The following is an unabashed love song to the Chicago Bulls.
There are those who will say that winning 70 games is meaningless if the Bulls do not also win the NBA championship--and some of the people who will say that are the Bulls themselves.
Along that same line, there are people who are eagerly waiting for the Bulls to stumble in the playoffs so they can gloat, and recite their list of I-told-you-sos: “You see. Winning 70 games needlessly tired out the Bulls, and made them vulnerable. Winning 70 was an act of hubris for which they have been punished. They should have rested themselves and not been so prideful; 70 was fool’s gold.”
Don’t listen to them.
Winning 70 was a triumph of the first commandment in sports: Thou shalt play hard all the time.
It rarely happens anymore. The money is so good, the travel is so exhausting, the pressure is so great that here and there everyone gives in and takes a slide, everyone phones it in.
The Bulls didn’t phone it in.
It’s carping to say that winning 70 is devalued because this is an expansion year, and the competition is watered down. What people should be saying about the Bulls is that they showed true courage in trying to win 70, and not settling for the comfort of cruise control over the last month of a long season. There’s no mistaking the effort the Bulls put forth to win. This was a wire-to-wire deal. This was Secretariat in the 1973 Belmont.
People who paid top dollar to go to the United Center always got their money’s worth--and a pretty good seat to a Bulls game runs a pricey $65. There was integrity in the Bulls’ efforts. They honored the faith you showed by buying a ticket. They earned your trust.
Leading Chicago, of course, was Michael Jordan, who is irreconcilably competitive. Having digested all the critical comments that circulated in last year’s playoffs--that he’d lost a step, that he’d lost his lift, that, as Orlando’s Nick Anderson observed, No. 45 isn’t what No. 23 was--Jordan came back this season with an intensity so hot, you could feel his steam rising off the court.
Jordan was a born-again basketball player, an apostle for hoop. When the most-valuable-player votes are taken, nobody else’s name should be allowed on the ballot. Michael Jordan should win unanimously.
And while we are passing out awards, there should be no question about the coach of the year. Jim Lynam did a swell job--but Phil Jackson is coach of the year. When your team sets the all-time record for victories in one season, you are the coach of the year. Period. (The same goes for hockey. Jim Schoenfeld did a swell job, but Scotty Bowman is coach of the year. The Red Wings won more games than any team in NHL history. After being embarrassed in the Stanley Cup final last year, the Red Wings mocked the league this season. Their purpose and direction starts at the top, with the coach.)
There are those who will argue for Lynam, who magnified the Bullets through blue smoke and mirrors, and for Doug Collins and Mike Fratello. In another year they would each be bona-fide selections, because all their teams won more games than they should have. Usually the man who wins coach of the year is someone who has unexpectedly grown a beanstalk.
But Phil Jackson has done the hardest thing of all--he won when he was expected to win. He accepted the burden of talent, and won with it. That’s what John Wooden did at UCLA, what Red Auerbach did at Boston, what Pat Riley did with the Lakers.
Phil Jackson didn’t sneak up on anyone. He won with the lights on.
And he won 70, which nobody ever did.
Critics will say that anybody could win with Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, that Phil Jackson could have put the team on autopilot. But most of the time it’s not about bench work in the NBA, it’s about creating an atmosphere that allows your talent to flourish.
The tasks Jackson faced were daunting: He had to integrate Jordan back into a team that had spent almost two full seasons trying to find their identity without him. He had to smooth whatever ruffled feathers Pippen may have had because of Jordan’s return. He had to deal with the volatile Dennis Rodman experiment. And he had to bring those disparate parts into harmony while the noise around the team was deafening.
The Bulls aren’t some traveling acoustic band. In the immortal words of Tina Turner, the Chicago Bulls never ever do things nice and easy. They do them nice and rough.
And through it all, Jackson’s calm hands were at the wheel. If he doesn’t get coach of the year, the implication is that winning 70 was all about having these players. But what people must recognize is that without Phil Jackson these players couldn’t have won 70. Ask Lynam or Collins or Fratello how tough it is to win 70. They’d be ecstatic with 50.
The debate on whether this is the best team of all time will have to wait for another day. Today is about praising the Bulls for winning 70. It’s true that if they don’t win the title, 70 will seem hollow. It’s the ring, stupid. But the only way to become the first team in the 50-year history of the NBA to win 70 games and the championship is to win 70 games. Like all great journeys, it begins with a single step.