(With this column Ted Cox returns to the Sports Section. Three and a half years ago, Cox was forced to curtail his free-lance writing, and his close friend Alan Boomer took up the column in his stead. Cox now finds himself in a new situation, and Boomer has graciously agreed to step aside. Both trust that the transition will be smooth and uneventful.)
At the Bulls' media day on the eve of the opening of training camp a week ago Thursday, head coach Phil Jackson seemed more relaxed and cheerful than he had been in years. The opening day of training camp, like the first day of school, tends to bring out the optimist in people. And Jackson has never exactly had a dour presence. His smile is familiar: the mustache curls up and the eyes squint into deep-set lines that echo the heavy brows. Yet over the last few years, when Jackson put his smile on it seemed intended, above all, for its effect. It was a "no, really, I'm not concerned at all" smile that never failed to drive the New York Knicks' Pat Riley to distraction. Jackson was and remains a cool customer, but that smile always seemed to mask a certain amount of anxiety. Last week, however, somehow it seemed perfectly natural--the smile of a tenured professor at a faculty-welcoming cocktail party, before the first papers have begun to pour in.
Jackson said he figured the upcoming season would offer him his greatest challenge as a coach, but not even this prospect could ruffle his good spirits and it doesn't take long to figure out why. The onus is off the Bulls for the first time since Jackson became coach. The onus, in this case, is that of winning the National Basketball Association championship.
When Jackson stepped in, in 1989, the Bulls had just taken the Detroit Pistons to the Eastern Conference finals the previous season. When he won his first championship, at the end of the 1990-'91 season, the Bulls were then expected to repeat. Two championships after that, this time a year ago, the Bulls lost Michael Jordan, but they were still the defending champs; what's more, Jackson and the rest of Jordan's "supporting cast" were under the pressure of proving once and for all how good they really were without Jordan.
Now, having lost Horace Grant, Bill Cartwright, Scott Williams, and John Paxson from those championship teams during the off-season while retaining Scottie Pippen and B.J. Armstrong (not to mention Will Perdue), the Bulls still ought to be pretty good, even as they enter the season with little realistic hope of a championship. If they get significant development from young talents at center and power forward they can begin to dream of such a finish. If not, they still ought to be competitive, a playoff team. And in their back pocket they always have the option of trading their top talent away, crashing the franchise, and rebuilding from scratch.
By this time next year Jackson--and general manager Jerry Krause--should have chosen a specific path for the Bulls. This season, above all, is one of reassessment for Jackson, which puts him in a much more comfortable position than Krause enjoys. For Krause put the Bulls on their present course of reassessment and redevelopment; therefore, he'll be held responsible for the progress of center Luc Longley (not to mention Will Perdue) and forwards Corie Blount and Dickey Simpkins, as well as for the continued development of Toni Kukoc.
So it was no surprise that Jackson seemed the calmest and Krause the most uptight as the Bulls gathered at the Sheri Berto Center in Deerfield last week. They seemed the two emotional poles of the team. In the middle, of course, were the players. "It's amazing how quickly things have changed here," said Steve Kerr, suddenly a Chicago fixture after arriving in town as a journeyman guard only a year ago. "It's exciting, and a little scary, too."
Aside from the departures of Grant, Cartwright, Williams, and Paxson (who remains on, actually, as the Bulls' new radio color announcer), the most obvious change from last season to this is Pippen's hairstyle, fluffed out in a slight Afro as if he had just finished filming a bit part in Spike Lee's 70s-era nostalgia film, Crooklyn. When last seen last spring, Pippen and the Bulls were hard at work on damage control after Pippen refused to take the floor for the last 1.8 seconds of the third game of their playoff series with the Knicks. They reunited to take the Knicks to seven games before losing in Madison Square Garden, but it soon became apparent that that had been a spackle job and significant damage had been done to the foundation grounding Pippen to the Bulls. Trade rumors were thick during the off-season, but once it was out that the Bulls were shopping Pippen around Krause never received an offer that was, he thought, fair value. So he kept Pippen on, and signed Pippen's good friend Ron Harper as well, almost as a gesture of good faith, and now the Bulls embark on the season with as solid a 1-2-3 starting lineup--Armstrong, Harper, and Pippen--as can be found in the league.
