Originally published June 16, 1998.
That’s how long this season has seemed to the Bulls.
Or close to it.
“It’s been a long and grueling season,” Michael Jordan said.
Starting off with a trip to Paris for the McDonald’s tournament, which helped supersize the season, and ending in familiar fashion.
A season that had Scottie Pippen missing the first 35 games because of foot surgery and Dennis Rodman behaving because of incentive clauses in his contract. A season of scoring supremacy from Jordan and soaring success from the Bulls.
That’s how long this season will be remembered.
Or close to it.
As long as people discuss the greatest sports dynasties, the 1998 Bulls will be a part of the conversation. The repeat of the three-peat and sixth title in eight seasons puts the Bulls on the front row in the team photo of the greatest dynasties.
No question about it.
The only question is whether this is the end. It’s a question that was asked and answered so many times in so many ways that no one knows. Not even today as the champions approach Grant Park for their annual rite of NBA might.
“The Last Dance,” coach Phil Jackson called the 1997-98 season in an effort to create a focus on the moment rather than the future_and with good reason.
Jackson signed a one-year, $6 million contract in late July after drawn-out, sniping negotiations and after Pippen had been dangled in pre-draft trade talks that left the Bulls’ forward looking forward to the last year of his contract.
“It would take wild horses to drag me back this time,” Jackson said on media day in October. “This is the final year. It’s time to start something different. This is the final year. I think it’s important we recognize it.
Jordan wasn’t horsing around when he said he would play for no coach other than Jackson. Even if he did change his stance as the season went on. And on. And on.
Vice president of basketball operations Jerry Krause said upon Jackson’s re-signing, “Beyond this contract, Phil agrees it’s better we part company. At the end of next season, there will be a new coach here.”
That’s not how long this team would survive.
Not even close to it.
But long enough. Through a regular season that produced a 62-20 record, tied with Finals opponent Utah for the best in the league. Through the playoffs that produced a sweep in the first round against New Jersey, a five-game series victory against Charlotte and a seven-game Eastern Conference title triumph against Indiana that showed the importance of winning home-court advantage.
Faced with not having the home edge in the Finals_because the Jazz had beaten the Bulls in both regular-season meetings_the Bulls lost the series opener in Salt Lake City.
Maybe Krause and owner Jerry Reinsdorf were right. Maybe the Bulls should have been broken up to avoid an age-old problem of growing old ungracefully. Maybe the season had taken its toll on the legs and bodies of old hands such as Jordan (35), Rodman (37) and Ron Harper (34).
The Bulls bounced back to steal Game 2 and bring the series back to the United Center tied 1-1. In Game 3, the Bulls took control, winning by a Finals-record 42 points and holding Utah to the lowest point total (54) in any NBA game since the introduction of the 24-second shot clock. A hard-fought, 86-82 victory in Game 4 put the Bulls on the brink of another title.
But no home team has won the middle three games of the league’s 2-3-2 format Finals, and the Bulls failed to clinch the crown in front of their fans, losing 83-81. So the Bulls won it the hard way in Game 6, overcoming Pippen’s bad back and a hostile crowd to prevail 87-86 on Finals MVP Jordan’s game-winning basket with 5.2 seconds remaining.
“It was a real difficult year this year,” Jackson said. “There’s no doubt about it. But on the other hand, it was very pleasurable because this is a very mature group of guys. They’ve been together for three years with the exception of a couple of guys. We’re very comfortable with each other. There’s no discord. There’s very rarely a time when I have to really discipline anybody with any kind of emotion or anger. You rarely have to crack the whip when you’re a coach in my stead.
“For our part, you barely take time to really work on execution. Or you’re working on details of the game_one go-through, two go-throughs. Maybe doing it three or four times and they’ve got it. They don’t have to be drilled and drilled and drilled. So it’s been an easy job coaching from that standpoint. Emotionally with this team, dealing with the other outside things . . .”
That has been another story.
In a season of stories and subplots involving conflict_resolved and otherwise_internal, infernal, eternal.
