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Late this summer we saw a kid on a train platform wearing a new Bulls T-shirt. It made no reference to the most recent championship, nor to last season's record 72-win campaign. It read, simply but assertively, in large block letters: STAY FOCUSED.

Maybe we knew before then that the Bulls had an effect on Chicago fans that was something more than the usual partisan rooting. We had long argued that the Bulls should not be appreciated merely as our great basketball team, but for their objective skill and beauty on the court. Yet that T-shirt made its own statement along those lines. It was not where the Bulls played, nor even how they played the game that set them apart from other athletes, and implicitly, other champions. Rather, it was their mental toughness, their determination.

Looking back on 1996, we find the year was noteworthy for producing a series of "nice" athletic champions. There was not only Kerri Strug, who proved to be almost belligerently nice by the time her 15 minutes of fame had elapsed, but also a remarkably benevolent incarnation of the New York Yankees claiming the World Series. The Bulls fit in with that, what with Michael Jordan's pleasant public persona and coach Phil Jackson's Zen Christianity and his emphasis on respect for the opponent. There were the rehabilitated Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman--Pippen, who finally recovered fully from his petulant episode in the playoffs against the New York Knicks a couple of years ago, and Rodman, who remodeled himself almost completely after an entire career as a villain--and they too made a remarkable gesture in the afterglow of a championship, when Pippen accepted Rodman's apology at the Grant Park rally for pushing him into a bank of photographers several years ago in the playoffs.

Yet the Bulls were something more than merely nice. That chorus of "stay focused" characterized them as well as anything, and it had nothing to do with common niceties. From time to time on the court the Bulls could be downright ruthless, from the trash talking of Jordan and Pippen to the mind games of Rodman to the distinct lack of mercy shown by Jackson. (Compassion was something a victor could afford to mete out afterward; mercy in the heat of battle, never.) What made--and makes--the Bulls unique is the way they mix the mental with the physical, the spiritual with the tactile. Their emphasis on the inner game gives them an element of drama that most other teams and even most other champions lack. It is there for all sports fans to notice, no matter where their deepest allegiances lie, but of course there's nothing like the joy of taking in the Bulls for all they are and also being able to say, yes, they're our team.

Their game last week against the Lakers was just the sort of contest to offer a reminder of that allegiance we so often take for granted. First of all, it was against Los Angeles, usurper of the title of Second City (in population if nothing else). What's more, it was one of the first true challenges of the season for the Bulls, who for the most part feasted on the weaker teams in the league in building a 20-3 record over the first quarter of the schedule. The Lakers were 18-7, winners of five in a row, back on top of the NBA's Pacific Division on the strength of their new center, Shaquille O'Neal, a longtime Chicago rival while playing with the Orlando Magic. O'Neal signed with Los Angeles as a free agent over the summer for a contract worth an estimated $120 million. He instantly revitalized the Los Angeles backcourt of Nick Van Exel and Eddie Jones, and of course he bolstered the front line of Elden Campbell and the veteran Jerome Kersey.

The Bulls, meanwhile, for their glowing record, had not been playing well. They missed center Luc Longley, out with a separated shoulder, and Rodman was freshly returned after suffering from an almost equally debilitating lack of inspiration, which contributed to a two-game team suspension he earned after he went on a profane diatribe against the league in a live postgame TV interview. Could the Bulls regain their focus? Even focused, did they have the players to compete with the Lakers without Longley?

At first the answer to both questions was a definite no. The Lakers were fully prepared, forcing the ball in to O'Neal and having Jones run Jordan through a series of rough-and-tumble screens right from their first possession. When O'Neal fed Jones cutting off a back-door screen for a reverse slam dunk, it made the score 32-20 Lakers in the first quarter. The Bulls appeared to have no adequate response to O'Neal in the post, but worse, they were so preoccupied with him they allowed Campbell to score 8 points in the first quarter and 14 in the first half. Campbell, a rookie on the Los Angeles team that lost to the Bulls in the NBA finals five years ago, has always had a low-stepping, distinctly childish gait, and to see him and O'Neal having their way with the Bulls was like being beaten up by twin Baby Hueys. Pippen and Jordan, meanwhile, were rattling shots in and out. It was 36-22 at the end of the first quarter. While age-old center Robert Parish came off the bench to give the Bulls some much-needed offense down low with that lovely, effortless shot of his--all elbows, a flip of the wrist, and the slightest suggestion of a leap at the knees--he couldn't stop O'Neal either.

