It has become a Chicago Bull tradition for assistant coach John Bach to sketch a single spade on the locker-room drawing board after a crucial victory. "The ace of spades is the death card in the military," says Bach, who was a Navy ensign during World War II. "Soldiers would wear it in their helmets in defiance of the Grim Reaper. It's about looking death in the eye and staring it down." In the middle of the spade, Bach usually puts the number of the player most responsible for the Bulls' win. "I used to write number 23"—Michael Jordan's number—"in there an awful lot," Bach says. But last Sunday, after the Bulls had tied their best-of-seven NBA Eastern Conference semifinal series against the New York Knicks at two games apiece with a dominating 95-83 victory, Bach drew a spade with a big black T in the middle. For Team.
That was because the three-time defending champion Bulls not only had avoided the death of their dynasty by squaring the series in Chicago Stadium after the Knicks had won the first two games in New York, but also had reestablished themselves as a unit after an act of astonishing selfishness and immaturity by their supposed leader, forward Scottie Pippen, two nights earlier. In Game 3, with the score tied 102-102 and 1.8 seconds left on the clock, the Bulls called timeout and coach Phil Jackson set up a play designed to give forward Toni Kukoc the last shot. Pippen, miffed that the play hadn't been called for him, refused to go back into the game, waving his hands in disgust and taking a seat near the end of the bench as his teammates headed out onto the floor. Jackson and Pippen exchanged "words I don't think I should repeat," Jackson said later, and Chicago called a second timeout. Bach and forward Horace Grant urged Pippen to reconsider, but still he refused.
The Bulls were lucky that the ball didn't belong to the petulant Pippen because he probably would have taken it and gone home, which would have kept Kukoc from hitting the 23-foot fall-away jumper at the buzzer that gave Chicago a 104-102 win. But even if the Bulls come back to take the series, which was to return to New York for a fifth game on Wednesday night, Pippen's desertion of his teammates in Game 3 is likely to cast a bigger shadow over his career than Jordan ever did. "It wasn't that Phil took me out," Pippen said after his disappearing act. "We exchanged words, and I just took a seat." It won't soon be forgotten that when Chicago most needed Pippen to step up, he chose to sit down.
"I apologized to the team and to Phil Jackson," Pippen said after Game 4. "I don't think I have to apologize to anyone else." At week's end he had offered no further defense or explanation for his actions, but it seemed that his season-long effort to replace the retired Jordan, the constant physical pounding administered by the Knicks and a longtime resentment of rookie Kukoc all came together in one blinding moment and temporarily blocked Pippen's common sense, leaving his ego in control.
On the Bulls' possession before Kukoc's game-winner, Pippen had been forced to dribble out the 24-second clock after trying unsuccessfully to get Kukoc to clear out the side of the court in order to give Pippen more room to maneuver. When Jackson drew up the final play for Kukoc, he added insult to injury, in Pippen's view. "It all became muddled in Scottie's mind, the concept of himself and the concept of the team," Jackson said. "In that instant, he thought he was the team."
Pippen did come back to contribute 25 points, eight rebounds and six assists in Game 4, which shouldn't have been surprising because at any given moment during the first four games there was someone coming back from something—either a huge deficit or team trauma. Both teams averted disaster so often that Bach would have needed to draw a deckful of spades to have had enough to deal one to every deserving player. New York nearly gave away its home-court advantage in both of the first two games before pulling them out with fourth-quarter rallies. And in Game 3 the Knicks dug themselves a 20-point fourth-quarter hole before center Patrick Ewing led them on a furious game-tying surge. With the Pippen scenario unfolding and New York poised to go into overtime with the momentum flowing its way, the Bulls were facing a 3-0 deficit and the end of their run of NBA titles at three. But Kukoc changed all that with his game-winner.
Still, most of the discussion after the game centered on Pippen. And in any other series his lapse in judgment would have been the most compelling story line, but this was the Bulls versus the Knicks. They were meeting in the playoffs for the fourth consecutive year, and over that time their rivalry had become the league's best. In this postseason it grew more richly textured by the game, with incidents both comic and calamitous. The comedy was exemplified by Jackson's decision to take the Bulls on an impromptu, tension-easing cruise on the Staten Island Ferry between Games 1 and 2. The voyage seemed to induce only queasiness in Grant. "If you see anything in the water and it's not a shark or a fish or something, it's my insides," he warned. The calamity was the ugly brawl (page 26) in Game 3 that spilled into the stands and led to a total of $162,500 in fines levied against both teams and the suspensions of New York guard Derek Harper for two games and Chicago guard Jo Jo English for one.
And then there were the rivalry's constantly bubbling themes, including Pippen's simmering resentment of Kukoc, which had begun three years ago when Bull general manager Jerry Krause made the pursuit of the Croatian star a bigger priority than renegotiating Pippen's contract; friction between Jackson and Knick coach Pat Riley; New York's attempt to finally overcome Chicago after having been eliminated from the playoffs by the Bulls the last three years; and, hovering over the entire scene, the ghost of the departed Jordan.
After the first two games of the series, Jackson's diatribes against the Knicks' physical style of play grew more urgent, invoking "flagrant fouls and trips and leg whips and all the other weapons New York employs. We're not going to trip them or beat them up," declared Jackson. "That is not who the Chicago Bulls are. The Chicago Bulls are a basketball team. They're not a mud-wrestling team or a rugby crew or anything else." Most of Jackson's rhetoric was intended to keep the Knicks' reputation for thuggery foremost in the minds of the referees, a tactic to which New York grew accustomed long ago. But what annoys the Knicks is the fact that the elegant Bulls don't consider them worthy successors to their throne, that Chicago looks down its nose at the New York style as coarse and uncivilized. Of course, the Knicks' style is coarse and uncivilized, but Jackson chooses to emphasize that point by casting himself and his team as defenders of all that is good and right about basketball.
Jackson isn't the only coach to complain about New York's roughhouse approach, but he's the only one whose barbs consistently get under Riley's skin—so much so that before the Bulls eliminated the Knicks in Game 6 of last year's conference final, Riley sent a note to the Chicago locker room informing the Bulls that if they won, he wouldn't offer Jackson the traditional end-of-series handshake. Riley's resentment of Chicago is shared by the rest of the Knicks. "I read where Jackson said they played down to our level," said New York guard John Starks after the Knicks won the first two games of this year's series. "We've had a better [regular-season] record than they did two years in a row, and we're up 2-0. Seems to me they would have to play up to our level. It seems like whenever we beat them, they say it's not because of anything we did, it's because of something they didn't do."