After the Chicago Bulls win the NBA championship--and coming off
Game 1 of the Finals, could there have been anyone outside the
state of Utah who had not recognized how likely that is?--after
Michael Jordan hugs the trophy as if it were a newborn and then
lights up a stogie, after the last strains of Sweet Home Chicago
die down, after a large percentage of the Bulls' faithful meets
a few days later at Grant Park for the celebration that is
nearly as fixed an annual holiday in Chicago as the Fourth of
July, the Bulls will head back to their practice facility and
try to figure out what on earth has gone wrong with their game.
Well, actually, they won't, but no one would blame them if they
did. Instead of cruising to a championship as it did last year,
Chicago is staggering toward one, and that is either further
proof that the Bulls are invincible even at less than full
strength or the sign of a dynasty entering its twilight. Their
84-82 victory over the Utah Jazz in Game 1 on Sunday was
memorable for yet another game-winning shot at the buzzer by
Jordan and an even more heroic performance by forward Scottie
Pippen (page 38), who was the best player on the floor despite a
painful soft tissue injury to his left foot. Nevertheless, the
Bulls played as they have throughout the postseason--far short
of peak efficiency, particularly on offense, where they were
operating mostly on two cylinders named Jordan and Pippen.
Chicago had a playoff record of 12-2 heading into Game 2 on
Wednesday night at the United Center, but the Bulls had won most
of those games by playing well for a half, a quarter or
sometimes even just a few minutes. "We haven't really played a
solid 48 minutes during the entire playoffs," Pippen said after
Game 1. "We'd like to have balanced scoring and a fluid offense,
but at this stage of the season you can't wait for it to happen."
It certainly didn't happen on Sunday, when Jordan scored 31
points, Pippen had 27 and none of the other Chicago players
contributed more than six. But as hard as the Bulls try to
furrow their brows and convey the proper measure of concern to
the media, they seem fairly secure in the belief that they can
win a championship without playing their best basketball. "We're
concerned," Chicago forward-center Brian Williams said after
Game 1. "Really we are. You can't win a championship playing the
way we're playing. At least you shouldn't. Should you?"
The Bulls' triangle offense at times has looked more like a
circle, as in zero. (Maybe that's why normally placid,
75-year-old assistant coach Tex Winter, the inventor of the
triangle, picked up an uncharacteristic technical foul for
berating referee Bill Oakes on Sunday.) In fact, there were
lengthy stretches of Game 1 when the only decent shots the Bulls
were getting were the ones Jordan was creating for himself. "I
really thought we were going to lose this game," Chicago forward
Jud Buechler said afterward. "We had no emotion, no fire. There
wasn't even much emotion among the guys on the bench. It was
almost like a regular-season game." That suggests that boredom
may be as big an obstacle to the Bulls, who are going for their
fifth championship in seven years, as the Jazz is. "That same
hunger, that same enthusiasm is there for me," says Jordan, "but
I can't speak for everyone."
Or maybe the dauntless presence of Jordan--who is the ultimate
safety net--contributes to the listless play around him. "Do I
expect him to always hit the game-winner at the buzzer? No,"
says Chicago coach Phil Jackson. "I'm not quite that confident."
But Jordan has rescued his teammates so many times that they can
be forgiven if they occasionally find themselves waiting for him
to compensate for their mistakes. Consider Williams's
description of the Bulls' strategy on the final possession of
Game 1, with the score tied at 82 and 7.5 seconds left: "Give
the ball to Mike and get out of the way. That's basically the
wisdom for the day." Buechler, who was also in the game for the
final play, said, "I pretty much left the building. [Teammate]
Steve Kerr and I were standing next to each other on the other
side of the court, as far away from Mike as we could get. We
just wanted to isolate him and let him make something happen."
