Vulnerable Bulls make better story

Saturday, May 30, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

INDIANAPOLIS -- Superman's cape is slightly frayed. His X-ray vision requires corrective lenses. He can still leap tall buildings in a single bound, but not every night. Not anymore.

Sometimes, when he slips into a phone booth, Clark Kent is just looking for a place to sit down. Sometimes, the Man of Steel wonders if he's getting soft.

So it is for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, the reigning superheroes of professional basketball. When the planets are properly aligned, and the right mood strikes them, the Bulls are still the toughest customers in the shopping mall. Other nights, they creak and complain, a tired old team going through the motions of majesty.

Friday night, the Indiana Pacers forced a seventh game in the NBA's Eastern Conference Championship with a 92-89 victory over the Bulls, and Jordan did nearly nothing right down the stretch. Time and again, Chicago turned to its immortal shooting guard in search of a critical basket, and the legend kept on missing.

Two points down with eight seconds to play, Jordan attempted to drive to the basket and stumbled to the floor under the defensive pressure of Derrick McKey. The ball bounced to the Pacers. The series was squared.

Their finest hour?

The Bulls are nearing the end of a remarkable run, more vulnerable than they once were, but also more interesting. They are being tested this spring rather than just toasted, pushed toward limits that have gradually diminished. We remember their greatness. We are now bearing witness to their grit.

Friday, there was not enough of it.

The Bulls had been wonderful Wednesday, rising to the challenge of the presumptuous Pacers with a basketball clinic. But now their purported last hurrah is in real peril. Even if the Bulls should subdue the Pacers on Sunday night, they would advance to the NBA Finals a weary team facing a home-court disadvantage. If they are to win a sixth title, they are going to have to earn it.

"We haven't been put in this position in a long time," Jordan said before Friday's game. "This is good for us. It forces us to focus."

Focus has been hard to find for the Bulls this season. During one midseason film session, coach Phil Jackson paused upon video proof of a Luc Longley mistake to observe, "Everybody makes mistakes. And I made one coming back here with this team this year."

Jordan added the amen: "Me, too," he said.

Must adapt more

Yet for all of Scottie Pippen's pouting, for all of Dennis Rodman's boredom, for all the creative tension between Jackson and General Manager Jerry Krause, the Bulls are still capable of brilliance. Their 106-87 drubbing of the Pacers Wednesday night was a testament to enduring talent and aroused passion. It was as if, for one evening, the Bulls were determined to remind us of who they are and what they're really about.

It was like watching the last of Lombardi's Packers, running textbook sweeps on ancient ankles, or seeing Sinatra capture a mood after he had lost his range. The Bulls are slipping -- there can be no question of that -- but they continue to cling to their pedestal because it is where they believe they belong.

Jordan remains the best player in the game, but the gap is not as great as it once was. What makes the Bulls so compelling now is that they must adapt to being slightly less awesome. Intimidation has given way to improvisation.

"This is not the old Bulls," Jordan cautioned. "We're a different team in some respects. The nucleus is similar, but we still have players who are making adjustments to dealing with success, to dealing with the things we have to deal with."

Superman gets no sympathy, but he also gets no younger. The Bulls' time is now, and there may not be much of it left. Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him.