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If it's final, Jordan's enjoying it Bulls star isn't distracted by team's possible breakup; 'I'm going to enjoy moment'; Chicago relaxed as it aims for 3-1 series lead

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CHICAGO -- The airplane ride from Indianapolis to Chicago is a short one, unless you have just lost to the Indiana Pacers in the playoffs and your mythical qualities are being questioned after a fall on a crucial drive to the basket.

Michael Jordan reacted as he always did in such situations -- with deafening silence. Which made for a very long 40 minutes in the air.

"He doesn't say much of anything after a tough loss; he's very, very quiet," Bulls guard Steve Kerr said. "He's usually very, very difficult to be around after a loss."

But as anyone who has watched the Dennis Rodman circus in Chicago knows, there are exceptions to every rule.

"The exception was after Game 1 of this series," Kerr said, referring to Utah's overtime victory over the Bulls last Wednesday in the NBA Finals. "He was in great spirits after that, which is rare for him. But he's been in great spirits this whole series.

"I think it sent a message to us that he felt very confident and relaxed, and we should all have fun. That it's probably our last chance in the Finals, and we might as well enjoy it."

Taking it a step further, last night's Game 4 at the United Center could mark the penultimate game for one of the great dynasties in sports history. If the Bulls won, they can clinch the series tomorrow. After Scottie Pippen's annual postseason bash, which is tentatively scheduled for Sunday, would come Monday's parade at Chicago's Grant Park.

And after that? Quite possibly the breakup of the Bulls.

"I think everyone realizes that, regardless of what happens, we've got about a week of basketball left together," forward Jud Buechler said. "I think that maybe has an effect on Michael's attitude."

Jordan wouldn't disagree.

"I've decided to use a little bit of the Zen Buddhism and relax," Jordan said. "Instead of being frustrated, just smile and let it flow naturally. Just channel my thoughts and frustrations in a whole different form.

"I've kind of forced myself to say, 'Hey, I'm going to enjoy this moment because it may not happen again.' This may be the last time, the last dance."

Clearly, this is not the kinder, gentler Jordan. The Bulls' 42-point demolition of the Jazz on Sunday in Game 3 suggests they would love their last dance to be one of the numbers from the Broadway hit "Stomp."

But the melancholy is there. And the drama plays out more soap opera than musical, with no one willing to reveal next week's script. Heck, things are so dysfunctional in Chicago, Rodman has to miss practice, then fly to Detroit and appear on TNT's "WCW Monday Nitro" professional wrestling show to get the attention he craves.

For those just tuning in, here's an update from the front.

Jordan said he "couldn't see myself playing for another coach," yet has backed off his previous statements that he absolutely won't return if coach Phil Jackson doesn't.

Owner Jerry Reinsdorf has been conspicuously silent since opening the door last month by saying he's not making any decisions until this season is over. Perhaps that's his way of putting off the inevitable dismantling of the team. At times this season, both Jackson and general manager Jerry Krause have agreed it might not be best for Jackson to return next season.

That certainly doesn't make Jordan's decision any easier.

"It's a hard decision to make right now because there are a lot of unanswered questions," Jordan said. "Scottie Pippen. Phil Jackson. Just the whole team coming back intact. That's like walking in the dark. I don't want to walk in the dark. I've got better vision, so when I walk into that room I'm certainly going to make sure the light's on."

The last thing Jordan needs is someone pushing him into that dark room. Yet that's what it sounded like when Jackson, in an interview aired on NBC during Game 1, seemed to suggest Jordan should retire.

"No, I didn't say that. They can work those things around pretty trickily," Jackson said. "I said, 'What better time would there be to retire than if you won a championship? I can't possibly think of a better time for Michael to do it than this year.'

"But that doesn't mean I think he should retire. I just think, what a great time for a guy to go out. But that's his decision."

Meanwhile, Pippen -- the league's lowest-paid superstar at $2.6 million -- appears ready to take the first freight out of town.

"I'm looking forward to going out and exploring free agency to the fullest," Pippen said Monday.

But on Tuesday, when asked if there was any scenario in which he could see himself returning, he kept the door open.

"I've heard that Phil said if I come back, he'll come back, and that gives Michael an open-window opportunity," Pippen said. "I'm pretty much open to the free-agent market. I've said many times I don't want to come back here and play. But if I'm offered the right thing, maybe I will consider coming back here."

As if questions surrounding Jordan, Pippen and Jackson weren't enough, there is the curious case of Rodman, who -- like Jordan, Pippen and Jackson -- will be a free agent at the end of this series. So, too, will starting center Luc Longley, a bit player in this saga but an important cog in the championship machine.

What will happen next? Stay tuned. And be sure to watch those messages from Jordan's sponsors. If nothing else, the Bulls are an interesting team to watch.

"It's interesting to me in the sense that it's ludicrous," said Utah center Greg Foster, who played with the Bulls for part of the 1994-95 season. "I don't even know why they have all these problems, unless they're losing money. Are they losing money here? I don't think so. Other than that, I don't understand it.

"It's an ego trip, that's what it is. Everybody's ego-tripping. It's ridiculous. How do you break a team like that up?"

Nobody on the Bulls seems to have an answer, but the players and coaches aren't saying much about it, either. Interviews with a number of players reveal that while they all know it's probably soon going to be over, they haven't begun to talk about the breakup among themselves.

"There's a very fine line there, because you're dealing with some heavy emotions when you're talking about the last dance and the last game," Buechler said. "Steve Kerr and I drive down to the United Center together. That Sunday, coming down for that Game 7 against Indiana, it was about a 35-minute drive and I don't think a word was said for 20 minutes. It was silent.

"It's going to be a very emotional day when we get to that situation, whether we win or lose, because when you win championships together, you build this bond and this emotional attachment with each other. It's going to be tough to deal with. Knowing that I'm probably never going to play with Scottie or Michael again is going to be a heavy thing on my mind."

NBA Finals

Chicago vs. Utah

(Chicago leads 2-1)

Date Res./Site Time

Game 1 Utah, 88-85, OT

Game 2 Chicago, 93-88

Game 3 Chicago, 96-54

Last night at Chicago

Tomorrow at Chicago 9

Sunday at Utah 7: 30*

June 17 at Utah 9*

*-If necessary

(Line in parentheses)

TV: Chs. 11, 4

Pub Date: 6/11/98

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