Bulls should bow out while they're on top

Saturday, April 25, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Michael Jordan slams in overtime Friday against the Nets.
(AP photo)
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The Last Dance should be a waltz. The Chicago Bulls can name the tune in these NBA playoffs, and they can pretty much pick the score. If they are bound for a breakup, it will not be because they have grown stale together, but because their differences can no longer be readily reconciled.

Though they needed overtime to dispatch the New Jersey Nets 93-93 on Friday night, the Bulls are still the best basketball team going. This doesn't mean they are still compatible. They are about where the Beatles were after the arrival of Yoko Ono: tired and cranky, but ineffably brilliant.

Let it be.

Much as we might want to watch Michael Jordan leave the court on his own terms, circumstances have spun out of his control. It is increasingly inconceivable that the Bulls can be reunited for another run next season. We should enjoy them while they last.

Scottie Pippen, who has spent a career in Jordan's shadow, appears determined to start over somewhere else. He is a free agent at season's end, and a perpetually unhappy camper.

Phil Jackson, who has coached the Bulls to five championships, is also at the end of his contract and endlessly at odds with General Manager Jerry Krause. His agent, Todd Musburger, accuses Krause of plotting the "willful destruction" of the team.

Burning bridges

Jordan himself has reached a compensation level ($33.14 million) that leaves the Bulls virtually no latitude under the NBA's salary cap. If he chooses to play another season in Chicago, it will either be at a radically reduced salary or with a severely compromised supporting cast.

"It's a complex salary-cap issue," Krause told the Chicago Tribune. "The key part is obviously Michael. When the time comes, we'll sit down and talk about it and figure out what to do. I don't think we can make that decision until it's presented to us. He could make it ugly."

The Bulls' breakup is way past ugly already. Jordan has said he won't be back without Jackson and Krause has said Jackson won't be back, period. Jordan, decidedly inexpert about baseball, thinks Krause should be reassigned to the White Sox. Jackson complains Krause "is pretty unskilled" socially. Krause continues to claim, "there is no back-stabbing going on."

If there is no back-stabbing going on with the Bulls, it is only because the parties prefer to plunge their knives into each other's chests. Not since George Steinbrenner employed both Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson has a championship team created so much collateral turmoil.

"During the course of the year, there have been some burned bridges and I don't know if they're repairable," Jordan said Thursday. "That's something that has to be talked about at the end of the season when hopefully everybody's in a jovial mood and willing to take back some of the things that they have said and sacrifice to some degree."

Best years behind them

Jordan's best-case scenario is that a sixth championship would put everyone back on the same page, and enable the Bulls to chase No. 7. The flaw in his premise is that while common goals can create common ground, players and management are inherently at odds.

Athletes live for the moment, acutely aware of the short span of their careers. The front office, meanwhile, is obliged to take a longer view. Even if Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf could afford to keep the same team on the floor for another season, doing so would exacerbate the transition to a younger team.

Jordan is 35. Pippen is 32. Dennis Rodman will turn 37 next month, but that's just his years, not his mileage. Clearly, the point of diminishing returns grows closer in Chicago. The difficulty is in deciding when this team will be tapped out, and how drastically to dismantle it.

Jordan's hope is that a sixth title would delay that decision, but the prevailing sense is that this Last Dance is already choreographed, and all that remains is the footwork.

The Bulls are where the Beatles were when they last performed on the roof at Apple Records. If they continue to tour, they become the Beach Boys.

NBA playoff coverage from Associated Press