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The image was immediately recognizable: Michael Jordan leaping, legs akimbo, and pumping his fist in the air.

It was his response to the Shot, three years ago, when he lifted the Bulls toward the top of the National Basketball Association with the last-second jumper that defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it was how he commemorated the Bulls' second straight championship last Sunday night.

It was the first championship won by a Chicago team in a home game since the Bears won the National Football League title at Wrigley Field in 1963. A crowd of 18,676 fans came to the Stadium to savor something that occurs only a handful of times in a lifetime--if one lives in Chicago, and one lives a long life--and when the game was over they refused to leave. They shouted at the end as much as they'd shouted at the beginning of the evening, when they aped fans of the Blackhawks by screaming all the way through the national anthem. Finally, after every standard in the Bulls' crowd repertoire had been played over and again, the Alan Parsons Project introduction music came on the public address system, the crowd (only slightly diminished) roared to a crescendo, and the Bulls came up from the basement locker room.

Jordan was the last on the floor, but the first to leap up onto the scorer's table, where he pumped his fist and held two fingers high in the air. Soon all the Bulls were up there, passing the championship trophy back and forth along with bottles of champagne, and the public address system just kept playing the same tape loop of Gary Glitter's "Rock & Roll (Part 2)," with the crowd stomping and clapping and screaming in unison--"Hey!"--and we were seeing it and feeling it and experiencing it for the first time, well, in my life, anyway. We were dancing at courtside and in the highest reaches of the second balcony and everywhere in between.

Only 11 days before, the Portland Trail Blazers arrived the very picture of confidence. Their physical fitness, manifest in the sculpted appearance of their bodies, rivaled the Bulls'; these were clearly two of the best-conditioned teams in the league (only the New York Knicks can compare). What's more, the unique cut of their uniforms--especially their dark road colors--emphasized their physiques; with "BLAZERS" in block letters on the front, and with both jerseys and shorts tapered to the waist, and with the shorts boxy and baggy, they looked like a professional beach volleyball team--played basketball like one, too, at times.

Pictures are two-dimensional; when the Blazers burst into three-dimensional motion, they dispersed all appearance of confidence. The team moved tentatively throughout the series. The times the Blazers dished to guys cutting down the lane for slam dunks, or out wide on the fast break, were few and far between. The image they brought into the series was of being out on the run, executing what looked like a complex warplane bombing pattern, separating and then all closing on the same target. They showed bursts of that game, but were never able to sustain it for more than a few minutes at a time.

Even Clyde "the Glide" Drexler seemed atypically cautious. "Glide" might be the most fitting nickname in basketball, certainly more so than the too-vague-for-my-tastes "Air" Jordan. Drexler is six feet, seven inches tall, with broad shoulders and a thin waist, and he moves with an erect, formal carriage. His shoulders, even when he's out in the middle of a fast break, always seem square to the basket. He runs with long, low strides, so that he really seems to be gliding along the way one of those big, late-60s Thunderbirds used to cruise the highway. Yet Jordan took him utterly out of his game. Coming into the series, Drexler was being called the second-best player in the league, and his teammates kept repeating--although he himself wouldn't admit it--that he wanted the thing Jordan had, the championship, which would--like a tap of the shoulder by the queen's scepter--admit him to the basketball pantheon of Jordan, Larry Bird, and Earvin "Magic" Johnson. With Johnson retired and Bird hot on his heels, Jordan is the sole owner and proprietor of the pantheon right now. From the first minutes of the final series, he was not about to move over for Drexler.

Jordan's first-game performance was truly Ruthian. It was the game's greatest player rising to new heights under the greatest of challenges. Asked beforehand to sum up the differences between himself and Drexler, Jordan admitted that Drexler was a great player, but granted him only one advantage, and this begrudgingly: "Clyde's a better three-point shooter than I choose to be." So he went out and made six three-point field goals in the first half of game one, punctuated by his bashful shrug to Magic Johnson himself, seated courtside as one of the night's television commentators. The six treys set a playoff record for a half, as did his 35 points. "The shots started falling from everywhere," he said afterward, "and I started running for that three-point line. I felt in a great rhythm. It felt like a free throw, really, from that distance."

