It was like that moment in The Natural when Roy Hobbs hits one up in the lights and sparks come raining down on the fans, except that it wasn’t overblown movie bathos but real life. Michael Jordan walked out from the end of the floor, cast in a spotlight against a background of darkness, camera flashes going off throughout the Stadium, and it really did look as if he were taking his place in the firmament, among the stars.
Yes, the Bulls’ season began this year with an ending, and in that we were grateful enough. Never to see Jordan play again was one thing; not to be part of that almost tangible applause–like water pressure at a great depth–at least a few times more was something else again. So he wandered out at the appropriate moment (did Johnny Kerr introduce him? we couldn’t hear it) and the applause came down, and he picked up his third straight championship ring and he said a few words, and then he went and sat down–with his family, not with the players, but close enough to the Bulls bench that he haunted them like a ghost come to visit for the evening.
“It seemed like a looming presence to a lot of people,” head coach Phil Jackson said afterward. The Bulls played with all the composure of dinner party hosts watching the candles light themselves, and they lost their home opener 95-71 to the Miami Heat. The Bulls looked, oh, about 32.6 points shy of their normal selves of a year ago. After the pregame excitement, the crowd soon seemed spent. They quieted as the Bulls fell behind 23-19 at the quarter, then seemed restless and inattentive as the Bulls went over four minutes without scoring in the second quarter on the way to a 41-25 halftime deficit. (The 6 second-quarter points and the 25 at the half were both team records.) Many fans, having seen the last of the past they treasured and the first of the future they feared, left after three quarters, with the Bulls down 69-50. Jordan got up from his seat and left to a standing ovation–from the few fans left–with just under three minutes to play in the game. At the end the stadium had returned to that long-forgotten state of affairs when two guys yelling together in the upper deck can be heard throughout the arena.
The most jarring event of the night was a Dan asking a Christina in a scoreboard message to marry him. She said yes; they hugged and kissed. Life goes on.
Yet life goes on at a less intense pace than before. Before last Saturday’s game against the Boston Celtics the Chicago Stadium lacked that feeling of excitement common to every Bulls game during the Jordan era. November basketball is an ugly sight (not quite as ugly as October hockey, but close); but when Jordan was on the floor, especially in November, there were always a large number of fans seeing him for the first and only time–perhaps that season, perhaps ever. And always they expected that at some point during the evening he would imprint in their minds the image of something they had never seen done before.
Last Saturday one could feel the absence of that excitement the moment one walked through the door. And with the Celtics having lost Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Reggie Lewis over the last couple of seasons, with only Robert Parish remaining from their glory teams of the 80s, Boston fans–usually a sizable contingent in this city–weren’t about to make up the intensity. Or maybe it was just that all the city’s Irish fans were in some gutter, celebrating the Notre Dame upset of Florida State earlier in the day.
The most discouraging thing about the home opener was that the Bulls quit. At one point in the third quarter the Heat ran three straight fast breaks past the Bulls–two of them with center Rony Seikaly finishing. The Bulls never bothered to get back. One of the reasons the Bulls were at or near the top of the league in victories the last three seasons was that they rarely gave up. Every team in the league has nights it isn’t functioning, even against the worst opponents, and most teams just write those nights off. Not the Bulls. Usually with Jordan leading the charge, they’d make a run and at least force the opponent to win the game, not just accept the victory.
The Bulls, after all, remain a pretty good team. On the opening night of the season they shaved the Hornets in Charlotte in overtime, with Horace Grant tipping in the final basket. They also defeated the Bucks in Milwaukee on a last-second shot, this one a three-pointer by Toni Kukoc. The Bulls have seven new players and at some points put three or four of them on the floor at once, but they remain, essentially, three-time champions who tend to win games on their composure–on forcing the other team to defeat them. They ought to win 45 games on that alone. Yet the difference between a 45-victory team and a 50-plus team is those games in which they don’t have it and somehow tough out the victory–not on composure, but on grit and determination. We’ll see how much of that the Bulls have.
They’ve got talent enough to be respectable and make the playoffs–even without Jordan, although not without Scottie Pippen. Pippen hurried back too soon from (late) off-season surgery on his ankle, prone to tendinitis for years. He was limping by the second half of the Heat game and went on the injured list afterward, and he’ll be out until at least late this month. But there are benefits to that, the main one being that the new Bulls now have a better chance to establish what their roles should be, rather than trying to fit in with an old team’s old ways.
