Bulls still hitch ride on a star

JOHN EISENBERG

December 18, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

LANDOVER -- Michael misses Cliff. Stacey wants to be traded. Horace is feeling unappreciated (as usual). B. J. isn't passing enough. Scottie is low-keying it. Rodney isn't living up to billing. Jerry is getting some heat at home.

A soap opera? Nope. Just life at the top. Just the Chicago Bulls in the second month of their second year as defending NBA champions.

It almost has to be this way, of course. Catty. Whiny. Grim. It's what happens to champions today, part of the natural order in any sport. Agents, big money, nosy reporters, hype -- they all work at pulling teams apart instead of bringing them together, emphasizing self when selflessness is the ticket to a title.

Rare is the club that can hold itself together long enough to repeat. You don't need more than one hand to count those that have pulled it off in the last decade, in any sport: Lakers, 49ers, Pistons, Bulls, Edmonton Oilers. Baseball hasn't had one since the 1977-78 Yankees.

Injuries, luck, fading hunger, personnel changes and sheer randomness almost inevitably wreck the mix that won a title. If there is a lesson, it is that the window of opportunity is never open for long. Last year's champ is almost always this year's gloomy headline.

The Bulls managed to pull the trick a year ago, but they had to overcome a stream of obstacles as steady as Michael Jordan's jumper. There was a controversial book that struck at the seams of the team. Damaged egos. Trade demands. In the end, none of it mattered. That's what tends to happen when you have the best player on Earth on your side.

In any case, now there is this new season under way, and what is it other than a new set of circumstances? A tiring summer for Michael and Scottie. Michael's gambling brouhaha. Horace Grant's unending unhappiness at being overshadowed. John Paxson's slow recovery from knee surgery, forcing B. J. Armstrong into the lineup at point guard. GM Jerry Krause's decision to let Cliff Levingston go and bring in Rodney McCray for frontcourt depth.

The latter two have been pinpointed as the Bulls have stumbled lately, winning just seven of 12 games before beating the Bullets last night. Teammates have complained anonymously about Armstrong, who, they say, is adept mostly at finding shots for himself. And His Airness himself complained that Levington's enthusiasm was missed.

It makes for interesting December chatter, but how can it not be this way? Cut open any team anywhere today and you'll find a simmering broth of jealousies and fragile love. The shrill attention of a title just tends to worsen it.

Think the rest of the Bulls didn't notice when it was reported that Jordan earned almost $36 million last year, counting all his endorsements? What do you think his teammates said to their wives?

(And incidentally, while Jordan certainly shouldn't be condoned for getting caught losing five-figure golf bets, should we even blink at the amount when it's no more to him than what a nickel is to the rest of us?)

Anyway, the point with the Bulls' defending their title is not to get too caught up in what happens away from their epicenter: Jordan. Maybe the Bulls haven't looked so hot in December, but the Bullets can play with them in December, at least at home. It doesn't mean a thing.

No, their play in the spring is what counts, and the Bulls certainly are capable of winning again, but only if Jordan is at the top of his game. He questioned his teammates' hunger last week, but, in the end, it will be his on which the Bulls' season rests. That comes with the territory of a $36 million salary.

Not that it isn't deserved, of course, if that's what the top salary is going to be. The dimensions to Jordan's game know no limits. His jumper wasn't working last night, and he took most of the night off from driving the crowded lane. But his defense was brilliant. And, then, when the Bullets closed within three points late, he took over with a baseline drive, a jumper and a thunderous dunk. Another night, another win.

In the hallway outside the locker room, coach Phil Jackson talked about another season on the run.

"We had to change some, had to grow," he said. "We needed to bring in some youth, change our personnel some, anticipate some rivalries. You can't sit still."

It makes for something of a mess, if only just a small one.

"We weren't consistent to start the season," Jackson said, "but this last week there's been a noticeable improvement. I like what I see."

And why shouldn't he?

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