There was a time, before a certain bald-headed, tongue-wagging member of the Chicago Bulls decided to cash in his IRA and take early retirement, when the arrival of the Chicago team bus at any hotel entrance gave new meaning to the term "crunch time." The Bulls would routinely find hundreds of people waiting for them outside the hotel lobby, all hoping for at least a glimpse of Michael Jordan. Security people—Michael's Secret Service, some of the players called them—waited to escort Jordan through the crowd. "Mike would look out the bus window at all the people and say, 'I'm not going out there,' " says Chicago center Will Perdue. "The rest of us would look at him and say, 'We're not going out there until you go out there.' " Finally Jordan would disembark first, to be swallowed up by the crowd, and the rest of the players would stroll casually to their rooms, as unnoticed as Elvis's roadies.
Not any longer. The post-Jordan era began in earnest last month when the Bulls arrived at their Louisville hotel before a preseason game to find only a modest gathering—about 50 people. And because there was no Jordan, and thus no security to run interference, the players each stepped into a knot of autograph-seekers and signed as they walked, slowly trying to make way for themselves.
That's what life is like now for the Bulls: They have been forced to find a new path for themselves, with each player carrying an extra candle to make up for the torch that was extinguished when His Airness retired in October. It has been a difficult process but, so far, not an altogether unpleasant one, as shown by their 3-2 record through Sunday. Of course, there was an embarrassing 95-71 loss at home to the Miami Heat on Nov. 6, in which the Bulls established a dubious franchise record by scoring only six points in the second quarter. But with center Scott Williams and guard John Paxson sidelined by injuries, Chicago was bound to throw in at least one clunker.
Just the night before, in the final seconds against the Hornets, the Bulls had shown just how they hoped to share the responsibility without Jordan around. Trailing 123-122 with 7.5 seconds left, they ran a play for forward Scottie Pippen, but he was cut off on his drive to the basket. Pippen gave the ball up to guard Pete Myers, who hoisted a prayer from the lane over Hornet center Alonzo Mourning. Myers missed, but teammate Horace Grant put in the rebound for the game-winner. Later, Grant said what everyone had been thinking: "If number 23 had been there, you know he would have gotten [the shot]. But we don't have that crutch to lean on anymore. We had to stand on our own two feet."
Bull coach Phil Jackson has tried to lighten the burden of replacing Jordan by parceling it out among several players. Veterans Pippen, Grant and starting center Bill Cartwright have tried to fill the leadership vacuum, journeyman Myers has been called on to provide a fair imitation of Jordan's defense, long-awaited Croatian swingman Toni Kukoc has added his passing skills to the mix, and the Bulls have looked for more scoring from, well, from everyone. Jackson's job has even changed—from trying to build toward the playoffs to approaching every game as if it were the playoffs. "This is a team still in the process of finding itself," he says. "One thing we do know is that we're going to have to get emotional about games to win them." On their best nights the Bulls look excited about the transition from a monarchy to something approximating a democracy. On their worst, they look like they desperately need a new king.
The most obvious candidate for the throne, of course, is Pippen, who seems eager to assume it. "I've been able to sit back and enjoy for a long time, but no more," he says. "I've been asked to step up in front of the pack. I know I'll be measured by that, and I'm ready for it." Jackson gave him Jordan's co-captaincy—Cartwright remains the other co-captain—and it is no coincidence that Pippen, a Dream Teamer, has taken over Jordan's coveted locker-room stall, which is twice as big as the others and is closest to the sanctuary of the trainer's room.
But it's unlikely that the team once known as Michael and the Jordanaires will ever be called Scottie and the Pipps, because Pippen lacks Jordan's gift for leadership. On his first day of preseason practice Pippen took it upon himself to completely outplay newcomer Kukoc, just as Jordan had dismantled many a practice opponent before him. Privately, the other players weren't quite sure what to make of Pippen's display. Was he trying to imitate Jordan? Was he sending a message to Kukoc about whose team this was? Was he just trying to set an aggressive example for Kukoc and the other Bulls? And wasn't he risking damage to Kukoc's psyche? Ruffling a few feathers isn't the end of the world; Jordan wasn't always considered Mr. Congeniality by his teammates, either. Besides, Kukoc, the 6'11" Croatian sensation who signed with the Bulls in July (he was their second-round pick in the 1990 draft, 29th overall) after being pursued for three years by general manager Jerry Krause, made it clear that he wasn't traumatized by being spun around like a top by Pippen.