Some of these new Bulls will not be Bulls for long. Center Bill Wennington, Chris Mullin’s teammate at Saint John’s ten years ago, made the team when Scott Williams tore up his knee in a fluke accident, while stretching during training camp. Williams will be back soon enough that Wennington had best get his passport in order if he intends to keep playing basketball. Dave Johnson, a 6-7 guard-forward, joined the team when Pippen went down. The Bulls were ready to draft him out of college a year ago but the Trail Blazers got him first. In Portland, however, he was involved in a sex scandal on the road (underage basketball Annies, evidently) and never really recovered his reputation. Jerry Krause, the Bulls’ vice president of basketball operations, is the man who took Quintin Dailey and other lowlifes off the team in the mid-80s, and he maintains Johnson is a good guy who simply got himself into a couple of bad situations. But the Bulls’ questionable need for an extra swing man when Pippen returns may make Johnson’s personality a moot point.
Jo Jo English is a typical low-level scatterbrained youngster; he takes the title “shooting guard” too much to heart. Against the Heat, he found himself in a mismatch, guarded by Seikaly. Instead of looking to pass to the inevitable other mismatch somewhere on the court, he put up the shot–missed, too, of course. The other new guard, Steve Kerr, would never do that; he’s a six-year pro, as sure of his shooting as he is of his shortcomings. But will the Bulls need two John Paxsons when the original returns from his season-opening injury?
Pete Myers has been placed in the uncomfortable position of filling Jordan’s spot as starting off guard. He is, without question, an NBA-quality defender, but as an offensive threat he seems a small improvement over last year’s sub, Darrell Walker. He has the look of a ringer in a church league–the style of a guy who knows how to play the game sullied by an amateurish sense of enthusiasm.
Yet Jordan’s real place on the team is being filled not by Myers but by Kukoc, the ballyhooed Croatian import. He is a 6-11 ball handler known as the European “Magic” Johnson, and already he has made that title as legitimate as such an unfair comparison could be. Like Johnson, he seems utterly unashamed of how tall he is; he dribbles the ball high, with aplomb, secure in the knowledge he can scoot around anyone who goes for the steal. He also has Johnson’s flair for passing, and “flair” is the right word. A Paxson or a Kerr can make a defender commit to the double team and find the open man, but Johnson and Kukoc do so with style. Kukoc has already established himself as a master of the no-look pass–Johnson’s signature move. And against the Celtics Kukoc went up in the lane, drew a double team, and then–carrying the ball head high–made a bounce pass with a flick of the wrist to Will Perdue, who grabbed the carom with a jump that carried him right into the basket for a dunk.
Against the Celtics, it was old home week, as Kukoc was met by Boston rookie Dino Radja, a bigger, bulkier, but almost as skillful homeboy from Split, Yugoslavia (now Croatia). They are so close that Kukoc was best man at Radja’s wedding. Kukoc had everything to write home about early in the game. He dealt out a no-look pass to Grant on a fast break to give the Bulls a 21-20 lead, then jammed himself on a steal and a pass from Kerr to lead the Bulls to a 24-23 advantage after a quarter. He did his Jordan imitation in the second quarter, up and under the basket with a scoop lay-in, flat-footed in the air, to put the Bulls up 45-44; then–finding himself guarded by Radja–he took his old buddy to the hole twice to help the Bulls take a 57-50 lead at halftime.
In the second half, however, Radja returned the favor, bulling his way over Kukoc on two of the rare times they were mismatched. The Celts got back in the game with some tough defense after the intermission, outscoring the Bulls 12-1. And it was Radja, too quick for the Bulls centers to handle, who led them out to the lead. He finished, in fact, with 18 points to Kukoc’s 16.
In a battle between the Bulls and the Celtics, two proud old franchises, it came down to two Croatians–an emblem, perhaps, of basketball in the post-Jordan era. Radja made one of two free throws to give the Celts a 96-95 lead. Kukoc drove the lane and dished to Grant for a jam to put the Bulls up 97-96 with 1:40 to play. A few possessions later, Boston’s Sherman Douglas, isolated against B.J. Armstrong, made a high, arcing, back-bending shot to make it 98-97 Celtics with 21 seconds to go. The Bulls put on a scattered, uncomposed version of the play Jackson had hoped to run, and in the end Kukoc split a double team, jumped, tried to hold himself steady in the air–and missed.
Radja went looking for him after the game. He poked his head into the Bulls locker room just as Kukoc was being asked about the last shot. “I’m sorry,” Radja said, “he can’t do miracles twice in two days.”
“It was a bad shot,” said Kukoc. “The next one will be better.”
It’s too bad that neither had the pleasure of seeing Jordan make a last-second shot at the Olympics.
Yet Kukoc is the real thing; that is abundantly clear. And, while I hope Jordan enjoys his retirement and stays away from the game, I do have a dream, and this is the one time I’ll mention it–that Kukoc becomes so good at fragmenting NBA tactics and returning creativity to the game that Jordan will return just to play with him.
Forget I wrote it. There’s enough pressure on Kukoc without placing responsibility for ending Michael Jordan’s retirement on his shoulders.