There was a fallen John Starks tripping Scottie Pippen with a scissors kick in the first game, and Patrick Ewing hitting two big shots late to seal another comeback New York victory in the second. There was Ewing sitting in his locker before the third game, dribbling a basketball back and forth under his legs to the rhythm of the music that overflowed from the headphones of his Walkman; Derek Harper and Jo Jo English locked in a wrestling hold spinning toward the first row of seats, and the bench-clearing brouhaha spilling into the stands; an angered Pippen almost pounding the ball into the floor as he slowly dribbled upcourt during another fourth-quarter collapse, then asking out of the final play when it was called for Toni Kukoc; and Kukoc hitting the shot, being presented the ball afterward, and heaving it into the stands. There was Pippen greeted with a mixture of cheers and boos–but mostly cheers–as he was introduced for the fourth game, later dealing a no-look pass to Horace Grant for a slam dunk on the fast break; Scott Williams scoring and pointing to a “Tank” banner (his nickname) in the second balcony as he ran downcourt; Pippen with an arm around Kukoc’s shoulders as they talked following some minor offensive confusion; and a lineup of Pippen, Grant, B.J. Armstrong, Bill Cartwright, and John Paxson shepherding the win home in the closing minutes. There was Charles Oakley kicking at Kukoc in the early moments of the fifth game; Armstrong, feet akimbo in the air, hitting a go-ahead jumper from the free-throw line in the final minute; and a whistle blowing as Pippen grazed Hubert Davis’s hand on the Knicks’ last shot. There was a sign behind the Knicks’ bench in the sixth game–“Starks, you’re going down … and so’s your sister”–and Starks tripping Pippen again in the open court; New York sportswriter Mike Lupica sauntering over, writing something on the newspaper of National Basketball Association Vice President of Public Relations Brian McIntyre–something about the Bulls’ early 13-to-1 advantage in foul shots, no doubt–and sauntering away without saying anything; and Pippen swiping at Ewing as Ewing tumbled in the face of Pippen’s fast-break slam dunk. And then there were Armstrong and Grant hitting shot after clutch shot from the perimeter in the seventh game, until a fallen Armstrong was kneed in the head by Greg Anthony as they both tried to rise following an Anthony foul, and Armstrong then missing two free throws; Armstrong, Kukoc, and Steve Kerr all forcing up long jumpers in the closing minutes of the seventh game; Ewing banking in a three-point jumper off the glass. And finally there were the players–most prominently Pippen and Ewing–embracing after the New York Knicks had defeated the Chicago Bulls in the National Basketball Association playoffs.
The last three playoff meetings between the Bulls and the Knicks were sport at its highest level. This year’s series, like the two before it, was involving athletically, intellectually, emotionally, and culturally, and it passed by in a blur of dramatic images.
Kukoc’s shot to win the third game was the most dramatic moment of all, not only because of the drama inherent in a game- winning shot, but because so many of the series’s themes and subplots intersected at that point. The two clearest lines that met there were those of Pippen and the Bulls’ head coach, Phil Jackson. That was Jackson’s most demanding public moment as a coach (who knows what battles were fought with Michael Jordan in private?), and he emerged victorious in a game in which he made sure there were no victors.
Jackson is an excellent coach, a gifted student of the game, and a skilled motivator, and I think the main reason for his success–from both a player’s and a fan’s point of view–is that he approaches everything on a very human level. Many coaches say at some point they’ve done all they can and it’s up to the players to play well–to play like automatons, in other words. The Knicks’ Pat Riley said as much several times during the series. Yet Jackson insists on treating his players as individuals trying to form a group–a difficult task, he grants–and as humans who need to be challenged. He adopts, at various moments, a very philosophical approach and a very religious approach, and he calls himself a Zen Christian.
The Zen aspects of focus and discipline he had frequently called upon as a coach, but the Christian element got its sternest test in the Pippen incident.
