CHICAGO -- Air vs. Magic.
It sounds like the advertisement for an illusionary show on the Las Vegas strip, where the sequined magicians make elephants and tigers disappear before your eyes.
And, if NBC had its way the next two weeks, the network might be only too happy if the supporting cast would vanish, leaving only Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson to go one-on-one with their bag of tricks when the NBA Finals open in Chicago this afternoon.
For all the hoopla surrounding the showdown of pro basketball's most charismatic superstars, this best-of-seven series probably will be decided by their less-celebrated teammates.
The Bulls' Scottie Pippen has emerged as a star in his own right. The versatile small forward, who has almost as much explosiveness as Jordan and also relieves him of the ball-handling duties, was the principal reason the Bulls swept the two-time champion Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals.
And Lakers power forward Sam Perkins proved he might be worth the $3 million-a-year investment the team made to solidify its frontcourt after trading Orlando Woolridge to the Denver Nuggets. Perkins, obtained as a free agent from the Dallas Mavericks, took center stage in the playoffs, capping it with his 26-point performance in the Western Conference clincher over the Portland Trail Blazers.
And then there is Bulls center Bill Cartwright. Some critics said Chicago made a bad deal with the New York Knicks three years ago, trading rebounding demon Charles Oakley for Cartwright, who had been known more for his medical problems and passivity than for his gamesmanship.
But in this season's playoffs, Cartwright again neutralized Knicks center Patrick Ewing, then the Pistons' Bill Laimbeer in the four-game sweep of Detroit.
Neither Los Angeles nor Chicago was expected to run the gantlet of conference rivals, particularly the Lakers, who, in preseason were considered a level below the Trail Blazers, Phoenix Suns and San Antonio Spurs.
After they were swept by the Pistons in the finals two years ago, the Lakers were supposed to be in a rebuilding phase, with youthful Vlade Divac of Yugoslavia at center and Perkins carrying a soft reputation from his days with the underachieving Mavericks.
They also were supposed to need time to adjust to the teaching techniques of Mike Dunleavy, getting his first head coaching job at 36. The Lakers had become accustomed to former coach Pat Riley's intense drive and demanding nature. Could Dunleavy wake up the championship ghosts with his even-tempered personality?
But they may have forgotten Johnson's indomitable spirit and matchless leadership ability.
Dunleavy, while concentrating on shoring up the defense, had the good sense to leave the Lakers offense in Johnson's hands.
"The team won 63 games last year," Dunleavy said. "I didn't think it was a situation where a lot of changes were needed."
Under Dunleavy, the Lakers no longer burned rivals with their fast break, but outsmarted them in a slowdown game, alternately using Johnson, Worthy and Perkins to post up and find the open man with crisp ball movement.
In Chicago, it was mostly a case of patient coach Phil Jackson convincing Jordan that he finally had a strong enough supporting cast to reach the finals. Jordan had spent the off-season taking potshots at general manager Jerry Krause over the team's failure to add proven veterans.
Jordan fretted that, like Chicago Cubs great Ernie Banks, he would set individual records but never taste a championship.
There were no major personnel moves by the Bulls. Free-agent forward Cliff Levingston of the Atlanta Hawks was signed to strengthen the frontcourt, but shooting guard Dennis Hopson, acquired from the New Jersey Nets, proved a bust.
The marked improvement came from within, most noticeably the growing maturity of reserves B.J. Armstrong at guard and Will Perdue at center and Pippen's development into a budding superstar.
Said Paxson, who has a knack for finding an open shot: "The more you play together, the more you jell. A chemistry evolves. That's what happened here."
The Bulls appeared in harmony in dispatching the Pistons, who discovered that the Bulls could not be intimidated by threats or uncommon force. The Bulls have had a week to rest and prepare for their title challenge. But Jordan, 28, has been waiting for this day for seven years.
"Individually, I couldn't care less about anything anymore," said Jordan, who won the league's MVP award this season. "All I'm looking for now is a world championship."
Adds Krause, a former Baltimore Bullets scout: "Michael and I have one thing in common: We both want to win in the worst way.
"It's a personal thing with me. I grew up in Chicago. I love this city. As much as Michael wants it, I want it more. I want it for the people in my hometown."