The public can't seem to get enough of Chicago. After two mostly Jordan-less seasons out of the top spot, the Bulls are again No. 1 in the NBA in road attendance, averaging 20,889 fans a game. This season the ratings for telecasts that include Chicago are roughly double those for other games. And there have been enough books written by or about various Bulls to stock a library. Jackson, who likes to give each of his players a book to read on long road trips, could probably take care of his team's needs without straying from the Bulls' collection.
Beyond that, Chicago is different from other highly popular and successful teams in that hardly anyone seems to hate them. The likes of the Celtics, the Dallas Cowboys, the New York Yankees and the Notre Dame football team all have nationwide fan bases. But there are also large numbers of spectators who love nothing more than to see these teams lose. Just try to find a Bulls-haters club, though. "It's tough to play them in your own place and hear almost as many people cheering when they score as when you score," says Atlanta Hawks forward Stacey Augmon.
The Chicago players have remained as unimpressed by the adulation as they have by their success so far this season. They act like they just happen to be on a modest winning streak. Says Pippen, "We don't want to step back and look at what we've accomplished—because we've accomplished nothing."
That's not entirely true. The Bulls have established themselves as every bit as dominant as they were during their run of championships before Jordan's temporary retirement. But in the process, they have made the yawning chasm between the NBA's upper and lower echelons impossible to ignore. With the addition of the Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies expanding the league to 29 teams this season, talent is stretched more thinly than ever before. "The Bulls are an excellent team in what appears to be an increasingly mediocre league," says Jack Ramsay, a Hall of Fame coach turned TV analyst.
The Bulls ran off a 13-game winning streak in November and December during which only four of their victims, the New York Knicks, the San Antonio Spurs, Orlando and the Utah Jazz, were more than one game over .500. "Chicago is jumping all over teams, but it's doing it in a league with a dearth of talent that's been watered down even further by expansion," says former Knicks guard and current radio analyst Walt Frazier. "It has two of the best players in the game and one of the best defensive players and rebounders. And that could be enough in the NBA today."
Even the Bulls themselves recognize that the quality of the league is a factor in their remarkable record. "There are some teams out there who have no hope of beating the Chicago Bulls, and that's sad, that's really sad," says Rodman, who was on two championship Pistons teams. "We're not the best team in NBA history, we're just the best of what's out there right now."
But some of the great teams of the past also benefited from expansion. Philadelphia's 68 wins in '66-67 came during the same season that the Bulls joined the league as the NBA's 10th team. The Lakers set the record with 69 wins the year after the league grew to 17 teams with the addition of Portland, the Buffalo Braves and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It's also worth remembering that Chicago lost a key player, guard B.J. Armstrong, in the expansion draft last June. And even if the Bulls are enjoying the fruits of expansion, they are playing against the same competition as the rest of the league, and at last check, no one else was 34-3.
The seeds of the Bulls' fast start may have taken root last season, when a humbled Jordan sat in front of his locker following the Game 6 Eastern Conference semifinal loss to Orlando that eliminated Chicago from the playoffs. He explained that he had miscalculated in his plan to "steal a title" after returning for the final 17 regular-season games and the postseason. "But I'm looking forward to having a training camp with these guys," he said then, "I think over the course of an 82-game season we can do something special. I've got the hunger back."
"I think losing the way we did last year focused him even more," says Pippen. "Michael's not used to being in the position of talking about why we didn't win, and I'm sure he didn't like it. He came back this fall with a point he wanted to make." That point seems to be that Jordan can accomplish anything he chooses on a basketball court. With a 31.7-point average (in 38.3 minutes a game) through last weekend, he is back on top of the league scoring list—he won seven straight scoring titles before he retired—and the uncharacteristic trace of self-doubt that he admitted to last season has been nowhere in evidence. "Will I lead the league in scoring? I don't know," he says. "Can I lead the league in scoring? If I want to."
Jordan's performance this season indicates that, while he no longer seems compelled to prove on a nightly basis that he's the best player, he's perfectly capable of providing a reminder to anyone who forgets. He took note, for instance, when Philadelphia rookie and fellow North Carolina alumnus Jerry Stackhouse was quoted early in the season as saying that the thing that had surprised him most about the NBA was "how easy it has been" and that no one had been able to stop him one-on-one. Jordan gave Stackhouse a 48-point lesson in humility in their first meeting.