place to place sacrificing themselves for the home crowd. The decline of the Celtics and Lakers has not hurt the league but helped it: the NBA is enjoying a renaissance, led by the large number of star players and the increasing number of intelligent coaches who are able to elicit team play from talent that–in the past–has tended toward weedy if fecund disorganization. The league appears, sometimes, to be in the midst of another golden age.
Now if they can only get the referees to do for traveling what baseball umpires did for balks last year.
The Bulls, of course, are not the best team in the league, but they may well be the most interesting. With two developing sophomore players starting at forward, and with a new starting center forcing the team to adopt new ways this season, the Bulls are a team of uncertainties, and it’s the uncertainties that make them fascinating. Watching the Bulls struggle through the early going, peak out with a six-game win streak in January, fall back in early February, and, most recently, complete another five-game streak has been like watching the quick development of a promising young athlete. In the NBA–famous for games in which 46 minutes of boredom leads to two minutes of excitement, and for seasons that trudge aimlessly toward the play-offs, in which everyone eventually loses to either the Celtics or the Lakers–it’s also been a revelation.
The Bulls are intriguing as individuals as well. There are old, familiar players in new, smaller roles–Dave Corzine and John Paxson–brand-new players in important roles–Craig Hodges and Charles Davis–and relatively new players facing entirely new responsibilities–Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen. Of course, there’s Michael. And there are scapegoats old and new–Brad Sellers and Bill Cartwright. Sellers’s tall, slight, ambling appearance–the shuffling gait and frequently untucked shirt that make him seem, sometimes, like a heroin addict brought in off the street to fill out a pickup game, the Bill Burroughs of the basketball court–has helped single him out as a fan target. Cartwright, meanwhile, like Sellers, is studied in his graces and frequently uncoordinated in his actions. With his big, gangly rebounding style he should have a nickname like “Legs Akimbo” Cartwright (or, some NBA players would no doubt testify, “Elbows Akimbo”). Both players, however, are personal favorites. I love the flustered, harried, effective defense the seven-foot-tall Sellers plays against small forwards like Dominique Wilkins: knees bent, weight back, arms outstretched and flailing, he has the attitude of an old man seated in a car trying to deal with heavy traffic. And Cartwright’s shooting mechanism is unique and effective without having a hint of elegance. He shoots the ball like a weapon, his wrist clicking into position like the hammer of a gun. Sellers is not Johnny Dawkins, and Cartwright is not Charles Oakley, and if that’s a problem for some fans it’s also, unfortunately, become something they have to deal with. For the most part, they do.
The job of molding this group into a team falls on coach Doug Collins. Thin and fragile as a player, Collins as a coach is even thinner and more drawn. (When Mike Ditka suffered his heart attack last fall, TV crews went out to interview Collins, and he spoke about the Bears’ coach in the manner of a sore-armed pitcher who’s just watched another veteran clean out his locker.) He’s emotional on the sidelines without being overly so, and as a tactician he appears to be–like the team–still developing. After the games, having changed out of his suit into a comfortable shirt and pants, he addresses reporters’ questions while leaning on a podium set in front of a large drapery adorned with the Bulls’ logo. His voice is hoarse, he shows impatience with dumb questions, but occasionally he responds with a dry sense of humor, as when one reporter asked him what he hoped to achieve on a west-coast road trip and he said, “Win. Fucking win.”
By last Friday’s home game against the Houston Rockets, the Bulls had settled into a good streak just at a critical time. In the fourth game of a punishing five-day workweek, they had also put together a four-game winning streak. The Bulls’ usual practice is to win games by a point or two while losing games by wide margins, but in this one they played solidly, survived a dry period in the third quarter, and took control in the final frame to win 106-97. Corzine drew the start against the man Collins refers to as “the best center in the game today,” Hakeem Olajuwon, in spite of Cartwright’s return from a calf injury, because, Collins reasoned, “I didn’t know how many minutes [Cartwright] could play.” The Rockets’ strategy was demonstrated in their first possession, as they got the ball in to Olajuwon for a quick basket. Yet Corzine went right down to the other end and hit an open jump shot, then hustled downcourt on the fast break to follow a missed layup by Jordan, and then–with the Bulls’ offense sputtering like an old car in the morning–as the 24-second shot clock was about to run out, he picked up a loose ball outside the three-point line and put it in. He’d scored the first seven points for the Bulls and gotten them off their mark. On defense, the Bulls collapsed to double-team Olajuwon whenever he got the ball, and they went on a run to take a 12-point lead.
