Bulls' future looks Jerry-rigged, but isn't


SALT LAKE CITY -- If a new NBA season began today, with all teams unchanged, the Chicago Bulls would be favored to win the championship.

They're getting old, but not too old to keep winning titles. Just ask the Utah Jazz.

Breaking up the Bulls now, after three titles in a row and six in the '90s, would be an act of sporting heresy, stupider than any stunt Dennis Rodman ever pulled.

You break up bad teams. Overpaid teams going nowhere. Whining teams.

Not championship teams.

Not dynasties still kicking hard, with more good theater left to write.

What will it take to keep the Bulls together?

A handful of the right decisions made by the right people.

And we're not just talking about Jerry Reinsdorf, the Bulls' owner, and Jerry Krause, the vice president of basketball operations.

We're talking about the players and coach Phil Jackson, too.

The Jerrys are the ones rightfully taking the heat for having contemplated breaking up the team long before it was time, for whatever petty and ill-conceived reasons they'd concocted, making sense only to themselves.

But the Jerrys have no choice now but to backtrack and try to keep the team together after another championship performance that will have the world lusting for more.

You'd think the new title would pile the pressure on the Jerrys, but really, the opposite is true. Their decision becomes easy. They can try to keep the team together, or they can break it up and move into the federal witness protection program. Which would you do?

In other words, it's up to the players and Jackson now.

They're the ones with the power to keep the Bulls together.

Or break them up.

They're the ones who have drawn various lines in the sand, claiming they'd never cross those lines and come back to preserve the Bulls' dynasty.

There's Michael Jordan, who has said he might retire despite still being the NBA's best player.

There's Scottie Pippen, who can't stand Krause and says he wants a multi-year contract that the Bulls probably won't offer.

There's Jackson, who has said he is ready to disappear into the woods for a year and commune with squirrels, or whatever it is he does out there.

And don't forget Dennis Rodman, who has said, among many things, that he'd like to come back, but also that he'd look pretty in pink. (Laker purple, actually.)

That's a multitude of agendas, a fragile brotherhood easily capable of blowing apart.

Or staying together.

If they want to make it happen, they can.

If the Bulls want to stay together for another run, they can.

Jordan can up and admit the obvious, that he isn't ready to walk away yet, that he still relishes the good fight at age 35, that he can always find a new challenge to motivate him. (Too old? Hah!)

Yes, the storybook finish he provided in Game 6 against the Jazz on Sunday night casts the issue in a different light. He can't top that performance. It's the perfect ending to a perfect career.

If he craves that kind of symmetry, it's there.

But who cares about symmetry when you're still burning to win?

Who cares about poetic endings when you still get a thrill out of beating up the young guns everyone is throwing at you?

He still loves being Michael Jordan -- who wouldn't? -- and he's still Michael Jordan only if he keeps playing.

If and when Jordan makes that call, he can then call Pippen and ask his trusty sidekick to put aside those differences with Krause and come back for the sake of their seemingly unbeatable partnership.

Pippen, the eternal little brother, couldn't say no to that.

Yes, the Jerrys would have to budge, too, and make Pippen an offer he'd accept, however grudgingly. And Jordan would have to accept a salary cut to help the Jerrys meet Pippen's demands and stay under the salary cap.

Here's guessing Jordan can afford one less nickel, or even three.

In any case, in the end, it would be up to Pippen to accept his "lesser" lot in life as Jordan's shadow, in exchange for a shot at more championship glory.

That's an easy call for him to make, if he wants it.

As for Jackson, he's the one who said he needed a break. Maybe he does. Or maybe he just wanted negotiating leverage. Either way, all he has to do now is say that he changed his mind, that he can't walk away, that the squirrels can wait.

Another fat, one-year contract probably could be arranged.

It's Jackson's call.

Rodman, oddly enough, is the only one saying he wants to come back, and for his sake, let's hope he does. Another team and another coach wouldn't put up with him.

There's only one place for him.

There's only one place for all of them, as a matter of fact. Right where they are.

Jordan, whose instincts are keen, is smart enough to know that.

He has spent his career forcing his will on his opponents, with historic results.

Now it's time for him to force that will on his teammates and coach, in the interest of keeping their brotherhood intact.

He can do it. They all can do it.

But will they?

Pub Date: 6/16/98

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