Last running of the Bulls, Part 1

Jackson always seemed to keep his calm, even as a whirlwind season surrounded him. Bill Smith

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's May 4, 1998, issue. Subscribe today!

In what appears to be the final season of the Chicago Bulls' 1990s reign, coach Phil Jackson has periodically collected his thoughts and analyzed the swirling action around him. Beginning with a preseason trip to Paris and continuing through 82 games, Jackson never seemed rattled by the crazy activity that surrounds his team. On the road or relaxing at his desk at the Bulls' Deerfield, Ill., training complex, surrounded by the books and mementos that have become so meaningful to him, Jackson recorded these reflections on what he believes is the last running of these Bulls.

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4

IT'S OCTOBER 1997, and here we are at the McDonald's Championship, in a tournament with F.C. Barcelona, PSG Racing, Benetton Treviso, Olympiakos Piraeus and Atenas de Cordoba -- the best pro teams the rest of the world can muster. This is our reward for having won the NBA championship last June, our fifth title in seven years.

In certain ways, it's not much of a reward. We won Game 6 of the Finals against the Utah Jazz just four months ago, and our offseason seems to have vanished overnight. But I have walked throughout the area near our hotel by the Seine, and Paris is a beautiful place. Still, we're here to play basketball, to win. We are the Bulls.

But we are weak. We are playing without Dennis Rodman, who has not signed a contract yet, and without Scottie Pippen, who just underwent foot surgery. Our usual sixth man, Toni Kukoc, is playing a lot for us, but he is far out of shape because he spent the entire summer resting his injured foot. But we have great pride, and we are not about to become the first NBA team to lose a game in the 10 years of this tournament.

Above all, we have our one supreme warrior, Michael Jordan. He hasn't missed a game -- regular season, exhibition or playoff -- since he returned to the Bulls from his baseball experiment in the spring of 1995. He will not lose. Every time he moves, people scream and flashbulbs explode. Of course, he is named the MVP of the tournament. Paris -- all of Europe, the world -- loves him.

The only dark spot is the resonance of the words of our vice president of basketball operations, Jerry Krause, who said recently that coaches and players don't win championships, that organizations win championships. He would say that. Michael says he won't come back after this season to play for the Bulls unless I'm the coach, but I signed a one-year deal and the Bulls definitely have plans to hire another coach for next year. Probably Tim Floyd of Iowa State. This is what Michael said: "It's a bad way to end an unbelievable run."

IT'S THE MIDDLE of November, which means the circus comes to the United Center and we have to leave for our extended West Coast trip, always a tough haul. Just the other day, I had to stand in front of the amassed media people, lights blinding me, and explain why we had just lost to Cleveland and Washington. I tried to use humor to soften my words, but I also tried to give the people a serious look at the reality of our team. We aren't that talented and we sure aren't young, and we had finished a nine-month season just 120 days ago. Plus, we were still playing without Pippen. But afterward my wife, June, told me that the press was ripping into my coaching job and feasting on the Bulls' carcass. After practice Thursday, a couple of beat writers caught me as I was going to my office. One of them said, "I heard from a source that you and Michael had words after the loss to the Wizards." It wasn't true, but that's what you deal with when you lose.

I didn't know what to do to improve our scoring, but I began to toy with the idea of starting Kukoc against teams with bigger shooting forwards. That would give us a kind of three-guard lineup of Michael, Ron Harper and Toni, since Toni is so versatile and used to play the point in Europe. We need somebody to help Michael when teams unabashedly double- and triple-team him. While I was thinking about this in the video room, Steve Kerr came limping in. He had taken a fall against the Wizards, and I hadn't thought much of it. Now his leg was wired to a stimulator and wrapped in ice. Our trainer, Chip Schaefer, told me there was a slight crack in Kerr's femur. Oh, boy. Later, Krause told me he had signed a kid he liked from the CBA to take Kerr's place.

