A funny thing happened before last Friday’s game between Bulls and the Hornets at the Chicago Stadium. During the introductions, not only was the Hornets’ Kendall Gill cheered by the Stadium faithful–an expected occurrence, as Gill was a high school star at south-suburban Rich Central and played his college ball at Illinois, endearing him to Chicago fans–but Larry Johnson and even Alonzo Mourning received more cheers than boos. Johnson, a tank of a forward listed at six feet seven and 250 pounds, is the star of Nike ads in which he plays his “grandmama” and takes on all comers on the basketball court, so he is a well-known and friendly presence to most hoop fans. Mourning, meanwhile, is a handsome, chiseled center, the second player chosen in last summer’s college draft; his Chicago welcome, after he’d starred at Georgetown–whose basketball program rates poorly with the general public–shows what a strong impression he has made in only his first pro season. The Hornets have a young, charismatic team that fans enjoy seeing–even fans of the Bulls.

So the Hornets came in and shocked the crowd by running the Bulls off the court.

January has been a difficult month for the Bulls. After embarking on the new year with a streak of sharp play, they suffered through a small slump, losing three of four. Then over the next two weeks the fates of the schedule cast them against three of the best young teams in the Eastern Conference. They played the Orlando Magic and Shaquille O’Neal–the player picked ahead of Mourning in summer’s draft–twice in the same week, then the New Jersey Nets and the Hornets on back-to-back nights last week. This streak left the Bulls looking old and exhausted. As they embarked on a demanding road trip involving nine games in 18 days (called for by the annual run of the ice show at the Stadium), the impression the situation gave wasn’t quite one of barbarians at the gate; but it was one of young lions demanding their share of the spoils. Head coach Phil Jackson pondered the possibly endemic causes behind the Bulls’ performances.

“It’s not consistency,” he said after the Charlotte game, “it’s the lack of the ability to react and come back to the play. We’ve got to be rejuvenated; we’ve got to have the ability to come back after playing a hard game, traveling on the road, and playing back-to-back games. We just have not been able to physically get ourselves energized to do that. We may have to [admit] that we’re a club that’s too old, that can’t get out there and play that kind of basketball, pressure basketball; we’re just going to have to get in a half-court game like the Pistons used to do a couple of years ago to conserve energy and limit the number of shots. But right now it’s too much of a knee-jerk reaction say something like that. I’ll have to look at the tape and make a decision.”

That Jackson would go public with such private fears shows how serious the problem is. He no doubt hopes to inspire the Bulls to regain the sharpness of previous years. Yet clearly the Bulls are in the process of passing the torch to a new generation. They eventually whipped all the great teams of the previous generation–the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, and Detroit Pistons–and they whipped all the contenders of their generation–although they face a new challenge this season from the Phoenix Suns, with Charles Barkley. Yet the biggest challenge looms in seasons ahead, beginning right now. The National Basketball Association is suddenly bursting with new stars; the Bulls, the young up-and-coming team of only two seasons ago, have just as suddenly been advanced to middle age–their prime, sure, but also the era of facing down the youngsters who want what the Bulls have, from public acclaim to world championships.

The last couple of weeks brought the Bulls mixed results. They traveled to Orlando for their first meeting with O’Neal, and they beat his team badly. O’Neal too is a charismatic player; his effervescent personality on the court and his openness in media interviews have already drawn comparisons to both Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. As a player, however, there has never been anybody like him. He is a hulking Baby Huey of a center, over seven feet tall and weighing over 300 pounds, but he is cat quick and unbelievably fleet-footed, with the hand-eye coordination of a much smaller man. He looks like an unusually wide power forward until he leaps to dunk the ball: he doesnt have to leap much at all, which suddenly betrays his height. He brought the Magic to Chicago for the rematch a week ago last Saturday.

