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The word most commonly heard around the Bulls through the first half of the season was that crutch of the movie reviewer, “chemistry.”
“Chemistry is extremely important to me,” Krause says. “You want to have people who get along, who learn to play together, and who learn to live together. Chemistry is more important in the NBA than it is in any other sport.” Here his voice deepens, and he sounds for a moment like John Wayne preparing for a cattle drive. “When you travel together, you make 41 road trips,” he says. “You better learn to get along.
“You also gotta have good people, We work very hard to get quality people—check their background, talk to them—we spend a lot of time researching each individual. When I came here we had a lot of people you didn’t want to be around. Now, we don’t have anybody on this team who I wouldn’t go to dinner with.”
Gone are Oakley, Orlando Woolridge, and the infamous Quintin Dailey. In their place is a group of younger, less surly players, almost too pleasant at times. The Bulls this year have a typically Chicago demeanor–friendly, back-slapping, but also hardworking. These days, when a Bulls draft pick is controversial, it’s for the simple reason he’s not someone else.
That’s certainly Brad Sellers’s case. When Sellers came to the Bulls in 1986 he was—in Krause’s opinion—the best college player available. Yet he continues to be booed by thee faithful, who think they’d be better off with Johnny Dawkins, the Duke University guard Krause passed over to get Sellers. It’s the same sort of treatment the fans gave Corzine before he finally won them over.
Sellers is one of the few seven-footers who look more comfortable in street clothes than they do on the court. He sometimes arrives at practices or in the locker room before a game wearing round, black-framed John Lennon spectacles, so that he looks like some bookish student at the top of a library ladder. Yet, too slight to play NBA center and too gawky to cover small forwards, he underwent a difficult transition he likens to “throwing me out to the wolves.”
“I had to learn on the job,” he says. “I didn’t have the luxury of watching and being able to move in–they threw me right in. I had to learn how to guard players like Larry Bird and Dominique [Wilkins], and it took me a while, but I feel like I’m getting help and I’m getting better each time out.” Sellers, in fact, is now assigned the other team’s shooting forward—oftentimes the most demanding defensive assignment—regardless of whether that player is small or large. Offensively, Sellers has a set role, “to run real wide,” he says, “on the wing,” so that Jordan or the point guard has someone to bailout to if the going gets tight in the free-throw lane. He’s a player of finite abilities who has worked hard to improve. He’ll never score 50 points a game, but if Jordan and the Bulls have a good season this year, it means Brad Sellers has done his job.
That’s guard John Paxson’s story, as well. Over the years he’s developed a more consistent outside shot. The standard Paxson play has him passing low to Cartwright, so that if Paxson’s man follows the ball in to double-team the center, then Cartwright passes back out to Paxson for an open shot. If Paxson is suddenly covered, he looks to swing the ball across court to Jordan or to Sellers for the open shot.
Throughout the first half of the season, the weak link—or perhaps the link subject to the most pressure—was starting point guard Sam Vincent. He arrived with the Bulls midseason last year, and he quickly established himself, but he’s inconsistent. Even on a good night, Vincent runs the offense with all the surface cool of a compulsive coffee drinker.
The Bulls’ hope for the immediate future lies in last season’s draft picks, Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen. Doug Collins compares them to two young players on the Pistons, Dennis Rodman and John Salley, whose development played a critical role in getting the Detroit team over the hump to championship caliber.
Grant is a tall, aggressive player whose chipmunk cheeks and childlike look call attention to his continuing development; the Bulls expect him to become a more able player as he increases his physical strength. He entered the season obsessed with replacing Oakley as the team’s leading rebounder—he explained his new role to everyone around—but his own high expectations have sometimes made his play seem forced. Other times, when he relaxed, he became a better-rounded player—hitting the open shot, finding the open man, rebounding the ball not as forcibly as Oakley but convincingly. He showed signs of becoming better than Oakley will ever be.
Pippen is handsome and popular; popular; his almond-shaped eyes, full lips, and almost Roman nose give him the sculptured appearance of an Asian god. He is a swing man, playing the position of either a small forward or a big guard, and he had a good rookie year after being drafted out of Central Arkansas. A back injury, which required surgery last summer, kept him out of the line-up until late November. The danger of Pippen’s absence early in the season was that the team could develop habits
that would be difficult to break on his return. As Jordan said, “When he comes back, it’s going to change the continuity we’ve
tried to establish from the beginning.” Yet, as the Bulls struggled around .500 in the early going, it was obvious that something else was needed.