With the West Coast trip at hand, I went to the bookstore to shop for books to give to each player, coach and, of course, Chip. I gave the new players copies of the book I wrote a couple years ago, Sacred Hoops, so they could get a feel for my thinking, background and the principles of the triangle offense. For the vets, I got books by authors I had bought for them before. Harp got another Walter Mosley mystery. Michael and Scottie were easy, because they don't read. It didn't matter what I bought them. Kerr and Chip need stimulating stuff because they're both big readers. But what should I do about Krause? He doesn't have a lot of interests except sports experts and fishing. I considered Any Idiot Can Manage and How to Be an Enlightened Team Builder but thought that would be a slap in the face.

I turned down an aisle, and June said, "Don't get him a book. The Krauses let us know how they feel last Christmas when they didn't get us anything." I felt bad for a moment, because Jerry likes so much to be included. But in the end, I didn't buy him anything because I couldn't find it in myself to give him something of value.

All of a sudden, we're 6-5. I haven't given up hope, but other teams sense blood. We miss Scottie, and the guys are not in sync. But we're still the Bulls. In LA, a baby-faced Tiger Woods is waiting in the crowd for Michael. We're staying at the Hilton instead of the Marina del Rey, where we usually stay. I choose hotels on our trips -- no questions asked -- but this one was dropped on us with no explanation. So I ask Krause, and he says: "We had a previous deposit here that we had to use." And I figure that means Jerry Reinsdorf, the principal owner of both the Bulls and the White Sox, had done something. Who were these reservations made for -- a basketball or a baseball team?

After dinner, I ride the elevator with some punked-out kids who tell me the band downstairs is playing for Dennis Rodman, and if he likes them, he is going to sponsor them, whatever that means. I hear the bass thumping until 2 a.m.

In Seattle, Scottie, who is still on injured reserve, tells some reporters he wants to be traded, that he's not going to play for the Bulls ever again. I figure he's just feeling his oats, momentarily ticked off about his horrible contract that pays him less than probably a hundred players in the league. But on the bus ride from the airport to the hotel, he tears into Krause from the back. Usually, Michael is the one who showers Krause with ridicule. But now Scottie is giving serious abuse. "Hey, Jerry," he yells. "You going to sign me to a contract or trade me?" It gets so bad I have to turn around and stare at Scottie. The next day at practice, Scottie runs well, but he doesn't have much gas. And as he talks to the press afterward, he says that after all he had done for the team, he can't stand being treated with so little respect, and he can't see himself ever wearing a Bulls uniform again.

But that night on the bench, he is dressed to the nines in a gray pinstripe suit and boxed-toe shoes, and he cheers wildly, especially for Kukoc, who is taking his place. Still, we lose our fourth close game of the season, and I don't know what is going on. In the past, we were always the ones who won the close ones. My sleep is suffering.

On Thanksgiving, I am thrilled to be at home with four of my five kids, all the ones who are in college. Earlier in the day, after practice, I was able to get our resident team therapist to come in and talk to Scottie. He helped Scottie articulate his anger but didn't challenge his thinking. About midnight, Scottie calls and we talk a long time. He is dead serious. I try to reason with him about the timing of his demands and the fact that he can't control his destiny. I tell him not to let his anger toward management destroy his desire to help lead this remarkable team. He counters that he can't let management break his heart.

I go to bed totally depressed. The kids come in from partying at 2:30 a.m., full of energy. I remind myself that life is short. I have to let this pain go.

Now we're 8-7 and in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. We're playing for the last time against the Wizards in the doomed Cap Centre/USAir Arena, a hideous, suburban building that reminds me of a beached and rotting whale. I hate this dark, dank place so much that we don't even have our usual shootaround, but simply meet in a Georgetown hotel room. The team seems mired in depression, looking at the season with despair. I have work to do.

