All the pieces fall in place — again; obstacles couldn’t prevent 5th title

Read the Sun-Times’ original story from the night that the Bulls beat the Jazz for their fifth championship.

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Michael Jordan goes to the hoop while guarded by Karl Malone during the 1997 NBA Finals.

Beth A. Keiser/AP Photo

Originally published June 16, 1997.

The drive for five?

Done.

The coronation of the Bulls ofJordan, Jackson and Pippen as one of basketball’s all-time greatest contingents, now without question worthy of mention in the same clauses and pauses with the original New York Rens, the Russell-Auerbach Boston Celtics and the great UCLA championship teams of the John Wooden era?

Done, officially, later today in Grant Park.

A sometimes joyless, often tense, eight-month cruise on seas of change, distraction, loathing and uncertainty, never really tranquilized or finalized until Friday night’s title-clinching 90-86 win over the Utah Jazz at the United Center.

Done, thankfully, at least for a little while now. The respite of champions.

And then?

”I have some very hard decisions to make,” Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said as the Bulls’ fifth world championship came around.

”The only thing I know for sure is that when I make those decisions, they are going to be the decisions that are in the best interests of our fans.”

Those best interests were well-served indeed this season by a team that was so good it seemed to lope to a 69-13 regular-season record - the second-best in league history - and then never even seemed to hit high gear as it rock-and-rolled through the playoffs, going 15-4.

That postseason path - through Washington, Atlanta, Miami and Utah - apparently underwhelmed some segments of a fandom that was hoping, in part, for challenges from some of the NBA’s more Turn to Page 2

historic glitterati, organizations such as Detroit, New York, Houston or the Los Angeles Lakers.

Instead, the Bulls took a route that seemed closer to the Hoboken-Kalamazoo-Minot-Spokane line. But the result was the same: a fifth title in the ‘90s.

”I’m sorry if people are unhappy because things weren’t more dramatic,” Scottie Pippen said in a semi-private moment as the season reached its culmination.

”We accomplished what we set out to do.”

Ironically, among the 28 opponents and 101 games, it was the Jazz of Jerry Sloan and Karl Malone that emerged as the Bulls’ periodic standard of measure throughout the campaign.

After Jackson and Co. opened the season with a torrid 12-0 blast - including road wins at Miami, Detroit, Charlotte and Phoenix - they strode into Salt Lake City for a Saturday night of Delta Center dawning just before Thanksgiving.

With John Stockton near-flawless in his crunch-time orchestration of the Utah timepiece offense, the Bulls shot a mountain-dry 21 percent from the floor in the fourth quarter and were dealt their first loss of the year, 105-100.

Six weeks - and 16 Chicago victories - later, Utah came calling at the United Center, this time to face a Bulls team now 28-4. On a night whenJordan’s offense was sporadic, Pippen scored 24 points in a 102-89 win.

”I would not be surprised,” a prescient Jackson said at the time, “if we haven’t seen the last of the Jazz this season.”

That bit of psychic-friending came true almost a full five months later in the NBA Finals. And while Stockton and Malone got it together long enough to emphatically win Games 3 and 4 in the shadow of Temple Square, it was theflu-riddenJordan’s unbelievable heroics (38 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three steals) in the serve-breakingGame5, the Bulls’ 90-88 win at the Delta Center, that set the concluding tone for the series.

”He’s not going to let them lose,” Sloan said of the other greatest backcourtman in Bulls history, a fact thatJordanconfirmed with his performance in his team’sGame6 close-out in the Finals on Friday.

That the greatJordanwould not let his Bulls lose for any extended period (they never lost more than two in a row all season) or at any critical moment seemed to be one of the few constants on a team that endured enough crises of various hue and cry to destroy lesser groups.

Without question, the No.1distraction on the Bulls was the debasing antics of Dennis Rodman, a panic acquisition two seasons ago by Reinsdorf and Krause, who were left short at power forward when Horace Grant signed with Orlando after the 1993-94 season.

Rodman, whether it was using the big F during a postgame TV interview in December (beamed live into more than 200,000 Chicago homes), kicking a cameraman in Minneapolis a month later or gratuitously insulting Mormons everywhere last week, displayed an unfailing knack for bringing the proceedings down.

”If you don’t like it, bro’, you can kiss my ---,” Rodman told one reporter after a midseasongame, a statement of gross self-absorption that typified a stale, ungrateful attitude towards his unlikely presence on an amazing basketball team.

In the end, the Worm started just 54 games, played onegameoff the bench and missed 27 contests, primarily through various team and league suspensions. During the postseason, he was even less of a contributor; hampered by tight refereeing and 13 straight games with technical fouls, Rodman had only two double-digit rebounding games in 19 contests.

If Rodman’s conduct can be disassociated from the team, the 1996-97 on-court Bulls become a thing of wonder, a unit that somehow managed to keep ticking despite other lickings, such as Luc Longley’s 22 missed games in December and January with a separated shoulder suffered body-surfing during an off-day on a West Coast road trip; late-season injuries to Toni Kukoc and Bill Wennington that forced more lineup juggling and an air of uncertainty over the futures of Jackson,Jordanand Pippen with the team that continue to this day.

”Things happened that were beyond our control,”Jordanreflected. “But that didn’t prevent us from taking care of business on the basketball court.”