Jordan, inspiring himself to prove to the hometown fans just how the young punk compared, set a personal record with 27 field goals on the way to 64 points. Yet the Magic refused to fold, and took advantage of some ragged Chicago play down the stretch to tie the score at the end of regulation. Jordan went through a short cold streak, allowing the Magic to erase a ten-point deficit, and after Jordan had helped the Bulls back out to a six-point lead with 44 seconds to play, Horace Grant missed two free throws and Bill Cartwright another on consecutive trips down the court, allowing the Magic to tie with two field goals and a last-second three-pointer by Nick Anderson (on which John Paxson violated the fundamentals by going for the steal on the inbounds instead of playing the man). The Magic went on to whip the weary Bulls in overtime. O’Neal finished with 29 points and 24 rebounds, and Scott Skiles (who ever thought that little weasel would make it as a pro guard?) led the Magic with 31 points.

The Bulls rebounded with a win over the Celtics and then a victory over the revitalized Nets. Under new coach Chuck Daly, the Nets have become the surprise team of the East this season. At game time, they had the fourth-best record in the conference, which would put them in a playoff series against the Bulls if all things held and both teams advanced to the second round. The Bulls again looked composed on the way to a 107-94 victory, even though the Nets, three young stars–Kenny Anderson, Derrick Coleman, and Drazen Petrovic–all topped 20 points.

The next night, back home, was the meeting with the Hornets. The Bulls looked loose in warm-ups and cool during the game, but eventually they crossed over from composed to complacent, while the Hornets–trying to end a four-game losing streak–played with youthful intensity from the opening tip.

At first it was kind of comic. The rookie Mourning tried to intimidate Bill Cartwright on one inbounds pass by jumping up and down and yelling “Yahoo, yahoo, yahoo!” And Johnson set a screen for Gill and shouted out “Shoot it, Kendall!” so loudly that Gill missed the open shot. The Hornets crashed the boards early, all five guys heading for the hoop, creating situations like the one that saw Gill snaking through traffic for a tip jam, with the Bulls then passing the ball the length of the court to the open Horace Grant for a stuff and a 42-40 lead. It worked the other way too: Scottie Pippen took a bounce pass from Will Perdue for a driving jam that Gill followed up with a dunk on a two-on-one break for a 51-51 halftime tie.

There was a method to the Hornets’ madness, their overabundant exuberance. It paid off in the third quarter, when they beat the Bulls consistently at the boards and the tired Bulls couldn’t convert on several offensive rebounds. The Hornets beat the Bulls’ rotation defense by passing until they found the open man. Not a single Charlotte player scored 20 points, but Mourning and Gill had 19, as did Dell Curry off the bench, while Johnson, firing up his high-elbows shot heavy with backspin, added 18. Mourning, meanwhile, went crazy on defense, swatting away a career-high nine shots for the game. The Hornets opened a 78-73 third-quarter lead and went on to win–with minimal opposition from the BuIls–by a score of 105-97.

“You want to know truth?” Charlotte head coach Allan Bristow said after the game. “We didn’t watch any film on ’em, we talked very little about the Bulls. The last couple of days, we worried about how we play.”

Oh, for the self-absorption of youth.

“They just beat us to the ball, they outquicked us on the court, they were hungrier than we were to win the ball game,” Jackson said.

“There’s a lot of parity in this league,” said Jordan, “and I guess if you want to say younger teams are getting better, or older teams are getting older–whatever–it’s starting to even out.”

The Bulls went to San Antonio last Sunday to start their demanding road trip, and they looked spent again while losing to the Spurs and David Robinson. The small, nagging aches and pains of age–the continued recovery of Cartwright and John Paxson from summer knee surgery, the ankle problems that have robbed Pippen of the spring in his leap, and the new wrist sprain that has flattened out Jordan’s shot–manifested themselves all at once. Words echoed back from the basement of the Stadium after the Charlotte game.

“You know,” said Bristow, “for us–not because we were playing the Bulls, but when you’ve lost four games in a row–you dig down a little deeper. Let the Bulls lose three or four in a row and see how deep they dig.”