Of course they squandered it, allowing the Rockets to draw within five at the half, and then in the third quarter they actually fell behind. Collins later said the team just went flat and looked tired, saying, “When we do that we play ugly. We come out and we stand and we watch.” Jordan needed a rest and sat down as the Bulls watched the Rockets take a four-point lead into the fourth quarter. Returning, however, Jordan led the Bulls back; when he rises out of a crowd toward the basket, the red wristband on his forearm appears like a flag leading a line of troops into battle. “I’m bringing all the attention to myself and kicking off to these guys to make the shots,” he later said. He did just that as he twice drove the lane, drew triple coverage, and dished off outside to Pippen, who made the open shots with ease. After miserable shooting through the first three quarters, Pippen had 14 in the fourth. “That shows maturity,” Jordan said, continuing, “I’m not saying we’re there yet, but we’re looking pretty good. Everybody’s making shots down the stretch, no one guy is carrying the team. The chemistry seems to be just right, what we want it to be right now.”
The game that had helped establish this chemistry had taken place a week before. It was a contest against the Milwaukee Bucks that the Bulls really had no business winning, and yet they did so, in a manner that set Jordan off like a skyrocket. The team was coming off a miserable performance at home against the Atlanta Hawks, whom they must catch if they have any hope of earning a home-court advantage in the play-offs. The same situation goes for the Bucks, a team of lesser talents than the Bulls who have gotten out in front of them in the standings by playing a sturdy, workmanlike game of basketball and not losing the odd game to the Charlotte Hornets. “We needed this win desperately,” Collins later said. “We needed this game to regenerate ourselves.” Yet he correctly described the Bulls’ early play as “listless,” saying, “Everybody was looking for somebody else. Scottie Pippen in the first half played 16 minutes and took two shots. I don’t care if he misses 20 shots, if he doesn’t shoot he might as well sit down next to me and as Dick Vitale says become an assistant coach.” They were down 53-45 at the half.
The Bulls came out more intense in the second half, and while Pippen missed his first three shots, he nevertheless kept scrapping. The Bucks kept working their set half-court offense, with role player Larry Krystkowiak cutting to the basket, old DePaul star Terry Cummings taking his picture-perfect turnaround jumper, and even center Jack Sikma hitting from three-point range. They pushed their lead out to 86-74, with Jordan being called for an offensive foul along the way. As Sikma shot the free throws and the rest of the players stood orderly along the lane, Jordan stalked the floor downcourt like someone locked outside the house during dinner.
Cartwright went out with a pulled calf muscle, giving the Bulls’ weak half-court offense even more problems. Throughout the game, when they pulled close it was done in spurts, through a tough defense and a sharp running game that exploited their advantage in speed. Collins, realizing this, teamed Corzine with his big lineup of Sellers and Grant at forwards and Jordan and Pippen at guards. Jordan describes the strategy as an “opened floor, to make for isolation, make things happen. That was the primary offense in the fourth quarter. And he stuck with it. It’s another way of telling me to make things happen. The inside game was not there with Bill being out. And we found something that was working and they couldn’t actually stop it.”
The Bulls drew within two, at 108-106, but then the Bucks scored the next six points, to seemingly put the game away. The Bulls, however, scored the next seven, with the help of two missed free throws by Tony Brown, but even then the Bucks responded as Jordan fouled Sikma, who put his free throws down to give Milwaukee a 116-113 lead with 15 seconds to play.
Let me repeat: the Bulls managed to win this game regardless, in regulation.
Pippen found an open invitation to drive to the hoop, but the basket still left the Bulls a point short. After a time-out, the Bulls were ready with a tough inbounds defense, and the Bucks threw the ball away. In a fateful attempt to save a sloppy pass, Cummings slapped the ball back in, but to Pippen. Jordan describes the event with his usual pith: “Scottie saved the ball and my mind just clicked to move it upcourt and get a shot.” Jordan hit an 18-footer with a second left to give the Bulls the lead and the game. His response was as amazing as the shot: he leapt five feet into the air, and with his fist threw a haymaker at nothing.
After the game, surrounded by reporters crowded into the back of his locker, he was asked about this uncharacteristic display. Cool and rational, he said simply, “Well, we really needed the game, you know.”