By Ted Cox
When Michael Jordan was asked recently how much personal investment he had in the Bulls' pursuit of a record 70 victories, he gave an answer that was very politic. "It's a goal," he said, after the Bulls had crushed the New York Knicks 107-86 at the United Center. "I don't think it's a goal that we started the season off to achieve. But right now, being that it's within reach, I'd like to see us do it--without putting anything in danger, as far as healthwise as well as team chemistry. But if we don't, the championship is the most important thing."
Jordan's actions, however, have ever spoken louder than his words, and no one who's seen him play over the last month could deny that he wants the record--wants it with a passion. Jordan is well aware of his place in National Basketball Association history--always has been--and here, at last, is something no team and no star has done before, not the Los Angeles Lakers of either Earvin "Magic" Johnson or Wilt Chamberlain, and not the Boston Celtics of either Larry Bird or Bill Russell. He has played like a man possessed, rallying the Bulls by example and by sheer force of will to overcome injuries to Scottie Pippen and Luc Longley and, of course, Dennis Rodman's suspension. What's more, while Pippen and Longley have both suffered from nagging knee injuries due to the normal wear and tear of the season, Jordan seems fresher--both physically and mentally--at this stage of the campaign than he has been since the Bulls' first championship season, 1990-'91.
"I'm having enough trouble getting him out of the game, much less getting him a rest," coach Phil Jackson said after the victory over the Knicks. "He's just playing with great intensity and smells what's ahead of us and is taking the team on himself."
Jackson, too, is a man with an appreciation for history, though he approaches it with a sense of discipline, keeping his own ego under firm control. It seems clear at this point that, like Jordan, he sets out to win every game, but as far as achieving 70 wins is concerned he wears a set of blinders. He seemed genuinely surprised, after the Knicks victory, to find that it gave the Bulls 60 wins, which prompted him to remove the blinders and look around--if only for a moment. He said he remembered going into New York for the final game of the season a few years ago, and the Knicks making a big deal about trying to finish with 60 wins. "Here we are with 16 left to play and we've got our 60th victory," he added. "We can stop and pause now a moment to assess the rest of the season, and put down some tracks as to how we can finish the season out." Translation: he wants 70 wins too, although he'd never admit it.
The Bulls entered this week with a record of 62-8, needing to go only 8-4 over the final 12 games of April to set the record. They had weathered both Pippen's injury--in his fourth game back he fully returned to form with a 22-point performance against the Los Angeles Clippers--and Rodman's six-game suspension. Jordan carried the Bulls through those six games--seven, really, counting Rodman's early ejection in the game he head-butted the referee--with the help of Toni Kukoc. Kukoc averaged 19 points, 6 rebounds, and 5.6 assists for the six games, first filling in for Pippen and then, on Pippen's return, switching to power forward, where he pulled down ten rebounds against the Knicks and nine against the Clippers. He also had nine rebounds in Toronto against the Raptors a week ago Sunday, but none of those came down the stretch. This was the Bulls' lone loss during Rodman's absence, but it was amazing to see Jordan trying to lift the Bulls almost single-handedly in the fourth quarter, when he scored 15 points. The Raptors' point guard, Damon Stoudamire, and center, Oliver Miller, chewed the Bulls up on offense, and the Bulls never did pull down an essential rebound. It turned out the Bulls missed Longley, out with tendinitis in his knees, most of all.
The loss took some of the luster off their easy victory over the Knicks the previous Thursday, a game Jordan simply took over in the second quarter--he hit a series of lovely turnaround fallaway jumpers over Willie Anderson, including one seemingly from behind the backboard. Not to be overlooked in that game was the return of Pippen, who looked quite out of sorts on offense but whose defense against point guard Derek Harper in the second quarter took the Knicks right out of their game. Anyway, the Bulls did rebound from the Toronto loss to return home and cruise against the Atlanta Hawks and Clippers last week, which got them to April.
The six games without Rodman produced the most dramatic stretch of the season for the Bulls, who spotted their opponents a significant handicap and tried to remain on pace for 70 victories. That done, they began a critical stretch last Tuesday of five games in seven nights, including home-and-home sets against the Miami Heat and the Charlotte Hornets, with a nationally televised game in Orlando against the Magic thrown in for good measure this Sunday. If the Bulls could win three of those games 70 wins would seem a good bet, as the only demanding games left would be with the Cavaliers in Cleveland and at home against the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons.
What if the Bulls don't do it? What if they not only finish with 69 victories but the strain of running at full tilt all season leaves them spent for the playoffs? That's the risk, and that's what the Bulls' drama is all about.