PIPPEN'S FOOT INJURY is worse than people know. He basically has not played in half a year, not since he hurt himself in the championships last June. Our strength coach, Al Vermeil, worked Scottie out today, and was stunned to find his vertical leap is only 17 inches. That's the same as Joe Kleine's. Scottie's used to be 30 inches or so. His leg strength is shot. So now we're looking at another month or more of rehab.

I didn't like the way Michael was running in tonight's game. He was tired, and his hips were starting to wobble. So I took him out. But then he said he wanted to go back in, so I let him. That's the kind of relationship we have. Respect. I sometimes think about Michael, him with a cigar, before a critical game. He'll be calmly confident, smiling, saying, "Don't worry, we'll beat these guys." I get my own peace from meditating, from my Zen Christian beliefs. I sit for 30-40 minutes every day in a meditative position. I can't cross my legs because of arthritis, but in three or four breaths, I can get to the relaxed state. It's a way to let your mind rest, so your mind doesn't control your day. All the players sit in a group and try to do it. Some go willingly; some don't. But they do it as a group, because they know it's important, and it's important to me. Ten minutes at the most. Eyes slightly open, sitting in chairs. Lights down a little. You'd like to hear your heart beat but not concentrate on it. Some guys are now doing it on their own. It's an unbelievable force. No religion. No nothing. It's stress management.

But right now, at Christmastime, it is hard for me. June and I have been having discussions about our future together, and sometimes I think back and wonder why I got into coaching at all after my playing days. Other teams have already interviewed me for their head-coaching job. The Knicks, Seattle, others. I laugh when I think about first coming to the Bulls, when I was interviewed by Stan Albeck to be an assistant. I came from Puerto Rico, and I was wearing a flowered shirt and a big straw hat with a parrot feather in it. So it started there, and now I am a coach. I have missed some things that my kids did because of my job, but I can't hold onto that. In Zen, you give that up; you have to be here for what you can do at this moment. Don't get too high, don't get too low.

Tonight, we beat the Los Angeles Lakers at home, really got to them, 104-83. Michael had 36 points. He was into it; he could have had 45-46 points, but I rested him. He was guarded sometimes by Eddie Jones, who's a terrific player. People say we should trade Scottie for Jones, but there's nobody who can replace Scottie Pippen. There are only two players who could possibly do the things he does, Grant Hill and Penny Hardaway. But Scottie is best for us.

Sometimes in a film session, I get upset and wonder what we're doing, why we can't put it together consistently. The other day, I stopped the film after watching Luc Longley screw up again, and I just said, "Everybody makes mistakes. And I made one coming back here with this team this year." I meant it in sort of a lighthearted way. But then Michael says, "Me too." So it weighed pretty heavy on everyone.

Later on in the session, Luc says, kind of to everyone, in the dark, "It's easy to criticize." He was hurt. Then Tex Winter jumped in and said, "Luc, I don't understand you. You don't have the right attitude." A shrug is a big deal for Luc; he is a loveable guy. But he says to Tex, "I wasn't talking about the coaching staff. Michael is the one being critical. I just want to let him know it's easy to criticize.'' And then Michael says, "The only thing that upsets me is when we lose. I think you should resolve to make yourself better the next time. Change."

The room was charged. It was somber. Michael was somber. He doesn't play cards with the guys like he used to. He is serious. He hasn't smiled a genuine smile in two weeks. He's letting everyone know it's time. He said, "It's over. We're not gonna lose anymore." I'm sick of losing too. What are we, 15-9? We should be 21-3. We lost 10 games in 1996 -- the entire season.

I don't talk a whole lot to Michael during games, and I don't look at him on the court much either. I just have a feel for him. He'll let me know by making a signal, a fist or tap his chest, when he wants to come out. But the other night, I went down and patted him on the knee while he was on the bench, just to let him know we're with him.