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The question in the early season was not only whether they would develop the balance they require to improve, but whether Jordan would allow them to. What makes him a great player is his impatience with defeat. It’s also the quality that dismisses any talk of his being a prima donna. No one who’s ever seen Jordan disgusted with himself or his teammates on an off night can question this impulse. His face contorts, he shakes his head, he screams at the referee, he scolds his teammates, but, most often and most important, he looks inward and tries to raise his game another notch. If, at some point, the offense fizzles or the chemistry just won’t come, then Jordan decides to take things into his own hands. His efforts, at these times, take on the crazed determination of a man trying to halt an avalanche; for anyone who remembers Walter Payton struggling with bad Bears teams a decade ago, these moments are all too familiar. It’s what makes both players so fascinating arid so frustrating to watch. Yet
even Jordan’s immense efforts may have peaked, for the time being, in a victory in the Stadium earlier this year against the Atlanta Hawks.
The Hawks are much like the Bulls: They, too, are struggling to keep up with the improving competition in the NBA; likewise, they have recently added a powerful center, Moses Malone, to a team that tended to rely too much on one player, Dominique
Wilkins. The confrontation with Malone also made for an early-season litmus test on Cartwright; it wasn’t yet known whether he could play effectively for 40 minutes against the league’s better centers. It was also the first game back for Pippen. In other words, the elements of drama were unusually well placed for an early-season contest.
The Bulls got off to a good start, a balanced start, with Brad Sellers keeping the Hawks’ defense honest as he made a series of open shots. When he left the game for Pippen, the fans cheered lustily, and Sellers welcomed Pippen back with a slow, clasped double high-five. When the Bulls went through a short doldrum in the first half, it was Cartwright—not Jordan—who called for the ball. He put it up over Malone with his slow, mechanical shot with the deceptively light touch.
It was a rough game; three times Cartwright fell hard to the floor, once landing firmly on his knees with a thud that threatened to crack the hockey ice under the floor boards. Yet as the fourth quarter opened with the Bulls ahead 77-74, again it was Cartwright calling for the ball. Toward the end of the game, Collins went to what Pippen calls the “big line-up,” with Pippen and Jordan at guards, Sellers and Grant at forwards, and Cartwright at center. Pippen had 13 points, Grant and Sellers 14, Cartwright 17, and Jordan 16—balanced as balanced could be.
Then the offense began to fizzle. Jordan and Pippen were taking turns setting up plays, but both threw passes away. Atlanta pulled ahead 100-93 with 90 seconds left in the game. Jordan rallied the Bulls, however, on two consecutive possessions, and John Paxson made a three-pointer to tie the game, throwing up the shot from his shoulder with two hands, like a four-year old. Sellers forced Wilkins to take a poor shot in the final seconds, and the teams were tied 102-102.
Cartwright controlled the tip to open the overtime period, but Jordan was almost immediately called for palming the ball. He was irate, screaming at the official (although he did, indeed, appear guilty), and from that moment on he was at that higher level. He ran the offense from the point-guard position, and on defense he hounded the other team’s point guard and double-teamed the ball on passes to nearby players. When the ball was passed across to the other side of the court, he guarded his man with an almost vulturous aspect: His shoulders were hunched, his arms hung low, his mouth was open, and his gaze was directed down, unfocused, as if he were relying on some higher sense.
With the Hawks double-teaming him on offense, Jordan worked the pick-and-roll with Grant to give the Bulls the lead, then—having set himself up–drove in for a mighty stuff over the Hawks burly Antoine Carr. Then he signaled his teammates wide and went one on one against Reggie Theus, rocking him back oril1is heels and putting a jump shot up and in from the free-throw line. As the final seconds ticked down and the Bulls led 112-110, it was Jordan–and Jordan almost exclusively—who handled the ball. He was fouled, and his two free throws touched nothing but net to clinch the victory.
Had the game been played during the play-offs—or even now, after the football season—it would have been the talk of Chicago for a week. Collins said afterward, ‘’To win that game, might be a game you look back on in the season at some point and say, ‘That game might have been a big turnaround for us.’ ” Yet the Bulls followed this game with a difficult West Coast road trip
that left the Hawks game behind as simply one of those regularly erratic tastes of the Bulls playing at championship caliber. Or maybe what it was, was the Bulls playing as a team up to a certain point, and then failing, and Jordan playing at championship caliber to save the game. The paradox of the Bulls is that they never would have won that game if it hadn’t been for Jordan, but they may never develop into a solid team if Jordan doesn’t allow them—and himself—to fail from time to time.
And what’s he supposed to do, let them lose?
After that game, as the Bulls opened the locker room to the media, 11 guys prepared to answer questions from a group of reporters. One man threw his gym bag over his shoulder, cut through the open door, and was gone down the gangway. No one tried to stop him.