Ever since Michael Jordan returned from premature retirement, Bulls fans have been hyper-aware of the need to preserve each moment as it happens on the United Center basketball court. The first time he went away caught almost everyone off guard; now everyone seems determined to meet the second, no doubt final, retirement with an abundant reserve of keepsakes--such as his game-winning shot in the first game of last season's NBA finals and his gritty performance in game five. This sense of treasuring what's precious has been extended to coach Phil Jackson and players Scottie Pippen, Steve Kerr, and the rest--yes, even to Dennis Rodman. Mass appreciation was never more obviously on display than it was during the ring ceremony before the Bulls' 1997-'98 home opener. The lights went down, bringing out the familiar Roger Brown silhouettes## in the U.C. skyboxes, and one by one the Bulls stepped into the spotlight.
Master of ceremonies Johnny "Red" Kerr introduced the NBA's David Stern as "the best commissioner in the history of sports," but the fans didn't buy it, booing him vociferously. That was kind treatment, however, compared with the greeting for Jerry Krause, the Bulls' general manager. The man who built the Bulls around Jordan, but who seems overly eager to prove his own worth by moving on to the rebuilding project that looms after Jordan's departure, was booed mercilessly. (The report in the previous day's Sun-Times that Krause had kept Jackson off the guest list for his stepdaughter's wedding, while inviting the Bulls' coach-in-waiting, Iowa State's Tim Floyd, poured kerosene on the kindling.) Owner Jerry Reinsdorf, it should be pointed out, was a no-show. Then came Jackson, to an adoring response, then the dearly departed Brian Williams (now with the hated Detroit Pistons, but remembered as a member of the Bulls on this night), with his big goofy grin stretched out to the point where it seemed the top of his head might flap back, and then the holdovers. When Jordan stepped out the flashbulbs popping in the crowd reached an almost unbelievable crescendo. It was a glittering display more impressive than the heavens on a clear autumn night.
It wasn't just the fans with their claws dug in to capture and hold every moment. Steve Kerr later said that, in marked contrast to the euphoria of winning the championship, the playing of last season's highlight tape--including Kerr's own championship-clinching shot in game six--on the stadium television gave him a "melancholy" feeling that brought him near tears. Invited to say a few words, Pippen was truly overwrought. "I've had a wonderful career here. If I never have the opportunity to say this again, thank you."
The Bulls' dynasty--five titles in seven years--is poised on a precipice as the season begins. Krause had to be bullied by public opinion to re-sign Jackson for what Krause (more so than Jackson) maintains will be the coach's last season in Chicago. Jordan signed another mega-million deal but still says he won't return without Jackson. In spite of his on- and off-court struggles last season, Rodman is back, re-signed at the last minute as the Bulls' only option at power forward, Jordan's pact having filled the team's salary cap and prevented the signing of any other free agent. Last and certainly not least, Pippen is in his last year of a dramatically underpaid contract, making him the Bulls' most attractive piece of trade bait should they appear likely to fall short of repeating as champions. He seems to have deliberately delayed necessary surgery on his foot in order to cut his trade value, but if the unfortunate result is that the Bulls struggle until Pippen ##returns at the end of the year, Krause could have the reason to force a trade he's looking for.
The perils of the Bulls' situation had loomed suddenly the night before, when in the opening game of the season they were all but run off Boston's famed parquet floor by a young and hungry team of Celtics that gained confidence with every moment as the Bulls' age and lack of conditioning revealed themselves. The Bulls went out to a 32-12 lead at the end of the first quarter, but the Celtics stormed back, outscoring the Bulls 56-26 in the middle frames. They ran the floor, flew in for dunks, and left the Bulls gasping in their wake. Worst of all, they thrashed the Bulls soundly at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second--the segments of# the game in which the Bulls routinely marshal their resources. The final was 92-85.
So began the last waltz.
