Dave Figliulo was realistic. When Figliulo, co-owner of a Chicago consulting firm, plopped down $1,800 a game to buy his four courtside season tickets at the United Center, he knew he wouldn't be witnessing a Bulls team led by Michael Jordan that would contend for a seventh NBA tide. Still, Figliulo, a season-ticket holder since 1987, had little idea that he'd be paying mightily for the privilege of watching the league's worst team. "I'm a lifetime Bulls fan and a big NBA fan, so I thought it would be worth it," he said, pausing to grimace as a starting forward named Kornel David missed an uncontested layup during a 101-95 loss to the Dallas Mavericks last Thursday. "But let's just say I've already written this season off."
So, it seems, have the Bulls themselves. The hegemonic professional sports franchise of the '90s, Chicago is closing out the decade in blazing ignominy. The Bulls won 11 games in 1995-96; they could lose that many this season. After bowing to the Milwaukee Bucks 92-91 at home last Saturday for its ninth loss in a row, Chicago stood at 1-14. Not since the Romanovs has a dynasty fallen so precipitously. Asked how he felt rejoining the team that drafted him, center Will Perdue responded with a laugh: "You mean the Destructa-Bulls?"
Destructa-Bulls, Unwatcha-Bulls, Abomina-Bulls. Whatever the case, it's impossible to exaggerate just how horrendous Chicago has become. True, forward Toni Kukoc, the team's best player, has appeared in only four games on account of back spasms. But even with Kukoc the Bulls are no more than a ragtag consortium of clueless rookies, European league projects and veterans playing on legs slower than rush hour on the Dan Ryan. Chicago's weaknesses are too numerous to catalog here, but among them:
?None of the Bulls are dangerous enough to draw a double-team, thus almost every shot they take is contested.
?The team is softer than pashmina. On Nov. 27, the Bulls played an entire half against Dallas without drawing a shooting foul.
?The 34-year-old Perdue, general manager Jerry Krause's most noteworthy free-agent pickup last summer, will earn more than $5 million this season. He was contributing just 3.1 points and 3.3 rebounds per game at week's end.
?Despite his legion of one-dimensional players, coach Tim Floyd is still wed to the triangle offense. The triple-post set was ideal when players like Jordan and Scottie Pippen (page 80) could swing between the blocks and the perimeter and create when the shot clock wound down. Now, time and again, Chicago reserves can be heard screaming, "Red zone! Red zone!" while a teammate heaves off-balance slop to beat the buzzer.
To make matters worse, opponents are showing no mercy in paying back the onetime dynasty. "A lot of teams don't see the Bulls as a lot of rookies playing hard," says Mavericks forward Cedric Ceballos. "They just see the red, white and black uniform and get motivation from that."
Yet for all the pain the players are enduring on the court and the fans have been suffering in the stands, there has been no damage to Chicago's bottom line; in fact, to its 29 partners, the franchise might well be known as the Banka-Bulls. Much to the ill-concealed chagrin of chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, Chicago had the league's highest payroll in 1997-98, when it won its sixth title. The team disgorged nearly $62 million in salaries, including $36 million to Jordan alone, and turned a profit of $8.6 million. Since breaking up the champs, Reinsdorf has demonstrated the same fiscal conservatism (read: parsimony) that he practices as managing partner of baseball's Chicago White Sox. In lockout-shortened 1998-99, with only 25 home dates and no playoff income—but a vastly slashed, Jordan-less payroll—the franchise reportedly netted $20.4 million. This season, with 41 home dates and a payroll of around $25 million, which is $9 million under the salary cap, the Bulls will finish even more strongly in the black.
The team's favorable balance sheet is bolstered by unwavering fan support. Against the Bucks, Chicago ran its league-leading streak of home sellouts to 573 games, dating back to November 1987. Though 20% of the Bulls' 17,000 season-ticket holders failed to renew during the off-season, they were replaced from a waiting list that still includes more than 20,000 names. A particularly ingenious, if brazen, marketing campaign used ersatz Blues Brothers imploring Chicagoans not to be "fair-weather, front-running fans" and to support the team in this post-Jordan era. "We've been up-front with fans, telling them that rebuilding might be painful but it's part of the process," says Steve Schanwald, vice president of marketing. "They also know how valuable Bulls tickets have been."