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SPLITSVILLE?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Last tango for the Bulls?

Next-to-last tango?

In the old days, your Yankee, Canadien and Celtic dynasties lived to prolong their reigns, but these are the Bulls, the one true modern successor to the old empires, and they like to live on the edge.

On one side of the blade they’re skating on is their fifth title in seven seasons. This might, but isn’t guaranteed to, bring back Coach Phil Jackson, superstar Michael Jordan and superstar’s helper, Scottie Pippen.

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On the other side is a loss in the finals, which would surely result in the Bulls blowing themselves to smithereens.

On his own is indescribable Dennis Rodman, considered a longshot to be rehired under any scenario.

Making the decisions will be owner Jerry Reinsdorf, known for his business acumen and disdain for popularity, resulting in an angry local press--"piggish arrogance,” writes the Sun-Times’ Jay Mariotti of Reinsdorf’s stance--and a skeptical fan base.

Of course, a little civic rumbling is nothing compared to the firestorm Reinsdorf will set off if he presses the plunger on Chicago’s darling Bulls, a move compared here to the Boston Red Sox’s sale of Babe Ruth.

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This would be worse than merely selling one Bambino. This would be like cleaning house with the 1927 New York Yankees, chasing Manager Miller Huggins out of town, trading Lou Gehrig and daring Ruth to retire.

Few men, or even many sports owners, would dare it, but Reinsdorf is considering it, sending up occasional trial balloons to see if the villagers take to the streets bearing torches.

Before the season, he mused about breaking the team up, adding: “While Jerry [Krause, general manager] finally has gotten some recognition, there always will be some people who say, ‘Yeah, he did a good job. But he had Michael Jordan.’

“I would think he’d welcome the challenge of getting back to the top without Michael.”

Welcome or not, it would be a challenge. Late in the season, Reinsdorf, up from his Arizona winter home, said on a radio panel show:

“The run of this team will come to an end at some point. The challenge that we have in management is not to become the Boston Celtics. Our challenge is to get the next run started as soon as possible.

“So we are going to have to make some decisions, and they might be some hard decisions as to when we say, ‘OK, it’s been great, see you at the old-timers’ game.’ ”

The Bulls are now within four victories of another title but publicly, at least, management’s hard-line posture doesn’t seem to be softening.

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In Kansas City last week, Lamar Hunt, an 11% owner of the team, noted: “I guess the Bulls’ days are fleeting. The days with Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman . . . they are precious few.”

Hunt’s source was, presumably, Reinsdorf. Chicago trembled anew.

Let’s hurry and meet the actors in this farce before the last act starts, just in case they pull out the rubber knives and start in on each other.

REINSDORF

Up close and personal, Reinsdorf is warm, affable and doesn’t seem like the Grinch that stole Christmas.

As an owner, he is known for his compassion and loyalty to employees. The team’s training facility, the Sherri Berto Center, is named for his late secretary. He has celebrated championships by flying the entire front office to the finals and issuing rings to everyone.

However, he hasn’t been able to bring himself to embrace the modern athlete, especially the ones who announce in the press what he, as owner, owes them, as players.

Nor does he tolerate any confusion about who runs things.

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Horace Grant, sweet-tempered but talkative, a key member of the first three championship teams, incurred Reinsdorf’s wrath by playing out his contract and signing with the Orlando Magic. When he left, Reinsdorf took the unusually vindictive step of calling a news conference to rip him, alleging Grant sat out games to protect his free-agent status as well as his sore back.

In the same period--the 18 months Jordan was gone--Grant’s buddy, Pippen, complained about his contract and trashed Reinsdorf’s favorite, Krause, once declaring: “Trade me or Krause.”

That was OK with Reinsdorf, who OKd a deal with the Clippers, which Pippen rejected.

Even Jordan, the star of stars, who kept his mouth shut for years about his modest $4-million salary, has only a polite relationship with the owner. For years, Jordan publicly volunteered his help to Krause, campaigning for this acquisition or that--usually former Tar Heels--and working over the general manager whom he named “Crumbs,” but Reinsdorf made sure Jordan was kept far from the levers of power.

