Last weekend, in our circle, two questions were asked more than any others. One was, “What’s wrong with the Bears?” The other, “What’s wrong with the Bulls?” As the Bulls played only their first and second games of the season on Friday and Saturday, this reflects how absurdly high expectations are this year; nothing short of the National Basketball Association championship will do. Yet the Bulls have two rookies on the roster, and a third–now on the bench with an injury–who probably will come back to shake things up just when everyone else is settling into a nice groove. The Bulls are relying on a backup center who is little more than a rookie, and their new starting point guard–while he is one of the leaders on the team in seniority–is their old backup shooting guard, shifted across the court to move Michael Jordan out of the point guard position, where he functioned so well but under so much duress in the pressure-packed days of the playoffs last spring. Not to be forgotten is that the Bulls also have a new coach running the entire show. This team, talented as it is–and it won every one of its exhibition games–is a long way from developing the sort of chemistry that leads to NBA championships.
While it’s nice to have three rookies around–especially when they’re all first-round picks–the biggest change for the Bulls since last spring is their new coach. Phil Jackson is a knowledgeable basketball man and a pleasant person, and while the former quality doesn’t do much to distinguish him from the departed Doug Collins, the latter certainly does. Jackson deals well with the press; when he smiles, which he does fairly often, his eyes squint and crow’s-feet shoot out toward the corners of his face almost like rays of light. Collins, on the other hand, was capable of ridiculing stupid questions (something I always sort of liked him for, actually); he had a driven personality and a pale complexion–as if his brain were draining all the blood from his face–on and off the court. He knows his basketball, however, as Jackson does (both are former players who earned reputations as thinking athletes), and while it’s too early to judge Jackson as a bench coach, the book is closed and ready for examination on Collins. After all, he took the Bulls to the NBA semifinals last season.
After Collins was fired last summer, shortly after the NBA draft, he became the subject of more rumors than Oprah Winfrey. It seemed that there had to be something in his personal life that dictated the move. Why else would general manager Jerry Krause fire him? Hadn’t he taken the Bulls as far as they’d ever gone before in their history? There may or may not have been something unusual in Collins’s personal life, but that’s not the reason a successful coach gets fired (unless, a la Billy Martin, his personal life leads him to start punching out his players). For anyone who knew the Bulls and how they operate, the move was an obvious one and a long time coming. Collins was a driven man who took games one at a time and expected to win every one. (My favorite quote of his came last winter, when the Bulls were about to go off on a long road trip. A reporter asked him what he expected to achieve on the west coast. Collins responded, “Win. Fucking win.”) This emphasis on short-term results got the Bulls through two rounds of the playoffs to meet the future-champion Detroit Pistons, but at what cost? Collins stuck with Dave Corzine as a backup center and a seven-man team–ignoring top draft choice Will Perdue and the rest of the bench–because he accurately gauged that that was the best team the Bulls could put on the floor from night to night and moment to moment. But what about the Bulls of this year and next year? Conversely, if the coach is not playing five of the guys the general manager has given him to work with, what can one say about relations between those two persons? If there’s any speculation to be done, it should stick to basketball and not to Collins’s private affairs. To wit: did Collins aspire to the general manager’s position, and did he refuse to play Perdue as a way of proving that the rookie was a wasted draft pick and Krause a poor judge of talent?
