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They are the insignificant others of the NBA, these Chicago Bull teammates of Michael Jordan's. Their problem is not one of anonymity, but of being too much in the reflected glare of Jordan's greatness. They are never able, it seems, to measure up, to sufficiently aid and abet the game's most talented player. If the Bulls win, it's because Jordan was great. If the Bulls lose, it's because Jordan's teammates were deficient, and Jordan was still great.
Sometimes the criticism of the Jordanaries, as they've come to be called, is overt. "Trade Michael Jordan, and what do they have?" the Indiana Pacers' Reggie Miller said earlier this season. "Nothing." And sometimes it's more subtle. "It's a unique situation," says Chicago guard John Paxson. "You have a player who can take over a game like nobody ever, yet you have one who can get everyone involved. It's great to have a teammate like that. But try living up to it."
Jordan knows his teammates' lot can be difficult. "They're in an awkward situation," he says. "So much pressure has been placed upon them for being the reason we haven't gotten to the championship. They're thought of as being the, uh, missing links."
A good way to put it. But consider this: If the Jordanaries can be held responsible for Chicago's recent postseason failures, won't they deserve a major share of the credit if the Bulls finally get to the Finals, or even win a championship?
And this could be the year. After sweeping their first-round opponent, the New York Knicks, in three games, the Bulls took a 3-1 lead in their second-round Eastern Conference series with a 101-85 victory over the 76ers in Philadelphia on Sunday. Most of the Jordanaries showed up, especially power forward Horace Grant, who had 22 points and 11 rebounds, and versatile swingman Scottie Pippen (20 points, nine rebounds, five assists). As for Jordan, well, he was merely his spectacular self. After scoring 46 points—in spite of tendinitis in his left knee—in a 99-97 Game 3 loss last Friday night, he added 25 and played excellent defense on the Sixers' Hersey Hawkins, who struggled for 15 points on 3-for-8 shooting in Sunday's win.
The Bulls were in a position to wrap up the series in Chicago on Tuesday, and the Sixers' Charles Barkley all but conceded that in a rambling 45-minute discourse on Sunday. Barkley's main theme, in fact, was next season, specifically whether or not he would be in a Philadelphia uniform. "I have made my decision about leaving, but I won't tell you guys what it is until the season is over," said Sir Charles, who, when he wasn't scoring some of his 25 points or grabbing one of his 14 rebounds, spent most of Sunday's game glaring at teammates—particularly at reluctant-to-rebound, reluctant-to-pass power forward Armon Gilliam, who scored just eight points—and slapping his shaved head in frustration.
Exactly why Barkley perceives that he is the master of his destiny when he still has four years remaining on a long-term contract with one of the most intractable owners in sports, Harold Katz, is not clear. But Barkley feels, and logic backs him up, that the 76ers, as constituted, have gone as far as they are going to go without off-season personnel surgery, be it cosmetic or major.
The Bulls, by contrast, are potentially a championship team. But that's not saying anything new, is it? Their well-chronicled postseason frustrations against the Detroit Pistons over the last three years have turned the Jordanaries into one collective footnote, not to mention one collective nerve ending. They know it. Jordan knows it.
The burden falls most weightily on Pippen, who most closely resembles Jordan in style and talent, and who has most glaringly fallen short of the Jordan standard in past postseason play. Pippen is uncomfortable talking about the difficulties of Life with Michael, but he appreciates—how could he not?—the cold fact that the deeper the Bulls get into the playoffs, the more the basketball world will be looking to compare and contrast his performance with Jordan's.
The 28-year-old Jordan, for his part, views Pippen, 25, rather like a younger brother. Jordan desperately wants Pippen to do well and is deeply disappointed when he does not. Pippen is surely the only one of Jordan's teammates who can fully engage Jordan's considerable competitive instincts, and the only one with enough ability to actually challenge Jordan. One of Pippen's fondest desires is to get more steals than Jordan in a regular season—this year he fell short, 223-193. "Yeah, but the official scorers cheat for him in Chicago," says Pippen with a smile.