6th sense: Jordan may answer curtain call

June 12, 1998|By JOHN EISENBERG

CHICAGO -- Here's how you know the NBA Finals are over: A reporter asked Michael Jordan yesterday if he wanted to tell the Bulls' fans how to react to the team's latest title, and Jordan didn't say the question was premature.

Most athletes wouldn't dare respond to such a question until the title was safely won. Jordan? He answered the question as if the street party had already started.

"Control your decision-making," he said, a reference to prior celebrations that turned violent.

Never mind that Jordan and the Bulls still need another win to knock out Utah in the NBA Finals. That's just a formality at this point.

A more pressing question is how to frame Game 5, tonight's probable series clincher. Is it Jordan's last game? The last game of the Bulls' dynasty? Both? Neither?

How, in the end, will history see this game?

There's no way of knowing, of course. Jordan himself yesterday refused to give percentage odds on any of it happening.

"Can't do that," he said. "Lots of things can happen."

But while we don't know how this epic soap opera will end, we can have hunches. Here's one: It's more likely that the Bulls will break up than Jordan will retire.

Tonight's game could well be the last of the Bulls' dynasty. But the end of Jordan's career? Don't bet on it.

Why? Because Scottie Pippen is speaking from the heart when he says he wants to walk away from the Bulls. And Jordan isn't speaking from the heart when he says he might retire after winning his sixth NBA title in eight seasons.

It makes sense that Pippen might want to leave the Bulls.

But it doesn't make sense that Jordan would retire when he is still the NBA's best player.

Both are disgusted with the Bulls' front office over a perceived lack of respect, but Pippen's hurt runs much deeper.

With Pippen and the Bulls, it's personal.

Bulls GM Jerry Krause has dangled Pippen as trade bait for years, even as Pippen was helping the team rack up titles as Jordan's sidekick.

This year, Pippen's salary is just the fifth highest on the team, even though he is a future Hall of Famer at the peak of his career.

And even though he and Jordan have benefited from being teammates, Pippen clearly suffers from at least a mild case of envy.

If he walks away to play for the Suns, Lakers or Rockets, he ZTC

would exact a wicked measure of revenge on Krause and Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf. Jordan would be furious. Dennis Rodman probably wouldn't return. The Bulls, as we know them, would cease to exist.

Pippen, as a long-underpaid free agent-to-be, is the key player in this affair. And he is one bitter-sounding superstar.

After Jordan said yesterday that Pippen had recently "opened the door" to the idea of coming back, Pippen smirked.

"I don't have any intention of being here [next year]," he said. "I think this is the last run for this ballclub."

Is that plain enough?

"I want the opportunity to go out and open all the doors to the free-agent market," he said.

After this series, in which he has proved just as valuable as Jordan, he will command huge dollars. Some team will offer him the chance to come in and cast a shadow instead of play in someone else's.

It will sorely tempt a player who wants his due financially and individually, after years of team success.

As we said, it's just a hunch. There's always a chance the front office will swallow its pride, pay Pippen, satisfy Jordan and keep this thing going. That's certainly what should happen.

But Pippen, 32, does sound serious.

"I don't want to come back [to Chicago] for four years and just go for a title for one," he said.

That's a reference to Jordan's pending retirement. But who really expects Jordan, 35, to walk away now?

It's easier to see Jordan playing for the Bulls again, even without Pippen, or elsewhere, such as in New York, than not playing at all.

True, he said earlier this season that he'd either play for the Bulls or no one, but he has since hedged that call many times. Who knows what he will do?

Asked yesterday if he envisioned tonight's Game 5 as maybe the last of his career, Jordan said, "It's going to be hard for me not to think of it in that way."

But then he added: "What evolves over the summer will make me think about what this game actually meant."

In other words, it might not be his last game.

It's hard to see him walking away because he clearly still loves to compete. He was the league's MVP this year, and nothing thrills him more than a personal challenge, such as the one presented to him in this series, when many observers (blush) picked Utah to beat the Bulls.

"I love that," he said after Game 4. "I'm pretty sure we're proving to a lot of people that they're not great predictors or that they know that much about the game. I think that's fun, great fun, to see people eat crow."

Does that sound like a player ready to quit? Hardly. It sounds like a player ready for another challenge.

He quit once before, so it's possible he could again. But don't count on it.

A better bet is that Pippen walks away from the Bulls, satisfying some personal issues and leaving the dynasty in doubt.

Regardless, warm up the VCR and plop in a tape. There's basketball history to watch tonight.

Pub Date: 6/12/98

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