"C'mon, let's go, baby," yelled a fan just in front of us, below the upper-deck press box. "We ain't showed up yet."

Yet the Bulls soon fell behind by 21, at 53-32, and when Van Exel hit a three-pointer to make it 65-43 he jogged down the court throwing slow punches in the air.

The Bulls tried to rally before intermission, but Los Angeles coach Del Harris called a time-out and pumped up his team. They were running the court, flying through the air for alley-oops and slam dunks, and at the half they still led 72-57.

The Bulls' defense was slow to double-team O'Neal, who had 23 points, and slower still to switch off to cover the shooters when O'Neal passed the ball. Van Exel had 16.

Of course, everyone knew the Bulls had a run in them. They came out determined in the second half, and when Ron Harper and Pippen hit back-to-back threes the Bulls were only ten behind at 74-64. Again, Harris called a time-out and regrouped, and again the Lakers responded. Center Bill Wennington missed a couple of open jump shots, then committed a stupid foul on defense, and Jordan went over to Jackson on the sidelines and quite obviously asked him to do something. Jackson just shrugged and held his hands palms up, though he soon went to a smaller lineup of Rodman, Pippen, Jordan, Toni Kukoc, and Randy Brown. Assigning Rodman, the Bulls' best post defender, to O'Neal seemed to give the Bulls their best chance. Yet the lead was back to 18 after three quarters, 101-83.

Kukoc had been quiet up to then, playing his role off the bench; he had eight points through three quarters. Jackson started him in the final quarter along with Jason Caffey, Steve Kerr, Parish, and Jordan, who, it was later learned, was playing while battling the flu. As the night went on Jordan's shot got weaker and weaker. When Jackson subbed Brown for Kerr and Dickey Simpkins for Parish, Kukoc was forced to take the ball; he went off, Jackson would put it, like a firecracker.

Hitting a pair of three-pointers to pull the Bulls inside ten points at 107-98, Kukoc was clearly feeling "in the zone"--he'd attempt to describe it by saying, "It's just like nobody's on the court, just you and the ball." Jackson brought back Rodman and Pippen and deployed what was definitely the Bulls' best lineup against the Lakers. "With the personnel we had tonight," he said, "it was tough to play them straight up." The Bulls stopped O'Neal by shutting off the ball before it could get to him, by playing full-court defense. The scheme would not only cause six Los Angeles turnovers in the fourth quarter, it would hold O'Neal to four points after the first half.

The crowd had been apathetic for most of the night--"It was embarrassing," Pippen said. "We looked up in the stands and people were yawning"--but it began to get aroused over a few poor calls by the refs, and over some scoreboard film clips that would have been ludicrous but for what was about to take place. There was Gene Hackman as a high school basketball coach giving an inspirational locker-room pep talk in Hoosiers, then the John Belushi scene from Animal House where Bluto says, "It's not over until we say it is."

Yet the Lakers soon pushed the lead back out to 13. When Pippen lost a much-needed rebound, and Van Exel converted with a jump shot from outside, the Lakers led 113-100 with only four and a half minutes to play. "That hurt," we wrote in our notebook, and it was there we gave up the game, although of course we stayed put. Others had already left for the parking lot.

Most stayed on, however, to see Brown score on a driving layup. And Pippen pumped in a three to make it 113-105. The Bulls forced a turnover, and then really turned up the defensive pressure, with Pippen and Jordan both hounding Van Exel into yet another turnover in the backcourt. But Brown made only one of two free throws, leaving it 113-108 with less than two minutes to go. Pippen, however, stole the inbounds pass and was fouled. He hit both free throws. After Kersey and then Jordan each made one of two free throws at opposite ends, Campbell was fouled and went to the line with a chance to all but ice the game. He missed both. Rodman was mugged under the boards but Pippen came down with the ball, hurried it up court, and passed to Kukoc. Without even bothering to measure the shot, he calmly hit one of his high, arching threes, and the game was tied at 114 with 47 seconds left.