Yet none of this addressed the issue of how Pippen felt about returning to a team that seemed to want no part of him most of the summer. And there were doubts about how strained relations really were between Pippen and Jackson. Media day--an evening designed for puff pieces and for reporters to renew old acquaintances, both with each other and with the players--was most newsworthy in the way Pippen and Jackson reestablished their working relationship.
Jackson had high praise for Pippen, calling him "a leader through action and motivation. That's what Scottie provides this ball club--the drive, the motor, the energy."
And for his part Pippen said everything that might have been expected of him, to the point where he almost seemed to be reading a script. "I'm happy to be back here. I enjoy the city of Chicago and enjoy playing here," he said. "I've always liked playing in front of the crowd here, and I feel the city is my home. Hopefully, I can finish my career here." He said he had already sat down for a meeting with Jackson. "I definitely stated to Phil that he's not gonna have any problem with me," he said. He added that he fully expected the Bulls to win 50 games this season.
On the other side of the dynamic, Pippen said all this having been appeased with the announcement that Kukoc would continue to come off the bench. Kukoc, looking lean and hungry after a summer spent running--no weight lifting--in Croatia, had no comment about that. Yet personalities aside, the decision seemed simply pragmatic. Add Kukoc as one of the league's best sixth men to Armstrong, Harper, and Pippen, and the Bulls remain competitive with almost any team in the league at those four slots. That leaves only center and power forward for the Bulls to fill.
Only center and power forward? Last season the Knicks and the Houston Rockets reached the NBA finals on the strength of having four of the best players in the league at those positions: Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley from New York, and Hakeem Olajuwon and Otis Thorpe from Houston. The game had shifted from the Bulls' emphasis on speed and quickness to a slower, more muscular style of play.
This season the Bulls' hopes that they can make a smooth transition back to the top are based in large part on new rules supposed to open up the game. The three-point line has been made a consistent 22 feet around the basket--supposedly drawing the big men out to guard against it--and there are new rules on hand checking and defensive shifting. Rules changes in the NBA, however, are no more precise in their effect than rules changes in the National Football League, and shortening the three-point distance could actually have the opposite effect, causing guards to fire away from the outside as big men clog the lane for rebounds. It's wait and see.
There's no doubt, with their lineup holes under the basket, that the Bulls would benefit from a more wide-open game. Longley, a pleasant, affable, and eloquent Australian, looks to have the edge at center after establishing himself as a fan favorite late last season (he came from the Minnesota Timberwolves in a trade for Stacey King). The edge at power forward appears to go to Corie Blount, who looks more like Horace Grant than ever after adding 15 pounds in a strength program with conditioning expert Al Vermeil over the summer. Yet both are still largely untested commodities at 25 years old, and there are significant doubts about whether Longley has the physical ability to play with the NBA's best at center, and whether Blount has the head to fit into the Bulls' complicated triangle offense and trapping defense. One, if not both, will have to establish himself as a double-digit rebounder for the Bulls to have any hope of a title.
With the league's new rules the question is: Can the Bulls build a contender on an offense working on the perimeter? They did in the past, but that was with Grant scraping the boards for 11 rebounds a game. Krause seems convinced that offense remains the wave of the future.
"As a roster, you can take the 12 best players and not worry about positions," he said. "You don't have to have a lead guard. There is no lead guard in the [Bulls'] system. It gives us versatility."
Training camp is a time for optimism, but we feel compelled to point out that Krause has had that spare-parts/versatility scheme in his head for several years, and that he once drafted Brad Sellers to fit into it.