They are the insignificant others of the NBA, these Chicago Bull teammates of Michael Jordan's. Their problem is not one of anonymity, but of being too much in the reflected glare of Jordan's greatness. They are never able, it seems, to measure up, to sufficiently aid and abet the game's most talented player. If the Bulls win, it's because Jordan was great. If the Bulls lose, it's because Jordan's teammates were deficient, and Jordan was still great.
Sometimes the criticism of the Jordanaries, as they've come to be called, is overt. "Trade Michael Jordan, and what do they have?" the Indiana Pacers' Reggie Miller said earlier this season. "Nothing." And sometimes it's more subtle. "It's a unique situation," says Chicago guard John Paxson. "You have a player who can take over a game like nobody ever, yet you have one who can get everyone involved. It's great to have a teammate like that. But try living up to it."
Jordan knows his teammates' lot can be difficult. "They're in an awkward situation," he says. "So much pressure has been placed upon them for being the reason we haven't gotten to the championship. They're thought of as being the, uh, missing links."
A good way to put it. But consider this: If the Jordanaries can be held responsible for Chicago's recent postseason failures, won't they deserve a major share of the credit if the Bulls finally get to the Finals, or even win a championship?
And this could be the year. After sweeping their first-round opponent, the New York Knicks, in three games, the Bulls took a 3-1 lead in their second-round Eastern Conference series with a 101-85 victory over the 76ers in Philadelphia on Sunday. Most of the Jordanaries showed up, especially power forward Horace Grant, who had 22 points and 11 rebounds, and versatile swingman Scottie Pippen (20 points, nine rebounds, five assists). As for Jordan, well, he was merely his spectacular self. After scoring 46 points—in spite of tendinitis in his left knee—in a 99-97 Game 3 loss last Friday night, he added 25 and played excellent defense on the Sixers' Hersey Hawkins, who struggled for 15 points on 3-for-8 shooting in Sunday's win.
The Bulls were in a position to wrap up the series in Chicago on Tuesday, and the Sixers' Charles Barkley all but conceded that in a rambling 45-minute discourse on Sunday. Barkley's main theme, in fact, was next season, specifically whether or not he would be in a Philadelphia uniform. "I have made my decision about leaving, but I won't tell you guys what it is until the season is over," said Sir Charles, who, when he wasn't scoring some of his 25 points or grabbing one of his 14 rebounds, spent most of Sunday's game glaring at teammates—particularly at reluctant-to-rebound, reluctant-to-pass power forward Armon Gilliam, who scored just eight points—and slapping his shaved head in frustration.
Exactly why Barkley perceives that he is the master of his destiny when he still has four years remaining on a long-term contract with one of the most intractable owners in sports, Harold Katz, is not clear. But Barkley feels, and logic backs him up, that the 76ers, as constituted, have gone as far as they are going to go without off-season personnel surgery, be it cosmetic or major.
The Bulls, by contrast, are potentially a championship team. But that's not saying anything new, is it? Their well-chronicled postseason frustrations against the Detroit Pistons over the last three years have turned the Jordanaries into one collective footnote, not to mention one collective nerve ending. They know it. Jordan knows it.
The burden falls most weightily on Pippen, who most closely resembles Jordan in style and talent, and who has most glaringly fallen short of the Jordan standard in past postseason play. Pippen is uncomfortable talking about the difficulties of Life with Michael, but he appreciates—how could he not?—the cold fact that the deeper the Bulls get into the playoffs, the more the basketball world will be looking to compare and contrast his performance with Jordan's.
The 28-year-old Jordan, for his part, views Pippen, 25, rather like a younger brother. Jordan desperately wants Pippen to do well and is deeply disappointed when he does not. Pippen is surely the only one of Jordan's teammates who can fully engage Jordan's considerable competitive instincts, and the only one with enough ability to actually challenge Jordan. One of Pippen's fondest desires is to get more steals than Jordan in a regular season—this year he fell short, 223-193. "Yeah, but the official scorers cheat for him in Chicago," says Pippen with a smile.