It looked no better for the Bulls at the outset of the game that followed the ring ceremony. The Philadelphia 76ers scored the first six points, and even a devout Bulls fan, looking at the starting lineups, had to admit that the Bulls were clearly overmatched at three of the five positions. (When was the last time anyone could say that?) The Sixers had Derrick Coleman over the Bulls' Jason Caffey at power forward, Jerry Stackhouse over Ron Harper at small forward, and Alan Iverson over Randy Brown at point guard, as Jackson left Rodman and Toni Kukoc--both still trying to work their way into game shape--on the bench. Jordan and center Luc Longley were the Bulls' only dominant players. Yet something began to happen that dispersed the mood of melancholy and dismissed the Sixers with dispatch: the Bulls played team basketball.
It wasn't quite a clinic--no basketball team puts on a clinic in November--but it was impressive, sometimes beautiful, and it refocused everyone's attention on the game. Jordan, looking crisp, hit a couple of shots to get the Bulls going. Longley pulled down a rebound, staggered down the lane with a dribble or two, then flipped the ball ahead to Brown, who closed on the hoop with a lovely reverse layup to give the Bulls their first and, it turned out, lasting lead. Down 8-6, the Sixers would never get even again.
For all their talent, the Sixers' Coleman, Stackhouse, and Iverson couldn't play together if they were locked in a school yard with only a teeter-totter to entertain them. Iverson especially needs only to look at the hoop to begin an uncontrollable charge like an addict for a crack pipe. He took a peek while stutter-stepping past Brown and then drove for a lay-in to make the score 12-10 Bulls. But the Bulls tightened the screws on defense, collapsing into the lane whenever the Sixers threatened, and ran the score up to 18-10. Kukoc and Rodman came off the bench and Kukoc hit Rodman in the lane for a basket. Rodman performed a muscular tip at arm's length to finish the quarter at 27-15 Bulls. Just to prove he was unconscious, early in the second quarter Rodman turned from the free throw line and, with no Bulls under the basket, put up a shot--swish, 29-15. He fed Kerr on the fast break for a jumper, 31-15; then Kukoc, driving the lane, passed to Harper steaming down t#he left wing for a finger-roll lay-in, 33-15. Rodman was businesslike and so were the Bulls; though the Bulls would go on to commit 21 turnovers to the Sixers' 25, the game became a review lesson in Jackson's basketball Zen, in which the immediate task on the court comes to supply all the meaning one could ask of life.
Up 44-31 at the half, the Bulls allowed the Sixers to open the second half by flying around the court the way the Celtics had. But this time the Bulls started flying around themselves, with Harper (who ended with a game-high 17 points) and Caffey (14) doing much of the damage. There was some beauty, too. Jordan, coming down on a three-on-two fast break, deflected a one-handed p##ass to a trailing Caffey--a la ice hockey--for another dunk and a 68-47 lead. Early in the fourth quarter Kukoc pulled down a long rebound, dribbled out of traffic bouncing the ball almost shoulder-high, and hurled a behind-the-back crosscourt pass to new arrival Scott Burrell, alone on the right wing, for another breakaway. The play was the basketball equivalent of a spring crocus.
Jordan's 34-year-old knees were on ice by that point, and the crowd soon sauntered out--no more memories to be preserved on this night. The final was 94-74. After the game, all the reporters wanted to talk about were Pippen's bittersweet remarks and the idea that this could be the team's last campaign. Jackson, looking dapper in a three-piece suit and new facial hair (the mustache has been supplemented with a soul patch--quite cool), said, "I hope it's not something that hangs over us, that it's an uplifting thing." Kerr too was philosophical, saying, "Every year is precious to us but this year particularly, knowing it could be the last time around." At last Jordan emerged from the trainer's room and into his ever-crowded locker stall. He answered a couple of questions about Pippen, then deflected the conversation the way he did that pass to Caffey. "Let's talk about the game," he said. Yes, let's try to remember, keep repeating to ourselves, the game's the thing.