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Two weeks ago, the Bulls were playing a rare home game in the month of February when they were suddenly subjected to a new and foreign sound. It was quiet. It was midway through the third quarter, and we could hear not only the squeak of shoes on the court but the echo of those squeaks reverberating off the ceiling of the United Center. It wasn't really silent in the stadium but it was quiet--silence of a very peculiar sort. There were times, in the old Chicago Stadium, when the crowd would be almost utterly still; one could hear shoes squeaking on the court from the highest rafters. Yet those were usually the anxious moments when things were not going well for the Bulls, just before the crowd erupted into boos--or, of course, just before Michael Jordan converted a steal into a thunderous slam dunk. This new silence at the Center had a completely different feel to it. There was the murmur of conversation, for one thing, but it wasn't the loud murmur of a busy restaurant; rather, it was the quiet murmur of a bridge club just after the hands have been dealt out.

Keep in mind, the Bulls were more than 20 points up at the time and the night's opponents were the hated Detroit Pistons. How times have changed for the Bulls since they moved across Madison from the Stadium to the Center. What once was cause for the most raucous celebration was now a ho-hum night on the town.

Scottie Pippen made a steal, dribbled upcourt, and shot a nifty backspin pass ahead through traffic to Toni Kukoc; the ball hopped up into his lap like a friendly dog. Kukoc jammed it through the hoop, putting the Bulls up 75-49, and that roused the crowd for a few moments. But then it was back to discussing the day's events, getting up-to-date with old friends, completing that business deal we'd been talking about.

It's unclear which is more responsible, the Bulls' diminished fortunes or their vacuous new arena, but there's a blase new attitude the fans have for basketball in Chicago. Part of it must be the Center, which has a sterile, pristine quality to it--the stadium equivalent of a new-car smell. One of our editors was telling us that he went to the Center for the first time, bought his peanuts outside as usual, went in, took his seat--and found he didn't want to crack the peanuts open. Where were the shells to go? On the floor was out of the question. We've heard other people describe the Center as an airline terminal and as a Lincoln Center for sports, valid comparisons when fans are sometimes welcomed by a string quartet or a smooth-jazz combo.

Even so, the Bulls as a team have contributed strongly to the drop in interest. They've become erratic and unpredictable, and it's no longer the unpredictability of last year's talented squad trying to keep itself together after Jordan. Rather, it's the unpredictability of the mediocre. The Bulls swamp the Orlando Magic, then lose at home to the Sacramento Kings the very same week. What's more, the Bulls as individuals have become damn near unlikable. Pippen and general manager Jerry Krause have been at war in the press, with Pippen demanding a trade. (A few months ago it would have been unthinkable that public relations for either of these two could get any worse.) New multimillion- dollar signee Ron Harper has been a bust, compared more often to Rodney McCray than to Jordan. Kukoc ought to be a popular player, but the language and his own humble personality have been barriers to fan support. Plus, while he has shown flashes of utter brilliance, he is also the most erratic player on this erratic team. Even a popular figure like B.J. Armstrong has lost his luster; a starting all-star in last year's fan voting, this year he didn't even make the squad.

Understand, the fans' new attitude is blase, not apathetic. On that night two weeks ago, friends of ours came down thinking they'd buy some scalped tickets. It was the Pistons, after all, and if the embers of this once fierce rivalry were barely glowing, then demand for tickets had to be equally cold. Yet they found scalpers sticking to a price of $50 a ticket, even 15 minutes after tip-off, so they turned around and went home. Meanwhile, the 22,000 fans inside were settling in to be quieter than the average movie audience.

Taking into account the team's fading fortunes and antiseptic arena, this cool response remains curious, because the Bulls are almost as beautiful as ever aesthetically, and more intriguing than ever as an enigma. On this night Pippen, still the team's flashiest player, was having a workmanlike game, having expended a lot of energy (to borrow a favorite Phil Jackson phrase) in attending the birth of a daughter earlier in the day. But Kukoc put on a remarkable show. The Pistons started with Rafael Addison on him. Kukoc lurked around the perimeter, either launching shots from outside or, better yet, passing inside to Will Perdue, who early in the game chewed up the mismatched Terry Mills. Mills had been shifted to center to make room at power forward for Addison. When Pippen sat down for a rest, Kukoc shifted to small forward and taught rookie Grant Hill a few lessons. Once, when Kukoc was posted up down low on Hill with their backs to the hoop, he showed Hill the ball over his left shoulder and Hill bit on the fake. Kukoc spun back to his right and slipped the ball into the basket as if he were reaching across the passenger seat to drop an envelope into a drive-up mailbox.

