By Ted Cox
Henceforth I ask not good-fortune, I myself am good-fortune. –Walt Whitman
That quotation was used by coach Phil Jackson–in a slightly but significantly altered form–to prepare the Bulls for the National Basketball Association playoffs. As each player arrived at the United Center for last Friday’s first game of the opening-round series with the Miami Heat, he found taped inside his locker stall a photocopy of a handwritten note “from the desk of Phil Jackson”: “Henceforth, we seek not good fortune, we ourselves are good fortune.”
Leaves of Grass, sure, but which poem and from what era? One of the most interesting things about the quotation is that it’s not one of Whitman’s signature lines from “Song of Myself.” What’s more, it’s not found in Bartlett; it’s a reader’s line, a line of personal significance. So we–yes, we–got out our Leaves of Grass when we got home Friday night and started looking, beginning with Whitman’s war poems. He was always more of a first-person than a second-person poet–and never much of an editorial-we priss–and the war poems seemed to offer the best chance of finding such an obvious, if understated, rallying cry. No go there, but we continued on to the end, checking each page for a line beginning with “henceforth.” Yet “henceforth,” likewise, is a word somewhat elevated from everyday use, and therefore uncommon in Whitman, especially in the later poems. So back we went to the beginning, feeling a little as if we were seeking that needle in a haystack, when there it was in “Song of the Open Road” in its original form.
Switching the narration from first-person is not as significant as it first may seem. In writing about himself, Whitman sought a universal connection with his readers–an inherent, unspoken “we”–and Jackson simply makes that overt in a way that, for instance, we might. Yet any reader would have to admit that the line takes on a subtly different meaning when applied to a team embarking on the playoffs after a record-breaking regular season. For Whitman, it’s a poem of self-reliance. “Strong and content I travel the open road,” he writes. Jackson’s version draws on that connotation, but also suggests that the team has reasons for its contentment. “Be confident and content in who we are off the court and what we’ve accomplished on the court,” he seems to say, “and the rest will take care of itself.” It’s an attempt to undercut any self-imposed pressure. As the Bulls themselves had said, to a man, that their historic 72-10 season would be meaningless without a championship to complete it, the self-imposed pressure had to be immense as they opened the playoffs.
Down the hallway, the Heat were coming off a week of two-a-day practices–a rigorous regimen more common in training camp than at the end of an 82-game campaign–under the guidance of coach Pat Riley. Miami’s Stacey King, who played on the Bulls’ three championship teams before being traded for Luc Longley, was asked how Riley and Jackson compared. Both are astute tacticians, he said, and both have the respect of their players, but in completely different ways. “Their styles are totally different,” King said. “Phil is into Zen. Pat is into motivational speaking. Phil is quick to give a guy five days rest with a bad knee. With Pat, none of our guys miss [a game]. We come out and play. We’ve got guys banged up. A lot of them are banged up now. Nobody misses games. It’s totally different in that respect.”
“Phil is more relaxed,” echoed John Salley back in the Bulls locker room as he recalled his own experience with an intensely Irish coach, Chuck Daly at Detroit. He said practice sessions are calmer with the Bulls, and the players are expected to be more self-motivated. “The guys know what they’ve got to do.”
Both Jackson and Riley are very much into the mental game of basketball, but in a yin-yang, darkness-and-light opposition. There were no literary quotations pinned up in the Heat locker room before Friday’s game, only the usual playoff reminders on the blackboard: no layups; pressure and body them; keep ball out of paint; one shot. If there had been any dictum out of Bartlett, it probably would have been something not from Whitman but from Nietzsche.
Statistically the teams were mismatched. The Bulls had won 72 games in the regular season, the Heat 42. Riley’s only hope lay in the belief that the Bulls’ second-tier players–Longley, Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr–did not have the mental toughness of Bill Cartwright, Horace Grant, and John Paxson in their championship years. As Riley had put even those players to the test during his tenure as coach of the New York Knicks, it seemed sound strategy. Keep the games close, he thought, and hope that the Bulls would begin to feel their own pressure. For a half, it seemed a rational plan. The Bulls looked somewhat tentative and out of sync, and the score was tied at 54 at intermission. Pippen, Kukoc, and even Michael Jordan played erratically and looked ragged at times, while the Heat’s point guard Tim Hardaway kept Miami in the game single-handed. He scored 26 in the first half alone, at one point stripping Jordan of the ball and driving the court for a layup.
