Sports Section | Sports | Chicago Reader

Sports Section 

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

The confetti was a new touch, no doubt left over (if replenished) from last year's Democratic National Convention and fired off anew. Otherwise, the occasion of the Bulls' fifth NBA championship in seven years--and the third won here at home--was a familiar experience: the jubilation at the final buzzer, the playing of Queen's "We Are the Champions" and the tape loop of Gary Glitter's "Rock and Roll Part 2," the players dancing on the scorers' table and holding their children on lofty shoulders, the booing of NBA commissioner David Stern, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, and general manager Jerry Krause, followed by cheers for coach Phil Jackson, for each player, and especially for Michael Jordan, who was presented his fifth NBA finals MVP award. Even last year's question haunted the proceedings: Will Jackson, Jordan, and Dennis Rodman be back next year? This year there was a sense that the event was even more evanescent than it had been a year ago, and the confetti enhanced that impression. It spun and fluttered and hung in the air, giving the United Center the look of a fishbowl that players, spectators, and media were sharing, as other fans peered in from living rooms, dens, and bars across the city, across the nation, and around the world.

The feeling of instant nostalgia, of not merely preserving but guarding the moment as it happened, is something I and many others had fought during the second game of the series, when the Bulls took a commanding 2-0 lead against the Utah Jazz. They headed west for three games in Salt Lake City with no promise that they would return--not to play more basketball, anyway. Yet return they had, after losing twice and then saving the critical fifth game with one of Jordan's greatest performances. And so, with the most impressive sports dynasty of the 90s poised on the brink of dissolution amid celebration, I surrendered to the sentiment that this was a scene that should be impressed on the mind: the confetti fluttering, the fans stomping, Jordan waving his hand with five fingers outstretched (then mugging for the cameras by holding up his other hand and a sixth, a seventh, and an eighth finger), unlikely hero Steve Kerr hugging his wife and gleefully quoting "Yo, Adrian" from Rocky, and finally a giddy Brian Williams, the last piece of this season's puzzle, his dour, chubby-cheeked visage softened to reveal a Bacchus beneath the Buddha.

In many ways that transformation epitomized the differences between this year's Bulls and last year's. Last year's journey, mapped out by Jackson's book Sacred Hoops, was an almost mystical pursuit of transcendence. Could such disparate personalities--the humbled Jordan, the embittered Scottie Pippen, Croatian Toni Kukoc, Australian Luc Longley, Canadian Bill Wennington, various native scrubs, and, last but certainly not least, the converted villain Rodman--unite to play beautiful basketball? They could and did. This year's struggle was much less serene, much less a lesson in Zen. Defending the title turned out to be a classic tale of reclaiming what belongs to one, on the order of the Iliad.

"When you think about it, we've been playing together for 18 of the last 21 months, with hardly a rest," Kerr said. "Last year was fun. I wouldn't consider this year as fun. It was more of a grind. But that makes it much more satisfying.

"I can understand why Michael retired after the third time. I can't even imagine what another run would be like, physically and mentally. It's so grueling. And this is just two for me."

The satisfaction of last year's championship seemed much more personal to the Bulls. They had wondered if they could do it, and they did; the struggle had largely been with themselves. This year's struggle seemed to be much more external, a proof to others to cement their place in history. As with many Greek heroes, the Bulls dwelled on their previous exploits--not in a bragging way but simply as statements of fact. Jackson compared Jordan's game-winning shot in the first game of the Jazz series to his miss in the first game of the 1991 finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, and Jordan admitted that he had thought of that game too, revealing that he always reviews his last-second misses before psyching himself up with memories of his successes when faced with the same opportunity. Jackson likewise compared Jordan's game-winning assist in the sixth game to the way he repeatedly gave up the ball to John Paxson in the fourth quarter of the clinching game in 1991. "Teams can finally find a way to play with a superstar in the crunch when he finds his teammates and they rely [on each other] and come through and play the team game," Jackson said. "That's what makes a championship. And Michael showed that championship level tonight by moving the ball to Steve." Even Kerr said that in the sixth game he had images of the bench players rallying the team to an inspired comeback, as they had in the final game in 1992 against the Portland Trail Blazers (a game he watched from home while a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers).

