Bill James, a longtime source of information for this column, sometimes refers to what he calls athletic intelligence. Like any form of intelligence, it is the ability to process information, only with the added physical dimension of sport. Exceptional athletic intelligence is what separates Frank Thomas from other young sluggers and Greg Maddux from pitchers with sharper curves or better fastballs. Applied to basketball and the Chicago Bulls, it is what separates repeat champions from teams that peak and are then played out. The Bulls' three-peat--put a nickel in Pat Riley's cup--was above all, I believe, an achievement of athletic intelligence and sheer will. It is probably the highest point this city's sports teams will attain for, oh, at least a year.
After the rough-and-tumble primal competition of the series with the New York Knicks, the Bulls found themselves on a very different plane in the National Basketball Association finals, against the Phoenix Suns. Not only were the Suns a typical--if exceptional--Western Conference team, stressing finesse over brawn, they thought a good game, and they talked an even better game than that. This was a high-minded series in every sense of the phrase, and it left a very serene and satisfying feeling in its wake--and not only because the Bulls won, although of course it would have been quite a different feeling otherwise. There was Charles Barkley displaying his peculiar--and affecting--sense of sportsmanship, while analyzing the relationship between the players, the media, and the fans. There were the Suns nursing their flighty point guard, Kevin Johnson, back to confidence and challenging for a series that almost got away from them at the outset. There was Michael Jordan, like Barkley, pondering his relations with the media after ending his self-imposed silence, and there was Jordan--and almost everyone on the Bulls' side-- talking about history, while the Suns spoke of destiny, replete with religious significance.
In the harsh spotlight of national television and hundreds of accredited members of the media, these two teams were forced to devote as much attention to themselves as to their opponents. At that level, basketball--like any sport--becomes a mental game, a contest of resolve, discipline, and self-knowledge, and the Bulls once again proved themselves unequaled in that regard. It takes talent but more than that, great mental toughness to win a title, and the demands increase exponentially year by year.
Comparing teams from different eras is a meaningless pursuit. What matters is whether a team defeats all competition, and how long it can claim that it did so. In three years the Bulls have eliminated 12 teams that wanted either to halt their pursuit of the title or to knock off the champions. In that time the Bulls have faced elimination themselves only once, for one game. They are a team of talent and tactics but also of strong will; they find a way to beat people, and they play well enough to do it. They have never really been challenged. How good are they? I don't think they themselves know yet.
The Bulls' strength in this area belongs in large part to Jordan, an immensely talented but, above all, competitive athlete who simply refuses to be beaten. But I think a great deal of the credit also belongs to head coach Phil Jackson.
Up until the finals, this playoff season was really Jackson's vindication. He outcoached the NBA's winningest active coach, Lenny Wilkens, in the conference semifinals against the Cleveland Cavaliers; he found ways to take the ball out of the hands of guard Mark Price and center Brad Daugherty, the Cavs' two best players, and the Cavs never solved that defense. Jackson also outcoached New York's Riley, the man considered by most hoop pundits the game's top tactician and motivator. While Riley counted on an improved squad using last year's game plan, which took the Bulls to seven games in the playoffs, the Bulls came up with new wrinkles and ended the series in six. Both John Paxson and B.J. Armstrong, after the series, credited Jackson and defensive assistant Johnny Bach with a scheme that stressed taking the ball out of point guard Doc Rivers's hands. Now, the Knicks, like the Cavs, have a two-man offense, based on center Patrick Ewing and guard John Starks, the team's assist leader. Why would Rivers deserve the defensive attention? Because he was the lone skilled ball handler on the team. Where Ewing and Starks played great two-man basketball, it took Rivers to get the ball to Starks. For the most part, the Bulls shorted out the New York offense before it could come close to making a connection.
Jackson, meanwhile, credited the players. In an appearance on his Know Bull television show after the Knicks' series, he said the Bulls were exceptionally intelligent as a group of athletes, that they could visualize tactics off the court and deploy them--with relatively little practice time--on the court, an invaluable quality come the playoffs and the steady schedule of game, day off, game.
It is Jackson who has brought out the intelligence of this team and found ways to inspire it. "He likes to challenge you mentally," said Paxson during the finals. "He's very good at understanding the long-range picture of things. And he deals with players very fairly--in his criticism and his praise he's very fair.
"I know that I'll look back, after having played for him, as a guy that stimulated me a little more than just with a basketball game, made me aware of some things outside the game. They make you aware of what's going on outside the game but they all were brought back to the game."
"He's a very articulate man who finds all ways of focusing the team," said Bach during the finals. "I think Phil has asked them to do a lot of things. We're not a team that stands out there and does it by rote. He leaves some things up to the team, their decision. He might say, 'Michael, you and Scottie figure out how you want to handle him.' I've seen him in time-outs ask the team how they want to handle it. He puts the game where it belongs--in the hands of the players."
