INGLEWOOD, Calif. — Bulls win. I think. At least I’m pretty sure that was Michael Jordan dancing off the court with his first NBA title, and Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant and John Paxson hugging in a tight circle on the Forum floor, as fans obviously imported from Chicago mobbed them and screamed
“MICHAEL FOR PRESIDENT!” As for the final game of this championship series, I would like to tell you what happened, but I must confess an embarrassing mistake: I obviously drove to the wrong arena. That couldn’t have been Bulls-Lakers. It looked more like Kings-Clippers.
Whoa. Is that any way to win a crown? Game 5 was a pick-up at the corner gym, all stupid passes and no-hope shots, steals and bobbles and players leaping for balls off the backboard. I half expected the women’s aerobics class to come in and tell us our gym time was up. This was Vlade Divac, at 7-foot-1, trying to dribble the ball upcourt and having it stripped away. This was Magic Johnson, the best passer in the game, throwing a length-of-the-floor lob that at least two defenders could have intercepted. This was Scottie Pippen called for “carrying the ball.” This was John Paxson making a lay-up. A lay-up? I didn’t know the man had legs!
Never let it be said they can’t put on a show in LA. The injured Lakers, playing without James Worthy and Byron Scott, dusted off players at the end of the bench, introduced them to the rest of the team and promptly gave the Bulls a headache. Maybe the Lakers figured this was the only way they could win: Utter confusion.
It worked for a while, the way throwing sand in the eye of Goliath might work for a while. But in the closing moments, guys like Elden Campbell and Tony Smith must have looked at each other and said “Omigod! What are we doing out of our warm- ups?” And fate took over. The Bulls went on a typical rampage, Jordan drove through five men to make a lay-up, Pippen knocked off two defenders and sank a bank shot. Paxson took a dish, tossed it up and swished it.
And when the smoke cleared, the Chicago Bulls had finished off LA in just one game more than the minimum. And this morning they can say they beat the Lakers, all the Lakers, even some they never heard of.
“I’ll take this ring with me as long as I live, I’ll pass it on to my children, I can’t even describe the way I feel,” Jordan, the obvious MVP, said in the locker room after the game. “It’s been a seven-year struggle for me and for our city. When I came here, we weren’t even making the playoffs. I made a vow that we would always make the playoffs from then on, and I never lost faith. We got closer and closer, and finally, we did it.”
Bulled Over. Swallow your pride, Detroit
All right now, Detroit. We should congratulate the Bulls. As soon as we stop laughing about last night’s games. There must be more graceful ways to win a title. Not that Chicago folks will care. After all, they didn’t know what a championship looked like until last night.
But credit where credit is due. The Bulls got to where they are honestly and mightily. Like a squadron of well tuned fighter pilots, they all fell into line as the post-season wore on, they became a neat blade that cut down every team it faced with astonishing ease. They swept the Knicks (no surprise). They swept the Pistons (big surprise). And if not for Sam Perkins’ last-second jumper in Game 1, they would have swept the Lakers. Wow. Only two games lost all playoffs? Only one game lost on the road? If we weren’t all so busy watching Jordan fly to the hoop or figuring out how Will Perdue — Gomer Pyle’s long-lost brother — managed to get all those rebounds while looking like a complete dork, we surely would agree that this was, in the most simple terms, the Chicago Bulls butt-kicking the NBA.
“It’s so hard to put this in words!” Paxson croaked in the Bulls’ steamy locker room, champagne dripping down his head and body. “You dream of this. And you know what? I’m really happy for Michael. Great players like him, if they don’t win, they carry that tag the rest of their careers. He deserves better.”
Which is, in a way, an ironic statement, since at the start of this year, Jordan said the same thing to management. He wanted better teammates. Make some trades. These guys couldn’t win it all. Eat your words, Michael. Chicago’s success in these playoffs is that those other guys proved to be decent players, some of them terrific players. Sure, you take snapshots of Jordan from this series, spinning and twisting and firing long- range, outperforming Magic Johnson in nearly every category except smiling. But you also take other images from this brief war: Paxson, doing his robotic shooting routine, stop, swish, stop, swish. And Scottie Pippen, all heart and talent now, twisting to the hoop with another finger roll. Horace Grant, perhaps the most underrated player when these playoffs began, grabbing yet another offensive rebound and tossing it in off the glass. Even Bill Cartwright, whom I always thought was one big elbow, making baseline jumpers and grabbing the boards.
Cliff Levingston. B.J. Armstrong. Craig Hodges. The Bulls won because nearly everyone, no matter how far down the bench — excluding Stacey King, of course — was on his game, nearly all the time. They played marvelous defense. They were relentless on the boards. They shot the lights out. And with the exception of Wednesday night’s comedy show, the Bulls were consistent all playoffs long. They deserved this, fair and square.
As for their opponents, the Lakers? Well, they deserved better. It’s no fun to reach the end of the rainbow, only to find you need crutches. The loss of Worthy clearly was a crippling blow, and Scott going in the tank — again
— truly hurt. But to be fair, the Lakers were not going to win this. Nobody was going to stop the Bulls. Magic did his best, assembling the Four Horsemen of The Anonymous and coaxing them to within a basket in the closing minutes.
“I just told them to go out and have fun, pretend it was high school,” Johnson said afterwards.
Sometimes it looked just like it.
But what the heck? Magic can’t do everything. He found Jordan in the hallway after the game and said to him, “You got what you wanted. Now people will say you’re a winner in addition to being a great individual player. You’re had an unbelievable year. You deserved it.”
Nice. Likely heroes faded out
And so ends the 1991 NBA season, a weird affair, a year in which everybody’s favorite, Portland, didn’t even make the Finals, and everybody’s favorite big men, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing, barely made a dent in the playoffs. Larry Bird was one big backache. Charles Barkley spit at a fan. The defending champion Pistons ran out of gas in the Eastern Conference and were defeated by a team they helped create. And Magic capped it off by telling everyone this week that he “may not be back next year.” (Personally, I think he’ll return, although after Wednesday, he might figure, “Hey, I can play games like this at the YMCA.”)
Of course, the big story, from now until next year — and believe me, you’ll be sick of it by then — is Jordan. A word here about His Airness. There is no question he deserves this ring. Like Julius Erving and Wilt Chamberlain before him, he is a player who dominates the game, yet had to wait a long time for the thing he wanted most. Now he has it. Congratulations are in order.
But while Michael’s value as star attraction now will soar somewhere towards Pluto, the NBA might ask itself if it hasn’t created a monster. After all, we already knew that Jordan was the best in the game. Now that he is king of the NBA as well, does it somehow diminish interest in the rest of the league? You can only watch so many amazing dunks; sports still are mostly about competition, about rivalry. Magic had Bird all those years. The Pistons had the Celtics, then the Lakers. Who is out there to really challenge Jordan?
It is something to think about, although they won’t care much about it on Rush Street this morning, once they finish throwing up. Chicago has its champion, worthy and true. When history looks back at this year’s Running Of The Bulls, it will realize not only how far they came, but how, in the end, it wasn’t even close.
In the final seconds Wednesday night, a shot rebounded onto the floor, and Magic and Michael both went after it. Magic got nothing but air. Air got nothing but ball, dribbling away with a dance in his step. That about says it, folks: This year, everyone was just Bulled Over.