Early in the second half of the Bulls’ season-opening game against the Charlotte Hornets last Friday, Dennis Rodman– vastly outsized by the man he was assigned to guard, seven-foot George Zidek–tried to give ground and draw an offensive foul. The bush-league scabs officiating the game in place of the striking National Basketball Association referees made no call, and Zidek scored. Rodman clearly understood this to mean he had carte blanche to stand his ground, and on the Hornets’ next possession he did just that. Zidek forced up a bad shot, and Rodman gained position under the boards and fought him off for the rebound. Rodman handed the ball to Michael Jordan, who took off lickety-split up the court. At first Rodman followed along with that distinctive prancing Lipizzan stallion gait of his, but when he saw Jordan lower his shoulders and pick up speed at half court Rodman stopped. Jordan shook, shimmied, pulled up at the three-point line, and fired in a 24-foot jump shot. By that time Rodman was already in the Bulls’ backcourt, backpedaling toward the far basket.
Rodman wasn’t dogging it. Accuse him of anything else, but Rodman has never dogged it for a moment once he stepped onto a basketball court. Rather, he had seen Jordan in that here-it-comes, try-and-stop-me mode so many times–previously from the vantage point of the other team–he knew what was coming and he knew he would never be able to get to the hoop in time for the rebound. Best to watch and enjoy. He may or may not have actually enjoyed the shot–with his pursed lips and sleepy eyes he makes Scottie Pippen seem vociferous and emotional on the court by comparison–but he watched it all right. And there were times later on, for instance after Rodman and Jordan had combined on a particularly nice fast-break basket, that Rodman searched Jordan out on their way back down the court and actually patted him on the rump.
What an odd and unpredictable business sports is.
When the Bulls obtained Rodman from the San Antonio Spurs last month, straight up for Will Perdue, it was probably the biggest change of stripes in the sporting world since Sal Maglie joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956. Understand, Rodman wasn’t merely a Bulls killer when he was with the Detroit Pistons; he was hated as one of the baddest and most ruthless of the Bad Boys, in much the same way Maglie was hated in Brooklyn when he was pitching–quite often high and tight–for the New York Giants. It’s one of the pleasures of sports to hate an opposing player like that, so Rodman’s sudden arrival on the Chicago scene offered an important life lesson. It wasn’t merely that the desire to win often makes for strange bedfellows; it was that an opposing player can sometimes be so hated that a fan can lose sight of him as a human being. Rodman’s presence on the Bulls made us reassess him as an athlete and as a person.
Of course, most of the local sportswriters were blind to that reassessment. They had always thought he was a good player, albeit a bit dirty, and they had come to regard him as a dirty person to boot. None of that changed. Most writers saw Rodman’s rebounding ability as the missing piece in the Bulls puzzle. And his personal life– most vividly depicted in a Sports Illustrated cover article earlier this year–they continued to object to. Rodman was called a freak, a pervert. In short, it was the traditional homophobia of the press box, but it was a surprise to see it so thinly veiled in this day and age, especially when only weeks later a lot of these same writers would be preaching about the impropriety of tribal American symbols at the World Series.
As a member of the Bulls, Rodman is suddenly a test case in how Chicagoans–a notoriously conventional bunch, overall–accept diversity, and the initial response is encouraging. Unlike most sportswriters, most fans, we believe, are eager to leave a player’s personal life out of it, and Rodman’s mere presence has helped make this the most exciting season–at least at the outset–in the 30-year history of the franchise.
Remember, there was an element of dread to both the 1990-’91 season, when the Bulls were still trying to unseat the Pistons, and the 1991-’92 season, when they were trying to defend what they had earned. By the 1992-’93 season it was all routine, and the following season Jordan retired. In the days leading up to opening night last Friday, Chicago’s basketball fans seemed as giddy and optimistic as we had ever seen them, and Rodman was a large part of that. When he was introduced last Friday he went out onto the floor to a huge ovation– even larger than the response for Pippen–and after he touched hands with Pippen, who by the way still bears the scar Rodman put there in the playoffs years ago with a little of his old extracurricular activities, Rodman stepped to the side and began shaking his head back and forth. He was just loosening up his neck, but he might as well have been shaking himself awake from what was clearly a dream.
