Dave Figliulo was realistic. When Figliulo, co-owner of a
Chicago consulting firm, plopped down $1,800 a game to buy his
four courtside season tickets at the United Center, he knew he
wouldn't be witnessing a Bulls team led by Michael Jordan that
would contend for a seventh NBA title. Still, Figliulo, a
season-ticket holder since 1987, had little idea that he'd be
paying mightily for the privilege of watching the league's worst
team. "I'm a lifetime Bulls fan and a big NBA fan, so I thought
it would be worth it," he said, pausing to grimace as a starting
forward named Kornel David missed an uncontested layup during a
101-95 loss to the Dallas Mavericks last Thursday. "But let's
just say I've already written this season off."
So, it seems, have the Bulls themselves. The hegemonic
professional sports franchise of the '90s, Chicago is closing
out the decade in blazing ignominy. The Bulls won 72 games in
1995-96; they could lose that many this season. After bowing to
the Milwaukee Bucks 92-91 at home last Saturday for its ninth
loss in a row, Chicago stood at 1-14. Not since the Romanovs has
a dynasty fallen so precipitously. Asked how he felt rejoining
the team that drafted him, center Will Perdue responded with a
laugh: "You mean the Destructa-Bulls?"
Destructa-Bulls, Unwatcha-Bulls, Abomina-Bulls. Whatever the
case, it's impossible to exaggerate just how horrendous Chicago
has become. True, forward Toni Kukoc, the team's best player,
has appeared in only four games on account of back spasms. But
even with Kukoc the Bulls are no more than a ragtag consortium
of clueless rookies, European league projects and veterans
playing on legs slower than rush hour on the Dan Ryan. Chicago's
weaknesses are too numerous to catalog here, but among them:
--None of the Bulls are dangerous enough to draw a double-team,
thus almost every shot they take is contested.
--The team is softer than pashmina. On Nov. 27, the Bulls played
an entire half against Dallas without drawing a shooting foul.
--The 34-year-old Perdue, general manager Jerry Krause's most
noteworthy free-agent pickup last summer, will earn more than $5
million this season. He was contributing just 3.1 points and 3.3
rebounds per game at week's end.
--Despite his legion of one-dimensional players, coach Tim Floyd
is still wed to the triangle offense. The triple-post set was
ideal when players like Jordan and Scottie Pippen (page 80)
could swing between the blocks and the perimeter and create when
the shot clock wound down. Now, time and again, Chicago reserves
can be heard screaming, "Red zone! Red zone!" while a teammate
heaves off-balance slop to beat the buzzer.
To make matters worse, opponents are showing no mercy in paying
back the onetime dynasty. "A lot of teams don't see the Bulls as
a lot of rookies playing hard," says Mavericks forward Cedric
Ceballos. "They just see the red, white and black uniform and
get motivation from that."
Yet for all the pain the players are enduring on the court and
the fans have been suffering in the stands, there has been no
damage to Chicago's bottom line; in fact, to its 29 partners,
the franchise might well be known as the Banka-Bulls. Much to
the ill-concealed chagrin of chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, Chicago
had the league's highest payroll in 1997-98, when it won its
sixth title. The team disgorged nearly $62 million in salaries,
including $36 million to Jordan alone, and turned a profit of
$8.6 million. Since breaking up the champs, Reinsdorf has
demonstrated the same fiscal conservatism (read: parsimony) that
he practices as managing partner of baseball's Chicago White
Sox. In lockout-shortened 1998-99, with only 25 home dates and
no playoff income--but a vastly slashed, Jordan-less
payroll--the franchise reportedly netted $20.4 million. This
season, with 41 home dates and a payroll of around $25 million,
which is $9 million under the salary cap, the Bulls will finish
even more strongly in the black.
The team's favorable balance sheet is bolstered by unwavering
fan support. Against the Bucks, Chicago ran its league-leading
streak of home sellouts to 573 games, dating back to November
1987. Though 20% of the Bulls' 17,000 season-ticket holders
failed to renew during the off-season, they were replaced from a
waiting list that still includes more than 20,000 names. A
particularly ingenious, if brazen, marketing campaign used
ersatz Blues Brothers imploring Chicagoans not to be
"fair-weather, front-running fans" and to support the team in
this post-Jordan era. "We've been up-front with fans, telling
them that rebuilding might be painful but it's part of the
process," says Steve Schanwald, vice president of marketing.
"They also know how valuable Bulls tickets have been."
The United Center's luxury boxes are also filled to near
capacity. Of the arena's 216 suites--ranging from $144,000 to
$300,000 annually--144 came up for renewal over the off-season.
Amazingly, Schanwald and his minions renewed or resold all but
six of them, receiving for each a minimum three-year commitment.
"Going to games is a good way to entertain clients," says
Barbara Bond, an administrator at the Chicago law firm Winston &
Strawn, which has leased a corporate suite since the arena
opened before 1994-95. "And people still remember the excitement
from the championship teams."