Pippen started the season by recuperating from surgery on his left foot. He missed the first 35 games. In his absence, Rodman became a presence_game after game. No head-butting, no kicking video camera operators, as he had done in seasons past. An inventive, incentive-laden contract helped keep Rodman on course and on the court for 80 games. Only when he had the flu for one game and another time when Jackson sent him home from New Jersey for missing a shootaround was Rodman the odd man out.
Harper also showed age is in your head, not your body. He played all 82 games for the first time since the 1991-92 season with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Center Luc Longley had his best season scoring (11.4 points per game) but missed the last 24 games of the regular season because of a bone bruise of the left knee. He sat out the New Jersey series before providing a playoff presence in the middle.
Toni Kukoc took a step forward when Krause traded Jason Caffey to Golden State in January for David Vaughn, who was waived two weeks later and replaced by Dickey Simpkins, whom the Bulls had traded in September to the Warrriors for Scott Burrell. Without Caffey to bulk up the front line, Jackson had little choice but to play Kukoc more.
After taking a while to become familiar with the Bulls’ triangle offense, Burrell provided some bench scoring (his 24-point fourth quarter in Denver on Feb. 2 being the best example). Steve Kerr remained the main three-point threat off the bench and survived a broken collarbone, courtesy of Derrick Coleman’s landing on him in January. Guard Randy Brown kept his role as the occasional stopper on defense against quick point guards. Jud Buechler, Bill Wennington and Simpkins were other familiar faces on the bench. The newcomers included veteran center Joe Kleine_who lost out in a numbers game for a playoff roster spot_first-round draft pick Keith Booth and Rusty LaRue, who might be Steve Kerr, the next generation.
And that next generation might be generated next season.
That’s how long the season looked as if it might be when the Bulls opened in Boston and lost 92-85 on Oct. 31.
“It’s just one (game), and to say we’re going to lose a lot of games is a little presumptuous,” Jordan said.
The prophetic one spoke a night later as the Bulls received their championship rings at their home opener.
“If we never win another, certainly we’ll win a sixth one,” Jordan told the crowd.
All this after Pippen, dressed in street clothes, had told the fans: “I’ve had a wonderful career here. If I never have the opportunity to say this again: Thank you.”
Sounded like a man who might not be coming back.
Especially after his comments Nov. 23 at halftime of a road victory in Sacramento: “I want to be traded,” he said.
So he wouldn’t be back in December or early January?
“I ain’t coming back.”
He came back.
His Jan. 10 return at home against Golden State followed two of the season’s more unusual happenings less than two weeks before:
On Dec. 29, the Mavericks’ Bubba Wells fouled out in an NBA-record three minutes as Rodman made 9 of 11 free throws in a 111-105 victory.
“At least it was a plan,” Mavs coach Don Nelson said.
The next night, the Bulls lost to the Timberwolves in Minneapolis after a prank call that reached Jordan at halftime said his mother was in the hospital.
Once the Bulls figured out how to use call waiting, the season became a case of waiting for the playoffs to begin. And waiting to see whether the team would unravel as speculation spiraled about next season.
Even when the Jazz beat the Bulls 101-94 on Super Bowl Sunday, Utah guard John Stockton said, “We’re grateful for the victory. But does that mean when you come in here in the playoffs you’re going to win? No. This game doesn’t mean anything as far as that goes.”
Jordan made possibly his final All-Star Game appearance memorable on Feb. 8 by scoring 23 points and being named the contest’s most valuable player. He also won the league scoring title and MVP honors.
“I don’t want a tour,” Jordan said as the Bulls traveled from city to city and faced question after question about breaking up the team. “I never wanted that. If it’s the end, then it’s the end.”
If it’s the end, it finished with a flourish.
On March 27, an NBA-record crowd of 62,046 in Atlanta saw the Bulls beat the Hawks.
A little more than two months later, the Bulls had their second three-peat.
So, now the question is: Four ever?
Perhaps, if somehow Jordan is back and players and/or coaches return or can be replaced to the point that leaves them a contender.
If not, there is always “The Last Dance.”
One last chance to enjoy the moment. One more chance to savor the season.
A crowning accomplishment that will live on.