Comeback lightning struck repeatedly for the Bulls this season, especially in the playoffs. It became their modus operandi, and for good reason. The Bulls could no longer run down their prey with beautiful extended sequences of pursuit. They were older, some were injured, some sickly, and they won not with the energy of youth but with the pounce of experience. It wasn't until after the championship was won, and I looked down at the running account of the fourth quarter of the sixth game and saw that the Bulls had closed from nine points down with 11:24 left in the game to go one point up with 8:52 to play, that everything became clear. The Bulls had won time and again in that manner throughout the playoffs, by playing in bursts, and while fans and the media alike wondered where the beauty was, that was the way they'd had to play. They'd had to marshal their resources, keep the opponent within view, and then win with a crushing stroke. This style was deceptive. The Washington Bullets, the Atlanta Hawks, the Miami Heat--all kicked themselves for "giving away" games to the Bulls. The Jazz felt that way too after the first game. Yet, by the end, having learned by repetition, they had different thoughts.

"We didn't give anything away. They took it," Karl Malone said. "They did the things champions do."

The Bulls' pounce in the first game resulted in two straight turnovers by the normally dependable John Stockton. The second, a steal by Rodman, led to Jordan driving the lane and passing wide to Longley, who hit the open shot to put the Bulls up 76-75. From there the lead rattled back and forth until Jordan's decisive shot. It should be emphasized that nothing was animalistic about the Bulls' pounce. Everything they did in those moments was done with deliberation.

On the game-winning play Pippen inbounded the ball to Kukoc, then cut past a Jordan screen. This froze Jordan's defender, Bryon Russell, who had to make sure Pippen wasn't going to be open on a back-door play, and at that moment Jordan jumped out to take the pass from Kukoc. Let Jordan tell it from there.

"The double-team never came," he said, "and I knew I was in a one-on-one situation. So I was dribbling, getting ready to cross over, and once I did cross over [Russell] went for the steal, lunged forward, which I thought was my opportunity to take one move to the left, pull up, and shoot the basket."

The Bulls pounced at the outset of the second game, scoring the first six points, and sealed the win with a 16-2 run at the end of the first half. Pippen drove the baseline and found Ron Harper open on the outside for a three, making it 36-29. After a defensive stop, Jordan got two free throws, missing the first and making the second; this was followed by the Bulls' full-court press and another Utah turnover, leading to a Harper lay-in--39-29. Harper hounded Stockton into another turnover, a steal by Jordan, who passed to Pippen for a slam dunk--43-29. The Bulls went to a small lineup in the closing moments. Jordan drove to the hoop, was fouled, and made both free throws for a 47-31 halftime advantage.

The Jazz, however, were not pushovers. Ahead by 19 with six minutes to play, Jackson called a time-out but left a weary Jordan and Pippen in the game. The Jazz ran them down and made it close, and though the Bulls won 97-85 the Jazz drew on that momentum to rally themselves and win the third game in Utah. The Jazz also made one of the few key adjustments in the series, putting Russell on Jordan full-time instead of the smaller Jeff Hornacek. Utah controlled the fourth game as well, until the Bulls pounced to take a 71-66 lead, the last two points coming on a long rebound to Pippen and an outlet pass to Jordan for a dunk. After Stockton hit a three-pointer from the general area of Montana, Jordan sank a dagger with a jump shot over a triple-team--73-69. But those were all the points the Bulls would score, and the Jazz slipped away. In the most beautiful play of the series, Jordan missed a jump shot, Malone ran out past him, and Stockton pulled down the rebound to the side of the lane and in one fluid motion fired a one-armed pass the length of the floor to hit Malone in stride over Jordan for a basket that put Utah up 74-73. The Jazz added four points for a 78-73 win to tie the series at two.

