Michael Jordan has earned the right to script his own exit. If he wants to ride into the sunset with Scottie Pippen dribbling shotgun, it ought to be his call.
The Chicago Bulls owe him that much, and more. They pretty much owe him everything.
Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, sadly, is not too big on sentiment. The man who masterminded the murder of the World Series in 1994 now seems bent on breaking up basketball's reigning dynasty. He fears the Bulls might grow old ungracefully; that they will hit the skids upon Jordan's retirement and become what became of the Boston Celtics.
Reinsdorf wants to build one of those bridges to the 21st century - "a seamless transition" from one championship nucleus to another - but he doesn't think he can get there with the materials at hand. That's why the Bulls were shopping Pippen before and during Wednesday's NBA Draft, and why they may yet move him.
Though Pippen was still with Chicago late Wednesday, the Bulls were actively talking trade, notably exploring an exchange that could have brought them Boston's two first-round draft choices.
Consideration of age
Since Pippen will be 32 years old at the time of his next tipoff, and is also one year away from free agency, the Bulls are obliged to consider a pre-emptive move now. But it probably makes more sense to let this team run its course, to indulge Jordan's desire to seek a sixth NBA championship, to learn the lesson of the 1976 Reds.
"If I was asked, I would not trade Pippen," Bob Howsam said Wednesday. "I think he's an outstanding ballplayer, and they're too hard to come by."
Twenty-one years since he began dismantling his Big Red Machine, Howsam suspects he was too hasty. He thinks he may have squandered a strong chance at a third straight World Championship when he traded Tony Perez to Montreal. He would hope Reinsdorf does not repeat that mistake.
"When you're in the position to win, I would say I wouldn't do that again," Howsam said. "I feel reasonably sure in my own mind that if we had kept both of the players (Perez and Dan Driessen), we would have gone on to win.
"I let my heart rather than my head decide what I thought was right for Tony Perez. What I should have done, frankly, is I should have said to Tony and Driessen, 'You guys have to fight it out.' "
Branch Rickey's famous bromide was that it was better to trade a player a year too early than a year too late, and this cold-hearted calculation has become standard operating procedure in professional sports. Yet it is sometimes smarter to keep championship clubs intact.
Don't go breakin' my heart
For every example of a great team that stayed together too long - the Larry Bird Celtics, the Alan Trammell Tigers, the Brian Wilson Beach Boys - there are cautionary tales of championship squads scattered too soon.
Consider what the Oakland A's might have achieved in the 1970s had Charlie Finley the means to keep his key players. Ponder the potential of the Edmonton Oilers had Wayne Gretzky stayed put. Imagine the Beatles, without Yoko.
"I remember when the Dodgers traded (Steve) Garvey," Howsam said. "At that time, I felt if I could have I would have called Peter O'Malley and said, 'Don't let him get away.'
"Sometimes, you have to bite the bullet. You have to make up your mind about whether you are going for the downs again, or whether you're going to rebuild. A lot depends on your fans, and how well they'll stick with you."
So long as Jordan is involved, Jerry Reinsdorf can be assured the Bulls will play to sellout crowds. His challenge is to develop a product that will be profitable when this dynasty is done.
Trading Pippen would probably make the Bulls' post-Jordan decline less dramatic, though Jordan hints it could hasten his retirement. Keeping Pippen, of course, would likely lead to at least one more title.
It's a tough decision, but titles are so hard to come by in team sports that Reinsdorf is advised to seek another solution. He might start his renovations by dumping Dennis Rodman.
"I wouldn't have Rodman play on my team," Bob Howsam said, "if he played for free."