Bull Run

Matchless at home, Michael Jordan & Co. proved they are road warriors, too, beating the Magic in Orlando
April 14, 1996

THE TWO-YEAR-OLD United Center, a couple of miles west of the
Chicago blues clubs, and the seven-year-old Orlando Arena, 15
miles northeast of the Magic Kingdom, are both monuments to the
cookie-cutter mentality that has all but eliminated uniqueness
from contemporary arena architecture. But beyond the
similarities in these pristine structures are some crucial
differences, which say more about the approach of the arenas'
principal tenants, the Chicago Bulls and the Orlando Magic, than
about the design of either facility.

The United Center bears little resemblance to the Bulls' former
home, the charmingly decayed Chicago Stadium, whose most
distinctive qualities were the proximity of fans to the floor
and the pervasive aroma of stale beer. The United Center
certainly has its share of pyrotechnics during pregame
introductions, but the Bulls generally favor a subdued,
un-Disney-like approach to games. Sometimes they even seem to be
trying to convince themselves that they're still playing at the
stadium, where they strung together championships in 1991, '92
and '93. "If the United Center makes a difference," says Boston
Celtics forward Rick Fox, "it's in what it does for the Bulls
more than what it does to the visiting team."

On the other hand, the O-rena--even the nickname is
annoying--goes after the visiting team with a vengeance. It
features a public-address announcer who turns a first-quarter
charging call into Armageddon, blaring technofunk music that
provides the game with its own soundtrack, and frenzied
sideshows during breaks in the action that make even the most
focused player feel like he's in a circus instead of a timeout
huddle.

Both approaches seem to work: Only the Bulls, who were 37-1 at
United Center after being upset by the Charlotte Hornets on
Monday night, had fewer losses at home than the Magic, which was
34-3 at the O-rena. But one of those three Orlando defeats will
be particularly hard to forget, and not just because it came on
Sunday against Chicago, which extended its record to an almost
unbelievable 66-8. More than anything else, the Bulls' 90-86
victory made it clear that regardless of the Magic's home
record, Orlando must get its house in order before it can think
about repeating last season's playoff elimination of Chicago.

The game was the Magic's first in which the team--or at least
coach Brian Hill--might have been better off if center Shaquille
O'Neal had not played. O'Neal, who had gone to be with his
family in East Orange, N.J., following the death of his
grandmother on April 2, arrived at the O-rena during pregame
introductions, to Hill's surprise, and took a seat on the bench
late in the first quarter.

O'Neal had been given permission by the club to spend as much
time with his family as he felt necessary, but his sudden
appearance put Hill in an awkward position and raised questions
about his control of the team. First, it was obvious that he had
no idea of his center's whereabouts until O'Neal entered the
arena. In addition, Hill had already said that O'Neal would not
play if he did not attend the pregame meeting, but here was Shaq
in uniform and ready for action. Hill had the choice of keeping
his superstar on the bench and risking his wrath, not to mention
putting his team at a disadvantage, or playing O'Neal and
appearing to have caved in to the player's wishes.

Hill put O'Neal into the game at the start of the second
quarter, and Shaq played all but three minutes the rest of the
way, finishing with 21 points and nine rebounds. "I'm the coach,
and I decide who plays," Hill said. "Case closed." Maybe that's
the case, but on Monday another one opened when O'Neal admitted
that he had left New Jersey to be with friends in Atlanta after
his grandmother's funeral on Saturday. A Magic spokesman said
that since O'Neal had been given time off, it didn't matter
where he spent it, but the incident raised a few eyebrows as
well as the question of just how committed O'Neal is to the
Magic.

O'Neal said he didn't decide to play until early Sunday
afternoon after his mother contacted him in Atlanta. "She paged
me," he said. "I thought something else was wrong. But she said,
'You need to go play. Stop sitting around crying.'" So O'Neal
hopped a flight to Orlando and went straight to the game.