"I don't care if he kicks my butt in practice," Kukoc said. "That's the only way to learn." Still, Pippen's display that day raised serious doubts about whether he is suited to be the team's emotional center.
As for the multiskilled Kukoc, his transition to the NBA might be eased by his ability to remain undaunted by his mistakes. In an early preseason scrimmage he didn't know what all the fuss was about when he dribbled from the frontcourt into the backcourt, an NBA violation. "Every now and then I slip," he says. "My teammates tease me a little and help me a lot."
Although he was known as the Magic-Johnson of Europe because of his remarkable ball-handling and passing talents, Kukoc has mostly looked more like a typical rookie, trying to adjust to the mad swirl of the NBA. "You know how when Americans drive cars in Europe, sometimes they have a hard time adjusting to how fast everyone goes?" he says. "That is how I feel in the NBA. Everyone goes vroom, vroom."
But Kukoc has shown the NBA a thing or two as well, with the occasional no-look pass and a nifty spin move in the lane. There probably isn't another 6'11" player in the league with his combination of offensive talents. Through Sunday he was averaging 14.0 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. His early high point came on Nov. 10 in Milwaukee when he hit a three-pointer with 1.9 seconds left to give the Bulls a 91-90 victory. "He's legit," says Grant. "He has some flashiness to his game. Once he starts to feel really comfortable, look out." Still, Kukoc is not quite the all-purpose player that Krause had made him out to be. "Whoever said he could play four positions did him a real disservice," says guard Steve Kerr. "He's not a point guard, and he's really not a two-guard. He's a small forward who handles the ball well."
There's little doubt that Kukoc has the offensive skills to be at least a solid, perhaps even spectacular, NBA player. But defense is another matter. Kukoc is still trying to absorb the intricacies of man-to-man defense after years of being allowed to play zone in Europe. The 15 pounds he gained over the summer—he now weighs 230—in order to handle the rigors of the NBA seems to have diminished his quickness, leaving him prey to the league's opposing small forwards. Against the Atlanta Hawks on Nov. 8, Jackson juggled the Bulls' defensive assignments throughout the game, trying to spare Kukoc the task of stopping Dominique Wilkins. Kukoc has been humble in talking about himself and deferential to his teammates, but he's no shrinking violet, as the shark tattoo on his left shoulder attests. "I have confidence in my talent," he says. "People here have only seen just a little bit of what I can do. In time, I will show everything."
The Bulls are willing to wait. They know they are in the midst of an adjustment period that might last all season. "All we know about ourselves is that we don't know enough about ourselves yet," says guard B.J. Armstrong, who inherited from Jordan the distinction of being the last Bull introduced at home. "Everything is just so...different. We weren't always crazy about being thought of as the Jordanaires, but at least we had an identity. Right now, we're looking for a new one."
It hasn't helped that in the early season Jordan has been everywhere and nowhere all at once, a "looming presence," as Jackson put it. He had attended several practices during the preseason, and just hours before the season opener, in Charlotte, there were rumors that Jordan would be in attendance. "Is he coming, is he not coming, who knows?" Grant told reporters. "You guys would probably know it before we would." Jordan didn't show. But the next night in Chicago he came to the Stadium to pick up his championship ring in a pregame ceremony with his ex-teammates, then took a scat along the baseline a few feet from the Bull bench—so near and yet so far. "It'll be strange to see number 23 sitting over there when he should be over with us," Grant said before the game. And though they did their best to downplay the effect of his presence, performing in front of Jordan had to be bizarre for the Bulls. "There's nothing worse," said Heat forward John Salley, "than getting your butt kicked in front of your big brother."
