Spring in the '90s, the happiest times this city of tragedians ever knew, is here again but it isn't the way it was.
An eerie breeze stirs the local theocracy as the 3-D Bulls--dynastic, dysfunctional and disappearing--embark on a title run that's only a sideshow to the big story to follow, the decision on their fate together. This may determine whether
Not that any resolution or relief from this long-running farce is guaranteed, a farce that has become such an accepted distraction, you almost forget it could be any other way and nobody ever seems to ask:
How did they get into this fix?
Why are the Chicago Bulls, the greatest sports team in 30 years or so, the richest, the most glamorous, the highest-grossing and greatest market-penetrating, bent on breaking themselves up?
Dynasties are supposed to weather bad times, not explode on contact, but this is a new era, with considerations such as $30-million salaries and luxury-suite renewals, not to mention that old standby, ego. This mess was years in the making, chock-full of the kind of intrigue that intrigued Machiavelli in the age of the Italian city-states.
The result is a cacophony in which Jordan, the foremost Boy Scout of our time, if you believe his TV spots, is going out heroically as ever, while blasting away with both barrels at management, charging General Manager Jerry Krause regarded him as a "piece of meat" and owner Jerry Reinsdorf insulted him last summer when he agreed to pay him $33 million this season, with barely a negotiation.
Jordan made these comments to the august New Yorker, which once barely heard of the sweaty NBA, suggesting this isn't sport any more but an affair of state. Maybe they can bring in President Clinton to arbitrate between Jordan, Reinsdorf, Coach Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman.
How did it get to this? Even the participants, who have been battling it out for years, more or less pointing to this spring, aren't sure.
"It's amazing how often we sit around and talk about that," says Jackson's agent, Todd Musburger.
"Look at this. Obviously, it's entertainment, it's sports, it has certain peculiarities, but look at what this organization has done. Look at the performance level. Then look at this deep, dark corner.
"It has been spectacular. It has been glorious. But instead of doing what's natural, delightful and fun, we're wrought up inside. You have one of the best athletes in the history of the world, with a wonderful supporting cast and a group of coaches that are obviously a good fit and we're taking shots at each other. You have to defend and parry. How ugly. How ridiculous. It's a damn shame."
Musburger is, of course, doing what is natural, highlighting the accomplishments of his client, who finds himself at odds with the Jerrys, who are considering a new direction, cutting away the past, however glorious, plunging into the future, however uncertain.
Had all sides been able to see into the future a few years ago when they assumed this would be over by now, they might have saved themselves this anguish and embarrassment.
But they couldn't, so they'll have to make the best of it.
Jerry and Jerry and Mike and Doug
"The way to do it would have been to sign Horace Grant a few years ago. Then you make Scottie happy. . . . Then you need to bring in one young star when Jordan leaves, say a guy like Jerry Stackhouse. Then you've got three really strong players and all you need are role players around them."
Of course, you have to go back a lot further than that, all the way to Oct. 29, 1985.
Reinsdorf, a Brooklyn-born baseball fan who wept for the departing Dodgers and grew up to buy the Chicago White Sox, was starting his first full season as owner of the Bulls, a downtrodden team that he'd picked up, on a lark and for a song.
Jordan was already there, having been drafted the year before, having already shown he had star quality coming out of his ears.
That night in a routine game against the Golden State Warriors, Jordan suffered the one major injury of his career, breaking a bone in his left foot, a tricky injury that looked as though it could keep him out all season.
That was the doctors' advice, but it wasn't Jordan's intention.
By the last weeks of the regular season, he was ready to play. When Krause put him off, Jordan charged he was being "jerked around big-time," accusing management of tanking to get in the draft lottery. There was a contentious meeting, and Jordan declared he was going to bring a tape recorder, so he could prove who had said what.
They let him return, whereon Jordan led the Bulls to the playoffs and added another story to storied Boston Garden, scoring 63 points, after which Larry Bird said he was "God disguised as Michael Jordan."
So Jordan became a superstar and a thorn in management's side, almost at the same time.
Says a former Bull: "Michael's point during all that furor, and it was very heated, his point was that nobody knows his body the way Michael Jordan does.
"That set the tone for everything, but Michael loves Chicago and after that, they got a lot better talent there. When he got 63 in the Garden that day, that was like a coming-out party. Everybody realized how good he was."
