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Six Shooter
Phil Taylor
June 22, 1998
Saving his best for what may not be his last, the magnificent Michael Jordan coolly broke Utah's heart and led the Bulls to another title
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June 22, 1998

Six Shooter

Saving his best for what may not be his last, the magnificent Michael Jordan coolly broke Utah's heart and led the Bulls to another title

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Where does Pippen really stand? A multiyear contract offer from the Bulls would probably keep him in Chicago. Despite his animosity toward the front office, Pippen seems to want to stay with the team, which is understandable. "When you've given your blood, sweat and tears to a franchise, it can't be easy to leave," says Chicago guard Steve Kerr. Pippen has done that, and Game was a case in point. Suffering from a sore lower back as a result of taking charges in Game 3, Pippen received a cortisone shot last Saturday but still found himself in extreme pain during the first half on Sunday night. A dunk early in the game aggravated his injury, leading to spasms in his back and right leg, and after wincing each time he went up and down the court for seven minutes, he was forced to go to the locker room for treatment.

Pippen was in such pain that he couldn't lift his leg onto the training table in the locker room, and several members of the Bulls medical staff worked on him furiously during halftime, including massage therapist Brigitta Kintala, who pounded on his lower back until he felt well enough to start the second half. "We knew Scottie was hurting, and just his presence gave us a lift, offensively, defensively and emotionally," Jordan said.

Pippen wants to continue playing next to Jordan, and would probably say so more definitively if he weren't worried about weakening his bargaining position. His agent Jimmy Sexton says Pippen would not return without at least a three-year deal, but that merely may be a place to begin negotiations. A two-year contract for an average of roughly $10 million per year might very well be enough to convince Pippen (who this season earned a relatively paltry $2.8 million) to re-sign.

Jackson's situation is more complicated. A source close to him describes the Chicago coach as "a physical and emotional wreck," and says there is no chance that he will return for another season. Jackson has hip problems that will eventually require surgery, and his nine seasons as coach have been a drain on him and his family. He is more likely to take a year off than he is to return to the Bulls or to coach another team, though the Denver Nuggets, the Los Angeles Clippers and the Seattle SuperSonics will surely take a run at him. "I know what I feel like right now," he said the day before Game 5. "I feel I'd like to get away from the game for a while and step back and enjoy reflecting on this."

Jordan, meanwhile, has distanced himself from his early-season declaration that he wouldn't play for any coach but Jackson. It now appears that if Pippen returns, Jordan will, too, regardless of Jackson's decision. Jackson's family and friends will no doubt urge him to stick to his plan not to return to Chicago. They will try to convince him that he doesn't need another year of strained relations with Krause or of bizarre behavior by Rodman. But if Pippen and Jordan commit to returning, Jackson will surely be tempted to do the same.

Ironically, Rodman's chances of coming back to the Bulls may be more closely tied to Jackson's than Jordan's are. Some members of the Chicago organization feel it would be a major risk to bring the Wrestlemaniac back under any coach other than Jackson, who seems to have found the perfect bemused approach to dealing with Rodman's antics. When Rodman skipped practice on June 8 and appeared at a pro wrestling event at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Mich., that night, Jackson barely batted an eyelash. Two nights later at the United Center, Rodman contributed four crucial free throws and outstanding defense against Malone that propelled the Bulls to an 86-82 victory that gave them a 3-1 series lead.

Then came a slight stumble as Chicago, victimized by Malone's heroic 39-point performance, dropped Game 5 at home 83-81. Two nights later Jordan carried the Bulls to the tide in Game 6. Make no mistake, Jordan won the championship for Chicago. He had very little help on Sunday—Kukoc, who scored 15 points, was the only other Bull in double figures—and had he been even a touch less brilliant, Chicago would have faced the frightening prospect of a seventh game on Utah's home floor, with Pippen still at less than full effectiveness. Jordan rescued the Bulls, and now he asks only one thing: that enough of the team be kept intact for him to keep playing with a reasonable chance to successfully defend the title.

He may well get his wish. Despite Sunday night's nostalgic mood, there is still a strong possibility that these Bulls have a future together. As they celebrated on the bus after the game, with Jordan and Pippen sitting side by side, laughing and smoking stogies, it didn't feel as if the last dance was over. If you listened closely, you could still hear music playing.

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