After a decade-long tug of war between talent and management, even another title might not be enough to maintain the standoff.

Last spring, Jackson, tired of having Reinsdorf’s terrier, Krause, nipping at his heels, asked that the general manager’s office be moved from the Berto Center.

Reinsdorf refused, making no secret of where his first loyalty lay when he introduced the general manager to a mystified United Center crowd at the trophy presentation with the words, “If you have to give credit to one man, the guy that put them all here . . . Jerry Krause!”

Reinsdorf offered Jackson a two-year contract. Jackson almost walked--for a day, reports swept Chicago he was gone--but agreed to return for one season, if he could negotiate with other teams during the ’97 playoffs.

Jordan, always a creature of whim, has vowed to quit if Reinsdorf doesn’t rehire Jackson.

Pippen has often defied management, as when he refused to ride the chartered plane the players were all complaining about while Jordan was away and paid for his own commercial ticket.

Rodman, of course, has been more trouble than a play group of 2-year-olds. Last season, with Jackson advising him publicly to give Rodman a two-year contract, Reinsdorf grudgingly offered one, after which Peck’s Bad Boy got worse.

How forgiving Reinsdorf will be remains to be seen.

As the Bulls get closer to another title, the core’s prospects of staying seem better, but, as Jordan noted ruefully of Reinsdorf last week, “He’s gone against the grain many times.”

JACKSON

For years, Jackson was like Pat Riley in his Laker days. Anything he won was ascribed to his players.

However, last season’s 70 wins got him his first coach-of-the-year award, and this season’s 69 victories, on top of four titles, make him the most attractive, uncommitted pro coach, a wonderful thing to be in today’s Monopoly-money era.

Peers have long rolled their eyes at Jackson’s well-known love of Native American lore and Zen philosophy, or as the New York Knicks’ Jeff Van Gundy put it after reading Jackson’s book, “Sacred Hoops”:

“Our biggest concern in the off-season was to find as many Indian artifacts as we could.”

However, insiders have long known that Jackson’s ability to keep his players bonded was instrumental in holding this crazy quilt together.

Over the years, his technique has become evident: making players’ foibles public--he has even been fingered in Chicago papers as the mole who snitches on Jordan--the better to embarrass them and drive them back to the safety of the group.

If anyone needed an object lesson in how the process worked, Jackson provided it when Pippen took himself out of Game 3 of the 1994 Knick series, incensed that the coach had given the last shot to Toni Kukoc.

Anyone else would have made up a story about an injury to account for Pippen’s absence. Instead, Jackson strode to the interview room and, without being asked, laid out the whole story, giving Pippen away and kicking off a stormy weekend.

The next day, Pippen apologized and Jackson gathered the players around him in a protective circle, now telling the media:

“I know it’s your job to expose and to make us all look human and naked. We’re not going to do that, to our team or to any individual on our team.”

Jackson intimates wonder what he’ll do now. Another championship might mean another one-year contract, but with Jackson, a wild card, one never knows. Last spring, he said he and Reinsdorf “agreed to agree” when negotiations bogged down.”

This spring, there have been no negotiations, Jackson notes unhappily, no agreement to agree. For his part, Jackson zinged his general manager publicly, saying he and Krause are “not in sync” on the team’s future.

Orlando’s $30-million, five-year offer is still on the table, but Jackson, who put the Magic on hold, doesn’t want to coach a mediocre team or look like a mercenary betraying his flower-child youth.

The people closest to him think if he leaves, he might sit out a year, waiting for a more attractive situation . . . like the Lakers, the one he was known to be watching with keen interest.

Things are so weird now that Reinsdorf is maintaining a stony silence, while Riley, with whom Jackson has feuded through the ‘90s, recommends his rehiring.

“He’s done a great job there,” said Riley last week. “He’s kept a ship afloat. Probably of all the championship teams in the last 20 years, that one has had the most baggage. . . .

“I don’t know why they would let Phil go. If they think they’re going to rebuild this thing back up quickly when Michael leaves, they’ve got another think coming. They’ve got to milk this thing for everything it’s got.”

