WASHINGTON -- As the charter bus carrying the Chicago Bulls pulled up to the MCI Center yesterday afternoon, not a single soul awaited them.
Which was approximately the same size of the crowd that staked out the team's Crystal City, Va., hotel during its brief stay in the area, a slight that had some of the players reflecting on the good old days.
"Back then, there'd be 500 to a thousand people at the hotel, 500 to a thousand people waiting for us when we pulled in here," said second-year guard Keith Booth, the former Dunbar and Maryland star. "When we pulled in [yesterday], I don't think anybody even noticed us coming in."
Welcome to rebuilding a world champion, Chicago Bulls style.
First you ease out your coach, Phil Jackson, during a season in which he'll meld the team's sixth NBA title of the 1990s. Then, after superstar guard Michael Jordan retires, you strategically dismantle most of the remaining key pieces: trade Scottie Pippen, Steve Kerr and Luc Longley. And don't even offer a contract to role players Scott Burrell, Jud Buechler or rebounder extraordinaire Dennis Rodman.
The result: an unknown coach, Tim Floyd, leading an opening-day roster that had even diehard fans scratching their heads.
"Who are these guys? Who are these guys?" Bulls guard Ron Harper, a member of the last three championship teams, said of his thoughts as he looked around the locker room before the season opener. "Who do we have on this team left? Dickey Simpkins, Bill Wennington, Randy Brown. Uh, uh, where'd Phil go? Where's Michael? Where'd Scottie go? Jud and Steve?"
Then Harper stopped, started laughing, and then continued: "It's just that the atmosphere has changed a lot."
The results have changed as well. By starting the season 1-7, including six straight losses after last night's 93-91 defeat, the Bulls are off to their worst start in 20 years. For a team that, led by Jordan and Pippen, seemingly scored at will out of the triangle offense, the likes of Charles Jones, Cory Carr, Kornel David and Corey Benjamin are part of a group that only last night became the last team to climb above the 80-point mark for season average.
"We have a bunch of rookies, and we're not used to that," Brown said. "We're used to veteran players. Basically, we don't have that 'pizazz' that we had the last few years."
So instead of Jordan at shooting guard, the Bulls start third-year guard Brent Barry, who has un-Air like numbers: a 10.0 scoring average on 40.5 percent shooting from the field, all while playing 31.7 minutes a game.
Instead of Rodman at power forward, the Bulls last night started Mark Bryant who, playing on his fourth team in 10 seasons, was averaging a paltry 3.8 rebounds per game going into this season -- a typical five-minute stretch for The Worm.
Chicago's chief weapon is at small forward -- where Pippen played for 11 seasons before his trade to Houston -- with Toni Kukoc. Kukoc has not only been Chicago's main weapon, but the team's only weapon. He is averaging 21.6 points but is shooting a miserable 41.1 percent from the field -- and 18.5 percent from beyond the three-point arc.
"It's a learning experience," said Kukoc, addressing both his role and the losing. "But we all knew it was going to be a hard season, with losses and everything."
And Floyd, the 13th coach in Bulls history, knew it was going to be difficult. Sure, he was hoping he'd have an opportunity to coach the likes of Jordan, Pippen and Rodman. But he understands the team is putting itself in position where, at the end of this season, the Bulls will have just four players under contract and about $20 million to spend in the free-agent market.
"Just being a playoff team, [Jerry Reinsdorf, the team chairman] didn't feel like that was important at this point," Floyd said. "He felt like this might be the best route to go, and I'm supportive of that."
Still, the moves have been difficult for players to swallow."
"Do I agree? To be honest with you, I wanted everybody to be back," Kukoc said. "But since that wasn't a possibility, there's nothing we can do but just play the game."
Play the game, and talk about the good old days when the Bulls' traveling party was treated like the Beatles in their heyday.
"It was a show unto itself," Harper said, recalling the championship era.
"Now, there's no large crowd anymore. We go out, and it's like, 'Who cares?' " Harper added. "It's a part of life, my man. Everything good must come to an end sometimes, right?"
Pub Date: 2/20/99