It was not a set part of the Bulls' strategy. How does anyone plan a called-shot home run? "It was not premeditated," said Bulls coach Phil Jackson, "although I know that he's aware of the three-point shooting of the Portland Trail Blazers because we have emphasized it recently."

The Blazers had actually seemed to control the first few minutes, something that would be the case in the first and final games of the series and in none of the games in between. They went up 17-9. By the half, however, Jordan had led the Bulls to a 15-point advantage. For Jordan to play their game, their style, and to thrash them so completely at it was something that really crushed the Blazers' confidence, which is just what Jordan intended to do. They never really recovered.

Scottie Pippen took over in the third quarter, scoring 16 points, but even then Jordan stole the spotlight--with Pippen's help--when Pippen fed him with an inbounds alley-oop pass that Jordan rose for, caught fully outstretched, and then slammed through the hoop.

After the game, in the Bulls locker room, on the board where the team usually has its game plan written down in outline form, all that stuff had been wiped off and instead someone had drawn a large ace of spades, with the number 23 in the middle.

There were Portland victories in the second and fourth games, but both were comebacks in which the Bulls seemed to simply lose track of what they were doing--the same sort of collapses that cost them games against the Knicks and the Cleveland Cavaliers. After leading his team from ten points down with four and a half minutes to play in game two to an overtime win going away, the Blazers' Danny Ainge said: "Momentum is a pretty fickle thing. You know, they had the momentum with two or three minutes to go in the game. We'll probably have the momentum going into game three, but the momentum can change with one three or a dunk or a big play."

Throughout the series the Blazers seemed content to wait for the momentum to come their way, while the Bulls seemed intent on robbing the game of any sort of momentum--until the final game. That's why the games had that ugly, rough-hewn appearance of fits and starts. Jordan put the Bulls' game plan as pithily as it could be put after the first game: "I liked the pace because we controlled it. As long as we can control it, it's a great pace for us. But our main objective is to try to control the tempo--run when we have to run, set up when we have to set up, and try to keep them off balance."

That was certainly the case in the third game, played in Portland after only one day's rest to make the trip across half the continent. The Bulls got an early grip on the game and simply outlasted the Blazers. The second Portland comeback gave the Blazers the fourth game, but the Bulls again seized control early in the fifth game, opening 10-2 and holding on the rest of the way. Drexler had the most awe-inspiring play of the night, a tip jam to pull the Blazers within 15 (cough) in the third quarter, but that came after Pippen again fed Jordan on an alley-oop, this one a set play out of the Bulls' half-court offense. The Blazers had tried guarding the 6-foot, 7-inch Pippen with 6-3 guard Terry Porter early on, but Pippen chewed Porter up, finishing with 24 points, 11 rebounds, and 9 assists; he also removed Drexler from the game by drawing an offensive foul late in the fourth quarter. It was Pippen's headiest and best game of the series--until the sixth and final game, that is.

Pippen was the Bulls' touchstone throughout the playoffs: when he decreed they were golden, they were, and when he said the Bulls were counterfeit, they looked it. In the sixth game he played all 24 minutes of the first half; although he scored 13 points, he played erratically, and the Bulls struggled. His opposite number on the Blazers, Jerome Kersey, scored 14 points in the half, and Portland led at intermission 50-44. And that was after a 16-7 run by the Bulls to end the second quarter.

This game, like the third, was played with only a day's rest to make the trip--only now with the time change costing the athletes an additional two hours. The Bulls looked listless, the Blazers gutty. The Bulls seemed to have taken the Blazers' best punch in the second quarter, but they fell behind even more in the third. The Blazers went 14 points up before Pippen took a much-needed rest, increased the lead to 17 points, and led 79-64 going into the final frame. The Stadium hustle board, keeping track of rebounds, steals, and blocked shots, showed an amazing 45-26 advantage for the Blazers, including 33-22 on the boards and 8-2 in steals.