After the ball was passed to Jordan beyond the top of the
three-point circle, he moved left and dribbled to within 18 feet
of the basket, then went straight up and drained the shot. "It
was a play with a lot of options," said Jordan. "But Phil knew
that once I got the ball, the options were limited. I was the
Chicago was not supposed to be able to beat Utah the same way it
handled the Washington Bullets, the Atlanta Hawks and the Miami
Heat on the way to the Finals, slogging its way on offense
through most of the game and then cranking up its defense to
create chaos at crunch time. Late in the fourth quarter the
Bulls forced the normally unflappable John Stockton, Utah's
point guard, into turnovers on consecutive possessions and got a
huge break with 9.2 seconds left when Jazz power forward and
1996-97 league MVP Karl Malone missed a pair of free throws that
would have broken the tie. That set the stage for Jordan's
winning jumper, which he drilled despite the valiant defense of
small forward Bryon Russell. It took Malone 82 games to edge
Jordan for the Most Valuable Player award; it took Jordan 7.5
seconds to provide a compelling rebuttal.
Until the final moments Malone and the Jazz seemed poised to
take the early advantage in the series, just as the 6'9",
256-pound Malone had shrugged off his highly anticipated
confrontation with Chicago power forward Dennis Rodman. The
Bulls used bigger defenders, such as Williams and center Luc
Longley, on Malone much of the game, but when Rodman did guard
him, Malone made it clear that Rodman, at 6'8" and 220 pounds,
had neither the size nor the strength to handle him for very
long. Indeed, Malone had a team-high 23 points and even
outrebounded Rodman 15-12.
Perhaps most important, Malone had little trouble maintaining
his composure against the usually antagonistic Rodman. It seemed
for most of the game that the Malone-Rodman matchup was going to
be symbolic of the series: Rodman had finally met his emotional
and physical match in Malone, and in the Jazz, the Bulls had
finally run into a team they could not defeat at will.
Malone has long been one of the few opposing forwards Rodman has
difficulty rattling, which may be because they knew each other
long before the Mailman and the Worm were household names,
before one became an MVP and the other went MTV. Ten years ago
Malone and Rodman played on the same Dallas summer-league team.
Malone had just finished his second season with Utah and Rodman
his first in the NBA (with the Detroit Pistons), and they would
often drive to games together, sometimes spending hours in the
car as they sped through the Texas heat across the panhandle
into Oklahoma. The thing that Malone recalls most about Rodman
is that he didn't stand out--no extensive body art, no Day-Glo
hair. "The thing I remember is how quiet he was," Malone says.
"We would go for miles, and he wouldn't say a word."
Both men have come a long way since then. Malone has become
perhaps the greatest power forward in history; the silent young
man in the passenger seat has turned into sports' most
outrageous personality. Malone, though, doesn't view Rodman any
differently than he did 10 years ago. "I don't know about all
this other stuff," Malone says. "When I look at Dennis Rodman, I
see that quiet guy."
That is why it would be a shock if Rodman's mind games and
professional wrestling tactics ever aggravated Malone in this
series the way they distracted so many of Chicago's earlier
playoff opponents. Malone smiles at Rodman with an expression
that says he is not fooled, he will not be drawn in. Check the
game tapes of the 1994 first-round playoff series between the
Jazz and the San Antonio Spurs, for whom Rodman played at the
time, and you will see that look. I know who you were, Malone
seems to be thinking. And I know who you are.
In that '94 Western Conference series, Rodman committed various
acts of mayhem against several Jazz players, including Malone,
who never overtly retaliated. Rodman wound up being ejected from
Game 2 and suspended from the critical Game 3, which San Antonio
lost, and Utah wrapped up the series in four. Some of the Spurs
pointed to Rodman's behavior as the reason they lost the series.
"Some of the things that happened weren't good for his career or
for the Spurs," Jackson says. "He remembers that, and I think
that was an embarrassing moment for him."
It is crucial to Utah's chances that Malone remain unfazed by
Rodman. Put aside all the talk of Pippen's foot and Jordan's
penchant for playing lots of golf during the playoffs and
Stockton's notorious picks, and understand this: The Jazz cannot
win if Rodman makes Utah lose its emotional balance. If Malone
turns into a seething, mistake-prone bundle of anger, as Heat
center Alonzo Mourning did against Rodman in the Eastern
Conference finals, or begins lashing out and calling Rodman "a
sick, sick man," as Hawks center Dikembe Mutombo did in the
Eastern semifinals, then Utah doesn't have a chance.