Even without Jordan the Bulls have kept their guard up and maintained some of their secretive ways: Curtains are still drawn at their practice complex to block the view of prying reporters. When a Bull spokesman shooed the press out of the team's routine shootaround in Charlotte, a reporter remarked that after a few games without Jordan, media scrutiny would be the least of the Bulls' worries. Jackson and his players are, no doubt, looking forward to that. They are already weary of talking and thinking about Jordan. There is the sense that they would prefer it if he just kept his distance instead of being a constant reminder of what they no longer have. Thanks, Mike, but don't come back until you're ready to come back to work. "Michael's gone, we're done with Michael," Pippen said when he was asked after the Miami loss if Jordan's presence had negatively affected the team. "Once the game starts you don't notice who's in the stands, whether it's Michael Jordan or Michael Jackson."
In addition to all the other qualities Jordan displayed during his nine-year Bull run, it appears he was an extraordinary good luck charm for the team. During their three championship seasons the Bulls stayed relatively free of injuries to their key players, but lately they've been beating a path to the doctor's office. Pippen missed most of the preseason while recovering from surgery on his right ankle and went on the injured list after three regular-season games, joining Williams and Paxson, both out with knee injuries. Pippen could be out for three weeks.
All of which has forced Jackson to play a game of mix-and-match with his lineup and to fill out his roster with such journeymen as JoJo English, who was never drafted but played six games for the Bulls as a free agent last season; and second-year swingman Dave Johnson, who played 42 games for the Portland Trail Blazers last year. In Charlotte, Jackson played 10 men in the first quarter, and he has put some truly uninspiring units on the floor—at one point against Miami, the three-time world champs had Myers and Kerr at guard, with 1993 first-round pick Corie Blount and career reserves Stacey King and Perdue up front. Garbage time against the Heat made for a particularly depressing tableau, with Jordan watching, empty seats dotting the arena and longtime nemesis Salley and his Miami teammates talking trash to the Bulls from the bench: "Yo, Superman's dead, fellas!" As the final minutes passed, the song that blared from the public-address system summed it all: "Mama said there'd be days like this...." Jordan, who had told the crowd during the ceremony that he would "always be a Chicago Bull fan," joined many of his fellow fans in heading for the exits early. As he left, several of those who remained chanted, "Come back, Mike!" And they weren't talking about returning to his seat.
With all the new pieces, perhaps Jackson should seek the counsel of Kukoc, whose favorite hobby is working on jigsaw puzzles. But even Kukoc probably would not have expected the 30-year-old Myers, who has been cut by live teams (including Chicago), to be such a significant part of the whole; he replaced Jordan in the starting lineup. The choice makes sense. As a virtual unknown, Myers doesn't bear the pressure of high expectations that Kukoc or a high-profile free agent like Los Angeles Laker Byron Scott would have had. It's like replacing David Letterman with, say, Conan O'Brien.
Not that Myers wilts under a little pressure. While Kukoc is still a bit wide-eyed about the NBA, Myers has the pragmatic air of a player who has been around the block a time or two. "Around the block? I've been around the world," he says. Drafted by the Bulls out of Arkansas-Little Rock in the sixth round in 1986, Myers spent the past two seasons playing for Scavolini of the Italian League. He is an unassuming sort who is fully aware of his marginal status, starter or not. When someone asked if he had been the first option on the final play against Charlotte, Myers threw back his head and laughed uproariously. "Are you serious?" he said.
But it could have happened, and it probably will before the season is over. All bets are off with these Bulls, and every game is a new adventure. It might not be as much fun as measuring themselves for a fourth championship ring, but in a way, it's more intriguing. "You think you have us figured out?" says Grant. "Come back tomorrow night. We'll confuse you all over again."
Kukoc (right), the Croatian sensation, had counted on playing with Jordan, not in front of him.
[See caption above.]
After being waived five times, Myers wasn't daunted by the pressure of replacing Jordan.
Andrew Lang's throw-down won't be the last it's-our-turn slam these Bulls will suffer.
Like many fans, assistant Jim Cleamons couldn't bear to watch the Bulls' home debut.