At a Chicago bookstore on Saturday, 14 horses, three dozen policemen and at least 1,500 acolytes greeted the outrageous Dennis Rodman, who arrived on Harley-back wearing a feather boa and full Tammy Faye Bakker makeup, the better to sign copies of his scandalous new book, Bad As I Wanna Be, on the jacket of which he appears naked on a motorcycle. You may yawn now.
At the United Center on Sunday, an overlooked member of the Chicago Bulls stepped out of Rodman's (eye) shadow, scored 44 points and improbably made a name for himself. The Bull was Michael Jordan. While his total was 11 points shy of the famous double nickel that he hung on the New York Knicks a year ago, Jordan's pair of fours was still a hand that "almost single-handedly"—in the words of Chicago coach Phil Jackson—beat New York 91-84 in Game 1 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series.
The good news for Chicago's present and future playoff opponents is this: The Bulls can be odoriferous. "They could have gotten us easily today," Jordan said of the Knicks. Indeed, "we could not have played much worse," said Chicago guard Steve Kerr. Which brings us to the bad news: The Bulls won. Going away. Without trailing after the first few minutes. There was a one-day, half-price sale on Rolex watches, and New York still could not afford one.
In the stands, meanwhile, 24,394 Rod-maniacs, many of them waving tasteful signs that said things like DENNIS: MY MOM'S BRA FOR YOUR JERSEY, had to be reminded whose statue it is that stands outside the stadium. After all, Jordan scored his 44 despite suffering from lower-back spasms and twice removing himself from the game. ("No," he said afterward when asked if he was ever in pain. "Well...yeah") While Jordan was connecting, Chicago's Scottie Pippen, Ron Harper and Toni Kukoc couldn't have hit snow if they had fallen off a chairlift, shooting a combined 7 for 30. Their misfires helped New York run off 13 unanswered points to tie the game in the third quarter. "But they never gained full momentum by taking the lead," Jordan was quick to point out. "No matter what runs they made, we were still in control."
That's what's so maddening about these Bulls. At their near-worst, they may still be league-best. New York coach Jeff Van Gundy tried to cop several mea culpas for the loss, but surely Chicago's sheer talent had something to do with it. Likewise, John Starks ought to have been the Knick wearing MASON on his back, because he badly missed all nine of his shots from the floor. "I had no rhythm," explained the volatile guard, who looked every bit as atrocious as he did in Game 7 of the 1994 NBA Finals, when he famously went 2 for 18 against Houston and generally displayed less rhythm than Al Gore. But surely Starks's shooting had something to do with Ron Harper, who was on him like static cling all evening.
The Knicks at various times threw Starks, guards Derek Harper and Hubert Davis and forward Anthony Mason at Jordan. He ate them all alive, with fava beans and a nice Chianti, and still found a long spell in which to go ice cold on his outside shot. "Harper was tapping my elbow [during my shot]," Jordan insisted. "And the referees weren't looking at it." So he decided to start driving and have his way on the inside. A day that began with even mascot Benny the Bull wearing eyeliner and a feather boa ended with Jordan again the focus of the Second City.
Did someone say Second City? "The Bulls got too many seconds," Mason said afterward, fingering New York's biggest problem. "Too many second opportunities." This was a rich understatement. With 18 offensive rebounds, Chicago not only helped itself to more seconds than Rush Limbaugh at a Red Lobster buffet, but it did so with little help from rebounding-fool Rodman, who accounted for only three of the offensive boards. Which says that even when one man docs all their scoring, the Bulls remain deeper than Dostoevsky in other categories. "Sometimes you ride a horse all game," said Ron Harper, marveling at Jordan's 44 Magnum on Sunday evening. Agreed Pippen, "We kind of rode Michael's back today." Is it any wonder, then, that the man was having spasms?
Indeed, as Jordan was leaving the United Center on Sunday—on his way to receive his nightly treatment, funereally turned out in a black suit and somber tie, with security guards fanning out on his flanks—those Knicks who watched him recede down the tunnel were looking at their only remaining hope: Jordan's back.
Read another way, of course, they could take little comfort from that phrase. Jordan's back.