The Bulls played splendidly in that third game, especially Pippen, and especially after the fight between Harper and English. The Bulls led by 22 points, 88-66, with 13 minutes to play. Yet with that big lead they got back on their heels in the fourth quarter; they were dawdling on offense and playing defense as if they had both eyes on the clock. Ewing, showing the determination of a champion, scored the Knicks’ last ten points, and tied the game at 102 with two seconds to play. When told Kukoc would take the final shot, Pippen supposedly responded, “Fuck that,” and left himself on the bench. Yet Kukoc took a high lob pass from Pete Myers, Pippen’s replacement, leaped, and took the shot–nothing but net.
In most sporting events, the players are divided into heroes and goats, defined by their performances. The series between the Bulls and Knicks, however, are typically defined by some moment when, under intense scrutiny, the players betray themselves as human and go on from there. Great teams under great pressure bring out the best in each other, and that was the moment of this series that the players became both human and heroic.
That Pippen, who played with such courage for most of the season and throughout the playoffs, would crack–quite clearly, quite dramatically–under pressure showed just how tense things can get in the heat of battle. And after he apologized to the team afterward, that was just how Jackson accepted it. He forgave the unforgivable. (What would have happened had Kukoc missed the shot? Thank the gods–and Toni Kukoc–that’s a moot point.) In the fourth game Pippen played more courageously than ever, and the rest of the Bulls followed his lead.
“This team has many lives,” Jackson said after that series-tying victory, “and sometimes you grow out of things that happen to ball clubs or individuals that unite them and bond them together even stronger than before. Tension brings weird experiences to people.”
Kukoc was equally understanding. “This is a very intense game,” he said. “It’s not easy. Especially when you’re playing good like that and in five minutes everything you did for three and a half quarters is gone. So it’s not easy to handle that.”
Yet if it wasn’t easy for Pippen to handle what originally caused the transgression, it was even more difficult to deal with the consequences. One of the things that give the Knicks-Bulls series their unique flavor is that they’re played in the two toughest sportswriting towns in the nation, and every member of the media–knowing that every other sportswriter in New York and Chicago would get a chance to read what he or she wrote–attempted to outdo everyone else at chest thumping over Pippen’s failure. He was called a quitter by the kinder writers, “gutless” by the harsher personalities. Asked, after the fourth game, if all these soap-opera histrionics left him befuddled, Kukoc answered, “For me, yes. I mean, there is not much talking about the game, about, you know, the real things–rebounds, points, the defense efforts. It’s just about fights, about what somebody did do during the game.”
Yet that’s what makes the NBA one of the most demanding sporting tests in the world, and the Bulls’ ability to survive that scrutiny is what has made them champions–a point that wasn’t lost on Riley. “Other people could perceive it as hectic,” he said of the scene surrounding the fourth game, “but for them it could be normal. There’s been a lot of things that have gone on with this team over the years, but all they continue to do is win.”
As always in a Knicks-Bulls series, all these extracurricular activities threatened to overshadow the actual play on the floor. And as always, the play on the floor managed to assert itself. In many ways, the overall character and tactics of the series mirrored the two teams’ 1992 meeting, which also went seven games. There was a clear favorite and a clear underdog, only this time the roles were reversed: the Knicks, the anointed heirs to the NBA crown, were considered deeper and more talented, while the Bulls were more focused and better prepared. The Bulls seized the strategic initiative from the Knicks and–aside from the Knicks’ intense defensive efforts in the fourth quarters–didn’t relinquish the initiative until the very end, another role reversal from the 1992 series. Even the coaches switched roles. Jackson had been harried in 1992, and he struggled to find a way to solve the Knicks’ defense. This time, however, he had all the methods to beat the Knicks in place–just as Riley had the game plan in ’92. Yet the team that kept its composure and made the final adjustment won, as it should be, and Riley–like Jackson two years ago–seemed to consider himself lucky to have been the one to weather the series.