Jordan had been content to remain a piece of the puzzle as a collegian at North Carolina under the revered Dean Smith, but he wasn't the same impressionable kid any more. Nor did the byzantine Bulls bear any resemblance to Chapel Hill.
Reinsdorf was agreeable but distant, preferring sensibly to govern through professionals. He was devoted to loyal employees. He named the Bulls' practice facility the Sheri L. Berto Center after his longtime secretary who had died. He fired his high-strung but successful White Sox general manager, Larry Himes, but says the present general manager, embattled but faithful Ron Schueler, has a job for life.
No one was more faithful than the dogged Krause. A scout who had worked for the Lakers and Phoenix Suns, he wasn't generally considered upper-management material. He was short and stout, defensive to a fault, but he was an old NBA hand and Reinsdorf, who knew from nothing about basketball, hired him, explaining casually to skeptics if it didn't work out, he'd get someone else.
Krause efficiently set about finding some players to go with Jordan, uncovering gems such as Charles Oakley, Grant and Pippen.
Krause was efficient to the point of gothic, ruling with a small, but iron hand. Coaches were told Reinsdorf, who wintered in Tucson, didn't want to be bothered and to go through the general manager if they had a problem. Krause hired their assistants, whom they often suspected of spying for him. Krause was so secretive, employees said he sometimes leaked different stories to different people, to see which ones got out--showing who was a security risk.
Krause insisted on sole control of the No. 1 pick, and, said a former official, "wouldn't tell a damn soul in the organization until he was on the phone with five minutes left."
He pitted employees against one another, hiring promising but lowly prospects such as Arizona State assistant Doug Collins who supplanted coaches like Stan Albeck. Then for Collins' staff Krause hired more lowly prospects, including CBA coach Jackson, who wound up supplanting Collins.
Krause reportedly has settled on another protege, Iowa State's Tim Floyd, to supplant Jackson, though Reinsdorf, under pressure, has noted he'll have something to say about this one.
Meanwhile, Jackson has publicly warned Floyd not to turn his back.
'I wouldn't be surprised if he [Krause] made a change [hired Floyd] and distanced himself from the guy," Jackson said.
"One time, when I was kind of in Jerry's eye, he was calling me in the CBA, telling me I could coach and we were conversing. He said he had to hire Stan Albeck because it was his first hire and he needed a legit guy to come in and coach. When he got disenchanted with Stan, I thought I was going to be the guy and he wasn't even calling me. Doug Collins was suddenly the coach and it surprised the heck out of me. It may be that Jerry could change his mind. He has in the past."
Jackson was Collins' assistant but Krause's hire, a bad position that got worse. Collins was popular, successful and volatile. The Bulls rose quickly, amid much shrieking. Collins had strained relationships with players and the media, but everybody loved the mellow Jackson. Collins thought Jackson was after his job and stopped talking to him, except in timeout huddles.
Then, suddenly and almost inexplicably, Reinsdorf fired Collins, who had taken over a 30-52 team and posted win totals of 40, 50 and 47.
Jackson was appointed, with a staff that included John Bach (a Collins hire) and Tex Winter (a Krause hire.)
Of course, Jackson also had a grown-up, battle-scarred, sadder, wiser Jordan, with an emerging Pippen and Grant, so things would be great, while they lasted.
Jerry and Jerry and Phil and Todd
"Neither I nor Jerry Krause has ever said anywhere that we want to break up the team. We get accused of saying it. I read it all the time. I hear Spike Lee saying it on the Jay Leno show. All we ever said is it will be a challenge to management to figure out when is the right time to start a rebuilding process."
May 8, 1998
"Beyond this contract, Phil agrees it's better we part company. At the end of next season, there will be a new coach here. We certainly want to look at building for the future."
July 24, 1997
"Phil wanted to come back for one last year to try to defend our world championship. It has always been our intention to bring Phil back for that last season and then turn our attention to building for the future."
July 24, 1997
The hits may have kept happening but so did the inner-circle discord and strife.
Three titles into the '90s, Jordan left. When he returned, Bach was gone. The assistant had grown close to Jackson, but insiders said Krause resented Bach's popularity and natural showmanship and the credit he got for putting teeth into the defense. Krause wanted more attention to his favorite assistant, Winter, the father of the triangle offense, whom the general manager was trying to get into the Hall of Fame.
Jordan had quickly warmed to Jackson. Jordan was publicly respectful toward Reinsdorf but attacked Krause at will, nicknaming him "Crumbs"--Krause liked to eat--and never letting up. A few days ago, a Chicago TV station ran footage of Jordan, sitting in the driver's seat of the team bus while Krause walked in front of it, telling Pippen, "Scottie, give me $5 and I'll do it."
