This Bulls’ season has been much more of an odyssey than were the last two campaigns. For the most part they were smooth sailing, aside from some turbulence during last year’s playoffs, of course. This season, though, the Bulls have worked their way through a series of tasks and tests. At times, the 82-game season has seemed just too long; at times it has seemed so demanding that it is nothing if not fair. Each team has had to weather storms and doldrums, so that even the impressive Phoenix Suns went through a recent rough stretch. For the Bulls, it’s been one calamity after another. First there were Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen working their way gingerly into the fray after a summer spent with the U.S. Olympic team; then the slow recovery of John Paxson and the controversy over B.J. Armstrong starting at point guard; then the win over the New York Knicks on Christmas and the ensuing hot streak; then the new injuries to Paxson and Bill Cartwright and the four straight home losses, which acted as a set of gargoyle bookends around the down-and-up road trip that was turned around with the Bulls’ comeback victory against the Utah Jazz.

The third of those four straight defeats at home, the loss to the Knicks, ushered in the most recent phase of the Bulls’ season: Jordan and Pippen agonistes. Jordan missed that game, suspended after getting in a fight with Reggie Miller of the Indiana Pacers. Then Jordan and Pippen were each fined $10,000 for missing the media interview session before the All-Star game late last month. Then Pippen was suspended for a game after punching Jeff Turner of the Orlando Magic in a close road victory. The Bulls survived the loss of Pippen in a win over the Atlanta Hawks, but lost Jordan for a pair of games when he came down with a case of athlete’s foot that required him to be hospitalized.

Not even the Greek gods were so cruel as to visit such ignominious punishment on a hero.

Funny thing was, during these last trials–the loss of Cartwright and Paxson and the missed games by Jordan and Pippen–the Bulls actually thrived, winning seven in a row. The players on the much-maligned bench came to life, foremost among them center Will Perdue, who laid claim to the starting job in place of Cartwright, but also center/forwards Stacey King and Scott Williams and shooting guard Trent Tucker.

Tucker had his best game of the season in that win over the Hawks that Pippen sat out. He made all nine shots he took, six of them from three-point range, to finish with 24 points. That was the sort of performance one expects once a season from Tucker, and it made the game a rout. Yet more important were the contributions by Perdue and Williams. Against the Hawks, whom the Bulls had not defeated this season, head coach Phil Jackson replaced Pippen with Horace Grant at small forward and started Williams at Grant’s power-forward position. The Hawks had ruled the Bulls in large part because small forward Dominique Wilkins gave Pippen fits and center/forward Kevin Willis did the same to Grant. With Grant shifting over to cover Wilkins and the larger, heavier Williams keeping Willis off the boards–Williams outrebounded him 11-8–the Hawks’ two main strengths were negated, allowing Tucker and Jordan, who finished with 34, to rule the game. Jackson was impressive in playing the proper cards off the bench at the proper moments. The Bulls, it appeared, were indeed going to come around, not only in time for the playoffs, but in time to secure home-court advantage right up to the NBA finals.

Yet after a nice road win over the New Jersey Nets (who were suffering their own long-season struggles, having lost point guard Kenny Anderson to a broken wrist in a flagrant foul by the Knicks’ John Starks), Jordan came down with his new affliction. The following night the Bulls won their first game without Jordan since 1986, but it was nothing to brag about: they beat the Dallas Mavericks, the worst team in the history of the National Basketball Association and one of the worst teams in the history of professional sports in this country. “We finally got the monkey off our back,” said Grant afterward, but he said it with a smile. It didn’t really count.

Last Friday, before taking a rare weekend off, the Bulls had a chance to claim their first authentic win without Jordan, against the San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs, following a coaching change in which former college desperado Jerry Tarkanian was replaced by the emotional John Lucas, had proved themselves to be one of the best teams in the league. Yet they, too, were suffering the effects of the long season. They had won only one of five games on a seven-game road trip coming into the Chicago Stadium, and starting small forward Sean Elliott had remained home throughout the trip, nursing a back injury. This wasn’t quite a fair exchange for Jordan, but it helped.

The Bulls, in defending their home court without their best player, went to an old NBA strategy against a team in the midst of a long road trip: they tried to run the Spurs off the court. And it worked at the outset in large part because of their innovative defensive matchups. As in the Atlanta game, the Bulls shifted Grant to small forward and started Williams at power forward, with Pippen moving to Jordan’s guard spot. Yet on defense, they had Williams guard San Antonio’s center and best player, David Robinson, with Perdue covering the Spurs’ laconic power forward, J.R. Reid, Grant covering swing man Willie Anderson, and Pippen taking guard Dale Ellis, whom he and Jordan had had some dingdong battles with over the years. In the early going Williams tied up Robinson, who didn’t score until the game was more than ten minutes old, Grant and Pippen kept the Spurs’ outside shooters busy, and Perdue dominated Reid on the boards. Time and again Perdue came down with the rebound (he had seven in the first quarter) and dished it out to Pippen, who went right at the Spurs, acting as the triggerman on the fast break. He had three assists in the quarter, two of them on slick, early fast-break passes to Grant, who was running the floor like a three-year-old thoroughbred in his first race. Having established his supporting cast, Pippen came down on a fast break, pulled up, and popped, giving the Bulls a double-digit lead at 17-6, and he simply controlled the rest of the first quarter, scoring on a monster alley-oop from Armstrong to put the Bulls up 26-8 and even hitting a three as the Bulls closed the frame with a 35-17 advantage.