An entire Sports Section could be spent on the tactics alone. “It’s a school for people,” said the Bulls’ assistant coach John Bach after the sixth game, when the Bulls won comfortably and seemed to have solved the Knicks once and for all. “It’s beautiful. If you could watch it unemotionally, it’s beautiful.” That beauty, for the Knicks, rested in a high-pressure man-to-man defense that played each man as close as possible and–much more important and much more subtle–shaded each player in the direction of the ball, in order to make each pass difficult. For the Bulls, the beauty rested in the way they spread the floor to make it difficult for the Knicks to poach on each other’s men, and in how they realized that the lob pass, while dangerous, was necessary to keep the Knicks’ defenders from shading toward the ball. On a personal level, the Bulls also arrived at a strategy where they knew they had to put the ball on the floor and beat the first defender in order to create a crease in that almost impenetrable defense. The Bulls had their best moments when Pippen or Kukoc was playing well, taking the ball on the dribble and passing off to open teammates.
But in the end the Bulls had to reach back to simple old tactics from their encounters with the Pistons. The Bulls would typically go out to significant leads against the Pistons, but the Pistons would run them down with tough defense, and that’s just what the Knicks were doing in the fourth quarter. “We have to match their defensive frenzy with our defensive frenzy,” Jackson said. That’s what they had done against the Pistons, and that’s what they did against the Knicks beginning with the fourth game. When the Bulls held the lead it was all right to commit a 24-second violation, to fail to get a shot off. They just had to make sure the same thing happened at the other end. That would be 48 seconds off the clock, almost another minute closer to victory, and with the Bulls playing a ferocious double-teaming defense it worked–until game seven and that final adjustment by the Knicks.
At halftime of the seventh game, Ewing–who had spent most of the first quarter on the bench with foul trouble–did not have a single point. Riley told him to pass the ball. Sometimes the greatest brilliancies are the simplest. Ewing made a couple of shots early, to regain his confidence, but after that he was splendid at drawing the Bulls’ double-team and passing to the open man. He and Starks worked their two-man game on the perimeter, and with a pair of open three-point shots Starks was going. Ewing took the ball down low, saw Grant coming across the lane, and passed through his arms to an open Oakley for the basket. He saw Kukoc coming and passed to the open Anthony Mason for an easy lay-in under the hoop.
Ewing was amazing, a true champion. For years–never so much as in this series–the question was not whether Ewing was a championship-caliber player. It was whether the goons who surrounded him on the Knicks would weigh him down, keep him from attaining his true level. Starks’s tripping and Anthony’s kneeing and Harper’s fighting and Oakley’s kicking to the contrary, the answer this time was no, they couldn’t stop him. Patrick Ewing deserves a championship, and I hope he gets it.
That doesn’t diminish the Bulls, not what they’ve accomplished in years past and not what they accomplished this year. “This team has character,” Bach said after the sixth game, “and I think it was put together that way–talent and character.” It’s one of the odd and poignant things about sports that character is always more evident in defeat than in victory, just as Pippen’s character was never so sorely tested as in the days after the third game–a test he met and passed.
“Not only is winning a part of the game, losing is too,” said a characteristically philosophical Jackson when it was over. “And if you’re going to win like champions, you have to lose the same way.”
One great thing about the Bulls–something brought out every year in their series with the Knicks–when they won, they won without sacrificing their character, no matter how badly they wanted to win. In fact, they won by pitting their character against the sternest tests, beneath the harshest scrutiny, under the most intense pressure imaginable. The Knicks learned something from them, and I think the fans did too. I know I learned about sports–and about myself–from watching the Bulls.
Jordan’s absence was as integral to this season’s Bulls as his presence was to the Bulls of the previous nine years. So with Cartwright and Paxson retiring and Grant and Williams set to leave as free agents, the Jordan era came to a close. It was the greatest sports team this city has seen since the original Monsters of the Midway, the Bears of the 30s and 40s, and more than likely the Bulls were unequaled even by that bunch. Sport has changed so much in the time between those eras that the two teams probably shouldn’t be compared at all. The Jordan Bulls were masters of all facets of modern-day sports, from the on- field fits and starts dictated by television to the intense psychological tactics and mental intimidation to the increased personal scrutiny brought on by all the mass media in what has become a huge sporting-entertainment conglomerate. Still, most important in the end, they could play basketball, play it with creativity and–yes, that most tiresome of sporting attributes–with character. They were a great team. Like the Chicago Stadium that housed them, we won’t see their kind again anytime soon. But all of us should pause right here and say it was enough to have seen them once.