We have been having a little family turmoil, and some of it saddens me. But I'm not depressed. I feel I have every right to be happy in this life. I look around my office and all of the things in here -- the Native American artifacts, the signs, the photos of the Dalai Lama and the Southwest -- inspire me. Like those bull horns up there on the wall. Johnny Bach gave me that. He even painted my name on it. With the bull's testicles in the pouch tied in between. That inspires me.

And that photo of Michael and me hugging after the third NBA title. It looks like we're crying, but that's champagne. But I did cry with B.J. Armstrong after that. I had to really push him during that playoff. He had to play Mookie Blaylock full-court, Kevin Johnson full-court. He has such a sweet temperament, but he worked so hard he was basically exhausted. He collapsed when Paxson made the winning shot against Phoenix. He was spent. We laughed about it later, but he leaned against me and we cried.

DENNIS RODMAN IS doing a terrific job rebounding -- unbelievable for a guy who is 36 years old. But people do not appreciate that this guy is a court jester. He's a "hayoka," a backward-walking man from Indian culture. Those guys walked backward, rode horses backward, wore women's clothes, made people laugh. He'll come in when the team is a little glum -- I mean here is a man with a big yellow happy face on his hair then a festive, multicolor Christmas 'do.

I wish you could see this Christmas card that Dennis sent to me. It's a photograph of him with a little smile, dressed up as an angel, complete with wings and gown. He's our jester. And the team understands. They are old enough and mature enough to know that there is latitude for certain individuals. A lot of teams couldn't handle it.

I have had a little problem recently with Jason Caffey being pouty about lack of playing time. He talked to the press; he's a little out of sorts. So I got on him. Then I find out a relative of his was shot and killed down in Alabama the other night. But he has to stay focused on his role. It can be a problem if bench players get upset. Randy Brown got grumpy about it last year, but you have to keep it from affecting the team.

Scottie is getting close to playing shape, but now he has a problem, having said that he'll never play for the Bulls again. I told him on Sunday to put it on the back burner. How can he go back on his word? Easy. Just say that his teammates have come to him with the notion of playing for ourselves, for another title. LA's not going to trade for him. It will be a bad team like the Warriors or somebody like that. Look what happened to Tom Gugliotta when he went to the Warriors. I told Scottie he needs to be on a team that plays team ball. He's had four operations. He's got a bad back. He's been through a lot. I don't question the migraines he used to get. He's a warrior. What he has to do soon is get back invested in this team. He loves Chicago. It's his home.

Michael still feels so bad about things that he's not holding the breakfast club he had every morning where Scottie and Harper work out at Michael's house, take a steam and they all go have breakfast. It has been over a third of a season since we have played without the man who does the little things that hold this team together.

I have so many cigars I don't know what to do with them all. Dennis gave me a bunch for Christmas, and people just hand them to me. They also send me religious objects -- sacred things, crucifixes, religious books. But this tobacco is like a whole ritual. I used to smoke a pipe in college. I had a great collection. And there were the pipe stems, and the tamper, and the special lighter, and it was quite a process.

But now we have cigars. And I have Dennis. He's been missing practices or just showing up late. Dennis is playing very well when he is focused and not bored. I feel he has attention deficit disorder and has a hard time concentrating on anything for too long. He had 42 rebounds in two games against the Knicks and the Mavericks. And against San Antonio two nights ago, he had a wonderful game, guarding two seven-footers, David Robinson and Tim Duncan. It just astounds me how he can do that.

But after the game, he said, "I took a hell of a beating. I shouldn't have to go to practice." I said, "It's at noon. You can make it there by noon." And he said, "What if I don't come?" And I said, "I'll fine you. Triple." That's nothing; it's just three times $250. But he showed up. He was late, but he showed up. The thing was, he was losing interest. Not in practice, but in basketball generally. One day he didn't show up at all. He lives so close he could walk to the Berto Center in 10 minutes. So I sent somebody over to get him, and Dennis was there eating Sugar Pops from a bowl, and he said, "I can't make it. Can't do it." So I went over there later, and he was there on his mattress on the floor in front of a huge TV screen that almost fills a wall, with an immense stack of videos. I told him, "It's a downhill shot from here. It gets easier. The playoffs are coming."

