The NBA should write B.B. King a nice royalty check, because one of his hits is the theme song for this season. The Thrill Is Gone, baby, and it's been gone for quite a while, probably since Michael Jordan laced 'em up in training camp. Seven weeks remain in the regular season, but is there any reason the engravers should not get started on the championship trophy right now? Does anyone envision a scenario (other than an injury to Jordan) in which the Chicago Bulls—50-7 at week's end, seven games better than their nearest competitors, the Detroit Pistons—do not breeze to their second straight title and their fifth of this decade? "When the Bulls are ready to hang it up," Detroit coach Doug Collins said a few weeks ago, "we just want to be ready to take over for them." There's a pep talk right out of Rockne, huh?
But Collins is only giving voice to what logical minds concluded some time ago. This NBA season has been tailor-made for narcoleptics: Fall asleep, and you won't miss a thing. In a way, the Bulls' cold blooded efficiency has worked against them. While their effort to break the record for regular-season wins was big news last year—they succeeded with a 72-10 mark—the fact that it took them only one more game this season to reach 50 wins has largely been overlooked. There was more excitement, more juice, connected to the Chicago crusade of 1995-96. It was Jordan's first complete season after almost two years away, and fans were eager to see if he was still the game's best player. (He was.) It was Dennis Rodman's first season with the Bulls, and fans were curious to see if he would be a cross-dressing virus that would kill the team. (He wasn't.) And there was belief in some quarters that the NBA's young up-and-comers, the Orlando Magic in the East and the Seattle SuperSonics in the West, had the guns to stop Chicago in the playoffs. (They didn't.)
There is none of that now, and the lack of a team strong enough to challenge the Bulls is particularly disheartening for the league. Even when the Boston Celtics were stringing together 11 championships in 13 seasons between 1957 and '69, there was always a threat in the shadows—Bob Pettit's St. Louis Hawks or Wilt Chamberlain's Philadelphia Warriors and 76ers. No one's lurking this year. Chicago isn't significantly better than it was last season, yet the gap between the Bulls and everyone else seems wider. Seattle is running in place. Shaquille O'Neal's move to the Los Angeles Lakers broke up the Magic. All that seems to stand between the Houston Rockets and mediocrity is one more injury to Charles Barkley. The New York Knicks have several new faces but are still the good-but-not-good-enough Knicks of past seasons. Perhaps the Lakers or the Miami Heat would look more dangerous if not for injuries to their respective mainstays, O'Neal and Alonzo Mourning.
At this checkpoint, then, the most intriguing question seems to be, Is Chicago's supremacy good or bad for the NBA?
Beyond that, one wonders what will happen when the Bulls are dominant no more, when Jordan takes to the links permanently and coach Phil Jackson goes off to compose haiku on a mountain in Montana. Jordan, 34, and Jackson have committed to at least one more season, and Scottie Pippen, 31, is in the next-to-last year of his contract. Barring an unforeseen turn of events, they will all be back next year, and Rodman says he wants to stay in the cast of Chicago too. But after that? Can anybody really imagine the league without its red-and-black showpiece?
Anyone who doesn't think today's NBA is primarily a Bulls market probably thinks Jordan is still playing outfield for the Birmingham Barons. "People look at the Bulls like they look at a historical landmark," says that noted historian Rodman. Don't laugh. So utterly has Chicago bulldozed opponents that it's like the Statue of Liberty: No one can muster antipathy toward it.
"They're a class act," Phoenix Suns forward Mark Bryant says of the Bulls. "People love the way these guys handle themselves." Never in NBA history—perhaps never in sports history—have popularity and dominance so spectacularly coalesced.
"People certainly didn't have the love fest with us that they have with Jordan and Chicago," says K.C. Jones, a member of the Celtics dynasty of the '60s. In the '80s Boston and L.A. were both popular and successful, but they had to share the affection. As for the lead-dog franchise that followed them...well, as erstwhile Detroit Bad Boy Rodman says, "When I was with the Pistons, we were hated everywhere we went. I don't think the Bulls are disliked anywhere in the world."
Not even in Cleveland, where anti-Bulls vitriol, directed primarily at longtime Cavaliers tormentor Jordan, used to run deep. Cleveland fan Joe Morford, a lawyer from suburban Shaker Heights, took in the introductions before the Bulls-Cavs game on Feb. 27 at Gund Arena and shook his head. "Jordan got a bigger hand than any of the Cleveland starters, even [All-Star guard Terrell] Brandon," said Morford.
After the Cavs pulled off a 73-70 upset, Brandon was philosophical about Bull-mania. "It's a problem when the home fans cheer for the opposing team," he said. "But there are a lot of part-time fans who just want to see the Bulls."