After all the incendiary remarks Michael Jordan reportedly made about his "supporting cast" in Sam Smith's diary of their championship season, "The Jordan Rules," the Chicago Bulls might have been torn asunder this season.
But the book has served as a unifying force, with the Bulls (17-3) bringing the NBA's best record into tonight's game with the Washington Bullets at the Capital Centre.
Power forward Horace Grant, who has been the most outspoken about the team's double standard for superstar Jordan and his less-celebrated teammates, said: "If we were losing, you could say the book was a distraction. But we're playing even better than last year. It was just some things going on between guys on a team, and the reporter took things out of context."
Coach Phil Jackson, who had a difficult time getting Jordan to accept his concept of team play and assistant Tex Winter's intricate offense, said he read one-third of the book before deciding, "it was only negative thought."
And Jordan, painted as an egotist interested mainly in getting enough shots and points, told the New York Daily News: "It's a learning experience for everybody, be it good or bad. It has united us as a team in terms of the family aspect that we try to maintain."
That wasn't the case last season, when Jordan demeaned almost all of his teammates on the way to the franchise's first NBA title. If he wasn't belittling the players' skills, he was attacking general manager Jerry Krause for failing to listen to his advice on trades and being afraid to make significant deals.
Here are some of the more inflammatory Jordan statements, according to Smith:
* He called Grant "an idiot, too stupid to remember the plays."
* He referred to reserves B.J. Armstrong, Stacey King and Dennis Hopson (since traded) as "garbage men."
* He told Grant, Scottie Pippen and Sam Vincent (also traded) that he would freeze them out of the offense if they passed the ball to center Bill Cartwright in the last four minutes of a game.
* He called struggling King "a powerless forward."
Despite all the bickering, the team continued to win, but with little joy shared in the dressing room and on the road.
During the tumultuous season, Cartwright, Grant and King would confront Jordan and tell him to keep his opinions to himself.
Said Grant: "You've got to stand up to him or he'll never respect you. [Former Bulls forward] Brad Sellers never would, and he killed him. He did the same with Hopson. Michael still pushes me, but he knows when to stop now."
The disharmony became so unnerving that even-tempered John Paxson, one of the few Bulls to escape Jordan's wrath, noted at midseason: "We're winning, but nobody's happy. Everyone wants to play somewhere else. Guys want more minutes, more shots or more money. It's not supposed to be like this."
But finally beating the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals and then defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in five games to claim the title healed most of the wounds and brought mutual respect.
As Jordan said: "The thing is, this is a business, and in business you don't have to like everyone, but you have to work with them. It's been proven that the best teams don't always get along together, and if everyone likes one another, it doesn't mean you're going to win. The difference is how you play."
With fewer distractions this season, the Bulls are threatening to make a shambles of the Central Division race while Jordan continues to dominate the headlines.
"As long as you're on a team with Michael, you'll always be in his shadow," said Grant. "But I think both myself and Scottie have taken our games to a higher level."
After playing the Bulls last week, Philadelphia 76ers coach Jim Lynam said: "They have great chemistry on offense, a well-designed scheme. The pieces fit, and they all seem patient enough to let the game come to them."
The Bulls may never grow to resemble the Walton family in terms of endearment. But Jackson, who is always searching for meaningful proverbs and quotations, may have found the perfect one to describe his contentious team in Kipling's "The Jungle Book":
"For the strength of the Pack is the Wolf, and the strength of the Wolf is the Pack."