Air Jordan, Air Bulls
Michael Jordan soared, and some of his teammates even went aloft, too, as
Chicago grounded Cleveland in the playoffs
By Jack McCallum
Issue date: May 16, 1988
On Sunday the Chicago Bulls advanced to the second round of the NBA's Eastern
Conference playoffs for the first time in seven years, lugging with them an
intriguing and still unresolved question: Are they a one-man band? Chicago
answered ambivalently in going the best-of-five distance with the Cleveland
Cavaliers. In the first two games, the Bulls were successful only when they went
to Michael Jordan, who scored 50 and 55 points in 104-93 and 106-101 victories
at Chicago Stadium. In the next two games, on the Cavaliers' home floor in
suburban Richfield, the Bulls looked like lost sheep whenever Jordan was not out
front with his staff.
Sure, he scored 38 and 44 points, but he was playing with a sore back and a sore
right knee and with several of the calls against him. Cleveland won 110-102 and
97-91. But in the fifth and deciding game, in Chicago, the Bulls performed like
a many-man band. While Jordan "struggled" for 39 points, several of his
teammates finally stood strong and tall in a 107-101 victory. "Today," said
coach Doug Collins, "the Chicago Bulls showed up in unison." So did Cleveland,
which for the first 1 1/2 quarters of the game threatened to close down the
Jordan Jamboree for the season.
The Lakers' Magic Johnson has already proclaimed the Cavaliers "the team of the
'90s," and there's no reason Cleveland can't leapfrog past Chicago, the Detroit
Pistons and the Atlanta Hawks to the top of the Central Division next season.
Yes, the Cavs finally came apart on Sunday in the din of hostile Chicago
Stadium, but not until late in the game and not until the Bulls, who had been
behind by 18 points late in the first quarter, had mounted an exquisite clutch
In 1988-89, Cleveland's young guards, Mark Price and Ron Harper, will be a bit
wiser, veteran forward Larry Nance will be hungrier for recognition, and center
Brad Daugherty will be a year closer to becoming the savviest (not the best,
mind you, but the savviest) center in the NBA. Beware the Cavs.
Chicago also may have seen its own future flash before it in Game 5 with the
play of rookie Scottie Pippen, who had 24 points, six rebounds and five assists.
Pippen has had an up-and-down season, as many first-year players do, but he
performed well in the Bulls' stretch drive, during which they won 13 of their
final 17 games to overtake Atlanta for second place in the Central Division and
third in the Eastern Conference. Still, Pippen -- and everyone else, for that
matter -- was surprised when Collins casually mentioned, minutes before Game 5,
that Pippen would be starting at small forward for the first time this season.
The move was not only an expression of Collins's confidence in the multitalented
Pippen, but also an indication that the regular starter, Brad Sellers, is back
in what Sellers has jokingly referred to as "the Doug house." A 7-footer who
ventures into the paint so rarely he must believe it is mined, Sellers played
only five minutes on Sunday, and while it would be premature to say that his
days are numbered in Chicago, it's a virtual certainty that Pippen's day has
Pippen was in the middle of all that went right for Chicago on Sunday. With 27
seconds left in the third period and Jordan on the bench taking his customary
end-of-the-quarter rest, Pippen stole an ill-advised crosscourt pass by Harper
and took it in for a layup that gave Chicago its first lead of the game, 78-77.
Twenty-two seconds later he dunked the rebound of Sam Vincent's missed layup,
which had been set up by another Cav turnover, and the Bulls led 80-77. And in a
key six-point run late in the fourth period that gave the Bulls a 100-92 lead
with 2:58 left, Pippen hit a jumper and a basket underneath sandwiched around a
jumper by Dave Corzine. That, in effect, was the ball
"It's one of the biggest games I've ever seen a rookie play in the playoffs,"
said Chicago backup guard Rory Sparrow, who at 29 is one of the few Bulls old
enough to have a sense of history. The 6 ft. 7 in. Pippen's eye-popping
versatility will help him overcome the damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't
dilemma of being on the same team as Jordan. If you take a shot or make a move
to the basket that isn't successful, then you should have passed off to Jordan.
But if you constantly ignore your own shot in an all-out effort to set up
Jordan, then you are not providing him with substantial support. It's a problem
the Bulls have struggled with all year, and the fact that Pippen was a pip in a
playoff game or that Corzine came through in the clutch (7 for 12 from the
field) after a horrendous start that included three first-half air balls doesn't
mean it's behind them.
