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NBA PLAYOFFS / 1998 PREVIEW SECTION

Is This The Year The Dynasty Dies?

Bulls Play for the Moment (and Repeat Three-Peat) Because No One Has Any Idea What Happens Next

April 23, 1998|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — The last days of the late, great Bull dynasty. . . .

Aside from the usual distinctions on this best and most celebrated team in 30 or 40 years--such as Living Legend and mere mortals--is a new, overriding one: players who are signed for next season vs. ones who aren't.

Because only four are--Ron Harper, Toni Kukoc, Randy Brown and Keith Booth--and because Coach Phil Jackson (unsigned) has encouraged everyone to express his emotions, you can imagine what the projected emigrants are saying and the projected holdovers are hearing.

Unsigned Steve Kerr, whose No. 25 jersey now sells in stores--he has a one-word explanation: "Chicago"--wonders what would happen if a lockout this summer lasted until training camp, so management wouldn't have time to sign anyone and, instead of the usual complement of 20, had to start the new era with four.

Harper says the unsigned guys keep telling him he'll be the elder statesman of the New Bulls and presumed Coach Tim Floyd will make him practice twice a day in camp.

Harper thinks it's funny, except the part about two-a-days--"which I refuse to go two-a-days for my coach, I don't give a heck who they hire. . . .

The only way to do it is to laugh. You know this game is just a game, still, even though you pass three-four years, they're fun years."

Harper looks around the dressing room, which is empty minutes before the last game with the stars ducking reporters, but might empty for other reasons soon, and lists the names of his friends/upcoming free agents.

"MJ, Scottie, Dennis, Luc, Steve, Jud, Bill, Joe," Harper says. "Damn, I'm here almost by myself!"

In Chicago, they hang on every morsel, hint and change in body language of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Luc Longley, Kerr, Jud Buechler, Bill Wennington and Joe Kleine. In the rest of America, they'd just as soon skip all the updates. But among the Bulls, it's a given that everyone's gone.

"I just wait to see," Harper says. "You don't ever say it won't happen, but it don't look like it's gonna happen. Seems like everybody gonna go and do their own thing now.

"And so you just go with the flow and enjoy it, enjoy the last few weeks and play basketball."

Oh yeah, there's that. Everywhere else, they call it the NBA playoffs. In the Bulls' dressing room, it's the end of life as they've known it, so they aim to make it count.

Unbeatable?

You want the odds on me coming back? OK, 70-30. Which way? Whichever way you want."

--Jordan in ESPN the Magazine

This should serve as a warning to cease inquiries and suspend speculation until the season ends and Jordan assesses his options and decides.

Until then, he wouldn't tell if he knew, which he doesn't. For what it's worth, those closest to him say he'd like to stay, but, assuming the likely departures of Jackson and Pippen, they think he's gone.

Jordan loves this. It would be better if he didn't have to answer questions about it, but surprising and confounding "you guys"--the media and, by extension, everyone--is the best revenge he has found for surrendering his privacy in the bargain he didn't know he was striking so many years ago.

The play's still the thing and never more than this spring, which will establish the all-important context for the decisions. Titles soften owner Jerry Reinsdorf's heart, and the thought of the vilification he'd reap by breaking up an ongoing dynasty and forcing sport's greatest star into retirement may again frighten him into postponing his famous rebuilding plans, as it did last spring when he vetoed that Pippen-to-Boston-for-three-No. 1s trade.

In Chicago, this spring's slogans are already cliches: The Bulls are working on the "repeat three-peat," a reference to the 1991-92-93 titles that preceded this 1996-97 run.

Everything is falling into place so neatly. The Bulls beat the Phoenix Suns in '93 without home-court advantage, as they would have to if they face the Utah Jazz this spring.

The Bulls didn't even have home-court advantage in the '93 Eastern Conference finals. The New York Knicks won 60 games at the zenith of the Pat Riley era, to the Bulls' 57, a drop from 67 the season before, as the twice-defending champions unraveled in the stretch.

The Knicks led their series, 2-0, too, with the weight of controversy pressing on the Bulls after Jordan's visit to Atlantic City splashed into headlines. Then the Bulls won twice at home, blocked four Charles Smith layups at the end of Game 5 in New York and closed out the Knicks in six.

In the first Bull run, they won 61, 67 and 57 games. In this one, so much older, odder (thanks, Dennis) and yes, wiser, they posted the greatest three-year victory mark ever, 72-69-62, the last in a season in which they started 8-7 without Pippen, who didn't arrive until mid-January.

That's how far they have moved ahead of the pack. That's how far the pack will have to close to catch them.

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