Watching Jordan and the Bulls maneuver through this season has been like watching Hercules perform his seven labors--right here in the flesh, or at least on television. In a way it's such a frivolous pursuit--70 wins. It sets a record, yes, but it offers no real benefit--the Bulls could clinch home court advantage in the playoffs by sending Jordan home and going 6-6 over the last 12 games. Yet that frivolity is in part what makes the pursuit more dramatic. It risks weariness, injury, the team peaking too early--but that risk appears to inspire Jordan. It recalls the season when the Bulls were trying to win their first championship, and writers like Sam Smith kept pointing out that no league-leading scorer who wasn't a center had ever brought home an NBA title. To tell Jordan now to judiciously choose between 70 wins and the title would be like telling him back then that he had to choose between the title and leading the league in scoring. Jordan doesn't work that way. He believes he can have it all, and the more risk the better. That the record is inconsequential is what makes the risk doubly delicious, and it's the risk that makes Jordan and the Bulls so dramatic.
The Cubs and the White Sox began the baseball season this week, and a suitably cynical Chicago baseball fan might point out that they too are in pursuit of 70 victories. After the Sox' woeful 1995 season, and with the Cubs losing bull pen ace Randy Myers, shortstop Shawon Dunston, and third baseman Todd Zeile over the winter, anything less than 100 losses would have to be considered a moral victory on either side of town.
We weren't taken by the hot stove league doings of either the Cubs or the Sox this winter. It seemed to us that the Cubs' general manager, Ed Lynch, utterly rejected the short term in favor of the long haul, while the Sox' Ron Schueler took the opposite approach. Considering that the Cubs staged a rare September flurry last year to finish above .500, while the Sox waddled home 32 games behind the Cleveland Indians, anyone might have expected the Cubs to play for this year and the Sox to rebuild for the future. The best course for both teams was probably something in between.
The Sox have put their faith in a revival of their young pitchers, which is justified, and their trust in manager Terry Bevington, which seems misplaced, even if he did produce a 57-56 record after taking over for Gene Lamont early last season. Their most important off-season acquisition was also almost their most significant spring-training loss, as Tony Phillips signed with the Sox as a free agent, retired after a couple of days in camp, and returned after a couple more days of thinking it over. Frank Thomas aside, Phillips is the most important offensive player on the Sox. He is an excellent leadoff man, with a high on-base percentage, and he allows second-year second baseman Ray Durham to grow into the leadoff role while hitting in the number-two slot. Durham, like Phillips, is not averse to a walk, and there will be many times this season when Thomas comes up in the first inning with two men on. He should have a monster season--he began with a homer off Randy Johnson Sunday night on the first pitch he saw--especially if Robin Ventura or the returned Harold Baines has a good year hitting behind him. Anything they get out of Danny Tartabull would be gravy. The Sox should score runs, but take Phillips out of the sequence and the whole thing collapses.
Pitchers Jason Bere and Wilson Alvarez are simply too good and too young not to justify their once considerable promise, and Alex Fernandez appeared ready to grow into the ace's role by the end of last year. That means it's all on Roberto Hernandez to return to form as bull pen closer. If he does, the Sox should make the playoffs as a wild card. If not the defense collapses, just as the offense does without Phillips. The Sox have a lot of talent, but also a couple of weak links that could send the season into chaos. In any case, the Indians would have to self-destruct not to finish ahead of them. Cleveland added former Sox Jack McDowell and Julio Franco to a team that was in the World Series last year without them. Still, any team with McDowell, Albert Belle, and Orel Hershiser has enough emotional kindling to be listed as a significant fire hazard. Self-immolation is possible, though not likely.
Meanwhile, Ryne Sandberg is back with the Cubs and Dunston, Zeile, and Myers have departed. The Cubs were not in an enviable position where Myers was concerned. We have always loved him, ever since he broke in with the Mets, but he's in his 30s, a dicey age for a power pitcher, especially a bull pen ace, and the Cubs rightly rejected his demand for a multiyear contract. But that left them without a closer. While replacement Doug Jones does have a tendency to throw ground balls, a plus at Wrigley Field, he also has a tendency to get lit up with homers, a significant drawback when the wind blows out.
The Cubs, like the Sox, have faith in their young pitching staff, and if top pitching prospect Kerry Wood arrives before the end of the century the Cubs will be dangerous. Yet in the short term they have not addressed their major offensive weakness--their inability, almost to a man, to draw a walk (Mark Grace excepted). Brian McRae is a great center fielder and a good hitter but a lousy leadoff man, and the Cubs' run production will suffer if they insist on leaving him at the top of the order. Worse was exchanging Zeile for Dave Magadan at third base. Zeile departed, supposedly, to give the clubhouse some emotional relief, but Magadan wouldn't offer a sandlot team an answer to its problems at third. He is years removed from his best seasons, and even then he was never the sort of power hitter the Cubs require at the position. The Cubs are not going to score runs, and their bull pen is going to cost them games. The one thing to be optimistic about, on a team with such gaping holes, is that Lynch and president Andy MacPhail have shown that they won't hesitate to pull the trigger on a deal. At various points this summer a third baseman, a leadoff man, and even a closer should become available. Unless they make those deals they'll finish ahead of only the Pittsburgh Pirates.