When passing through the doors into the Shari Berto Center, the training facility of the world champion Chicago Bulls, one is greeted by a huge picture that covers nearly an entire wall. In the middle of the bigger-than-life picture is a young woman with a banner, held high above her head, that reads:
"We Intend To Defend What Is Ours"
What Chicagoans consider "ours" is the NBA championship. The Bulls have won the past three and were expected by many to win their fourth until Michael Jordan shocked the sport with his retirement this month.
With the leader gone, "the supporting cast," as Jordan often called his teammates, gets a chance to step into the starring role. Tonight the Washington Bullets will get their first look at a team adjusting to life after "Air" when they play the Bulls in a preseason game at Freedom Hall in Louisville, Ky.
"What kind of adjustment is it without Michael Jordan?" Bulls coach Phil Jackson said after a practice before the team's first preseason game last Friday against the Seattle SuperSonics. "Ask me that question in January."
Bulls fans got their first glimpse that night in a 114-95 loss before a Chicago Stadium crowd that was an announced sellout but had several thousand no-shows -- almost unspeakable, even during the preseason, in the Jordan era. The Bulls lost to Seattle the next night in Cincinnati, dropping to 0-2.
Granted the Bulls played those games without their projected starting front court (Scottie Pippen has an injured wrist and ankle, Horace Grant has a sore ankle and Bill Cartwright has a sore back), so the results are misleading.
But even when those players return (Grant is probable for tonight, and Pippen and Cartwright are doubtful), they'll realize just how much the power structure in the league has changed.
"Before [Jordan's] retirement, you'd have to say that Chicago was definitely the favorite to win," Miami Heat coach Kevin Loughery said yesterday during a teleconference. "His retirement has definitely opened things up."
For the Bulls, it has opened up an opportunity for another player to take charge, an opportunity that no one has been fast to step into.
"To tell you the truth, I don't think we've had anybody stepping up because those are large shoes to fill," said Pippen, the obvious choice to do so. "We're not going to go out and try to replace Michael because that's impossible. We're just going to go out and try to maintain, and keep this, a ballclub."
As it stands now, John Paxson, whose three-pointer won the title last season, will step into the starting lineup alongside B. J. Armstrong.
"It's going to be tough," said Paxson, whose picture of what is known in Chicago as "The Shot" was featured on the tickets for the preseason opener. "Michael provided a great amount of leadership, and it'll be missed."
Jackson, displaying a cool demeanor in view of the task he faces, said it will take awhile for the team to truly miss what Jordan provided.
"They won't know that until they've been faced with the duress of a road trip," Jackson said. "I would say that after Thanksgiving they will have a feel of what it's like.
"And they'll have to go it alone and find out what the necessary needs are of this team to get by under situations that call for solid play," Jackson said. "When [Jordan's] not there to bail us out with tough shots with the clock running down, guys are going to have to learn to step up and fill the gap."
In addition to being missed by his teammates, some opponents, including several of the young players with the Bullets, say they're sorry they won't be able to play against perhaps the greatest basketball player.
"I was looking forward to seeing the guy in action," said Mitchell Butler, a rookie free agent. "It'll probably take a little bit away from the game, although we just want to get on the court and play the way we want to play and not worry too much about them."
Rookie Calbert Cheaney, who will be in uniform for the first time tonight after battling hamstring injuries for most of camp, said he also was "looking forward to playing against him. Although I'll be honest," Cheaney said. "I wasn't looking forward to checking him."
Not many players were.
NOTES: Freedom Hall is the home of the Louisville basketball team, but the two former Cardinals on the Bullets roster, LaBradford Smith and Pervis Ellison, won't be there for the game. Smith, who separated his shoulder during practice on Saturday, may join the team later on the preseason trip, which includes seven games in 11 days. He will be out at least a week, possibly up to three weeks. Ellison is recovering from surgery to both knees in the off-season. Bullets coach Wes Unseld also played at Louisville. . . . Don MacLean, who suffered an abdominal strain in the first preseason game, may join the team later on the swing. He was examined yesterday and will continue treatments today.