May 24, 1997
This being Memorial Day weekend, it may be appropriate
to pay homage to the Chicago Bulls. It's not because they're going to
lose. It's because they may never be quite the same.
What's going on in Chicago now makes the Celtics' recent swirl look
like an "Up With People" concert. There are factions upon factions, and
everyone is talking, from the owner to the coach to the superstar. It
almost makes the basketball secondary - well, when they win as much as
they do, it can be secondary, especially when it's so ugly - and makes
the act of even playing the games that much more impressive.
On the day the Eastern Conference finals opened last week, the Chicago
Tribune presented the entire unseemly mess in detail that would be
embarrassing if it weren't true. The message is clear: This is a
high-stakes game of brinksmanship with everyone looking to cover their
respective rear ends in case things don't work out the way they'd like.
Let's start with the coach. At the end of the playoffs, Phil Jackson,
who has won four titles and may have a fifth by then, will be a free
agent, as he was last summer. He already is listening to offers, but one
has not yet been made by his own team. Jackson has been vague about
returning. Owner Jerry Reinsdorf hints that he'd like Jackson back, but
to a point.
The backdrop to this is what
happened last summer. Jackson twisted in the Windy City until finally
agreeing to a one-year deal. It seemed pretty shabby to treat him like
that; his team was coming off a 72-win season and a fourth title in six
years. But he had few options at the time and this was his first real
sniff of what then passed for big money ($ 2.75 million).
So now he's coming back to the table again. Or is he? When the Bulls
refused to speak to the media on Wednesday, it was widely interpreted in
Chicago as a show of support for Jackson and a shot at Reinsdorf, who
has had to pay $ 75,000 in fines the last two weeks and is perceived as
the roadblock to Jackson's return and to the coach's happiness in
The additional twist is that
Michael Jordan has vowed to retire if Jackson does not come back. (This
is the same Jordan who swore repeatedly that he was done with basketball
after his first retirement. As Rick Pitino
might say, he meant it when he said it.) Jackson does not want to be
seen as the guy who makes Jordan leave because he, the coach, did not
return. And there are those who feel that Jordan will stick around for
another year regardless of who coaches, especially with the money
available and a chance for another title.
Orlando has already offered Jackson a lot of money, reportedly $ 30
million. Now, based on the exploding salary scale for coaches, Jackson
is underpaid. But he also has expressed an interest in stepping back
from the game for a year to, as he puts it, "recharge my batteries." He
then could explore the landscape a year down the road and cash in. Being
away from the game hasn't diminished Chuck Daly's cachet. The good ones
stay in demand.
There also is the chance
that Jackson could do what he did last summer, for considerably more
money. Jordan would then come back for one more roundup and the Bulls
would go into the season knowing it would be the finale for both. That
makes sense in that Jackson could get a big hit and make one final run.
He has never expressed a desire to be the Bulls' version of Walter
Alston. He has been the team's head coach for eight years and, in his
view, eight may be enough.
his henchman, general manager Jerry Krause, already are looking down the
road to a time when both Jordan and Jackson are gone. They have to;
it's their job. As Reinsdorf said in Sports Illustrated last month, he
is not going to let the Bulls become the Boston Celtics. Two summers
from now, if the Bulls decide to make some hard personnel decisions -
decisions Reinsdorf will have no trouble making - they could have more
than $ 15 million to spend on free agents. One of those decisions may be
to renounce Scottie Pippen, who will be closing in on 33. That's if
they don't trade him first. Not coincidentally, that is the summer that
players such as Jerry Stackhouse, Kevin Garnett, and Antonio McDyess
could be available in the open market.
Krause has always been the convenient foil. The players don't like him,
but he is solid in Reinsdorf's camp and Reinsdorf signs the checks. When
ESPN ran a piece on Krause prior to Game 2, many reporters were
watching it on the television in the Bulls' locker room because there
were no players around. Suddenly, Jordan popped his head out from behind
a door and yelled, "Turn that thing off. What y'all watching that for?"
As for Jordan, who knows? He'll turn 35 next season and what is left to
drive him? If Jackson does go, will Jordan turn his back on millions,
not to mention his teammates, simply because he's spoiled? Or will
Krause find a caretaker coach to ease out his superstar? While many cite
Krause's infatuation with Tim Floyd, the Iowa State coach, the general
manager also is high on Bill Cartwright, now a Bulls assistant.
While the status of the two J's is uncertain, the motives of the third J
(Jerry, as in Reinsdorf) are equally murky. He did, after all, give all
that money to Albert Belle and didn't earn his nickname, the Prince of
Darkness, by telling party jokes. He's a tough, shrewd, and successful
businessman and he sees the end coming and wants to be prepared.
Business governs his decisions and he may feel that Jordan is the key J
because they either win with him or don't win without him. In such a
scenario, the coach really isn't relevant.
Reinsdorf remembers what the United Center was like without Jordan. It was like comparing Ethel Merman to Maureen McGovern.
The one sure thing, probably, is that no one is even talking about
Dennis Rodman returning for a third season. Some of the players didn't
want him back this year, even if he was instrumental in their defeat of
Seattle. Rodman does give the Bulls an undeniable toughness, and you'll
see how important he is if they play Utah in the Finals. (Who else on
Chicago can tangle with Karl Malone?) But he's simply too much of a
distraction and, lest we forget, he just turned 36.
The City of Broad Shoulders may need every bit of its considerable
strength to carry all this baggage this summer. So enjoy the Bulls while
you still have them, Game 2 notwithstanding. They still are the only
NBA team that actually runs an offense, as opposed to a pick-and-roll
and inside-out post game. But all good things come to an end (see
Celtics, 1993) and the Bulls, even with Jordan, can't do anything about