Some of Pippen's talents fascinate Jordan as well as confound him. "Somehow, Scottie is able to go directly off a left-hand dribble and dunk the ball lefthanded," said Jordan, relaxing before Game 3. "See, I can't do that. I have to switch the ball to my right hand, or at least put it there and back again in my left hand before I dunk. Yet I dunk better righthanded than Scottie."
"Hey, Pip! Come here," he calls across the Bulls' locker room. Pippen dutifully ends the conversation he's having and presents himself to Jordan. "Which hand you dunk better with?" Jordan asks.
Pippen stares down at his hands. Evidently he had not thought much about it.
"The left," he says, finally.
"Why is that?" Jordan asks.
"I don't know," says Pippen.
Jordan is enjoying the game.
"Who shoots threes better, you or me?"
Pippen isn't sure. "You?" he says.
"Nah, you do, no question," Jordan says. Actually, Jordan's lifetime three-point shooting percentage of 28.6 is better than Pippen's 26.4, but Jordan says, correctly, that the three-point stroke comes more naturally to Pippen and that he is bound to improve.
"How about if we move in a few steps, who's better then?"
"You," says Pippen quickly. Right.
Because Jordan and Pippen are both among the game's best fast-break finishers, an observer wondered who was quicker with the ball going end-to-end. "That's a tough one," says Jordan. "It'd be real close." He ponders it for another moment until his competitive instincts kick in. "Probably me," he says, "only because I dribble lower than Scottie. That would give me an advantage. Right, Scottie?"
"I guess," says Pippen. Then he smiles. "That's because, see, I got that city game with the high dribble." They both crack up. (Jordan is from Wilmington, N.C., and Pippen from Hamburg, Ark.)
When Pippen wanders away, Jordan again talks about him in the big-brother vein. "The main thing Scottie has to get is consistency," he says. "He has to reach the point where, if he has a bad game, people will just think it's a bad game, rather than think that he's an inconsistent player. He's almost at that point. He played about one out of four games consistently as a rookie, maybe two out of four the next year, then three out of four. He's almost there. He's real close."
Paxson, meanwhile, has quietly had his most consistent season, shooting 54.8%, mostly from long range. That's the level of jump-shooting accuracy that Jordan needs to alleviate the pressure of opponents' double- and triple-teaming. Paxson feels that playing with Jordan has been nothing but advantageous. "I've gotten an identity," he says. "I'm the short guy who plays alongside Michael and shoots wide-open jump shots. I don't know whether I would've gotten anywhere near this much attention if not for Michael."
But that is a sword with two edges, as Grant knows.
"It's hard when the media talks about us letting Michael down," said Grant after his outstanding performance in Game 4. "I used to sit there reading that stuff and thinking, 'Jeez, it's not like we're not trying.' But it has gotten easier, and this year has been the best of all."
Before Sunday, however, Grant's weekend in Philadelphia was not particularly pleasant. On Friday evening after Game 3, he was walking to the Four Seasons Hotel after dinner when he noticed a man sleeping under a statue. "For some reason my heart just went out to him," said Grant, who, after a long conversation with the man, paid for a night's lodging for him at the nearby Wyndham Franklin Plaza Hotel. And during Friday night's Game 3, he exchanged angry words with Chicago coach Phil Jackson after Jackson had criticized him for passive play. (Jackson and center Bill Cartwright also went at each other briefly during Game 4. The Bulls say it's healthy give-and-take and nothing more.) Grant and Jackson smoothed over their differences at Saturday's practice, and the Sixers received no largess from Grant on Sunday.
Even those Jordanaries far down on the depth chart feel the effects of Life with Michael. "Heck, I'm probably more affected than anyone, because my locker at Chicago Stadium is right next to his," says rookie frontcourtman Scott Williams. "You ever try to put on your underwear when a guy's setting up a tripod right next to you?"
But Paxson sees a positive side to that, too. "Anytime you want to make a quick getaway, you just get in Michael's wake, and no one will even notice you," he says.
At times, in the past, the Jordanaries have been all but swallowed up in that wake. So it is encouraging for them that during this postseason they have, on the court anyway, been attracting more attention than usual.