After the Bears’ season ended, I wanted to leave them behind and get right on with the Bulls. Yet over the last couple of weeks various events conspired to unite the fates of the two teams–in my mind, at least, and no doubt in the minds of many other Chicago fans as well. The firing of Mike Ditka was a reminder that not only players but even coaches and teams face careers that mimic the life span of the average human being. There is the flush of youth, the fulfillment of maturity, and then the long, slow march toward death–accelerated, of course, for the athlete and, sometimes, for the coach, and with the whole cycle repeated over and over for the team. A fortunate player or coach wins a championship at the height of his or her career; a great player or coach wins more than one. Yet they all head toward retirement in the end. Only the team continues on, through high points and low, threading the generations of fans, players, and coaches together.
There was a moment last week, before Ditka was fired, when I believed that if I were the owner of the Bears I would have let him stay on for another year. For a coach with Ditka’s record, it seemed only fair to give him another season to right his team and, more important, himself. And sentimentality has a strong pull on any sports fan. Yet then I recalled all his various gaffes of the season, remembered how Mike Singletary had been able to inspire the team when Ditka had not, realized that he had lost control of the players and that he had never been a great coach to begin with. The most painful moments of the various Ditka overviews on television were the references to the playoff loss to the Washington Redskins at the end of the 1986 season. The Bears were 14-2 that year; a victory at home over the Skins would have put them up against the championship-bound New York Giants in what would have been a meeting between perhaps the two best football teams of the 80s. Ditka and defensive coordinator Vince Tobin were, however, badly outcoached by Washington’s Joe Gibbs, and they lost 27-14. The following season, Ditka alienated his players during the strike, lost control of the team, and again lost to the Skins in Chicago’s first playoff game. Then came his years of proud bluster, when he insisted the Bears’ success was due to coaching, not to the quality of the players. Even Ditka came to see the folly in that attitude. In his farewell address, immediately after his firing, he acknowledged that he had inherited a tremendous core of players when he arrived. It’s not that anyone could have won a championship with that team, but that it would have taken a buffoon to keep it from winning at least one. In the end, Ditka wasn’t a buffoon, but neither was he a great coach.
So Ditka left, acknowledging his great players but citing only Walter Payton specifically. Was that because only Payton, among all those ex-Bears–Otis Wilson and Dan Hampton and Jim McMahon among them–was capable of going on to own a National Football League team, putting him in the position to possibly offer Ditka a job somewhere down the line? Bob Verdi suggested as much on one of his WXRT broadcasts.
The Bulls had succeeded where the Bears failed; they won their back-to-back championships with great players and great coaching. This season, however, they got off to a decent but unimpressive start (unimpressive, that is, by the Bulls’ standards). They straggled through the first quarter of the schedule toward a Christmas-night meeting with the New York Knicks. They seemed a team holding things in reserve, both in strategy and in effort, a team trying to see how little they could get by on. Of course they still had the best record in the Eastern Conference of the National Basketball Association, a half game better than New York’s.
The game with the Knicks, therefore, was one of the late highlights of the last sports year. The Bulls looked intimidated and unfocused through the first half and had to rally to trail by 49-39 at the intermission. Then they came out in the second half and blew New York away with a pressure defense that forced the Knicks into turnovers and allowed them only 13 points in the third quarter and 15 in the fourth. There was nothing held back, all the cards were on the table, and the Knicks couldn’t stay in the game. It was the most impressive display the Bulls had put on this season, and it suggested that the schedule was just a formality: they would coast along, clinch home-court advantage for the playoffs, and then rise up to beat down whomever they played. The Bulls proceeded to run off seven straight victories.
This season’s Bulls are basically the same as, but at the same time quite a bit different from, the team that won back-to-back championships. In that, they offer testimony that the chemistry holding a great team together is both more durable than one would think and more fragile than one would hope. B.J. Armstrong has replaced John Paxson as starting guard and has weathered some tough spots to keep the team near its previous high level. In fact, there have been signs that the conflict over who should start has actually been good for the team.