JORDAN

If there ever was a superstar who could enjoy such a predicament, it’s Jordan, who delights in unpredictability.

In 1993, he stunned the game with his retirement. In the spring of 1995, he stunned it by returning.

That fall, he talked of playing three more years. By the spring of ’96, it was two more. In the summer, after Jackson took a one-year deal, so did Jordan.

This season, Jordan has cast hints in all directions. Lately, he has sounded more as if he wants to stay.

“I’d like to be playing basketball,” he said last week. “That’s simple. Hopefully that’s the case. . . .”

Of course, he’ll come back only on his own terms. Currently, this means Reinsdorf must rehire Jackson, or, as Jordan advised the owner through the Tribune’s Steve Rosenbloom:

“Don’t call my bluff.”

PIPPEN

Pippen’s situation is different: He has a contract. That’s the problem.

At 31, he has one season left before he’ll be a free agent. Having had him at a bargain $2.75 million for five seasons, Reinsdorf isn’t eager to pay Pippen something in the range of $8 million to $10 million a year to watch him grow older and may trade him while he can get something for him.

Among people close to Pippen, it has long been assumed that next season will be his last in Chicago, if he lasts that long.

Jordan, pleading publicly for Reinsdorf to take care of Jackson, knows the sands are running out for Pippen.

“He [Reinsdorf] owes Scottie too,” Jordan says, “but I don’t think Scottie will get it in this situation.”

Says a resigned Pippen: “You look at what the players and the coaches have done for this franchise, and you would like to see what happened for some of the other great teams like Boston and Los Angeles. Let the run play out. It’s about loyalty. . . .

“It’s not our call. It’s a situation where we’re trying to build a team into a dynasty, but we still don’t make the calls. The two Jerries make the final decision.”

RODMAN

The decision on Rodman may already have been made although one man, at least, thinks he hasn’t worn out his welcome.

“Have I worn out my welcome?” Rodman asks. “Not really. I can go somewhere else and do the same thing there.”

Of course, this doesn’t make sense, but this is Dennis Rodman. What did you expect, Aristotelian logic?

In his first season in Chicago, Rodman was a major pain in the neck, with his suspension for head-butting a referee, but won back his teammates and Bull fans in the playoffs.

This season, after being cold-shouldered in negotiations, he started camp unhappy and got unhappier, not to mention in more trouble. He is now plainly beyond the Bulls’ control, having been ejected from three playoff games, drawing at least one technical in all 13.

Even Jackson, who once pleaded his case and made excuses for him, now barely hides his disdain and sometimes doesn’t even bother to try.

Said Jackson last week, complaining about the Heat’s violations of sportsmanship: “But who are we to say? We have Dennis Rodman.”

At least for another two weeks, they have him.

“I would love to stay in Chicago,” Rodman says. “If we win, yeah, I’ll probably be back. If we don’t, I’ll probably be on the beach somewhere. . . .

“I don’t give a damn if I have three or four years [under contract]. I’m not that young any more. A year’s great for me. I love it. I don’t need the money, so what the hell? I’m just out here having a good time, enjoying myself, trying to win ballgames, win championships.”

Well, at least they won’t ever forget him, or any of them.

JORDAN

Age: 34

1996-97 salary: $30.1 million

Status: Jordan says he will not play next season if Jackson isn’t coach and tells Reinsdorf not to call his bluff.

*

RODMAN

Age: 36

1996-97 salary: $9 million

Status: Rodman says he wants to come back to Chicago, but the smart thinking is, he already has worn out his welcome.

*

PIPPEN

Age: 31

1996-97 salary: $2.75 million

Status: Has one year remaining on his contract, and many suspect the underpaid Pippen to be gone before then.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

NBA FINALS

GAME 1: JAZZ vs. BULLS

Best-of-seven series

* WHEN: 4:30 p.m. today

* WHERE: at Chicago

* TV: Channel 4

* RADIO: KIEV (870), X690

MIKE DOWNEY

For all of your braggadocio, Sir Charles, where are the rings? C4

MARK HEISLER

Bring in the clowns. Or rather, Utah, help us get rid of them. C5


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