WHICH WAY WILL BULLS RUN? After years of coming close, team is poised for title drive

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The general manager started off in Baltimore nearly 30 years )) ago, scouting such diverse talents along the way as Earl Monroe and Ozzie Guillen, learning his skills from such people as Buddy Jeannette and Bill Veeck.

The coach nearly quit the business four years ago, frustrated by a stalled career that seemingly had ended in the obscurity of the Continental Basketball Association.

The star was considered a great college player, but many wondered whether his skills -- especially his outside shooting -- would be transferable to the pros. At least one team, which regretted its decision for a long time, passed on him as the No. 1 pick in the 1984 draft.

Introducing the Chicago Bulls, wannabe champions of the National Basketball Association.

"When we started putting this together, we felt that we were going to do something that's never been done before: build a championship team around a two-guard," Jerry Krause, the general manager, was saying last week in Philadelphia. "We've gotten a little closer every year."

"If we take advantage of things, we have a better chance than we ever did before," said Phil Jackson, the coach, who joined the Bulls as an assistant to Doug Collins in 1987 and succeeded him two years later. "Our message to ourselves, as a group, is that we're the only ones who can keep us from getting there."

"You always have to get some breaks along the way," said Michael Jordan, the star -- make that megastar -- of the team and the league. "But if we win the whole thing, there'll be people saying that we wouldn't have done it if Detroit or Isiah [Thomas] wasn't hurt. There will be an asterisk."

The asterisk isn't there yet, but an exclamation point has punctuated their dazzling run through the NBA playoffs. Swept the New York Knicks in three. Blitzed the 76ers in five. Now, as it awaits the start of a third straight Eastern Conference finals against the two-time defending champion Detroit Pistons, Chicago contemplates this often-asked question:

RF Will this Bulls' run end with the team's first world championship?

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Krause, 51, slowly climbed the steps to the upper press box last week at the Spectrum. A short, jowly man who always seems to be in search of his next deal, he looks more like someone you'd expect to find behind the meat counter at a local deli than as the architect of one of the NBA's glamour teams.

"Would I be disappointed if we didn't win it? Hell, yes," said Krause, who was a scout for the Bulls in the 1960s and returned the year after Jordan was drafted. "We've worked our butts off. The players. The coaches. Everybody. We've been close before, and I didn't think we were ready. But now we're ready."

No matter how expensive a suit Krause can put on his doughy body, there is a slightly disheveled look to him. Then again, his role model in the business was Veeck of the Chicago White Sox, for whom he worked in a vagabond career that eventually led him back to his hometown.

Despite his affection for baseball -- he was special assignment scout for the White Sox before rejoining the Bulls in 1985 -- Krause is a hoopaholic, plain and simple. He is the kind of guy who thinks nothing of scouting three college games in a day, as he did one afternoon and evening last January in College Park and Landover.

"Comes with the territory," said Krause. "You never know who you might see."

How else is he going to continue to build this team, and make certain that the best regular season record (61-21) in the franchise's history will not unravel by next year? How else is he going to find another Scottie Pippen, or make sure not to find another Stacey King or Jeff Sanders?

Krause has gone to great distances to improve the Bulls, spending quite a bit of time in Europe over the past year courting Yugloslav star Toni Kukoc. Krause's interest in Kukoc and a reported six-year, $16 million contract offer to the 6-foot-10 swingman caused friction between the general manager and several Bulls, most notably Jordan and Pippen. Kukoc announced May 9 that he would remain in Europe.

"I think we've put it aside," said Pippen, who is reportedly seeking a $3 million-a-year contract. "We've been able to have success. I don't think that has bothered us at all."

What does irk the Bulls is the perception, accurate or exaggerated, that they merely are an extension of Michael. The wondrous talents of Jordan transcend most of the league, so it is easy to see how the others would easily fall in the shadow caused by his flight patterns.

Not that they expect this universally accepted notion to change, regardless of what happens in the next month. Even Pippen, an All-Star forward who is starting to get recognition as one of the league's best two-way players, said, "No matter if we win the NBA championship, it will still be Michael Jordan and the other guys."

Jackson said: "Without a doubt, Michael Jordan is beyond the realm of most superstars. There are a lot of super players in this league, but he stands above everyone in abilities, particularly to break down a team as an individual."

Though he can't claim responsibility for drafting Jordan, Krause has tried to surround the 6-6 guard with the right group of players and people in trying to disprove the theory that a team can't win an NBA title without a quality big man.

To Krause, the mix of teammates is just as vital as the matchups with opponents. Much of it starts with Jordan, as unassuming and selfless a superstar as you will find. But a lot has to do with how the rest of the players accept their clearly subordinate roles.

"We don't have a jerk on the ballclub," said Krause.

It is an intriguing blend, but one with glaring deficiencies. Despite a strong defense, and some good jump shooters in John Paxson and Craig Hodges, the inside game and bench evoke an unhealthy dose of skepticism.

Will the combination of veteran Bill Cartwright and not-quite-ready Will Perdue at center be able to contend with Detroit's Bill Laimbeer and James Edwards? Will rising talents like Pippen and Horace Grant find the consistency, and the toughness, to give the Bulls a legitimate chance on the boards? Will a bench consisting mostly of Hodges, Perdue and second-year guard B. J. Armstrong contribute more than it has lately?

"Phil Jackson has made an effort to make them more than a one-man team," Philadelphia general manager Gene Shue said. "When you get into the playoffs, Michael is going to have the ball. But the difference between this year and last year is that the surrounding cast is better, and their team defense is better. I think they're legitimate. They have a star in Pippen and a superstar in Jordan, who's unstoppable. They don't need a dominating center."

Winning a world championship would settle a long-standing debate that has been discussed since Jordan came into the league. He is the NBA's five-time scoring champion -- including the 1990-1991 season -- and is one of its top defensive players. But he hasn't won a postseason title since he made a 17-foot jump shot as a freshman to help North Carolina beat Georgetown for the 1982 National Collegiate Athletic Association championship.

"In my career, we have taken steps every year to be in the position we're in now," said Jordan, 28. "I'm going to get a [championship] ring before I retire."

Though the path to the NBA finals seems less troublesome than in the past -- Detroit seems more vulnerable than it has been the past two years, and Chicago has yet to lose at home during the playoffs -- -- the Bulls would have to beat the Western Conference champion -- Los Angeles or Portland -- to win the title.

The Lakers, despite Magic Johnson's aching knees, apparently have adjusted from "Showtime" to slow-time under first-year coach Mike Dunleavy. Portland, the team that drafted oft-injured center Sam Bowie ahead of Jordan in 1984, is stronger, deeper and more experienced, having played in last year's championship series against Detroit.

"I think experience comes into play, but so does age," said Pippen, who looks to be coming of age as one of the league's premier players.

Said former Knicks coach John MacLeod, who left for Notre Dame shortly after New York was eliminated: "Chicago has taken the same exact road that Detroit took before they won the championship a couple of times. Chicago has been in the [Eastern Conference] finals the last two years. They're knocking at the door."

"The gates are opening," Jackson said.

Are the Bulls ready to break them down?

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