Malone promises that he will not lose his cool. "Am I going to
get 'bowed [elbowed]? Probably so," he said the day before Game
1. "Am I going to give some 'bows? Probably so. But I'm not
going to do something silly. People are not going to leave this
series talking about something Dennis and I got into. I'm not
going to do anything that will degrade me or this organization."
Similar words have been spoken by other Rodman playoff
opponents, who have usually been true to their words for a game
or two. But playing against Rodman for an entire series is a
test of will, of maturity, that grows more difficult with each
game. As the series progresses, the cumulative effect of his
tactics--the hip thrust out just enough to make an airborne
opponent land awkwardly, the subtle elbow thrown after the
whistle, the incessant clapping--becomes increasingly hard to
take. "If you're playing against Dennis in the playoffs, you can
laugh him off in Game 1, maybe you can laugh him off in Game 2,"
says Longley. "But by Game 5, you're probably not laughing
anymore, you're gritting your teeth."
Malone knows that he will not be Rodman's only target, and he
has counseled the younger members of the Jazz, including centers
Greg Ostertag and Greg Foster, not to be drawn into Rodman's
psychological web. But while he is willing to talk about Rodman
with his teammates, Malone is far less willing to discuss him
with the press. In the days before Game 1, Malone seemed to be
playing his own little mind game, refusing to give the Bulls
forward the one thing he craves most: attention. Once, when
Malone was asked how he planned to keep Rodman from getting
under his skin, Malone simply ignored the question and waited
for the next one. It was all the answer he needed to give.
Rodman wasn't providing long discourses on Malone either. Asked
about those summer-league days, Rodman said, "If he says we
played together, I guess we did. Ancient history." As tiresome
as Rodman's behavior has become in his second season in Chicago,
his teammates can't deny they have benefited whenever opponents
become so preoccupied with him that they forget the larger
battle. But even the Bulls believe they will not have that
advantage against the Jazz. "They're so busy moving without the
ball and picking teams apart that they don't have time to get
caught up in that," Kerr says.
Sentiment may be turning against Rodman even in Chicago, just as
it eventually did in San Antonio. "Last year there was
exuberance and enthusiasm over his behavior," says Jackson.
"This year that focus has been taken away, and some of the
things he's done have been seen as having a more damaging
effect." The Bulls entered the Finals worried enough about
Rodman that Jackson took him aside and tried to head off any
potential explosion. "One of the things we've asked him is to
make sure he doesn't retaliate if he gets an illegal pick,"
Jackson said last Friday.
But after Game 1 it was the Jazz who needed to find a way to
retaliate. They had missed a golden opportunity, and both teams
knew it. "A team had better beat us when we play bad," said
Williams, "because we won't play bad forever." But the scary
thing is, the Bulls can be as bad as they wanna be and still be
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER COVER Gimme Five [Dennis Rodman, Michael Jordan and John Stockton in game]
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN On his way to the hoop, Malone felt the pinch of the Bulls' Pippen (behind him) and Toni Kukoc. [Scottie Pippen, Karl Malone, Toni Kukoc, and Michael Jordan in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER In the end Stockton (opposite, passing) fizzled, while Jordan (right, shooting) sizzled. [Brian Williams, John Stockton, Karl Malone, and Scottie Pippen in game]
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN [See caption above--Jeff Hornacek, Karl Malone, and Michael Jordan in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH Though playing in pain, Pippen (33) hit for 27 and put a defensive hurt on Antoine Carr. [Scottie Pippen, Ron Harper, and Antoine Carr in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH The much-anticipated Malone-Rodman matchup turned out to be a walkover for the Mailman. [Karl Malone, holding ball, standing over Dennis Rodman in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN W. MCDONOUGH When Malone was out of the picture, Rodman (12 boards) rebounded with a flourish. [Dennis Rodman making rebound in between Toni Kukoc and Greg Foster in game]