O'Neal's actions alone might not have been enough to undermine
Hill's authority, but this was not the first time recently that
a Magic player has appeared to be in charge. In a March 19 game
between the Magic and the Detroit Pistons, Orlando reserve guard
Anthony Bowie called time out with 2.7 seconds left and the
Magic leading by 20 to give himself a chance to get the assist
he needed for his first career triple double. Hill walked away
in disgust during the timeout and later apologized to the
Pistons. His players had gone against his wishes, and he had
been unable, or unwilling, to stop them.

Orlando's headaches were more than a little bit welcome to the
Bulls, who realize that the rest of the league is watching them
for little breakdowns--whether aging, injury or insubordination
(are you listening, Dennis Rodman?)--that could keep them from
transforming the playoffs into a coronation. "Showing up in the
middle of the first quarter--that's not cool," said a smirking
Rodman, Chicago's trouble-prone power forward. "You want a
distraction? That's a distraction."

But the Magic's internal conflicts may not be the biggest
obstacle to beating the Bulls, who need to win just four of
their final seven games to achieve an NBA record 70 victories.
It will be impossible for Orlando, or any team, to keep Chicago
from the title without beating the Bulls at home--and, until
Monday night, that hadn't happened all season. Chicago, which
clinched the home court advantage throughout the playoffs with
Sunday's victory, came within a whisker of becoming the first
team in NBA history to finish a regular season undefeated at
home, eclipsing the 1985-86 Celtics' 40-1 record at Boston
Garden. "I've analyzed it, and I think I've figured out the
reasons the Bulls are so good at home," says Toronto Raptors
coach Brendan Malone. "They're named Jordan, Pippen, Rodman,
Kukoc...."

Even if Chicago's home dominance seems easy to explain--"With all
their talent," says Houston Rockets guard Clyde Drexler, "they
could probably play home games on the moon and still win them
all"--it is ironic in light of how several Bulls moaned about
leaving cozy Chicago Stadium for the cavernous United Center
last season. Jordan even joked that he wouldn't mind if the new
arena were blown up.

The Bulls made a few subtle adjustments this season to get
comfortable in their new home. Coach Phil Jackson had the
benches switched so his players would sit at the west end of the
arena, as they had at Chicago Stadium, and he convinced the
marketing department to remove the billboards that bordered the
court opposite the benches so the crowd could be moved closer to
the action. And though the raucous atmosphere that earned
Chicago Stadium its Madhouse on Madison nickname will never be
re-created, Rodman's antics have helped restore some of the
rowdiness to the crowd that was missing last season. "A year ago
we probably felt like this was the worst place for us to play,"
says Pippen. "But now we're so confident at home that the odds
of anyone coming in there and beating us are slim and none."

Even Jordan, who complained last season about shooting problems
caused by the supposed tightness of the rims and the vast space
behind the backboards, has warmed to the place. "The ambience is
too nice in here [in the Bulls' locker room], and it's too nice
in the other [visitors'] locker room," he said in January. "I
haven't seen a rat since I've been in here."

Until recently one of the most tangible differences between the
Bulls at home and on the road had been the play of swingman Toni
Kukoc, whose best games were almost invariably at the United
Center. But forward Scottie Pippen's aching back and sore knee
and ankle, which forced him to miss five games, and Rodman's
six-game suspension for head-butting referee Ted Bernhardt,
propelled Kukoc out of his sixth-man role and into the starting
lineup. That's where Kukoc clearly prefers to be, and he has
responded with his best, most consistent string of performances
in his three seasons with the Bulls. He had started 13 straight
games at week's end, averaging 19.2 points in that span--raising
his season average by 7.5 points a game. "This is the most
comfortable I've felt on the floor for a long time," he says.

