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. It sure looked like them, anyhow. 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.
Exit laughing. Is that any way to win a crown? Game 5 was a pickup at the corner gym, all stupid passes and no-hope shots, steals and bobbles and drops and players leaping for balls off the backboard. It was 7-footer Vlade Divac trying to dribble the ball upcourt. (That was fun.) It was Magic Johnson throwing a length-of-the-floor pass that at least two players could have intercepted. It was Pippen called for “carrying the ball.” It was Paxson making a lay-up. A lay-up? I didn’t know the man had legs!
It was desperation disguised as basketball. The injured Lakers, playing without James Worthy and Byron Scott, dusted off the guys at the end of the bench, introduced them to the rest of the team and gave the Bulls a headache. It wasn’t pretty, but it was pretty bad. It was back-to-back traveling calls and back-to-back offensive fouls, it was one dunk after another dunk after another dunk, it was wild, a skirmish, a free-for-all. 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. Actually, the Lakers had a lead halfway through the fourth quarter. But then, guys like Elden Cambell and Tony Smith, they 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 drive through five men to make a lay-up, Pippen knocked off two defenders and made a banker. Paxson went back to his usual set shot, and swished it.
When the smoke cleared, the Chicago Bulls had finished off LA in just one game more than the minimum, and this morning they can safely say they beat the Lakers, all the Lakers, even some they never heard of.
“We won it together!” screamed Paxson after the 108-101 victory that clinched Chicago’s first-ever NBA title.
All right. We should congratulate the Bulls, as soon as we stop laughing. There must be more graceful ways to win a title. Not that people in Chicago will care. After all, they didn’t know what a championship looked like until Wednesday night.
OK. 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 postseason wore on, they became a neat blade that cut down every team it faced with astonishing ease. Let’s be honest. The Bulls 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 in all the 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 would surely agree that this was, in the most simple terms, the Chicago Bulls’ butt-kicking the NBA.
“I have to credit my teammates,” Jordan said before the game, obviously already knowing what was bound to happen, “and by the way, I never called them my supporting cast, you guys (the media) did.” Well. Maybe he never called them his supporting cast. But he did call them lousy. Bad enough that he complained at the start of the season that the Bulls’ GM needed to get him some real teammates. 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: John 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, who I always thought was one big elbow, making baseline jumpers and rebounding.
Cliff Levingston. B.J. Armstrong. Craig Hodges. The Bulls won because nearly everyone, no matter how far down the bench — excluding Stacey King
— was on his game nearly all the time. With the exception of Wednesday night’s comedy show, the Bulls were consistent all playoffs long: They shot well, they played choking defense, they spread the ball around, they won.
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, could barely make 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 Johnson 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 season — 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 a star attraction will now soar somewhere toward Pluto, the NBA might ask itself whether it has 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 are still 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 vomiting. 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.
the final seconds, a shot rebounded onto the floor and Magic and Michael both went after it. Magic got nothing but air. Air got nothing but ball. That about says it, folks. This year, everybody was just Bulled over.