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Bulls, Jordan Have All the Drama

THE WASHINGTON POST

It’s funny the way people, looking to describe the overwhelming popularity of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, will say, “They’re like rock stars.” Thing is, only a handful of rock stars in the world are as celebrated, as pursued, as idolized, as large as Michael Jordan. And few bands stay at the top of the charts as long as Jordan’s Bulls.

So it was appropriate one day last week when Jordan, looking weary even before the start of the season, took the entire offseason of melodrama into account and said, “Somehow, we’ve got to get this show on the road. . . . Put this show on the road and live with it.”

Some show. Probably more like a three-ring circus. There’s never been a basketball team so surrounded by drama. Maybe not another team in the history of sports. All of sports, right up there with Charlie Finley’s A’s, the Yankees of George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson, and Jerry Jones’ Cowboys. All drama, all the time.

How come Michael walked away at age 30? Why is Scottie Pippen refusing to go in the game with 1.8 seconds left? Is Michael going to un-retire? Why is GM Jerry Krause trying to trade Pippen to Seattle? Is Phil Jackson going to leave to coach the Knicks? Can you believe Jackson, in the moments following a playoff victory, was telling reporters the key to understanding that night’s strategy is to smoke “hemp”? Can the Bulls reach 70 wins with Dennis Rodman suspended for butting a referee? Can a team that has already pulled off a three-peat, once again repeat? Is Jordan coming back if Jackson doesn’t come back? How much is the world’s best player worth, anyway? Are they trying to trade Pippen again? Rodman arrived at practice a half-hour early, but why is he still sitting in the parking lot 30 minutes after the workout began? He said what about the Mormons? If Rodman said during the playoffs he’d play for free, why is he asking for $4.5 million plus incentives? How come every team in the NBA is trying to copy the Bulls, while their general manager is trying to break up his team?

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Every subplot seems to draw another million fans, more endorsements, more hysteria. Jackson, on the subject of traveling with the team, told Sports Illustrated during the preseason trip to Paris: “It becomes a labor. We appreciate the attention. It makes for sellouts and TV audiences and big contracts, and I find the people we meet to be, for the most part, well-meaning rather than cynical. But the constant press of the crowd, the inability to get into and out of hotels, all the autograph seekers and souvenir seekers, the people who want a piece of something, anything, that might become valuable in the future.”

And it’s here that the Chicago Bulls, five-time NBA champions, begin this last supper of a season. Before it even began, all anybody was talking about was the end. The Bulls themselves are talking about the end. Jackson, Jordan, Rodman. Jordan, who doesn’t much like talking to Rodman about anything off the court to begin with, had to cajole the league’s leading rebounder into coming back at all. “He kept saying, ‘Don’t leave me hanging,’ ” Rodman said upon his return.

The two of them, however, will have to hang without Pippen for a while since he’s out until probably January following foot surgery. Toni Kukoc is trying to play himself into shape after doing, as he said, “nothing for three months.”

So, it’s apparent that this is going to be one strange, potentially quarrelsome marathon of a season, absolutely loaded down with melodrama that will keep the Bulls the center of attention for another winter.

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The relevant question now is, is the cumulative weight of all this extravaganza simply too much? How many balls can they juggle at once? It’s not a three-ring circus anymore, it’s grown to four rings. And Jordan, after all, will turn 35 shortly after the All-Star Game. Dennis Rodman will turn 37 during the playoffs. Pippen is already 32. Jackson’s a lame-duck coach. Jordan likes Reinsdorf, but Pippen doesn’t.

Jordan and Pippen both think Krause is a clown. If Jordan would have permitted it, Krause would have traded Pippen over the summer, no matter what Krause may say now. It’s all so deliciously crazy and hyped. It’s a team made for sports-talk radio.

For the decade of the ‘90s, the Bulls with Jordan have been impervious to everything. But for how much longer?

If they were -- to use the fashionable word -- “vulnerable” throughout last season’s playoffs, what will they be this season? The Lakers are young and strong and full of themselves. Seattle miraculously could be as good without Shawn Kemp as it was with him. San Antonio’s Tim Duncan is the best-looking rookie since David Robinson. The Knicks are still strong. Pat Riley has convinced his Miami Heat it is the heir apparent. Grant Hill is starting to get impatient for the first time, which is a good sign for the Pistons. Charlotte may be the best team in the league that nobody’s paying attention to. Riley said the Bulls will win the NBA championship until Jordan retires, but Riley is wrong. It’s very possible the NBA, even with its underachieving youngsters still underachieving, is stronger than it’s been at any time since the turn of the decade.

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The longest-running, most provocative show in sports is about to hit the road once more, maybe for the last time. If so, it’ll be the most fascinating farewell we’ve ever seen.


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