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Time's Running Out. . .

With Dynastic, Dysfunctional Bulls Heading Toward What Could Be Their Final Run, How Did It Ever Get to This Point?

June 03, 1998|MARK HEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — 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

Michael Jordan, generally considered the greatest basketball player who ever lived, keeps playing or the NBA has to write off the rest of the millennium to rebuilding.

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."

--Phil Jackson,

Chicago Sun-Times

April 1998

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."

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