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NBA: Bulls demise heightened by Pippen's return

Mark Woods looks at how the once-mighty Chicago giants have fallen dramatically from grace

18 months ago, Scottie Pippen walked off the parquet at the United Center in Chicago with his long-time comrade in arms Michael Jordan, the basketballing duo afflicted by a rare joint off-night. That game was the fifth in the 1998 NBA Finals against Utah Jazz, a contest the visitors had stolen by two points. However it would only postpone the Bulls' coronation by two days, as a 45 point blast in Utah from the peerless Jordan carried his side to a sixth NBA championship in eight years, an incredible achievement which secured a lasting place for their collective in the sport's pantheon of fame.

Last Monday night, Pippen stepped foot on that same court for the first time since his departure from the Windy City. This time he was wearing the uniform of the Portland Trailblazers, the team which he joined in the summer after a disruptive stay in Houston last term. The crowd cheered the returning prodigal to the roof, his pre-game ovation lasting several minutes. It continued throughout a special video tribute screened by the Bulls to celebrate multiple achievements during Pippen's 11 year career in Chicago. 

But as he held back the tears before venturing into the centre circle, his presence only emphasised the contrast between the Bulls of then and
now. Jordan is retired.  Coach Phil Jackson is working his magic in Los
Angeles. Dennis Rodman is everywhere he shouldn't be. And the Bulls are
in disarray, their stature fallen so low that last season they mustered just 13 wins under new boss Tim Floyd.

Even the arrival of promising forward Elton Brand, the top pick in last year's college draft, has failed to improve Chicago's lot. The meagre sum of two victories in their opening 28 matches has confirmed the once-mighty Bulls as the most incompetent outfit in the NBA and on course to surpass the nine-win record of mediocrity established by Philadelphia back in 1982-83.

Pippen went on to score 11 points as the Trailblazers demolished their hosts 88-63, the lowest scoring tally in the NBA this season. He offered his sympathy to the fans who had turned out in greater than normal quantities to salute their hero. But he did point out that even with the flexibility to offer megabucks to free agents such as Grant Hill and Tim Duncan next summer, the franchise's route back to the status of contender was likely to be a long and winding one.

"I just wish them a lot of luck. It's going to be very difficult to convince anybody to come here right now. They don't really have nothing to offer other than money and any free agent can get that from their own team." 

Some might attribute the appalling reversal in Chicago's fortunes to managerial incompetence. After all, it was the constant antagonism between general manager Jerry Krause and his star performers which ruled out any possibility of their continued employment after ring number six had been acquired.

It was a point which Pippen bitterly drove home.

"It was very emotional for me, but I tried to handle it as well as possible, realising I had a game to play," he admitted. "I'm looking for a brighter day, and I'm not thinking about things that happened in the past.

"From my standpoint I hate to see them lose. But it's kind of funny. It gives you a laugh to see how they destroyed something that was great for the city of Chicago and very entertaining for a lot of people's lives."

However others would call it democracy, a necessary and desirable side-
product of the meritocratic system of salary caps and draft picks which
allow even the worst NBA team to have a shot at eventually rising to the

"All good things come to an end sooner or later," added an unusually subdued Pippen. "You learn to accept it and deal with it and move on. It would be great to still be here and still winning. But reality sets in."

That reality was underlined as Floyd freed three of his under-performers
this week, including Hungarian star Kornell David. It seems that even
with four months of the regular season left, the Bulls are happy to cast
aside those who have no long-term future in their ranks. But it will not
immediately stop the rot that has developed inside the organisation.

It is a trend which worryingly has manifested itself in other areas. Recently Dickey Simpkins, one the three remaining torchbearers of the 1998 championship side, made his entrance onto the court sporting a vest with the name "Smipkins" imprinted on his back.  

Can't score, can't win and now can't spell. At least it can't get much
worse than this. But as the Chicago Bulls have learnt, while it's tough
at the top, it's even more horrible at the bottom.

A version of this article also appeared in Scotland on Sunday.

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