Playoffs are chief to sitting Bulls Battling ills, brass, they still have spring in step; NBA preview


CHICAGO -- OK, Bulls fans, how's this for your old nightmare scenario?

G -- Randy Brown.

G -- Ron Harper.

F -- Jason Caffey.

F -- Scott Burrell.

C -- Luc Longley.

It wasn't just a bad dream, either. That was the starting lineup for last week's exhibition at the United Center against Philadelphia. In no particular upset, the visitors won.

The 76ers won 22 of 82 games last season, which is one measure of how this preseason went for the last great dynasty of the 20th century.

"Next year's team?" Bulls guard Steve Kerr was asked.

"I hope not," said Kerr, laughing. "We had a lot of cap room out there."

Not that this was any laughing matter for Chicago fans, watching as their heroes began the last week of exhibitions without Michael Jordan (ingrown toenail surgery), Scottie Pippen (ankle surgery) and Dennis Rodman (contract dispute).

This, of course, was but a prelude to the Great Hysteria awaiting at season's end, with coach Phil Jackson announcing this is it for him, and general manager Jerry Krause announcing this is it for Jackson and Jordan insisting if Jackson goes, he goes, etc.

Said Jackson last week as his world fell around him, eschewing )) the wisdom of Sitting Bull to quote Mad magazine's Alfred E. Neuman: "What, me worry?"

Why start now? The question isn't so much will they win another title but how did they ever win one -- much less five in seven years -- with all this internecine bickering?

"It's almost amusing," Kerr says. "We all sort of marvel at how nobody can seem to enjoy the championships around here."

Before the Bulls, no NBA team had won three titles in a row since FTC the 1964-66 Boston Celtics, mirroring trends in baseball, where only the 1972-74 Oakland A's have done it in 44 years, and the NFL, where no team has won three Super Bowls in a row.

The Bulls have five titles in Jordan's last five full seasons. They broke the NBA record for victories with 72, vowed to pace themselves and won 69 despite the emerging Jackson-Krause struggle and Rodman's continuing antics.

Jordan, 34, and Rodman, 36, are back, though only the Las Vegas blackjack dealers, who saw a lot of Rodman when he said he was too ill to join the Bulls two weeks ago, know what kind of shape he's in.

Pippen, 32, may not make it back before the new year. Don't expect him to push it. He'll be a free agent and has a bad relationship with management, the more so after spending his summer making appearances for Nike, deferring his operation until he was on the Bulls' time.

Jackson, hoping to avert panic in the streets, said they might be 15-15 when Pippen returns. Of course, that would still leave them time to rally, and maybe even secure home-court advantage for a series or two.

By April, they'll be healthy enough to kick everyone's rear ends in the playoffs again -- remember, they're 75-20 in their title runs -- and ride off in a blaze of glory.

What, Phil worry? (Well, maybe just a tad.)

"Management felt it had to go through a process that even dimmed or diminished our championship. I think there's a heavy price to pay for it."

-- Jackson, first day of camp

A lot has happened since the Bulls' victory celebration.

Owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who had been dropping hints about breaking up the team, champion or not, told insiders he would trade Pippen if he could get three high No. 1 draft picks.

Lo and behold, on draft day, Krause worked out a three-way deal in which Pippen would go to Boston for the Celtics' No. 3 and 6 picks and Denver's No. 10.

Reinsdorf couldn't pull the trigger. A hard-line, bottom-line businessman, he wanted to be rebuilt, not rebuilding, when the leases on the United Center's luxury suites come up for renewal next summer. But, faced with the wrath of a crazed citizenry -- Jackson and Jordan might have left if Pippen was traded -- Reinsdorf decided to bring everyone back.

Of course, Jackson wasn't in any hurry. Reinsdorf had to fly to Montana to make the deal, agreeing to double the coach's pay to $5.7 million and agree to take Rodman back.

Then Jordan made Reinsdorf fly to Las Vegas to court him, whereupon Jordan agreed to a token raise -- from $30 million to $34 million.

Of course, these days $39.7 million doesn't buy happiness. On media day, Jackson made it clear this was it.

Krause made it clear that was OK with him, declaring, "Organizations win championships, not players or coaches."

To which Jackson responded: "He would say that, right?"

The rest of the preseason was quieter, if no less eventful.

The Bulls opened at home and were bombed by Seattle.

Rodman, who had been begging the Jerrys to sign him, even vowing to play for free -- Reinsdorf tried to take him up on it but the league wouldn't OK a $2 million deal with $7 million in $H incentives -- agreed to terms. Rodman said he couldn't join the team until after it returned from Paris because of bronchitis.

When the team returned, Rodman said the deal was off until the clauses were removed, since Pippen's surgery and Toni Kukoc's sore foot would imperil the bonuses that were based on victories.

Jordan announced he'd sit out the last three exhibitions. Since one was in his beloved Chapel Hill, N.C., it was obvious he was really hurting. Jordan returned ahead of schedule, but the Bulls lost their last exhibition -- to Sacramento.

Nevertheless, the Bulls have only to heal to go back to being the best team in ball. Although there's an upstairs-downstairs split between the team and management, the players are more united than they were in the early '90s, when Pippen and his buddy, Horace Grant, regarded Jordan with as much envy as admiration.

"We share the ball," says Jackson, hanging on to happy thoughts. "We pass it around. We share the glory.

"Doesn't matter if a guy makes $100,000 or $100 million, this team supports guys from one to 12 and the coaching staff and the trainer. We don't let things that could affect us, something either off the court or on the court, destroy the harmony that we've built as a team."

Not yet, anyway, but the distractions are girding for another assault.

Pub Date: 10/31/97

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