At times like that, one can see what Krause was so excited about when he drafted and eventually signed him to the Bulls. The very idea of Kukoc posted up in the team's triangle offense, with Jordan and Pippen at the other points of the triangle, would have driven opposing coaches into hysterics. At the half, Kukoc had made nine of ten shots--the one miss coming from three-point range--and he had seven rebounds to go with his 22 points. His prettiest drive was yet to come, midway through the third quarter. He faked Addison, drove past him down the lane, jumped, pumped, brought the ball down, and then fluttered it high off the glass and through the hoop as Mills came across the lane and fouled him. Kukoc added the free throw to make it 80-54. He would finish with 33, sitting out most of the fourth quarter in a 117-102 victory.

So why did this leave us all so unimpressed? It was the Bulls' tenth straight win over the Pistons; a fan would have been hard-pressed to remember that these two teams ever had a rivalry, much less one of the most bitter conflicts in National Basketball Association history. At one point late in the first half, when the Bulls were already up 22, Kukoc came down on a fast break with only Mills in his way to the basket. He went up, and Mills pushed him in the stomach, but gently enough to allow Kukoc to sling the ball through the hoop. In the old days, Bill Laimbeer would have crushed Kukoc beneath a barrage of fists and elbows, and Dennis Rodman would have been there to finish him off with a couple of kicks--especially had the Pistons been down 20 points. Not to ask for a return to those days, but a push to the tummy on a breakaway slam dunk?

"It got us back to .500, and hopefully we can build on that," said coach Jackson after the game. But no. The Bulls drove up to Milwaukee the following night and promptly lost to the Bucks for the third straight time this season. Then it was down to Charlotte last week, where, with the help of the Bulls' former defensive coach, Johnny Bach, the Hornets rallied from a 19-point deficit in the second half to win. The Bulls surprised the Hawks in Atlanta the following night, then went to Miami and lost to the Heat. Last Sunday Kukoc had an awful game shooting from the perimeter, and a couple of late hot spurts from Pippen and Steve Kerr weren't enough to prevent a fourth-quarter collapse in Orlando, even though the Magic were without Shaquille O'Neal and Horace Grant.

That dropped the Bulls to 26-29, and into seventh place overall in the Eastern Conference. They were still all but assured of making the playoffs, as the eighth-place Boston Celtics were 22-31. And of all the possible underdog playoff opponents in the East, the Bulls are probably the ones the top teams would least like to play. Playoff tested and capable of brilliance, even while up and down from night to night, the Bulls could knock off anybody, even the Hornets or the New York Knicks--their two most likely opponents right now--in a best-of-five first-round series. (The odds of them putting together four good games in a best-of-seven series are much steeper.) So there is still substantial play left for the Bulls, and they ought to be exciting fans, even the spoiled Bulls faithful.

They're not, however, and that is a curious phenomenon. The team is erratic, yes, and the new stadium is pleasant to a fault, but the single greatest reason for the lack of fan interest is probably Pippen himself. Some sports fanatics will no doubt find this opinion fanciful, and it's true Pippen has been blamed for all too many of the world's problems of late. But he has come to embody the ungrateful athlete at a time when fans have an intolerant attitude toward players in general as the baseball strike drags on.

The difference is that baseball players are doing their best to hang on to gains made over 20 years of hard negotiating with the owners. Pippen accepted a long-term contract at a time when--with his rookie-year back injury still fresh in his mind--he sought security. He made the deal he says he can no longer live with. It's possible to sympathize with the baseball players. In fact, we urge any season ticket holders sitting on the fence to withhold their money from the teams. The replacement player fiasco will not end until fans weigh in against it. Yet it is very difficult, if not impossible, to sympathize with Pippen.

Right now, athletes are faced with a poisonous environment where fans are concerned. None of us knows how far down this feeling goes, but there are indications. Somehow the tickets keep getting bought, but when Chicago fans can't work up any excitement about a rout of the Detroit Pistons, it's a sign of a deeply rooted malaise.

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