Last running of the Bulls, Part 2

"Michael has a real good attitute," writes Jackson. Bill Smith

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's May 18, 1998, issue. Subscribe today!

Phil Jackson has been collecting his thoughts and analyzing the events surrounding what appears to be the final season of the Bulls' 1990s run for The Mag. This second installment of his diary assesses Chicago's playoff opponents, the Johnson-Mourning fight in New York and his future.

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4

WE JUST FINISHED BEATING the Charlotte Hornets for our first win of the second round, our fourth straight win in the playoffs. We were able to overcome a rather poor start; we were down 30-15 at one point, which I thought might be disastrous. I don't think we are overconfident, but even when we were so far down, I could tell our players still knew that they were going to win.

I'm sitting in my office outside the United Center floor. It's quiet, and I'm thinking about what lies ahead. We saw how the Sonics and the Jazz came back from big deficits to advance, and we saw the energy the Knicks had when they beat the Heat.

And we know about the fight, but I did not talk about it with the team. I want our team to play with full effort, but not thoughtlessly. Dennis Rodman got tangled up with Vlade Divac, but I know Dennis will not throw a punch. No way. He knows what is at stake.

It's not a secret that I will be gone from the Bulls at the end of the playoffs. But I'm not looking to go anywhere. If I come back, it will be after at least a year off. What will I do? I don't know. I've got some things planned until the fall, then it's up in the air.

The Bulls as a team are sort of floating like that. But we can deal with it; we can live for today. That's basically the Zen philosophy. When hungry, eat. When thirsty, drink. This is life. Fortunately we have the responsibility of having to work in our immediate jobs. And we play well under that pressure.

We were the only team to sweep in the first round, and I think that is kind of amazing. But there is a reason for it. Our toughest game against New Jersey was the first. We had a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter, and they caught us and pushed us to overtime. It was a wake-up call to get ourselves together, to get playoff-ready.

One of my biggest worries at the start of that series was our bench, which scored seven points in Game 1. It was my fault as much as anyone's. We fell behind, and I let the first unit stay in too long. We got the lead back, but it put the bench players at a disadvantage because they didn't get a feel for the game early. So I got them in earlier in Games 2 and 3, before they could get stiff, and that helped. Plus, we tried to get some shots for them. It's important that our shooters like Scott Burrell and Steve Kerr are on, because we have penetrators like Michael and Scottie and Ron Harper, and we need some perimeter shooters to complement them.

I felt very confident going into Game 3 because I think we are a very good road playoff team. At home, there is the stress of family, of people flying in to see the players, ticket requests. On the road, there are fewer distractions. It's just the team and our mission to win. And on the road, there's the reality of it being do-or-die.

Michael has a real good road attitude. He is just ready. He gets on the players a little, and the team follows his lead. At the morning shootaround, he let guys know that we don't want to take risks, with injuries or anything else. You can't let up in a short series because too many things can go wrong. We need the rest and preparation for the next round. The playoffs become an endurance test. They are very fatiguing, not so much physically as mentally and emotionally.

So Michael was getting guys sharp at the shootaround. A couple of guys made mistakes in the offensive formations and some of the special plays we were running. Michael was real tough with Scott Burrell, and Burrell said, "Mike, I'm trying to do my best." But Michael continued to stay on Scott and got him ready, and in that game, Burrell had 23 points.

Michael had his rhythm in that game. He came down the court early, and I said, "Hit Steve!" because Kerr was wide open for a three-pointer. But Michael fired up his own three, and it went in. During the next timeout, he said, "I heard you, but I really felt good." And that's the way to feel. Believe it. You feel like you can't miss? Then shoot. Michael gets like that sometimes. Remember the first game of the championship series against Portland, when he hit six of his first seven three-pointers? I'll never forget it.

Scottie Pippen was having a real nice floor game in Game 3, but he got tripped up in the first half and hurt his lower back, where he's had surgery. He never got his offensive game going because of that, but his total game -- rebounds, assists and defense -- kept us going. Scott Burrell hit nine consecutive shots after an opening miss, and that was the difference.

As I write this, I'm thinking there were things written in the first installment of this diary that were misconstrued and out of character. I am doing this diary more as a remembrance of the season than as a way to discuss my job future or other coaches. The comments have caused a lot of second-guessing, hurt feelings and rebuttals. I need to set some of the record straight.

My comments about the Lakers and Del Harris, for instance. I was not in any way lobbying for a job. I believe in the triangle -- or triple post -- offense, and I sometimes look at other teams and ponder how they might do under its principles. In fact, I think Del Harris handled the angry situation I referred to rather well. He didn't get intimidated, and he didn't intimidate Shaq or berate him. Charlotte has players who would fill out a triangle offense also, with good shooters and good post-up passers. They have Glen Rice and Dell Curry, guys who can shoot well without having to dribble to create a shot. And they have Anthony Mason and Vlade Divac, guys who can hold the block and make passes to open players.

As a coach, you look at things like that. Denver, for example, had a disastrous year, but they have Bryant Stith, who can shoot, and LaPhonso Ellis, who can hold the block and is a pretty good post-up player. The sideline triangle offense needs mature, selfless players, and the NBA is short on them.

Another point of clarification: The timing of the coaching interviews I wrote of with Seattle and New York was misconstrued. I was referring to the way I got back into coaching. I talked to Seattle when Lenny Wilkens was the GM there, way back in 1986. I talked to the Knicks in 1987 about an assistant's job when Rick Pitino was head coach.

This spring, there was some speculation about me going to Detroit to coach, and because of that, I looked at their personnel. Any coach would do that. I feel they have players who would fit very well into our system of offense. But they made their choice; they have a coach, Alvin Gentry. They're set, and that's that.

The NBA has to be really pleased with the competitiveness of the first-round series, especially in the West, where Seattle and Utah, the first- and second-seeded teams, were pushed to the limit. However, the Miami-New York series took on a physical attitude similar to last year's, particularly the fight that came with 1.4 seconds left in Game 4. It's kind of a shame for the league. Alonzo Mourning and Larry Johnson got into it because of a little bit of history they have going back to when they were teammates in Charlotte. That's a real black mark. I watched Pat Riley walking off the court with Mourning, his most valuable player, knowing Mourning was gone for Game 5. Pat was questioning what Alonzo was doing. There's really no excuse for it. The goal is the overall one -- winning. The prize, that's the important thing, not your petty personal rivalries or insults.

I noticed that the Pacers and the Hornets all shaved their heads as a show of solidarity in the other series. But I wish the white guys would use that instant tanning stuff for their heads. Smits, Divac, Mullin -- they look like turned-on lightbulbs out on the court. That will never happen with us. We started the black shoes in the playoffs back in the '80s, and that's about as far as we'll go with that.

We wear black socks with the black shoes. But the NBA polices equipment! The latest problem was that the white ankle tape showed, so players had to have black tape to be in code. Every variation -- wristbands, socks, compression tights, headbands -- requires no logos and complete uniformity.

We will try and let our play show our unity.

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