Yet by imposing an intense toughness on his own team, Riley left the Heat susceptible to cracking, like a vase in an overheated kiln. In the second half it was the Heat, beset by foul trouble and frustrated by the Bulls’ defense–Ron Harper stymied Hardaway in the third quarter, stealing the ball three times and making Hardaway work on the defensive end by scoring eight points of his own–that shattered. Centers Alonzo Mourning and Chris Gatling both fouled out and were then banished to the dressing room by the referees for bitching about the calls, as was Riley himself, who left the floor with the scowl of a mobster on the way to the grand jury. Jackson had to control his own laughter as Riley and the Heat players kept marching past him on their way to the locker room. “It was like a parade,” he said afterward.
While Jordan, Pippen, and Kukoc never did get comfortable (the four days off between the playoffs and the regular season showed), they all made their shots when it counted–Jordan had a crisp turnaround jumper going throughout the game and finished with 35 points, while Kukoc had 21 and Pippen, playing his usual solid floor game, had 13–and the Heat didn’t come close, losing 102-85.
“This is a tough time of the season,” Jordan said, “when you’re going to get challenged physically as well as mentally. And you have to maintain a certain poise. And we were fortunate that they lost their cool before we lost ours.”
That inner gamer was closer than the final score. Jordan himself said, “I thought we lost Dennis,” when after a couple of Solomon-esque double foul calls involving Rodman and the Heat’s impetuous rookie Kurt Thomas, Rodman rolled on the floor in protest, drawing a technical foul. Yet Rodman controlled himself to the point where he started goading Riley, while Pippen taunted Mourning into losing his cool.
For all his talk of sporting compassion as an avowed “Zen Christian” Jackson is not averse to a little gamesmanship, and he declined to criticize Pippen when given the opportunity after game one. “Well, it’s the way players play in this game,” he said. “We’re playing for money. It’s a big game.”
Riley could do nothing but complain about the referees. A few years ago he’d called the Bulls crybabies for griping about the officials. Now who was the crybaby? When the Miami players came out with nothing fresh in Sunday’s second game of the series, the Bulls ran roughshod over them. The Bulls were back in rhythm, and they produced beautiful basketball from the opening tip. They scored the first six points, then four more before the Heat scored again. When Jordan stopped and popped, hitting a three out of a fast break, the Bulls had a double-digit lead at 15-4. They drove the lane and passed to Kukoc and Harper for short, open jumpers. When the jumpers were covered, they passed back outside to Jordan and Pippen for open threes. Jordan had his turnaround going again, and he established the space to hit those outside shots by driving to the hoop for one of his presto layups early on. After missing a pair of foul shots early in the second quarter Pippen went crazy as well, with a behind-the-back layup out of a fast break, then a big rebound that led directly to another Jordan jumper. At halftime Pippen was on pace for a triple double, with 12 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists, while Jordan simply had 26 points.
The Heat were never in the game. Wound up too tight for the Friday opener that got away from them, they were left flat on Sunday. They were down 25 points, 63-38, at the half. We don’t know for certain who Riley invited in to give the motivational speech at intermission, but it must have been someone along the lines of Peter McNeeley, because the Bulls scored the first seven points of the third quarter, then padded the lead out to 34, at 76-42, before coasting home. Not even the injured back of Jordan and the ejection of Rodman could slow them down. Pippen carried them through the third quarter with ten points, two more rebounds, and two more assists. When the Bulls pulled down an offensive rebound early in the second half, then passed the ball briskly around to Pippen for an uncontested ten-foot jumper from the baseline, it was obvious the Heat had quit.
The Bulls looked beautiful. And in the fourth quarter, while the scrubs mopped up, Pippen and Harper, Kukoc and Bill Wennington sat on the bench smiling and yukking it up. While the game ran down Harper traded remarks with the Tribune’s Sam Smith, sitting right behind him on press row, and during time-outs the newspaper photographers sitting along the baseline all rushed over to capture shots of the Bulls in full glee. Through the viewfinder they must have looked like those old photographs of the 1927 New York Yankees, Murderers Row, calm, confident, and cocky, anchored by the sport’s greatest player. Whatever pressure they’d burdened themselves with before the series began was by then long gone.
When the game ended, Riley led the Heat off the floor, a thoroughly whipped and utterly humiliated bunch. “It’s an emotional game,” he said. “It’s human nature” to suffer a letdown after a loss like Friday’s. “I just felt today we were soft, very soft.”
Evidently Nietzsche had it wrong when he insisted that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.