The point is Dennis has to get his motor going himself. What is helping now is this relationship he's started with Carmen Electra, whoever she is. Is she on TV? And she is his inspiration. He goes out and plays for her. But God forbid he has a bad game, because then it's impotence time.

Toni has started 13 or 14 games, but he's not happy either. He's been bitchy and whiny. The guys tell me he hasn't been in a good mood. I just keep asking him to get his mind where ours is. He wants to start, so I can't figure out why he's unhappy. Harper diminishes his game for the good of the group, but Toni is sort of a maverick. That irritates me, but I think in a way we need a maverick, somebody who can just go off on his own. His biggest tendency is to look for a different play than the obvious one. He'll try to make miraculous passes to the most unimaginable places.

Scottie started playing on Jan. 10, our 36th game. I started him easy -- against the Warriors -- and he's been getting better and better. We are now 47-14. Luc's got a bone bruise in his knee that just won't heal. We're doing well without him, but I need him tomorrow night against Indiana, against Rik Smits. Smits is just too tall for Dennis.

Jerry Krause called me into his office the other day. He was reading a book about the Bulls, and he came to a page where I described his "brusque" nature. He didn't like it, but I went and got my dictionary, and it says for brusque, "curt, offhand," and I said that's appropriate. I'm a courteous person, but if he puts me on the carpet like that, I have to say something.

What Jerry loves to do is draft, to get players. But he gets rid of Jason Caffey, and all he gets are two draft picks, second round. NBA basketball is not about drafting anymore; it's about free agents. Still, these guys love to do their drafting. It's Jerry's baby. I remember Michael Finley came in before the draft. Jerry felt he couldn't shoot very well. But he scored 32 against us on March 12, and we lost to the Mavericks in overtime. That was a game in which we never trailed during regulation. They did not lead for one moment. We were ahead by eight with less than a minute to play. It's amazing we lost, but actually it was great for us. The Orlando Magic did that to us just before we went on to win our last championship in the Chicago Stadium: Nick Anderson hit a bank shot at the buzzer, and that sparked us to get our s--- together. You get tired at the end of the season. But you have to complete the game.

NOW WE'RE PLAYING well -- I think we can achieve our goal of 60 wins -- but Michael is tired. I think he got really fatigued at the All-Star Game and hasn't fully recovered. But I'll let him skip a practice or two and see if that helps.

Luc is out with his knee problem, and Toni has a bad left foot. But we have continued to win without them. The thing is we're going to need Luc against big guys like Greg Ostertag and Shaq in the playoffs, and maybe Patrick Ewing if he comes back for the Knicks. But the biggest thing we need to do is not let the other team be the aggressor, the way Cleveland was when they beat us April 9 there. We could be just a little short of weapons unless we get everybody healthy. Things get funny at the end of the season. The Seattle Sonics, losing in San Antonio with David Robinson out for the Spurs. And who would have predicted Denver, which looked so pathetic, would get to 10 wins? They looked like a team that could lose them all. But that's how it is -- finding a way. Attrition, teams getting on a roll. Some guys just have fried brains. They hit the wall.

Right now, I'm sitting here getting ready to splice together the video I always make before we play our first playoff foe. The shortest one I've ever made was an hour, so they're pretty substantial. I use footage of our opponents, and I sprinkle in messages from other films. This year, I've got Higher Learning, directed by John Singleton with Laurence Fishburne; Mother, Jugs & Speed, with Raquel Welch, Harvey Keitel and Bill Cosby playing ambulance chasers; and Squibnocket, a James Taylor concert recorded in his barn on Martha's Vineyard. Should be a good one.

