Neither obstacles nor expectations could slow the Bulls
in their inexorable drive toward their one and only goal
by Kelly Whiteside
by Kelly Whiteside
When someone reminded him that an early chill could mean a brutal winter, Jackson responded, "No. That means that basketball is ahead."
There was plenty to be excited about: The Bulls were coming off a season in which they had gone 72-10, the best record in league history; they had won their fourth title in six seasons; and their entire starting five was returning intact.
The giddiness of the new season, however, was tempered by the uncertainty that lay ahead. Over the summer Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf had sent a strong signal that the club intended to rebuild after 1996-97: He re-signed Jackson, Michael Jordan and Dennis Rodman, but to one-year deals only. Jackson's $2.75 million contract, finalized on June 20, included an unusual clause that would allow the coach to entertain job offers during the postseason from teams that didn't make or were eliminated from the playoffs. Over the 16 months it had taken to secure the contract, Jackson's relationship with Reinsdorf and general manager Jerry Krause had cooled considerably. And so Jackson, who boasts the best winning percentage in both the regular season and the playoffs in NBA history, entered the '96-97 campaign with the attitude that it would be his last in Chicago. "There's nothing we'd rather do than go out and win another championship and then walk away," he said in September.
The air surrounding the Bulls' season was thus full of uncertainty, even a touch of melancholy. Would Rodman, the flamboyant power forward whose maniacal rebounding had proved invaluable during the '96 title run, sink the team with his shenanigans, which had only become more outrageous? Would this be the last season in a Bulls uniform for forward Scottie Pippen, who with just one more year on his contract would be an obvious subject of trade rumors? Would Jackson ride off into the sunset with Jordanwho had said he had no interest in playing in Chicago for any other coachin his sidecar? No one wanted to say goodbye just yet. "Each game one fewer from the pile, each Jordan moment one less petal on the rose," wrote one misty-eyed Chicago columnist early in the season.
Once again expectations were as high as the championship banners in the United Center. Could the Bulls get 70 wins again? Jackson was having none of it. He guessed his team would finish with about 60 victories and predicted the Bulls would come out slow because three starters were recovering from off-season surgery. (Pippen had minor repairs on his left ankle; guard Ron Harper underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee; center Luc Longley had bone spurs removed from his left ankle.) But oversized expectations and old injuries were not Jackson's primary concern.
"Our enemy is ourself," said the coach at the outset. "When you have a talented team, your enemy is overconfidence or a lackadaisical attitude. You have to keep finding challenges.
"That's my job. I have to figure a way to get these guys interested and fired up about playing basketball. The hardest thing to do is repeat when everyone expects you to do it again."
At the Bulls' annual tip-off luncheon on Oct. 30, the team presented Jackson with a gift in honor of the '96 title. Rodman rumbled into the banquet room on a new Harley-Davidson painted in Bulls red and black and autographed by each player and tossed a surprised Jackson the keys. Two days later in Boston the Bulls roared past the Celtics 107-98 in the season opener. As he would in 64 of 82 games, Jordan led the team in scoring, this time with 30 points. Rodman crashed the boards for a game-high 13 rebounds (he would pace the Bulls in rebounding in 53 of his 55 regular-season games). Already it was beginning to look a lot like the previous year. In the locker room after the game Harper jokingly shouted, "Seventy-three and nine, baby!"
The Bulls barely broke a sweat as they ran off 12 straight wins, the best start in franchise history. So much for Jackson's warning about a slow start. Behind closed doors the players talked playfully about going undefeated. After they beat the improved Detroit Pistons with surprising ease, 98-80, in Auburn Hills on Nov. 8, you had to wonder if the talk was so playful after all.
The Jazz provided a dose of reality on Nov. 23 in Salt Lake City, handing the Bulls their first loss of the season, 105-100. Utah took advantage of Chicago's poor shooting late in the game and a costly technical foul on Rodman, who was ejected for pushing Jeff Hornacek with 13.9 seconds left and the score 100-98. Afterward, the Worm assured everyone that the sky was not falling. "It's one damn loss, that's all," he said.
Chicago won its next five, including a 97-88 win over the Spurs in San Antonio on Nov. 30. Entering the game, Jordan needed 35 points to become the 10th player in NBA history to reach 25,000 in a career. After he nailed a three-pointer with 3:10 left in the fourth quarter to reach 33, he smiled, pointed to himself and encouraged his teammates to pass him the ball. Jordan missed his next four shots, but a 17-foot sideline jumper with 29.4 seconds on the clock gave him career points 24,999 and 25,000. (By season's end Jordan was at 26,920, fifth alltime.)