Dennis Rodman came down with one of his awkward, rag-doll rebounds and flipped the ball to Michael Jordan. Jordan immediately went on the attack–shoulders low and forward on the dribble, head up and studying the court–but the defense got back so he pulled up shy of the basket. He passed the ball to Rodman trailing the play, and Rodman signaled for Jordan to post up. Jordan ignored him. He went out and took the ball back from Rodman. Rodman didn’t pout. He circled down into the corner, then continued discreetly under the hoop, and Jordan hit him with a bullet pass. Rodman banked the ball up and in and was fouled, and he trotted out of the tangle of players under the rim pumping his fist in the air as the crowd roared. Rodman searched out Jordan at the top of the free-throw circle, gave him a hug and a pat on the ass–a gesture returned by Jordan with some hesitation–and then he lined up to shoot his free throw.
If the Bosnian peace mission turns out to be a success, it won’t be half the lesson in human relations the Bulls are this season.
The Bulls have a talented but tentative Croatian, a pair of big, mild-mannered centers from opposite sides of the globe–Australia and Canada–and a handful of native-born players of unexceptional ability mixed with the greatest player on the planet, a most temperamental mere superstar, and a former archenemy befriended simply because he happens to be the best rebounder in the National Basketball Association. To see them play team basketball–and a quarter of the way into the season it has been fits and starts intermixed with sequences of stunning beauty–is one of the joys of sport right now. The Bulls’ potential is so great, and the glimpses they provide of it, almost every game, so tantalizing, it’s as if the platonic form of basketball were suddenly incarnate.
With such a volatile, talented bunch, coach Phil Jackson appears sometimes to be a Faust toying with the very stuff of creation. His decision to welcome Rodman to the team has given him, from a purely tactical standpoint, a roster he can adapt to almost any situation. The Bulls can go big, they can go small, they can play run-and-gun offense or clamp-down defense. Yet with that talent has come the most explosive mix of personalities Jackson has ever had to manage. So far he has made it look easy. As explained in his new book, Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior (which we highly recommend), Jackson has found a way to motivate highly paid, high-profile athletes intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. In short, he challenges them as human beings.
All NBA squads struggle with the concept of teamwork at this time of year, after the rust has been scraped off and before they’ve fallen into a comfortable rhythm; but after reading Jackson’s book it’s hard not to see the Bulls in a larger context, as a group trying to capture the intangible spirit of ecstasy that figures so often in works of art as diverse as Henry James’s The Ambassadors, Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, and John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. To see the Bulls running a fast break in which all five players on the floor touch the ball, completed with a lay-in by Rodman, is to find utopia attainable. To see them struggle, of course, is to be reminded of how elusive utopia can be.
The Bulls returned home to the United Center two weeks ago Wednesday, after their annual late-November road trip through the Western Conference. They were 7-1 on the trip, 13-2 overall, the best start in team history, with the two losses coming in away games against the Orlando Magic and the Seattle SuperSonics, two of the best teams in the league. Their successful western swing was all the more notable for Rodman’s absence, as he was out with a strained muscle in his left calf. He returned to action as the Bulls returned home, with his hair dyed green for go.
Yet against the New York Knicks the Bulls looked out of sync, beginning with Jordan, who saw almost every one of his early shots rim in and out. The Knicks, meanwhile, looked remarkably fluid in the varied, unpredictable offense of new coach Don Nelson. The Knicks led 56-43 at the half, and the only things that kept the Bulls in the game were Rodman’s 11 rebounds–9 in the first quarter–and Toni Kukoc’s 12 points off the bench, which included baskets on his first two shots (an open baseline jumper and a three out of a pell-mell fast break) and were capped off by a three that went high off the back rim and swished through the hoop at the halftime buzzer.
In the second half, however, the Bulls extended their defense and began running their triangle offense in a meticulous, methodical fashion. Halfway through the quarter Jordan was still stuck on four points for the game, but he began to find his rhythm–as he so often does–by prowling the perimeter on the dribble, looking to draw the defense and pass to open players. The play with Rodman described in the opening paragraph came right at the end of the quarter, and although Rodman missed the free throw the Bulls had pulled within one, 73-72.
When Jordan enters the fourth quarter with 11 points, the law of averages (not to mention Jordan’s sense of pride) dictates that he’ll explode. He opened the quarter driving time and again to the hoop, and a three-point play gave the Bulls an 81-77 lead. Then he sat, to rest for the closing minutes, while Kukoc, with a seven-inch height advantage on Derek Harper, took over the offense. When Jordan returned and right away hit a turnaround jumper over Harper, the Bulls led 89-83. Then Scottie Pippen got involved with a couple of lovely turnaround jumpers. The Knicks tried to rally, but Rodman pulled down every critical rebound, including his 20th and final board of the game after the Knicks’ Anthony Mason had missed the second of two free throws with the score 97-94 and 17 seconds to play. The crowd gave Rodman a standing ovation.