For my own entertainment, I'm reading some astonishing books: Suttree by Cormac McCarthy and Blood Meridian, also by him. They're both dark. I don't like his theme or tone. Blood Meridian is so dark, I don't know where he went down to to get there. But the language -- amazing. And Underworld by Don DeLillo, 1,000 pages, and I can't bring myself to read the last 50. A whole week and I can't do it. I don't want to finish it. It's wonderful. But it's having a real effect on me. It's about so many things -- America, transition, Bobby Thomson's home run, marriage, nuclear families, neighborhoods, East Coast, West Coast, art, trash.

I can put a book aside and say, this truly resonated for me or this makes sense. Books make me think of the other part of me. I don't have a TV in Montana, where we have a summer house. And the living there is so much better. My days are better. My mornings are fresher. My life feels healthier. It would last year-round too, I know.

I'm seriously thinking about getting out. It's an option after this season, but I'd have to find another career, another job. I'm not financially set. Maybe I would be if I were a single man, but not to support an entire family. There was a moment way back when I retreated from the other world, the high-pressure world. I started a small business in Montana for a couple of years, then I came back to this world. I started back very low-profile. Coaching in the CBA. But I just had more and more and more success, and it led to where I am know. I remember my old Knicks teammate, Dave DeBusschere, saying at his bar in Manhattan in 1980, "I'd be happiest being a truck driver. But I can't. I gotta go for the money." It was that conversation that sent me to Montana. Now I've been sucked back into this world. But I have another opportunity to check out. Or stay in. I could step out for a year.

But then, if someone like the Lakers comes after me and wants me to coach a team that's ready to pursue a championship -- what can I do? I have to admit, I watched a little of the Lakers on TV last night.

They lost at home to Phoenix. I watched Shaq, and he got taken out of the game for committing his fourth foul -- a brutish kind of foul -- because he was angry. He comes to the bench, and he's arguing with Del Harris, the coach. Del is saying, "You can't do that." And Shaq is saying, "What the f--- you mean I can't? The f---ing ref didn't call a foul at the other end!'' Harris says, "Doesn't matter." Shaq can't get it through his head. It didn't frighten me, but it was a warning signal: Is this kid smart enough yet to know what he can and can't do in this game to become a winner?

I see that as a challenge. But the challenge also would be to have him submit to the triangle offense. And I believe in its principles. It's nothing more than overloading one side of the floor. It's a center -- in offense. And here with the Bulls, we never really had that center. It's amazing. Who's the perfect center for the triangle? Shaq. SHAQ! Throw the ball in to this guy; what's the defense going to do?

But we play with what we have. And we are playing without people and winning. Which is a credit to our players and their attitude.

So will I be back? I told Mr. Reinsdorf last year I don't feel comfortable working with Jerry Krause, because he bailed out on me back when I signed my first one-year deal two years ago. The truth is, I didn't know if I wanted to continue coaching here. I wanted to coach seven years. Now it's nine. Coaches' salaries have skyrocketed in the last two years. But this is our last year -- we're playing it out. For Michael, Scottie, Dennis, Steve, Luc, Jud Buechler, a couple others, this is it.

We want to make this a good finale because I think after this season we will be split up. We're doing a private ceremony before our last regular-season game. We're closing this down. Michael has said he won't play for another coach. We have a rhythm, a flow. But it's ending. Three years ago, we couldn't predict, couldn't project that Jordan and Rodman would compete like this at the age they are. Nobody has seen anything like it. We didn't predict it. I sure didn't. I told Jerry Krause I had never seen a great guard play at a high level after age 34. And now Michael is 35.

If I leave and he retires because of that, I guess it will affect the NBA. But Michael and I have talked about our futures, and he said, "Phil, you do what you have to do." And I said, "Michael, please don't let your decision revolve around me." We both dialed off on it.

Anyway, we have other things to think about.

Like trying to win a sixth title.

Editor's Note: This installment of Last Running of the Bulls contained certain passages that were not intended for publication at that time.

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