The fifth game offered the one unprecedented Jordan exploit of the series, a mythical, Ruthian performance--the Babe's "stomachache" and his called shot rolled into one. Jordan came down with a stomach virus and started throwing up in the early morning hours of game day. He stayed in bed throughout the day, missing the shoot-around practice, and emerged only for the game. He looked spent and miserable in the early going, and the Jazz took a 16-point lead early in the second quarter. Then, while Malone and Stockton sat on the bench, the Bulls made their first pounce. A lineup of Longley, Kukoc, Pippen, Jordan, and Harper whittled the margin while Malone was on the bench and even took a 45-44 lead before the Jazz struggled back to a 53-49 halftime advantage. The Bulls kept it tight at 72-67 after three quarters, and then again put on a push. It was ignited by an utterly uncontrived play, Kukoc coming down by himself on a fast break, no one under the hoop but a trio of backpedaling Utah players, and firing up a three to make it 77-74. Jordan followed moments later with another three to tie the game at 77.

From there the Bulls hung on like a boxer in a clinch. A two-minute scoring drought ended with the shot clock running down on the Jazz, the Bulls scrambling for a loose ball on the floor, and Stockton picking up the rolling ball and making another long three to put Utah up 84-81 with three minutes to go. Jordan kept the Bulls within reach of the lead with an answering basket, and then the teams exchanged free throws. In the final minute Jordan had a chance to put the Bulls ahead with two free throws, but he missed the second to leave the game tied at 85. Kukoc, however, kept the ball alive with a tap that landed at Jordan's feet at the free throw line. He dribbled out and passed to Pippen in the low post who, drawing Russell on the double-team, passed out to an open Jordan. He launched a three, and no one knew how it got there--Jordan was almost staggering to the bench during breaks in play. But it did--88-85 Bulls. (That gave Jordan his final total of 38 points, with the lion's share of those coming in the second and fourth quarters--talk about marshaling scant resources.) After a quick basket, the Jazz committed the critical mental mistake of the series. With less than 24 seconds to go, a single-possession game, they failed to foul on the inbounds pass. The Bulls broke the weak Utah press for a Longley dunk to seal what would turn out to be a 90-88 victory.

The Bulls came home with momentum, but the Jazz had the desperation and led the sixth game 23-17 after a quarter and 44-37 at the half. They controlled play in the third quarter as well, though the Bulls showed flourishes. Jordan drove through traffic for a layup and the first points of the second half, holding the ball aloft at the end like a waiter scurrying through a busy lunchroom with a tray of drinks. He later rebounded the ball and went coast to coast to make it 48-45 Jazz. But the Jazz regained the initiative and could have taken a commanding nine-point lead into the final frame but for a long Bulls rebound that bounced to Jud Buechler, who fired in a three-pointer at the end of the quarter to make it 70-64 Jazz. The Jazz did get their nine-point lead back early in the fourth, but then the Bulls pounced, with Pippen leading bench players Buechler, Kerr, Kukoc, and Williams. Kerr hit a shot over Stockton to make it 73-68. The Jazz isolated Malone and Stockton on the same side of the court, but the Bulls had become adept at countering that particular strategy. Williams pulled down a rebound and hit Pippen with an outlet pass. Pippen stopped and popped for a three-pointer to make it 73-71. Again the Jazz went to the two-man game. Again the Bulls stopped it, with Kukoc helping out along the baseline. That led to Kerr hitting a three on a crosscourt pass from Buechler to put the Bulls ahead 74-73.

Jordan came off the bench. The Jazz went back in front. Eschewing a pass to the open Kerr on the wing, Jordan hit a jumper in the lane over a double-team to tie the game at 76. Hornacek hit a three; Jordan answered with a deuce. The Jazz hit Shandon Anderson cutting wide-open to the hoop on a back-door layup, but then the Bulls managed to isolate Kukoc on the shorter Hornacek in the low post and Kukoc turned and threw the ball into the hoop like a man tossing a hat onto a closet shelf. It was 81-80 Utah. The Jazz again ran the back-door play to Anderson, only this time he air-balled a layup over the hoop. Jordan hit to put the Bulls back on top 82-81. They maintained the lead until Russell hit a three to tie it at 86 with 1:44 to play. The game had reached a stalemate, both teams playing ferocious defense and the referees refusing to make a call. The Jazz's Chris Morris had a shot at a lay-in and, harassed by Pippen, missed it. Rodman came down with the rebound with 28 seconds to go and immediately called a time-out.