This democratic attitude could only work with a team as talented and as heady as the Bulls. Jordan seems to have an innate sense of the game's strategy, and for basketball savvy he is matched by Scottie Pippen. (After last year's Olympics, Larry Bird said his appreciation for Pippen's play had increased tremendously; he called Pippen one of the most intelligent players in the game.) Jackson's democracy--and his vocabulary of Eastern mysticism, drawing on concepts like "energy" and "surges"--has led sportswriters to habitually underestimate his abilities. But in an age of self-satisfied athletes, he has found ways to keep his team hungry and focused, and there's also no denying that the Bulls' solid sense of the fundamentals Jackson and his coaches have instilled--the triangle offense and the rapid-rotation defense--is what allows them to improvise so well.
"It makes our defense more flexible, and certainly we're playing against a team that is flexible," added Bach. "I think we have a good handle on them now. That's the great part of our series--you get better and better handles, better and better adjustments, and the team that can make the best adjustments out there--not major ones, but minor ones--generally is the team that will pull it off and win it."
Bach spoke these words before the fourth game of the finals, after the Bulls' tough defense in the third game had failed to keep the Suns back from a triple-overtime victory in Chicago Stadium after two losses at home. I think Bach was overstating the case, in part to bluster his way through the team's defensive struggles. As Jackson himself said after the series was over, "We never could get a hold of this team. They always found a way to squiggle out whenever we got the lead."
The Suns, indeed, were a frighteningly talented team on offense, and the Bulls' defense could never quite contain them. When they were on, the Suns flowed to the basket like water, or like a herd of gazelles, and like such natural forces they seemed immune to most man-made obstructions. Aside from giving Johnson as hard a time as possible bringing the ball up, the Bulls could never quite identify any pinch points in the Suns' offense. In fact, after Jordan carried the Bulls almost single-handedly to a 3-1 series lead with his 55-point performance in the fourth game, the way the Suns exploited the Bulls' usual poaching defense in game five was dispiriting, for both the Bulls' players and fans. With Pippen cheating on Barkley, Suns rookie Richard Dumas surged to the basket for 25 points. It seemed the Suns were the team making the fine adjustments, while showing a defensive intensity they aped from the Bulls. After the fifth game, Johnson explained, "I just think, when you play a team enough, pretty soon you start finding things that you can do against them."
In the fifth game, won by the Suns 108-98, the Bulls seemed to be laboring under the onus of the history they sought to make. They couldn't make a shot early on, and then they wasted their energy just getting back in the game. Yet in this loss Jackson made his final discovery: that the Bulls' best short-term lineup against the Suns might just be one with Paxson and Armstrong on the floor at once.
With the Suns concentrating on shutting Jordan down, the Bulls' outside shooters were left alone on the perimeter. Pippen's shot was off consistently after the first two games of the series, and so was Armstrong's in game five--they combined to make only 11 of 28 attempts--but Paxson hit four of five, all from three-point range. That, in drama, is what is known as foreshadowing.
Off the court, Barkley reigned over the series; he emerged as not merely a great player but one of the great figures in sports. The night of that fifth game he was in his element. Before the game he sat in his locker stall and commented, somewhat bitterly, about all the riot-prevention measures the city was taking in the event of a three-peat. "You should never divide up the will before the person's dead," he said.
After the game, he did his comedy routine. Describing his pregame day, he said, "I'm walking down Michigan Avenue and I don't see anything in the stores. I started to get worried there for a second. I thought I was back in the neighborhood."
He also engaged in a little repartee with WLS radio's Les Grobstein. "I guess you all can take that damn plywood off the windows now," he said. Grobstein asked if they'd be putting it up in Phoenix. "We're civilized, we won't riot," he said. But there are ex-Chicagoans there, Grobstein added. "Just the rich Chicagoans who moved there," answered Barkley.
Barkley always seemed to have a fresh perspective on the import of the series; at one point or another he found a way to violate every sports cliche in the book. He especially took no jock-talk guff from TV commentator Earvin "Magic" Johnson, who suggested these two teams--led by close friends Barkley and Jordan--were too chummy and needed to hate one another more. "I think that's bogus, you know," Barkley said. "Come on. You shouldn't hate anybody." Meet the new role model; if I had a son, I couldn't think of anyone I'd more want him to emulate.
Except, perhaps, Jordan--and that's a big perhaps there. Who woulda thunk, before the finals, that if Leo Durocher's adage "nice guys finish last" held up, it would be the ruthless Jordan winning out over nice guy Barkley? Yet that, indeed, was the case. Pursued by increasing findings that he is obsessively competitive off the court, he only became more competitive on the court. His three-point shooting in the first game of last year's finals was a Ruthian feat, but this year Jordan established himself--once and for all--as a Ruthian figure of Ruthian appetites.
Hanging in my office is that famous photo of Babe Ruth in which he looks, dead on, at the camera. He has a somber expression on his face. The backdrop is one-half mottled white, one-half a most ominous black, and the bat over his left shoulder points to the black. I'd like to see Jordan shot in such an aspect. Like Ruth, Jordan epitomizes something about what's exceptional and what's warped in our culture, and, as with Ruth, it's a wonder that he can translate these opposing forces into such majesty on the field of play.