Pippen replaced Jordan in a patchwork lineup with the second team--Scott Williams, B.J. Armstrong, Bobby Hansen, and Stacey King--and led them on a 14-2 run to open the quarter. Kersey was hit with his second flagrant foul of the series. The first, oddly enough, turned to the Blazers' advantage in the fourth game, but this one swung that fickle momentum to the Bulls. King made one of his two foul shots, then Pippen scored over Drexler on the ensuing possession, cutting the lead to single digits at 79-70. Pippen scored again over Drexler to make it 81-74. Then Armstrong, after losing the handle on the ball in the lane on a backdoor play, dribbled outside and sank the jumper. On the Blazers' next possession, Buck Williams committed an offensive foul, and back on the Bulls' end he fell down trying to draw an offensive foul, allowing King an open shot that he hit, making it 81-78. Eight and a half minutes were left, the crowd was as loud as I'd ever heard it, and--after an extended rest--Jordan was ready.

Jordan was rested, Pippen was playing with the confidence that had been so inconstant in his game, and everyone in the Stadium felt, suddenly, the game belonged to the Bulls--even the Blazers. For Jordan, who had opened the series with such an amazing performance, this game offered a new sort of challenge. "That's probably the most that I've cheered," Jordan said afterward about his stint on the bench, and, while his answer trailed off, it seemed to be the most that he had openly cheered about anything in his entire life. "I felt like Cliff Levingston for a moment there.

"When I came back in the ball game, I just wanted to blend," he added. "Everybody else was already on the go. Everybody else was already in rhythm. I just wanted to catch up."

And so it was that the Bulls won their second straight championship with the greatest player in basketball striving to elevate his game to the level of Scottie Pippen and a bunch of scrubeenies. After Jordan's return, the Bulls finished by outscoring the Blazers 19-12, with Jordan scoring 12 of the Bulls' points and Pippen the other 7. It was Pippen who, with the 24-second clock running out, sank a desperation three-pointer to tie the game at 85. It was Jordan who, after a bad pass by King, stole the ball from Buck Williams right under the basket and slammed it home to put the Bulls ahead, 89-87, for the first time since the score was 4-2. It was Pippen who, with just over two minutes to play, hit a pull-up jumper to give the Bulls the lead for good at 91-89. Jordan made it a comfortable four-point lead with 100 seconds to play on a turnaround jumper over Drexler. And he returned the lead to four, 95-91, with an acrobatic drive, knifing between two Blazers for a lay-in with 33 seconds to play. The final, after two Jordan free throws, was 97-93.

The Bulls were erratic through the playoffs, winning one game impressively and losing the next miserably. Yet they always won the games they really needed to, and toward the end they won them even when they didn't need to (both the semifinals against the Cavaliers and the finals against the Blazers ended in six games). This last game was the Bulls' playoff run in miniature: the team looked befuddled, weary, and then pulled itself together almost in the blink of an eye. Last year they were a beautiful, intelligent, smooth-functioning team. This season they were a courageous team, battling no opponent so much as they battled themselves. And they won it here at the Chicago Stadium.

Outside the Stadium, where Madison and Monroe had been blocked off to traffic, cars circled the blocks just to the east and west; people were blowing their horns, and hanging out the windows, and yelling and screaming and cheering. Driving home up Damen, I saw none of the violence that struck areas both rich and poor in the city. Fireworks exploded, three-way intersections drew huge crowds--especially the one at Damen, North, and Milwaukee--and at Armitage I slowed to let a procession of kids carrying an immense Bulls banner cross the street. I drove through African American neighborhoods and Hispanic neighborhoods and white ethnic neighborhoods, and in all of them there were people milling on the corners, yelling for drivers to blow their horns, almost as if to seek confirmation. Those of us lucky enough to have been there were overjoyed to honk in response. Yes, it really did happen. No, it wasn't just some mass-media chimera. The Bulls really did it.

We saw it with our own eyes.


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