The mood at the United Center was euphoric, vastly different from anything felt in the playoffs. In that environment there's too much anxiety, too much riding on victory or defeat. Here the Bulls had made a game of it; if they lost they had nevertheless made their point and provided a series of thrills, and there would be another game on Thursday. When Van Exel drove for the go-ahead basket with 14 seconds to play the crowd was loud, rowdy, but acceptant. The same lineup had been playing seven minutes, and those players looked gassed--Jordan most of all. The risky but astute decision was to go for a three--win it here or go home satisfied with a tough loss--and Jackson inserted the long-shot specialist Kerr for Brown. The ball went to Kukoc outside, of course, but the Lakers covered him belly to belly, so he quickly drove past his man and down the lane, where O'Neal clobbered him. Kukoc got up, dusted himself off, and sank both free throws to send the game into overtime. He had scored 18 of the Bulls' 33 points in the fourth quarter.

And he wasn't through. Though Van Exel drew first blood with a jump shot, Kukoc answered with a driving layup. Van Exel scored again, but a pair of defensive stops later Pippen got the ball on a fast break and fed Brown cutting to the hoop on a bounce pass for a crushing left-handed slam dunk to tie it at 120. Van Exel then was fouled and finally blinked, missing one of the two shots. When the Bulls came down, their weaving offense quickly twisted the Lakers in knots. Kukoc found himself mismatched against O'Neal at the top of the key. He dribbled, dipped his shoulder, faked the drive, and popped up for a three-pointer. It went up over O'Neal, soared, and landed in the net--123-121.

It gave the Bulls their first lead of the game, and it crushed the Lakers. Van Exel would tie it briefly at 123, but O'Neal and rookie Kobe Bryant would each miss both ends of a pair of free throws. The Bulls went ahead for good when a frustrated O'Neal clearly committed goaltending on a lovely little Pippen scoop layup. At the other end, Van Exel missed a three, the Lakers got the rebound, Jones missed a three, and Rodman came down with the ball and called a time-out before he could be fouled. That didn't stop Kersey from trying to swipe at the ball, and when Rodman took offense O'Neal gave him a push. As Rodman rose to defend himself, Jordan and Pippen surrounded him and dragged him to the floor in front of the Bulls bench.

Rodman's line at that moment, with 17 seconds left in OT: 0 points, 16 rebounds, 5 assists--a vintage performance. After Jordan sealed the game with a couple of free throws Rodman would sully his perfect line by making a couple of free throws of his own in the final seconds. Yet it was worth it to see him clapping for himself and pointing derisively to various spots on the floor--forever himself, once again redeemed in the eyes of his teammates and the fans. Rodman finished the scoring at 129-123, and when he came down with the final rebound he threw it high in the air to avoid another foul and kill the last two ticks of the clock.

In the interview room afterward, a TV played a satellite feed going out to stations across the nation, and it seemed to be from a month, no, a season of games rather than just one. There were O'Neal's early hoops, Van Exel's reverse dunk, Jones scoring on an alley-oop, Jordan hitting a beautiful fallaway (he did score 20 in the first half before finishing with 30), Pippen's threes (he finished with a game-high 35), his dish to Brown for his lefty slam, and of course Kukoc's series of shots and drives. "I'm not ready for this kind of game yet," said John Jackson of the Sun-Times as he sat down. "I've got to build up for it."

Asked whether he had caught the Lakers by surprise with his deployment of Kukoc, Phil Jackson said, "Toni catches everyone off guard, including his coach. He's such a streaky player....He runs hot and cold better than any player I've ever seen. When he's got a hot hand, we just say, 'You get him the ball in his hands and he'll find something for us.'"

In the locker room, Kukoc spoke with the ease of someone who has just played a great game. (He finished with 31 points, 23 in the final 17 minutes.) When asked if he had ever played as well in the NBA, he insisted he had, then added the playfully emphatic, "I can play some basketball."

Hoots came from the shower area, off-limits to reporters. Pippen stuck his head out to yell to Randy Brown, "Randy, you made [ESPN's] Play of the Day, baby, congratulations."

When Kukoc was asked what a player does when he finds himself "in the zone," he responded, "Just stay focused."

Outside, as we waited for a bus, we saw most of the Bulls go by, from Rodman, rumbling behind the wheel of a humvee already packed with revelers, to assistant coach Frank Hamblen, all by himself, who paused at the red light to get a cigarette going. Staccato cheers burst out down the block as each car emerged from the players' parking lot. And it started to snow--not as in the typical December snowstorm, but as in a Tim Burton movie--big, fluffy, festive flakes. Yes, snow was general across Chicago, falling on all the living and the dead.

Pity the dear departed and anyone else who missed a game like that.

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