In all the hubbub over Rodman, another element of excitement was perhaps overlooked. A new season always brings a sense of hope, but there was also something of contentment to it this time, and that came from Jordan’s first appearance in a season opener in three years. No one spoke of it openly, but there seemed a clear determination to savor this moment and all of Jordan’s moments from here on out, after we were deprived of him for 18 months. The word on Jordan was that he had trained this summer as he had never trained before, trained to regain his basketball body: lithe on top and strong and springy in the legs. During his dalliance with baseball he had beefed up in the arms and shoulders, which clearly weighed him down when he returned to his proper sport last spring.
Jordan responded Friday by unleashing a string of unique moves throughout the game, none so thrilling as the one on a fast break late in the third quarter. Toni Kukoc made a nice steal, and Jordan was immediately out on the run. Kukoc hit Jordan in stride, and from there it was a race to the basket with Dell Curry. Jordan was out front but Curry had the angle– and it wasn’t even close. Jordan showed the burst of speed he lacked last year, went up, double-pumped for style, and jammed the ball through the hoop. That gave the Bulls their first ten-point lead of the game–after they had trailed by ten only ten minutes before–and it put the game away.
In many respects it was a typical opening-night game. Both teams had trouble getting in sync, but the rustiness showed more with the Bulls’ triangle offense, a notoriously cranky mechanism at the beginning of a season. The Hornets, to their credit, were playing shorthanded, having traded star center Alonzo Mourning to the Miami Heat that afternoon for Glen Rice in a six-player deal. The new Hornets had been unable to make it to Chicago on such short notice, and so Charlotte kept things simple, starting veteran Robert Parish alongside rookie Zidek up front and pounding the ball down low to those guys and small forward Larry Johnson. At first the Bulls had no answer to that, especially with Pippen slowed and then benched with a groin injury. The Hornets claimed a 48-40 lead at the half, and the crowd was quiet.
Johnson scored the first basket of the second half, but after that it was all Bulls. With Kukoc replacing Pippen opposite Johnson, the Bulls deployed a quick-switching double-team scheme when the Hornets tried to get the ball low, and that pretty much shut Charlotte down. The Bulls’ active defense greased the wheels for the offense to run, and the result was 12 minutes of beautiful basketball. In addition to his long three after the Rodman rebound, which pulled the Bulls within two at 54-52, Jordan hit a sweet little turnaround over Kendall Gill to put the Bulls up 62-58, then a nice little one-handed toss in the lane off a semibreak–Jordan looked the way the average fan thinks he looks when imitating Jordan by shooting socks into a clothes hamper–and then the slam dunk off the Kukoc steal to put them up ten. How easy was the third quarter? With one second to play after a Charlotte basket, Rodman inbounded the ball with a long pass to center court. It bounced off the back of the Hornets’ Darrin Hancock, and Jud Buechler scooped it up and arced it through the hoop in one fluid motion–80-66 Bulls. Jordan and Rodman shepherded the Bulls home in the fourth quarter, 105-91, with Buechler and Kukoc both reaching double figures in points during garbage time.
The next night Pippen returned to lead the Bulls with 21 in a 107-85 win over the Boston Celtics. Again the Bulls looked sluggish in the first half before leaving their opponents in the dust shortly after halftime. This is going to be a very fun team to watch.
That’s going to be true whether they win or not. One of the reasons for the excitement surrounding the Bulls is the feeling that, really, anything can happen, from a championship to a complete mid-season breakdown. Given the personnel, they can’t help being interesting. The question is, will they be as compelling on the court as off? The answer to that will be supplied, in large part, by coach Phil Jackson. On the court he has a team that can deploy his various tactics as well as any group he has yet had. Yet both on and off the court, he must motivate the most disparate group of personalities any coach has seen in a long time. Jackson, who returned this season sporting a beard, seems more cheerful than ever, perhaps because he has never been so challenged.
To make a prediction about where this team will finish or how many games it will win would only serve to set parameters for the fun. Besides, right now the most difficult thing to predict is not how many games the Bulls will win but what book Jackson will give Rodman for the team’s first long road trip later this month.