Owing to the crowds occupying the seats and boxes, the minuscule
payroll, the lucrative leaguewide television contract and the
princely local TV deal with WGN and Fox Sports Channel, Forbes
recently rated the Bulls as the NBA's second-most-valuable
franchise, at $307 million, behind the New York Knicks ($334
million). "This is the time for ownership to finally get fat at
the trough," says a rival general manager. "Fans are still giddy
from the titles, so [the Bulls] have the same revenues coming in
and they're not paying Michael's huge salary." (Reinsdorf
declined to comment to SI.)
But how long can the profitable afterglow last? Already a
handful of sponsors, including Ameritech, have withdrawn their
support; empty seats abound at home games and the sellout streak
is sure to end this year; even partners in the team's ownership
group are concerned. "Look, they've done a great job of
reselling the product for this season," says Lamar Hunt,
Chicago's second-largest shareholder and a partial owner in the
Bulls since the mid-1960s. "But I'm afraid it won't last long if
we don't get into the mode of winning some games."
Krause's mantra this season is that he's clearing cap room and
intends to sign at least one big-name free agent over the
summer. The obvious candidates, however, appear to be long
shots. Spurs center Tim Duncan is a good bet to remain in San
Antonio now that the city will start construction on a
state-of-the-art arena. Detroit Pistons forward Grant Hill, who
has always bridled at the Heir Jordan tag, is unlikely to want
to assume the role of Messiah with the downtrodden Bulls. If
Krause makes a move for a free agent a cut below--say, Toronto
Raptors swingman Tracy McGrady, who conspiracy theorists note
shares an agent with the overpaid Perdue--he risks committing
serious money to an unproven player.
While free agents once lined up for the chance to play alongside
greatness and earn a ring, the Bulls have lost whatever cachet
they had. Courted by Chicago before last season, Denver Nuggets
forward Antonio McDyess deemed the Jordan-less Bulls "an
expansion team with cold weather." After their epic
knock-down-drag-outs with players over salaries, the notorious
Jerrys engender fear and loathing around the league. Though
Krause denies that Chicago was ever interested, Penny Hardaway
asserts that the Bulls wooed him last off-season. Hardaway
demurred after speaking with Horace Grant, a starter on the
first three Chicago champs and then an Orlando Magic teammate.
"Horace said it was just awful management," says Hardaway, who
signed with the Phoenix Suns. "The organization isn't known for
its fair play."
Currently in position to reap next year's No. 1 pick, Chicago
can also improve through the draft. Yet that, too, is an iffy
proposition. For all his cloak-and-dagger secrecy and
surreptitious scouting mechanisms, Krause has a spotty draft
record. Yes, he discovered Pippen and Kukoc. But he also wasted
a lottery pick on Stacey King and nabbed Jason Caffey while
Michael Finley, a Chicago native now starring for the Mavericks,
was on the board. Last summer Krause hardly whiffed by using the
top choice on Brand, who was averaging 16.3 points and 8.9
boards at week's end. But with his team desperate for a
playmaker, he would have fared better by rolling the dice on
either Lamar Odom or Steve Francis. "I think we've won enough to
know what it takes," says Krause. "We're in the business of
winning championships, not the business of being mediocre."
If there is a tragic figure in this riches-to-rags story, it is
Floyd, Krause's fishing buddy, who was lured--hook, line and
sinker--to replace Phil Jackson before last season. Like
Figliulo and other Bulls fans, Floyd steeled himself for life
after Jordan. What he didn't expect was that in his second year
he would inherit a roster that could be confused with that of
the Rockford Lightning. Thrust into an unenviable situation,
Floyd has demonstrated Gandhian patience and, choosing his words
with painful precision, has said all the right things publicly.
(In private, though, he has confided that he feels betrayed by
Krause.) While the triple post has long been Krause's offense of
choice, Floyd stands staunchly by it. "I'm not fine with the
losing, but I'm fine with the decision I made to take this job,"
says Floyd. "We'll see whether Jerry decides to play all his
cards this summer. He really doesn't talk [to me] much about it."
As the losses mount, the fans linger a bit longer at the Jordan
statue outside the United Center and come to appreciate the
sextet of championship banners that much more. In the locker
room the team gropes for moral victories and tries to salvage
some pride. "We just have to keep trying to improve," point
guard Randy Brown, one of the few holdovers from the dynasty,
says with a shrug. "We had a great run, but that era's over.
It's over, man."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER Baby steps Top pick Brand has been trying to hold his own against teams aching to pay back the former champs.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID WALBERG Down in the mouth After watching his team go 14-51 since its '98 title, Krause can only hope to lure a top free agent next season.
"This is the time for ownership to finally get fat at the
trough," says a rival G.M. "Fans are still giddy from the