The Jordan is mighty and shall prevail. After much was made of Johnson's defense and Jordan's poor shooting down the stretch in the third game, everyone knew Jordan would explode in the fourth game. (In the pregame lay-up drills he was firing the ball through the hoop with slam dunks.) Everyone knew, the Suns most of all--yet still he was unstoppable. He drove to the hoop with long and lovely finger rolls in the lane; he pulled up and fired the ball off the back of the rim so that it ricocheted straight to the floor without so much as a ripple of the net; he hit high, arcing turnaround jumpers. And after that performance he sat scowling in front of the assembled members of the media and asserted that his job was not complete.
Jackson made it clear Jordan's shots had been based on the team's fundamental concepts, but he also granted him dominance with a strong military metaphor. "The dribble penetration was open to Michael all night long," he said. "Once we got in our basic offense, Michael just found that space open and took it and captured it and commanded it."
That, I believe, is why basketball has replaced baseball as the sport of choice--especially among the young. Whereas the serendipity of the lineup lends itself as much to Francisco Cabrera being the big-game hero as Ruth or Reggie Jackson--an "utterly unpredictable" element of the game, as Harry Caray says, which baseball fans treasure-- basketball, the sport for today's impatience, has the go-to guy, and there has never been anyone who fills that role as well as Jordan. He finished that fourth game, after the Suns had closed to within two in the final minute, with a drive that followed the path of a cyclone, across center court, down the sideline, and into the lane, where he ran into Barkley, bounced off his chest, hovered in the air while palming the basketball in one hand, and then sank the shot. Followed with the free throw, too.
The media got a brief glimpse of Jordan's motivational methods after the fifth game. Horace Grant had played miserably, scoring only one point while his counterpart, Barkley, romped for 24. Grant slipped out with Pippen, trying to avoid the reporters, but as the two skirted the fringe of the crowd in the interview room, Jordan picked that time to speak up, through the loudspeakers, saying in response to a question, "I know Horace Grant is probably feeling the worst of all of us and I know that he wanted to win as bad as all of us. He did not play the way he wanted to play." Comfort, empathy, and the lash.
In the sixth game, back in Phoenix, the Bulls recovered right away. They led 37-28 at the quarter on--get this for foreshadowing--a Paxson buzzer beater. They led 56-51 at the half and 87-79 through three quarters. Then, however, both teams turned up the defensive intensity, man to man, no stunts, and it was left to Jordan to carry the Bulls. He scored all nine of their points--as everyone knows--right up through his coast-to-coast rebound and lay-in in the final minute, which pulled the Bulls back within two. And then, of course, surprise of surprises, a couple of Francisco Cabreras came to the fore.
Jackson, ever consistent in his coaching style, asked the team what they wanted to do after they got the ball back and called time-out with 14 seconds left, trailing 98-96. Go for three, they decided. Jordan, of course, would take the shot. He got the ball on the inbounds, passed to Pippen, and moved up toward the three-point line, but Johnson was right with him. Pippen drove toward the lane, was halted by Suns center Mark West, and, with Jordan covered, passed to Grant in the area West had vacated. Grant was confronted by Danny Ainge, providing help, and passed into the area Ainge had vacated--to Paxson at the three-point line. There were no Suns left to shift over. Paxson hit the open shot with 3.9 seconds to play. He later described it as the championship-winning shot everyone--he included--has taken on the driveway, hundreds if not thousands if not hundreds of thousands of times. What a glorious mixture of dream and reality. Jackson might well call it the ultimate visualization.
My desk, right now, is surrounded by short stacks of stat sheets, note- and quote-filled notebooks, and newspapers. I'm taking a break to look one more time at a wonderful Associated Press photo of Grant swatting away Kevin Johnson's last-second shot in game six. Johnson is in midair, his eyes are closed, and his fingers are sticking up in the shooting position like the bare limbs of a tree that has had its topmost branches lopped off. Grant, chasing Johnson from behind, got all ball, making the Bulls champions for the third straight season. Tomorrow it all goes into a box and into the basement. It's history and it deserves to be preserved.
Those trying to diminish the Bulls' stature have pointed out how poorly they played, especially down the stretch, against the Suns. After winning the first two games in Phoenix, the Bulls really were outplayed as a team in each of the next four games. Their poor performances, I think, were a product of how acutely they felt the importance of what they were doing. Reports coming out of the Bulls locker room after the finale had Armstrong collapsed on the floor, in tears, as were several of his teammates, while Pippen asked a national TV audience if this was really happening.
After the Bulls won, we went out on the street and watched the cars go honking by and listened to the fireworks erupt near and far. After a while, we came back in and caught, on SportsChannel, raw, unedited footage taken in the Bulls' locker room. They came through the door and gathered, one by one, in a corner of the room, hooting and hollering, and after Jordan--the last, of course, and still clutching the ball he had chased down at the end of the game--made his way in and over, they knelt and prayed. When the prayer was done, Jackson and Jordan sought each other out and hugged long and hard. I'd like to think they both realized how much they owed one another.