It certainly didn’t, as evidenced by the Bulls’ records by month: 15-1in November, 12-3 in December, 13-1in January, 10-2 in February, 12-2 in March and 7-4 in April. And it was only an uncharacteristic three losses in the team’s final four games - setbacks at Detroit and Miami and at home against the supercharged New York Knicks - that prevented the Bulls from a second straight 70-win season.

In the playoffs, many expected the Bulls to have trouble with any opponent who boasted a top point guard. As if on cue, a succession of series appeared against no less than Rod Strickland and the Washington Bullets, Mookie Blaylock and the Atlanta Hawks, Tim Hardaway and the Miami Heat and Stockton and the Utah Jazz.

Then, also as if on cue,Jordanand ‘mates made mid-series adjustments in each set, sweeping the Washington Bullets 3-0; briefly panicking the populace with aGame2 loss at home to Atlanta before ousting the Hawks 4-1; almost sweeping the Heat (losing onlyGame4 in Miami) in winning 4-1; and then capping the title run with a 4-2 streak of two home wins, two losses at Utah, a win at the Delta Center and an ending victory in front of the home fans.

Individually, as always,Jordanled the way, capping his fourth quarter-oriented postseason performance with his selection as most valuable player of the Finals. During the regular season, he was one of three Bulls to play in all 82 games (Pippen and Steve Kerr were the others) and won his ninth NBA scoring title with a 29.6 average. Rumors now abound that his one-year, $30 million deal (a contract that ended withGame6 of the Finals) may be upgraded by as much as 20 percent (an addition al $6 million) if Reinsdorf decides to bring back his head coach-twin stars nucleus for another title run.

Pippen was named an Eastern Conference starter in the All-StarGameand also wound up leading the Bulls in assists (5.7 pergame) and steals (1.88 pergame). He trailedJordanin scoring, finishing 17th in the NBA with a 20.2 average per-game. And while his shooting (44 percent) went somewhat south in the playoffs, his quiet all-courtgame, including occasional defensive matchups ranging against practically all sizes from Blaylock to Miami’s Alonzo Mourning, had some putting forth his name as a candidate for postseason MVP.

Beyond the Bulls’ most-publicized three, starters Ron Harper and Longley battled through spotty postseasons. Harper, who started 74 regular-season and all postseason games, played through a list of minor maladies, shining as the key to the Bulls’ clawing perimeter defense. Longley’s execution of the triangle offense made it a potent option for the Bulls through the first three quarters of most games while his heady shot selection, albeit sporadic, provided boons to the team at various time s during the playoffs. It was Longley’s late jam at Utah inGame5 that clinched the Bulls’ 90-88 win in the series’ most importantgame.

Kukoc played a heroic postseason, one in which his utility was diminished by residual pain from the foot problems that forced him to miss 17 games during the season’s final two months. Though limited in his ability to plant and cut, Kukoc’s long-range gunnery gave the Bulls timely lifts in the playoffs, most notably inGame5 vs. the Jazz. His three treys, including a fourth-quarter bomb, helped give the Bulls the striking position they needed to set upJordan’s heroics.

Kerr’s talents as an outside shooter and stabilizing agent on an array of patchwork and primary units were vital to the team throughout the 101-gameschedule. In the Finals, he also came to the fore with a tremendous defensive effort against Stockton during the final 15 minutes ofGame5, a span when the Bulls wiped out the final vestiges of a 16-point Utah lead. Though his shooting ran hot and cold in the postseason, he remained a key sub in Jackson’s tightest rotation.

Despite seven-figure overtures from other teams, including the Jazz, Brian Williams signed with the Bulls for a pro-rated minimum on April 2. Although his working knowledge of the triangle appeared somewhat incomplete to the very end, no one could question that the burly power forward provided a well-timed aggressive inside offensive presence. While his asking price for his services may not have skyrocketed because of his late-season cameo, few can doubt that Williams got two things - a championship ring and much valuable exposure - as he prepares to return to the higher-priced free-agent pool.

Jason Caffey had perhaps the oddest season of any of the non-Rodman Bulls. He started 19 regular-season and five postseason games, almost all because of suspension or some sort of problem accruing to Rodman, but by the time of the Finals, Caffey had all but disappeared from Jackson’s rotation. Observers noted thatJordanin particular seemed to become energized by Caffey’s presence in the lineup, and Krause continues to insist that he is a part of the Bulls’ future.

Chicago-bred Randy Brown and southern California-spawned Jud Buechler were spot subs for the Bulls throughout the full campaign. Brown maintained his great quickness, defensive instincts and apparently unmanageable tendency to outrun the offensive set. Buechler got high points for his hustle and energizing capabilities.

Farther down on the bench was the great veteran Robert Parish, selected as one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players of All Time and then practically a non-citizen during the playoffs. But at least he dressed, which is more than can be said for the injured Wennington, Dickey Simpkins or Mittyesque late-season add-on Matt Steigenga, who called the Berto Center trying to get tickets for a late-seasongameand wound up signing and playing off the bench in two late-season contests.

All in all, nothing stranger than the whole, which was basically very strange in an odd season for the Bulls.

And as we shall see among the multitudes at Grant Park today, forJordan, Jackson, Pippen and the rest, another championship mission accomplished.

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