Against the Indiana Pacers earlier this month, Armstrong played a very tentative first half. At intermission he had the same number of assists and points as Stacey King–one assist and two points–as the Bulls trailed 60-53. Paxson came off the bench about five minutes into the third quarter and led the Bulls from a seven-point deficit to an 81-80 lead going into the fourth. Now Armstrong reentered the game and seemed revitalized, guiding the Bulls to a comfortable 109-100 victory. Afterward, he compared the starting controversy to a family conflict, saying, “I think it’s made us all better people, and overall it’s made us a better ball club.”
The bench, however, is also very different, and that has produced much more mixed results. Cliff Levingston, Craig Hodges, and Bobby Hansen are gone, replaced by Rodney McCray, Trent Tucker, and rookie Corey Williams. Tucker has won over the doubters. He goes through fewer so-hot-he-can’t-miss periods than Hodges did but overall his outside shot is more dependable, and as Michael Jordan recently commented, he plays better defense. Yet McCray is now a bona fide bust; a couple of impressive outings in December failed to ignite his game, and he remains a cripple on offense (a miserable passer) and has not displayed anything approaching his stellar reputation as a defensive player. Quite simply, one hates to see him take the floor, especially at power forward, where head coach Phil Jackson was sometimes forced to put him after Scott Williams went down with a back injury that aggravated tendinitis in his knee. King and Will Perdue, meanwhile, both appear to have taken steps backward as bench players.
The Bulls, indeed, are holding as much as they can in reserve, but it’s not all intentional. Last year’s seven-game series with the Knicks showed them that a well-coached team can minimize their strengths and exploit their few weaknesses if given the time and material to prepare. But this year’s poor bench play has produced problems of a different sort. The Bulls lost three of four games during a busy stretch last week and they looked tired and weary, with the starters working too hard and the bench unable to pick up any slack.
Like a cool breeze on a partly cloudy day, the game with the Pacers had offered a hint of the oncoming slump. Then the Los Angeles Lakers came to town a week ago Tuesday and lulled the Bulls to sleep in the third quarter. “They just went out and sat on the ball,” Jackson said afterward. The Bulls scored only 14 points in the frame and saw a 54-50 halftime lead turn into a 70-68 third-quarter deficit. The Lakers are not the team they once were, but with Sam Perkins and James Worthy at forward, A.C. Green playing great defense on either Jordan or Scottie Pippen–whoever has the hot hand at the moment–and with Vlade Divac at center, they are a team that knocks down open shots and that won’t beat itself. A team has to beat them, and while a focused team shouldn’t have much problem doing that the Bulls weren’t focused. They hit only 2 of their last 11 shots and lost 91-88. The key sequence came with 40 seconds to play, the Lakers with the ball and an 89-88 lead. The Bulls played great defense, but for some reason King fell away from Divac as the 24-second clock ran out, allowing him an open 15-foot jump shot. He hit it. Williams would never have allowed the shot uncontested.
The tired Bulls lost the next night in Cleveland. The problem was twofold: everybody seemed to be looking to Jordan to shoot it, and he seemed overly willing to take poor shots. In both this game and the one last Saturday, against the Philadelphia 76ers, Jordan had the look of the late-80s Jordan about him: of a great player who feels his team is overmatched by the opponent.
The one bright spot was his scoring the 20,000th point of his career last Friday at the Stadium against the Milwaukee Bucks in a 120-95 victory. Yet in the wake of the Ditka firing, there was something bittersweet in even that accomplishment. With the game in hand, Jordan reentered, after a stretch on the bench in the fourth quarter, needing eight points to reach the milestone. He hit a basket then two long threes to give him 20,000. Then, obviously tired, he waved himself out of the game, taking the ball with him. In a career that has been, up to this point, almost entirely on the ascent, the moment offered a glimpse of the glorious but increasingly difficult future, of the impending and inevitable decline. That and the farewell to Ditka, who it turns out peaked so much sooner than he had thought, made the Bulls’ present-day struggles seem all the more dire.