It was just a game, Bryon Russell said after all was said and dunked, but what went down in the Delta Center Wednesday night was more than that.
It was theater, revenge, traffic jams, entourages, leopard hair, world icons, groupies, media crushes, 20,000 people cheering themselves hoarse and star-struck fans waiting in the night by the back gate shouting Michael at a passing bus!The Bulls were back in town.
Eight months after they beat the Jazz in the NBA Finals, the Bulls returned to the scene of the crime, little realizing the trap that had been set for them. The Jazz, who are scheduled to see a therapist soon about that schizophrenia, rolled over and died for the Clippers the previous night. Then they played dead for the Bulls for a while, at one point trailing 41-17.
In other words, the Jazz had the Bulls right where they wanted them. They rallied for a 101-93 victory behind the play of John Stockton and Chris "Nobody Talks To Me" Morris, back for another guest appearance from the end of the bench.
OK, it was exactly 225 days too late, and the Bulls are unraveling faster than Clinton's White House, but nobody cared. The Bulls are the Bulls. Beat them and you can tell your grandkids about it. The Jazz became the first Western Conference team in three years to sweep the Bulls, whom they defeated 10 days earlier in Chicago.
The season is just half finished, but you wouldn't have known it to be in the Delta Center Wednesday. A playoff-size national media contingent, with representatives from as far away as Japan and New York, showed up for the game, as well as an SRO crowd. Such is life for the Bulls.
They are event wherever they go, all the more so when they are matched against the league's other aging giant. The Bulls are a pop phenomenon, largely because of Michael Jordan, Greatest Player Ever and arguably the most famous man in the world.
David Halberstam, the Pulitzer-winning author who is following the team to write a book about Jordan, noted, "I covered John Kennedy, I covered Robert Kennedy, I covered Martin Luther King, and I never saw fame like this. It's crazy."
Hundreds of people gather at hotels and airports and the back doors of arenas for a glimpse of Jordan. Even opposing players have been known to ask for his autograph, and once a woman lay under the Bulls' bus and refused to move until Jordan gave her his signature.
The Bulls travel with six security guards, and four of them are for Jordan. And still he is a prisoner of his fame. He spent all of Wednesday holed up in his hotel room at the Marriott, as usual, to stay far from the madding crowd. Sometimes he kills time playing solitaire on his laptop, which seems appropriate. Imagine that every time you left your room you had to contact body guards and plan your escape with hotel officials. This is a man who, when it came time to do his Christmas shopping two months ago, obtained permission to shop in a Chicago department store after hours.
"Every day is like a movie premiere," says Kent McDill, who has covered the Bulls for a decade for the Daily Herald. "We may never again see anyone as famous as Michael. People say it's like the Beatles. I'm sure it's worse."
He has so much fame that there's enough to go around for everybody. Teammates Bill Wennington and Jud Buechler went to Crossroads Plaza for lunch and created a mob scene. Wennington and Buechler?
Jordan is so revered that when he decided to shave his head, an entire generation of black men did the same, never mind that Jordan did it because he is bald on top anyway. When Jordan decided to wear baggy shorts so he could wear his lucky North Carolina trunks under them, an entire generation of youth followed.
Jordan is a slice of Americana, a legend on display. Seeing him play is like seeing Babe Ruth bat, Muhammad Ali box or Joe Montana pass. Even the jaded media are moved. Watching Jordan play Wednesday, one reporter marveled, "He's the only guy the media should pay to see."
Who knows how long we'll have the privilege. New cracks are turning up in the Bulls' armor almost daily. The losses come with more frequency, as do injuries and bickering. Scottie Pippen, who has been sidelined by injury much of the season, exited Wednesday's game early with a bum knee, and Toni Kukoc didn't dress because of a bad back. Earlier in the day, Bulls general manager Jerry Krause said again that he won't rehire coach Phil Jackson next season, and Jordan vowed again that he will retire in that event.
If that's the case, Jordan might have played his final game in Salt Lake City. Tell the grandkids, if you were there.