The final was 101-94, and the only important rebound Rodman didn’t come down with was one where Luc Longley beat him to the ball with an elbow to the face. When Rodman saw it was his own teammate who had elbowed him, he briefly felt his lip then slapped Longley hard across the rump in affirmation. “Isn’t that unreal, when your teammate gets excited when you hit him?” Longley said afterward. “He attracts so much attention. Guys go to his body and he creates avenues so you can get to the rim. He also keeps a lot of balls alive that he may not rebound but he just keeps them going.” To break the game down numerically, Longley and Pippen each added 7 rebounds to Rodman’s 20 as the Bulls outrebounded the notoriously physical Knicks 48-39, and Longley had 13 points. Jordan and Pippen each had 22 points and 8 assists, and Kukoc added 18 points and 5 rebounds.
The image of those three players–Jordan, Pippen, and Kukoc–on the fast break is the ideal that drove general manager Jerry Krause insane for years as he courted Kukoc for the Bulls. A week after the Knicks’ game there they were, fast-breaking three on two against the Magic. Jordan passed on the right wing to Kukoc, who passed to Pippen coming in wide open from the left–and he missed the bunny right under the hoop. A few seconds later, after a chaotic stretch of back-and-forth basketball, Kukoc and Jordan found themselves on a two-on-one break. This time Kukoc faked the pass to Jordan and took it in himself for a dunk to give the Bulls a 48-40 lead. Minutes later all three came down again, this time on a three-on-one break with Pippen in the middle, and with the other two acting as decoys he simply steamed down the lane for the dunk, giving the Bulls a 57-44 lead on the way to a 61-49 halftime advantage. So sometimes–in basketball, anyway–it pays to forget utopia and be a little selfish.
The Bulls, who by then were on a six-game winning streak, were trying to avenge one of their two losses on the season. The first came without Rodman, but also with the Magic missing Shaquille O’Neal, out with a broken thumb. O’Neal dressed for the second Bulls game and took part in pregame and halftime warm-ups, but he didn’t play. Rodman, of course, was back for the Bulls, and Jordan was playing for blood, having been shown up by the Magic’s guard Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway in the teams’ previous meeting in Orlando. Yet it was Pippen who came out aggressively, driving to the hoop while Jordan peppered the basket from outside. The Bulls led 29-26 at the quarter.
In a brilliant bit of coaching by Jackson, the Bulls were switching their defensive assignments with almost every possession, and from moment to moment the Magic couldn’t figure out where the match-up advantages were. Orlando coach Brian Hill went to a small lineup in the second quarter, but Jackson stayed big. He even went to Jordan and Pippen at guards and Longley, Rodman, and Kukoc up front for the last four minutes of the half. That may well be the Bulls’ best lineup, and without O’Neal the Magic couldn’t compete.
The second half opened with both teams in disarray, but Jordan as usual seemed in sync with chaos, leading the Bulls out to a 69-49 lead. Trying to get back in the game Orlando went to a full-court press. The Bulls countered this, amazingly, by taking the ball out of Jordan’s hands and positioning him in the far corner of the court. Pippen, Kukoc, and Steve Kerr were assigned to bring the ball up, and once they broke the press they simply passed to Jordan in the corner, who then drove straight to the hoop as if inflicting some form of punishment.
With its tremendous collection of three-point shooters the Magic are never out of any game, and Orlando rallied down the stretch. But Pippen answered with a clutch three-pointer that gave the Bulls a 106-97 lead with a minute to play and sealed the victory. The final was 112-103.
“The ball didn’t move quite as well as we would like it to in a couple of situations,” Jackson said in summing up the Bulls’ pursuit of perfection. Yet with Jordan scoring 36, Pippen adding 26 with six assists and eight rebounds, and Kukoc pouring in 21 on 9-of-12 shooting, while Rodman pulled down 19 boards, the Bulls had enough to win comfortably. The pattern repeated itself Saturday against the Los Angeles Lakers. Jordan, suffering from a dislocated index finger on his right hand, made only five of 20 shots from the field and settled for 20 points; but Pippen had 33 with 6 assists and 13 rebounds, Kukoc added 22 points, and Rodman pulled down 15 boards. That made the Bulls 19-2 just past the one-quarter mark of the season, and they hadn’t yet played a full game of coherent, cohesive basketball.
If they ever do play such a game the waves might cease, the lion might lie down with the lamb, all suffering might end, all sin might be redeemed, and paradise might well be manifest. Of course, the sports fan in us allows that another NBA championship won here in Chicago would suffice.