The last straw, I believe, came after last summer’s draft. Collins was a vocal fan of Illinois’ Kenny Battle, who was available with the Bulls’ third first-round pick. Battle is going to be a fine pro, and I would have picked him myself at that stage of the draft as the best player available. I won a pool with other hoop fans at the Billy Goat the night before the draft by choosing both Oklahoma’s Stacey King and Iowa’s B.J. Armstrong for the Bulls’ picks, then choosing Battle; fortunately, my third pick didn’t matter, because the Bulls took Jeff Sanders, out of a small Florida college. Battle is a better player and will probably be a better pro, but he would have caused certain problems for the Bulls, especially where Collins, Krause, and–here the plot thickens–Michael Jordan were concerned. Jordan does not enjoy playing point guard; then he feels the responsibilities become too great for him, and as he’s already carrying the team he’s entitled to his opinion. Collins, however, had pushed Jordan toward the position, and who knows but that he would have tried to return him there this season–especially with the attractive option of playing Jordan and Battle side by side (a backcourt that would be awesome offensively, if Jordan resigned himself to playing point, and that defensively would probably lead the league in steals). Yet Krause knew Jordan’s feelings; he decided to stick with Armstrong as his guard choice, and chose Sanders in order to challenge Horace Grant to improve himself. Collins, when asked about Sanders, waspishly responded that he knew nothing about him, and that’s the last quote I remember hearing from Collins in his role as the Bulls’ coach. It portrayed him as out of tune with Krause, who–and this is important–was more in tune with Jordan. Soon after, Collins was the Bulls’ former coach.
What this means, simply, is that Phil Jackson would be silly to get upset over a close opening-night victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers’ second-string standbys and a second-night loss to the Boston Celtics. Jackson, like Krause, has a picture of the team in the future–later this season, they hope–in which the Bulls can go up against the Pistons with the same two-squad depth. The most impressive thing about the Pistons last spring was that the Bulls’ starters could go out and wallop on Detroit for eight minutes, but then the Pistons would bring on their second string–a group that plays together almost as well as the first group, but with certain strategic head-to-head matchups that gave the Bulls a lot more trouble than even the first string could offer–and in two minutes the fresh players would erase the deficit and start building a lead of their own. That’s the wave of the future, and look at the future Bulls. The first string we already know about: Bill Cartwright is a good low-post center, Grant remains a developing power forward, and Scottie Pippen is complementing Jordan increasingly well as an open-court player. John Paxson is the starting point guard now, but Armstrong shows signs of being the most advanced of the rookies and will probably move Paxson out before long. After that, however, the second team is where the action is. Perdue shows signs of becoming a fine high-post center in the mold of Tom Boerwinkle, a big man with a fine passing sense, the ability to hit the open man in the flat or the guard cutting to the hoop on a backdoor play. If Perdue can consistently hit that 15-footer he must have hit in college (he averaged 17 and 18 points a game as a junior and senior at Vanderbilt in the rough-and-tumble Southeastern Conference), while playing decent defense (especially on the defensive boards), suddenly the Bulls are on their way to developing that able second string. King then can adapt to the pros by playing a low-post power forward, easing the transition from playing with his back to the basket as a college center, to playing facing the basket as a pro forward.
All this, of course, is speculative, and it will take time and–more important–it will cost the Bulls an occasional loss to find out whether these fellows can play as they’re supposed to play. When a football team like the Bears commits itself to young quarterbacks, it expects to lose some games it might otherwise win, as happened last Sunday against the Green Bay Packers. Young quarterbacks make mistakes; they cost the team a few games while they’re developing, and one hopes in the long run they turn into quarterbacks that improve the team. The same is true of young basketball players. Yet Jackson shows the temperament of being able to ride out the rough streaks and watch the Bulls improve. I make no predictions for the Bulls except for this: As with last season, the Bulls will sometimes appear to be getting worse. At some point this season, they could easily lose as many as five straight games, or more. By the end of the season, however, they’ll be a better team and a better short-series playoff team. The Bulls will go farther this year than last.
One thing all the Bulls’ fans can be sure of, however: anyone who was amazed by the avid, nationwide response to the Cubs’ finishing first hasn’t seen anything yet. The Bulls have joined the Cubs on Channel Nine–complete with a cool black-and-white intro clip, and local announcers Jim Durham and Johnny “Red” Kerr–and that is going to have some impact. Michael Jordan is already one of the three most popular basketball players in the country, and he is about to become Number One, irrefutably. Putting the Bulls on a superstation, with Jordan and with their penchant for tight games and last-second finishes, is magnificent not only for the Bulls but for the NBA. The league’s popularity is already growing at an amazing rate. The Bulls are at the crest of the wave, with an opportunity to become the team of the 90s.