The Bulls have embarked on the 1991-92 season as the defending champions of the National Basketball Association, and it shows. That's not necessarily a compliment, however. They began this season, as every season, looking ahead to their early west-coast road trip as a test of how good the team was. In the first couple of weeks, they allowed the remnants of their momentum from last spring to carry them along; they just sort of worked themselves into shape. They then went west for six straight games, while the circus took up residence at the Chicago Stadium, and the Bulls won every one, even defeating the powerful Trail Blazers in a wonderful double-overtime game in Portland, and all without Bill Cartwright, out with a broken hand.
That hurdle leapt, the Bulls returned home to play a series of lackluster games that they won almost as an afterthought, with a road loss to the Philadelphia 76ers the lone reminder that they don't win games simply by showing up. The Bulls entered this week just past the one-quarter mark in the regular season with an 18-3 record, five and a half games ahead of the second-place Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Central Division, four games ahead of the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks, and Los Angeles Lakers in the battle for the best record in the league and--it's never too early to discuss this--home court advantage through the playoffs, but also with a noticeable lack of any short-term goals. The Bulls looked invincible the way Mike Tyson looked invincible before he fought James "Buster" Douglas. They were drifting, getting by on their knockout punch and not technique.
"I don't know if it's problematic of the time period, week to week, or whatever's happening," head coach Phil Jackson said after a win over the Seattle SuperSonics a week ago last Tuesday, "but I felt that our focus and concentration wasn't quite as good tonight as it can be."
The same could be said for all the Bulls' games since their return from the coast, but the Sonics game might have been the most obvious example. The Bulls were soundly beaten for almost 42 1/2 minutes, but their 16-point run in a five-and-a-half-minute stretch at the end of the first quarter and start of the second gave them an enduring lead. The Sonics got back to within five points at the half, a point in the third quarter, and three with 100 seconds to play, but the Bulls held on to win 108-103.
The Bulls are very much the same and very much different from the championship team of only a few months ago. The actual personnel changes have been few. This fall, Jerry Krause dealt Dennis Hopson, a disappointment who brought little to the playoff run last spring, for Bobby Hansen, a defensive specialist and role player who fits much better into the Bulls' scheme. Hansen, a guard, has short bangs and relatively long, almost shoulder-length hair in the back, and with his pleasant, helpful demeanor he has the dry-look look and the ready smile of the lead guitarist in a female singer/songwriter's band--say, Karla Bonoff.
Otherwise, aside from injuries to Cartwright and Craig Hodges, the team is very much the same. Kansas forward Mark Randall, a broad-shouldered, corn-fed piece of Big Eight beef, was the lone pickup in last summer's college draft. When both Cartwright and Hodges return, stopgap center Chuck Nevitt, a seven-foot-five-inch player who makes Will Perdue look like a ballerina, will surely depart, along with one other person (barring additional injuries). Since midsummer, it was assumed that person would be Stacey King, but now it's looking as if Randall is in jeopardy, because King has turned his entire career around.
Last season, King was even more of a disappointment than Hopson was. Hopson, everyone knew, was a temperamental player with a ready capacity to go bust, but King was coming off a solid if unspectacular rookie season. King, too, is a prime piece of Big Eight beef, from Oklahoma, but last season he looked ready for the slaughter. He gained weight and lost motivation. Like so many of his Oklahoma brethren, in both football and basketball, he embarked on a pro career as if he had already proved everything he needed to prove in college. In short, he wasn't doing the additional work to make himself a good pro player, the way both Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant had. When the Bulls drafted him as the sixth player out of college in 1989, I thought they had gotten the best player available in the draft. At the end of last season, however, I had written him off. So had the Stadium faithful: King was getting the Brad Sellers treatment from boo birds.
Surprise, King has revived himself. Checking into training camp slimmed down and muscled up, he was determined to earn a spot on the team, even though his exhibition-season appearances were considered little more than trade bait. When Hodges and Scott Williams couldn't open the season he got a reprieve, and when Cartwright went down he claimed more playing time, sharing center duties with Perdue. The two of them were one of the main reasons for the Bulls' undefeated west-coast trip, so much so that when they returned the fans greeted King like a hero. King isn't simply a better player; he's a better person. A natural-born ham, he has fought his inclination to acknowledge the limelight and, instead, takes the court each game--more often than not introduced with the starting lineup as "the man in the middle," Cartwright's calling card--with a determined scowl. He frequently furrows his brow and even arches an eyebrow now and then when embarrassed by an opposing player or a call by the ref. He then usually goes promptly to the other end of the court and scores a basket in response.