The Stadium faithful–and anyone who jammed his or her way into the arena without the expectation of seeing Jordan has got to be described as faithful– were excited but anxious. One could feel in the crowd the search for little omens, for signs of a shift in the momentum, because without Jordan the Bulls lacked their one player sure to stop a run by the other team. The signs came: Pippen was called for a miserable offensive foul on a fast break, with the Bulls up 39-22, then Grant missed three straight free throws. As the Spurs slowed the pace of the game, the Bulls had trouble establishing their half-court offense. Williams and Grant were firing shots from outside–Grant with that funny backfire kick of a jump of his, Williams with that two-handed form in which he looks like a zookeeper trying to scratch an elephant’s belly with both hands–but the Spurs were driving toward the basket and picking up fouls. They moved the six-foot-eight Anderson back to guard alongside the six-seven Ellis and went to a more deliberate offense. “It was a strategy where they had to come in with their big guards and try to overpower us with their size, and they did,” Jackson said afterward. Still, the Bulls, with Pippen hitting another last-minute three, managed to hold on to a 54-40 lead at the half.

The Spurs, however, had arrived at the lineup and the tactics they wanted, to which they added a little extra intensity in the third quarter. Pippen tried to carry the Bulls through this rough stretch by himself, but the Spurs took to putting him on the free-throw line and he, like Grant, missed three foul shots in a row. For Chicago fans, the bad omens were as plain as a hat on a bed. And San Antonio got the lead down to single digits, 78-69, at the end of the third quarter.

Pippen, working without a second-half rest, tried to carry the Bulls through, and he gave the Bulls an 80-69 lead with a hoop. But “Scottie got tired,” Jackson later admitted. “Scottie I felt needed to be in that game to help us win.” Meanwhile, Ellis, his opposite number, came off the bench to hit two straight threes, bringing the Spurs back to 83-77.

Here Jackson went to King, hoping he’d give the Bulls a quick spurt of offense, and King became the Bulls’ most dependable guy in the pattern offense while showing atypical effort on defense. But after putting Robinson on the foul line he eventually fell asleep, as usual. Robinson made one, missed the second, and followed his shot with a rebound King should have had, drawing another foul. He made both those shots, making the score 93-91 Bulls with three minutes to play. Antoine Carr converted another foul into a tie game a few moments later. (Aided by the Bulls’ poor foul shooting and some doubtful calls by the refs, the Spurs outscored the Bulls by 22 points at the line.) With 40 seconds to play, Pippen hit one of those shots of his that ricochet off the back iron and straight down to the floor through the net, and the Bulls led 95-93. The Bulls played tenacious defense, but Armstrong allowed Avery Johnson to drive past him as the 24-second clock ran out and Johnson made the lay-up to tie the game. The Bulls set up a perfect last-second play, with Pippen driving into traffic and passing out to Tucker, protected by a King screen, but Tucker missed, and the game went into overtime.

Did anyone say missed free throws?

Jackson had used King and Tucker down the stretch in the fourth quarter to get some offense, but he brought Perdue and Williams back out for overtime, and they helped keep the Bulls in front for most of the five-minute period. The Bulls made a basket, the Spurs made a basket, the Bulls made another, the Spurs made another, but eventually Armstrong made only one of two foul shots, giving the Bulls a 102-101 lead with 1:45 on the clock. It was all the scoring the Bulls would do. Grant fouled out guarding Robinson, and the Spurs went right to Anderson, who took a shot that bounced high off the back rim, high off the front rim, and then dropped through the hoop for a 103-102 Spurs lead. The next time down the floor, the Bulls executed a play that had already worked once in OT: Pippen cutting off a pair of screens to take a bounce pass from Perdue and drive to the hoop. The first time, it worked for a dunk. This time the pass went right through his hands and out of bounds.

Two San Antonio free throws later, with the Bulls down 105-102 in the closing seconds, Armstrong missed a three but the Spurs lost the rebound out of bounds. Then the Bulls passed the ball in to Williams at the top of the key, and he took the shot–let’s make it clear, that’s Scott Williams, not Corey Williams–and missed everything, giving the Spurs the ball and the game.

Pippen seemed to take the loss hardest. At the buzzer, he looked up, puffed his cheeks, and blew out a deep breath before leaving the floor.

Jackson, however, seemed pleased with the performance. “We were a little hasty, and I think we missed the guy that we went to a lot of times in key situations,” he said, but overall he was satisfied.

So much so that, when the Tribune’s Sam Smith asked, “What was the play when you came out of the time-out, I think it was, when Scott Williams shot a three?” Jackson gave one of those long looks askance–not quite the one he gives the refs after a doubtful call, but similar–and he responded, “Do you want to know the play, Sam?”

“Yes,” Smith said.

“The play’s called, ‘What the fuck.’ And that’s exactly what happened.” Jackson curled up the corner of his mouth, Smith smiled, and the circle of reporters burst into laughter.

A little comic relief in the long epic poem of the season.