The soft-spoken Kukoc, who often looks timid on the court, even
had the temerity during his run as a starter to don a pair of
Jordan's Nike sneakers with the patent-leather trim. Jordan gave
him his blessing, plus a warning: "Don't embarrass my shoes."
Kukoc hasn't. Instead, he has created a delicate situation for
Jackson, who will have to decide whether to make Kukoc a
permanent starter and bring Rodman off the bench in the
playoffs, as he did for the first few games after Rodman's
suspension, or use Kukoc as his top reserve.

"Toni can start the rest of the way," Rodman says. "I can adjust
to anything." But this is the same Rodman who is so conscious of
his rebounding statistics that he has teammate Jack Haley keep
him apprised of his total during timeouts and who often makes no
secret of his disgust when he is taken out of a game. Fiddling
with Rodman's role or his minutes--especially at playoff time,
when he has been at his most outrageous the past two
seasons--could set off the kind of meltdown the Bulls dread.
Rodman's rebounding may be one of the Bulls' greatest strengths,
but his psyche is perhaps their greatest weakness. "I'm not
worried," says Jackson. "We're not here to save Dennis. He has
to save himself. But we'll stand up for Dennis just as he stands
up for us."

With the notable exception of the head butt, the only
significant distraction Rodman has caused in Chicago has been on
the Kennedy Expressway, where a 32-foot-high mural of his head,
complete with hair that was to be repainted every time Rodman
got a new dye job, had to be painted over last week. The mural
adorned a warehouse wall overlooking the expressway, and
motorists were tying up traffic by slowing down to look or
pulling over to take pictures. The real Rodman insists he won't
cause any difficulties for the Bulls. "I won't be a problem
before the playoffs, or in the playoffs," he says. "They'll see.
I'm going to go out, do my job and help the team. And then
everybody that says Dennis Rodman can't control himself is going
to have to sing a different tune. I'm not even going to let the
referees bother me. Life's too short."

Rodman isn't the only Bull who has received extra attention from
the NBA office in New York lately. Opposing teams have been
sending in videotapes of Jordan's getting away with what they
consider illegal moves, including one of his favorites, in which
he slaps the defender's hand off his hip when he drives. Jordan
says he has been told that that won't be allowed anymore, and he
will have to be more careful about his spin move, which will be
called a travel more often. His baseline spin was even included
on a tape of illegal moves that the league sent to every team
last summer. "You want to see some walks?" says Jackson. "Let's
take some other players' moves apart. Patrick Ewing does it half
a dozen times a game, at least. Michael does it maybe once, and
he can't get away with one of his signature moves, one of the
best moves in basketball."

But it will take more than closer scrutiny from the referees to
stop Jordan. Even Jackson seems powerless to do it. In an
attempt to conserve Jordan's energy for the playoffs, Jackson
suggested that if the Bulls record their 70th win before the end
of the regular season, Jordan should sit out the remaining
games. Jordan respectfully declined. His 38.3 minutes per game
leads the team, and through Sunday he had started all 74 games,
but he dismisses the theory that he is expending too much of
himself in meaningless regular-season games. He says he has
learned to rest while on the floor by turning the offense over
to Pippen or Kukoc for a few minutes while he acts as a decoy.

Somehow it's hard to worry about Jordan's being on the floor too
much. At least when he's there, the Bulls know where their
superstar is, and as the Magic can tell you, that's no small
consideration.

COLOR PHOTO: BARRY GOSSAGE/NBA PHOTOS Although he's averaging 38.3 minutes a game, Jordan is still burning the opposition. [Dennis Rodman, Orlando Magic player, and Michael Jordan] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER The gravity of a Shaq attack had officials checking the height of the hoop (it was the requisite 10 feet). [Shaquille O'Neal dunking basketball] COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER [See caption above--officials checking height of basketball goal] COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATOKukoc (opposite) knew he had big shoes to fill when he subbed for Pippen, so he dressed in style. [Toni Kukoc] COLOR PHOTO: BARRY GOSSAGE/NBA PHOTOS [See caption above-- Scottie Pippen]

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