Against the Sonics, the Bulls' 16-point early run was overshadowed by one other statistic: King and Perdue combined for 35 points. King started and scored the Bulls' first basket, off a beautiful pass by John Paxson, who saw that King's defender was overplaying him to the middle and who therefore gave him the ball on the baseline side, so that King simply caught the ball, turned, and jammed it through the hoop.
Both teams came out sluggish. The Sonics, too, lacked their usual starting center, Benoit Benjamin, but they filled the spot by moving rebound expert Michael Cage over from forward. Cage looks something like Giancarlo Esposito, one of Spike Lee's regular actors, but with a severe case of overabundant muscles. He's no patsy, and he helped keep the Sonics in the game at the offensive boards.
Who is missing from our analysis of the Bulls thus far? Who haven't we mentioned? Michael Jordan, too, is different from only a few months ago. "Me, and not me," he might say if he looked at a photograph of himself wearing shades and carrying the championship trophy as he stepped off the plane from Los Angeles last June. For years, Jordan's image as a pleasant ad huckster competed with, and even won out over, his image as a great, creative, but extremely competitive player on the floor. Sam Smith's book The Jordan Rules has changed that. Jordan now seems dour and even more insular on the floor. Even so, in the first few games after the book triggered new charges of Jordan being a selfish player, he went on an assist spree, handing out baskets the way a cardsharp deals cards.
He's been bothered by nagging injuries of late--a bad back, suffered in the Portland game, and an injured hand against the Sonics--but, of course, he's still something to see. After missing an easy lay-in on the offensive boards to open the Sonics game, and after the Bulls fell behind 14-7, Jordan took the ball to the hoop to earn a pair of free throws (made both), dished the ball to Pippen for an open shot, and then, after a pair of Chicago baskets put the Bulls ahead 15-14, made the following play:
Ricky Pierce ran him into a pick set by Shawn Kemp. The Sonics borrowed the pick and roll from the Pistons' game plan all night long, and, when Grant moved to cover Pierce, Kemp rolled to the hoop and took the pass from Pierce. Pippen, however, came over and intimidated him, and the shot came up short. Grant came down with the rebound off the front iron. All the while, Jordan, after shaking off his collision with Kemp, had circled the perimeter, and now he took off. Grant hurried the outlet pass to him. It was the Sonics rushing to get back at full speed, Jordan on the dribble at full speed, and they all came together in a pack from which Jordan arose like a bird escaping a pack of dogs, and he jammed the ball home.
Pippen then led the Bulls on their extended run, completing the 16-point lead when he found himself with the ball and mismatched against the Sonics' backup center, Rich King. He sent the other four Bulls to the opposite side of the free-throw lane, then drove past King and jammed it over the hustling, but late, Seattle help. Jordan has been erratic, almost distracted at times this season, but Pippen has been there night in, night out, and some of his gestures are now entrenched in memory alongside Jordan's best moves: the way Pippen comes down with the ball on the defensive boards and then starts the dribble by throwing the ball out in front of himself, as if leading himself with his own outlet pass; his very erect and proper shooting style, falling away from the basket in his follow-through, especially when contrasted with Jordan's whatever-works manner. And where Jordan dekes with a fluttering of the elbows and ankles, Pippen shimmies with the shoulders and drives like a sailboat turning with the wind.
King, Perdue, and the workmanlike, dependable Grant are the main reasons the Bulls are winning, but Jordan and Pippen remain the players who dictate the team's character. They're drifting now, simply turning up the pressure whenever they need it to win--keeping the Knicks at arm's length in a 99-89 victory, then blowing past the Washington Bullets with a third-quarter flurry in an otherwise unspectacular 113-100 win later last week--and that is not likely to change until after the New Year. It's a long season; the Bulls have already proved to themselves they have what it takes to win it all again. It's just a matter of waiting for the proper times to show it, on any given night, and in the season as a whole.