It was open season on management, headed by Reinsdorf but with Krause as hated hood ornament. Even scrubs dared to chime in, as when Will Perdue, writing a playoff diary for the Daily Southtown, noted:
"Believe me, I'm not alone in my inability to understand why Jerry [Krause] accompanies the team on road trips so often. It seems most GMs stay away from the spotlight and work behind the scenes, but not Jerry. When the players know that Big Brother is watching, it puts more pressure on them. . . . Even when we win, the guy is never in a good mood."
For whatever reason, Reinsdorf didn't rein in Krause, letting him continue as burr under the saddle. Maybe it was because Reinsdorf was a bottom-line businessman, as he portrayed himself. Maybe he was loyal to his general manager. Maybe he was a hard-line management guy, as the baseball union regarded him, who didn't mind seeing the pampered payers hassled.
Grant became a free agent, negotiations turned angry, players left, and players' friends, like Pippen, grew alienated.
Jordan's return kicked off a new golden era, even more spectacular than the first but even more discordant.
In Jordan's first full season back, they went 72-10 and 15-3 in the playoffs, steamrollering the Seattle SuperSonics to win a title, but Jackson's negotiations for a multi-year contract bogged down. There were reports Jackson was asking Reinsdorf to get Krause off the players' backs.
The nature of NBA management was, in fact, changing. Coaches were now more like players, with agents, demands, and million-dollar deals. It wasn't Reinsdorf's idea of a managerial employee. Perhaps as a way of answering his coach, in the trophy presentation in the United Center after they finished off the SuperSonics, the owner announced to a disbelieving crowd the man "most responsible" was . . . Krause.
There were strained feelings all around. Of course, no one thought this thing could go much longer, so the free agents, Jackson and Jordan, took one-year deals for the 1996-97 season.
Reinsdorf, eyeing the expiration of the five-year leases on the United Center's 217 luxury suites (the new Staples Center will have only 175) in 1999, wanted to have begun rebuilding by then, around someone like the wunderkind, Kevin Garnett, who was expected to be a free agent in 1998.
Indeed, the old Bulls couldn't live up to what they had done. They went only 69-13, the second-best record ever, and 15-4 in the playoffs, beating the Jazz to win another title.
True to his intentions, Reinsdorf told Krause he'd trade Pippen if they could get three No. 1 picks. Krause worked out a three-way deal with Boston and Denver that would have brought them Nos. 3, 5 and 10, but Reinsdorf pulled back, telling confidantes he started thinking about his grandchildren in school in the Chicago area.
So they set out to bring everyone back again. This time, Reinsdorf had to fly to Montana to sign Jackson, hat and one-year deal in hand, and to Las Vegas to get Jordan.
"Last year," Musburger says, "they began negotiations by saying, 'This . . . is . . . the . . . last . . . deal . . . we . . . will . . . ever . . . do . . . with . . . Phil . . . Jackson. This is one year. Is that straight?'
"And that's just about the way Krause pronounced it. And then when Phil signed, Krause pranced down the hall at the Berto Center and said, 'At the end of this year, there will be a new coach here.' That was quite public."
What wasn't? In training camp, Krause announced, "Players don't win titles, organizations do."
And after Krause traded useful Jason Caffey for David Vaughn, whom the Bulls then cut, Jordan sneered: "Organizations win titles. Remember that."
Garnett re-signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves, saying later he wouldn't have gone to the Bulls, not "with the stuff Scottie has been going through. . . . They're really high-profile players and I feel they've been mistreated sometimes."
Rebuilding was elusive and getting more so--and the old team wouldn't go away. With Pippen out until mid-January, the Bulls started 8-7 and things looked dire . . . until they went 28-5 after the All-Star break, losing best record in the league on a tiebreaker. Reinsdorf, feeling the heat build, said if they won another title, he'd be happy to bring everybody back for another year.
Pippen said publicly the owner could "go to hell."
The finals, traditionally the grand-standingest, name-callingest time of the season, are here, so imagine what could happen next.
This can't possibly go on any longer, can it?
Oh, it can?
At least, we know why the Bulls have such tough hides. If they haven't been able to finish one another off by now, what chance did anyone else have?
* GAME 1: BULLS AT UTAH, 6 Tonight, Ch. 4