Michael has left the building. So have Scottie, Dennis, Phil, Steve, Luc and anyone else who has gotten a whiff of the near future in Chicago's United Center. ¶ There'll be no four-peat—Jordan's retirement sealed that. Instead, this year's gelded Bulls ought to four-feit. NBC will feature Air Kukoc on its national game of the week zero times while the Lakers will appear 11 times, the league limit. When the champs open their title defense next week at Utah, not even TNT will televise the game. "We don't look at it as a rematch of the NBA Finals because of the complete overhaul of the Bulls," says a TNT spokesman.
Championship teams used to let their fans down more easily. Now we get the spectacle of a great club nuking itself before last season's champagne has gone flat. The Florida Marlins started the process: Owner Wayne Huizenga gutted the 1997 World Series winners, slashing the team's payroll from $52 million to $13 million and selling the club. Florida fans had barely stopped waving foam forefingers—We're No. 1!—when they had to switch digits to salute last year's 54-108 Marlins.
While no one should equate the Chicago dynasty with Florida's one-hit wonders, both fire sales are due to the same forces. One is economic. Huizenga, having spent so much to win and—he claims—still drowning in red ink, slammed his wallet shut. (Last week the under-new-management Marlins re-signed younger slugger Cliff Floyd to a four-year, $19 million contract, with an eye toward contending again in 2001 or '02.) Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who had no desire to bleed slowly through a long post-Jordan decline, has done the same. Reinsdorf opted for what may become the new-paradigm: stink for a few years and save up for another all-out run at the top. With the cost certainty provided by the NBA's new labor deal, he and general manager Jerry Krause can clear salary-cap space for future free agents and plot a resurgence that might begin as early as next season.
Another reason for championship seppuku is the all-or-nothing attitude that pervades modern sports. Bulls management is like Jordan: It figures anything less than total victory is tantamount to failure. Today's win-at-all-costs sportsmen would rather win once, stink for 10 years and win again than contend honorably, if ringlessly, year after year. Such a binge-purge approach makes for wild mood swings among fans.
Still, given the current costs of winning—clashing egos, burned-out coaches, rising salaries all around—the trend toward the instant self-nuking of title teams will probably accelerate. That's why there's no time to lose. Break up the Broncos today.