Jackson drew up the play in the huddle, and everyone everywhere knew the ball would wind up in Jordan's hands. But from there what? Kerr later said that Jordan sat there quietly, visualizing the play, then turned to him. "You be ready," Jordan said. "Stockton's gonna come off you."

"I'll be ready," Kerr said. "I'll knock it down."

"And I was like, will I?" Kerr later added with a smile in the interview room.

Jordan got the ball on the left-hand side of the floor and, just as he had expected, was double-teamed by Stockton. Jordan leaped, faking the shot, and passed to Kerr, who had moved into the dead center of the free throw circle like a placekicker lining up a field goal. He threw the ball up, launching it from his heels, and it swished through the net.

After a Utah time-out, Pippen--who was everywhere all the time on defense, Stockton later said--deflected the inbounds pass, sprawled for the loose ball, and slapped it across the court to Kukoc for a breakaway slam dunk. Kukoc came down and immediately began to celebrate and the Bulls and the fans and the city with him.

This was the best of the Bulls' five finals appearances because it offered the most noble, poised, and intelligent opponent, and because the drama ebbed and flowed throughout. It had a lovely set of bookends in Jordan's game-winning shot and his game-winning assist, and in between was a great all-around team performance in the second game and Jordan's heroics in the fifth. If there were any doubt before, Jordan established himself here as the greatest athlete any of us are likely to see in our lifetimes. He stepped into the media interview room afterward with a magnum of champagne under his left arm and a cigar nestled comfortably in his right hand, and--unlike other members of his team--he was eager to talk about the future, especially given the speculation that Reinsdorf and Krause might opt to rebuild, booting Jackson and dealing Pippen before next season.

"We've done a lot for this organization," Jordan said, beginning a cost-benefit analysis that ought to be repeated in many a business school. He pointed out that the worth of the franchise has multiplied tenfold since his arrival. "So the profits have been made over the years. What we gain now--in trying to keep this team together and successful--we paid for over six, seven, eight, ten years. There has to be some sense of consideration, some sense of loyalty to myself, to Scottie, to Phil, even to those guys who have given of themselves the last two years, even Dennis.

"We are entitled to defend what we have until we lose it," he added, tapping his fingers on the table so that they would rap ominously--boom, boom, boom--from my tape recorder on playback. "If we lose it, then you could look at it and say, 'OK, let's change it, go through rebuilding.' No one's guaranteeing that rebuilding will be two, three, four, or five years. The Cubs have been rebuilding for 42 years."

It's actually 52 years, but who's counting?

"You want to look at this as a business thing? Have a sense of respect for the people who have laid the groundwork so that you could be a profitable organization. I'd like to see us defend what we've attained," he added, "and Phil should be the coach, and I shouldn't have to be put in a position to have to play for another head coach other than Phil Jackson. Simple as that. Sad as it may be, I have choices. And I will not choose to play for another coach.

"For once, don't look at the bottom line. Look at the joy of this night."

That night, after I got home, having driven through a city where people were milling on almost every corner waving Bulls pennants and jerseys and homemade signs, I fixed myself a drink and sat on the front steps smoking a cigar. As I found myself studying the play of the corner streetlight as it filtered through the fingers of the locust tree next door, I remembered having preserved the same image in the mind's eye on four previous occasions. All around were the now-familiar sounds of a city celebrating its way into the wee hours: horns blaring and friends shouting to one another and a blast of fireworks now and then for punctuation. To think that an entire city should know such joy but five times. How precious are such occasions? How precious do they have to be? o

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Ted Cox

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories