At first Jackson and Jordan coexisted in delicate balance—the coach with his higher truth of championship basketball, which Jordan so desperately sought; the superstar with his worldly gift, the ability to manufacture baskets when Jackson's beloved triangle broke down. By the time the Bulls won their first crown, Jordan had become so committed to team play that he accepted the ritual "I'm going to Disney World" endorsement opportunity only when the other Bull starters were included. Yet now Jackson wondered if he would have to make both pitches all over again. No one on the team had played with Jordan before his return other than Pippen, center Will Perdue, swingman Pete Myers and guard B.J. Armstrong, who as a rookie had actually checked out a library book on Einstein and Mozart, hoping they would give him insight into genius and make him a more sympathetic teammate to the great one. And would Jordan come to understand that the team, which had been playing well when he rejoined it, didn't need a savior?
As if to provide Jackson with Exhibit A in that case, Chicago seizes its largest lead, 99-90, precisely when Jordan is taking his longest rest of the evening, for more than five minutes at the start of the fourth quarter. The Bulls knew they could score by letting Jordan go one-on-one. Now they have proved they can prosper without him at all.
Still, Jackson might wonder: Can the team click with Jordan a constituent part?
As the game enters its final minutes Jordan and Ewing are taking turns. Another Jordan jumper over Starks—points 52 and 53—gives the Bulls a 107-102 lead. After Starks counters with two free throws, Ewing adds one of his own; then, finally coming over again to help Starks on a double team, he blocks a Jordan shot, making possible a slam from Starks that ties matters at 107. Jordan dishes off for his first assist of the game, to Pippen for a bank shot, and Chicago leads 109-107. Ewing's two free throws reknot things at 109 with 39 seconds left on the clock.
It's felicitous that Jordan and Ewing, Ewing and Jordan, are engaging each other down the stretch. In a few months they will be leading an uprising against the players' union. At the Plaza earlier this afternoon Jordan met with Charles Grantham, at the time the executive director of the players' association, to bone up on issues pertaining to a new collective bargaining agreement. By tonight's lights, could there be any better pair to make the case for how very productive NBA labor can be?
At Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta the suits know that the Nielsen ratings took their usual dip at halftime. But they spike up with the start of the third quarter, the result of tens of thousands of Hey, are you watching this? phone calls. Through the final two quarters the numbers creep upward in 15-minute increments, from a 5.2 to a 6.0 to a 6.8 to a 7.4 to an 8.0, ultimately averaging a 5.0 rating—a record for a nationally telecast game on cable.
Steve Smith of the Hawks yapped at Jordan three nights earlier, proving anew that, all things considered, mouthing at Michael isn't a prudent thing to do. "Who's going to get the shot?" Smith asked Jordan as the Bulls prepared to put the ball in play for the last time.
"Pippen," Jordan said, before taking the inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds to play, moving up the floor and beating his interlocutor with the game-winner.
Tonight, as adrenaline gets the better of Starks, he can't help himself. "Hey, how ya doin'?" the Knick guard asks Jordan late in the game, renewing acquaintances, after a fashion. "What's been goin' on?"
The same free-flowing juices that set off Starks's mouth cause him to bite for any fake Jordan offers, including this one. Starks is on his way down, helpless, as Jordan rises up for his final attempt, and final basket, of the night. The score now stands at 111-109, Chicago.