One must engage in statistical hairsplitting to argue that the Bulls are
significantly improved over last year in spreading the offensive wealth: Jordan
scored 35.4% of Chicago's points in 1986-87, a figure that dropped slightly, to
33.3%, during the recently concluded regular season and then soared to 44.3% in
the series against
Nevertheless, the ears of the Bulls' management positively burn when the phrase
"one-man team" is uttered anywhere in the vicinity. Which is why Chicago
general manager Jerry Krause could be found in the deliriously happy Bulls
locker room after Sunday's triumph, buttonholing everyone in sight and saying,
"One-man team, huh? No way! No way this is a one-man
However, in the rush to praise the undeniable contributions of others, Jordan's
fine performance in Game 5 was almost obscured. Yes, after going dunkless in
Games 3 and 4, he had only one slam on Sunday -- attribute that to fatigue and
the outstanding defense of Harper and Craig Ehlo. And, yes, his ball handling
was atrocious at times. He had seven turnovers, and during one bizarre
four-possession sequence in the third period, he threw the ball away three
straight times and then shot an air ball. But, as usual, the Bulls wouldn't have
been in the game without him.
The Cavs had bottled up Chicago's offense and led 39-29 three minutes into the
second period, when Jordan decided he had seen enough. He drove to the basket,
got fouled and made one of two free throws. The next time downcourt, he drove to
the basket, got fouled and made one of two. Next time down: drive, foul, made
both. Same thing 19 seconds later. Then he dunked off an alley-oop pass from
Pippen. Suddenly, Cleveland's lead was only
No, the Bulls never went exclusively to their Archangel Offense -- "That's
where we give the ball to Jordan and say, 'Save us, Michael,' " explains
Chicago assistant coach John Bach, coiner of the term -- but Jordan was still
the answer to the Bulls' prayers more often than not. And, oh yes, his 226
points were the most ever in a five-game series.
In fact, it's remarkable that Jordan's luminous presence hasn't upset the Bulls
more than it has this season. There have been only minor eruptions, most of them
from Mount Oakley. For example, after scoring just five points in a 97-91 loss
in Game 4, Bulls power forward Charles Oakley had this to say: "I work hard and
don't get any plays called for me. I'm the best rebounder in the league (he
finished second statistically to the Los Angeles Clippers' Michael Cage this
season, but his claim is probably accurate), and I'm getting pounded and pounded
under the boards every night. I'll do anything for the team. But they should
give me something
To his credit, Oakley stayed within himself on Sunday, taking only five shots
and acting like a human earth-mover under the basket as he grabbed 20 rebounds.
Jordan, for his part, takes a sympathetic view of Oakley's complaints. "It's
not really Doug's play-calling so much as how we execute the play," Jordan said
Saturday. "Doug is trying, and has been trying, to get us out of just relying
on me. Everybody has an equal opportunity to score in this offense, but
sometimes the other guys aren't used to taking charge. We need more of that.
That's what we worked on in practice today."
Evidently it had some effect. Jordan made these comments as he tooled away from
the Bulls' practice facility at the Multiplex in suburban Deerfield in his white
Porsche 911 turbo. Behind him he had left a dozen or so interview seekers,
something he doesn't like to do. But his back was aching, the result of a muscle
pull suffered in Game 3, and he needed rest. As Jordan cruised slowly behind a
mall near the Multiplex, two cars suddenly caught him and literally cut him off
from both sides. Jordan looked resigned as he coasted to a stop. Two autograph
seekers jumped from the car on his right while a young man begging for a moment
of Jordan's time emerged from the one on his left. "Michael, please, this is
important for me and you," he
Jordan gave a reluctant nod, and instantly the man produced a blue sweat suit to
which he had affixed an Air Jordan logo. "Michael, look at this!" he said.
"Nobody's making these. Michael, we've got to talk. Please! Can we talk?"
Jordan took the man's phone number. (The next day, after Game 5, Jordan reported
that he had returned the call but had begged off the deal.) "It ever strike you
that you have a bizarre life?" Jordan's passenger asked him as he drove off.
"Sometimes?" said Jordan. "Believe it or not, that wasn't all that
Jordan is a man who appears to have the many and varied pieces of his life in
order. He handles himself off the court as well as he handled himself on the
court this season, and that's saying something. While it is true that, as the
Cavs' Ehlo says, "He has different skills than the rest of us," it's also true
that Jordan has exceeded everyone's excessive expectations because he has never
stopped improving. His .535 season shooting percentage, absurdly high for a
guard who averaged a league-high 35.0 points per game (last year's figures were
.482 and 37.1), is testament to
Or consider his defense. He is the first player in NBA history to lead the
league in both scoring and steals (3.16 per game). "There've been a lot of
times that Doug has put me on somebody to stop him," says Jordan. "I played
Alex English, I played Magic Johnson. Doug still hasn't let me on Larry (Bird),
though. That's the one I'm waiting
Jordan obviously hopes to get his chance in the Eastern finals ond-round series
against Detroit, which began Tuesday night, loomed as a giant obstacle, one that
would put to a test the assertion of an exuberant Pippen on Sunday: "Now we
know we're not a one-man team anymore."
As Pippen and the rest of the Bulls know full well, the obstacle can be overcome
only by Team Chicago, not just Team