Bulls lay claim to best of all time

Rupert Cornwell witnesses history being made by Chicago in the NBA
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A Chicago TV station sent a news crew up in a helicopter to broadcast live the team's bus as it made the 90-mile drive north to the game, while 500 reporters, no less, showed up from across America and the world to witness the deed itself in the Bradley Center in Milwaukee. And the night's appointed heroes did not disappoint. With an 86-80 victory over the Bucks, the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday became the first NBA team to amass 70 wins in a regular season, along the way staking their claim to be the best basketball team in history.

In the end though, it was all rather routine, a less than scintillating day at the office. When the deed was done, Michael Jordan and the rest presented their coaches with cigars. But in his moment of triumph the man who has eclipsed Al Capone and Mayor Daley as the most famous Chicagoan in history sounded less euphoric than relieved.

Maybe that was because the Bucks' gritty performance had the Bulls reaching inside themselves a little. At half-time Milwaukee led by 49-40. Jordan had hoped to be on the bench in the closing minutes savouring the hosannas of his nation. Instead, with 16 seconds to go, he was on court blocking a three-point attempt that would have brought the Bucks to within one. But then Steve Kerr, the Bulls guard, was fouled, and two converted penalty throws brought the final margin back to six points.

"I guess we did enough, but we were a little lacklustre," Jordan said afterwards. "We've rewritten history, but now the play-offs and the pressure really start. I'd give these 70 wins for the championship."

Such modesty, however, is probably superfluous. After a two-year hiatus while Jordan worked out a premature mid-life crisis playing indifferent minor league baseball in Birmingham, Alabama, the natural order of the NBA universe has been restored. In other words, has anyone got a prayer of stopping the Bulls, champions in 1991, 1992 and 1993, winning yet another crown in 1996? And, it must now be asked, are they the best NBA team ever?

The answer to the first question is almost certainly, no. The Bulls have not lost more than once to any rival this season. Conceivably, a team or a scorer on a white-hot night could beat them in one, possibly two games in the play-offs - but not in a best-of-seven series. Compared to a Bulls failure, Greg Norman's collapse in the Masters on Sunday would seem as routine as a swoon at a teenage dancing party.

But are they the best of all time - better say, than Wilt Chamberlain's LA Lakers of the early 1970s, whose record of 69-13 in 1971-72 fell to the Bulls on Tuesday? Certainly they are a more complete team than the three-times champions of earlier this decade. Jordan himself may have lost a shade of speed and brute strength but, NBA coaches agree, he is, at 33, a wiser, craftier player than before, and a better leader than ever. He is also incidentally still good enough to take his eighth career league scoring title by a street, averaging 30.6 points a game, against 27.0 for his nearest rival, Hajeem Olajuwon of the Houston Rockets, the current usurpers on the NBA throne.

The chemistry is marvellous, too. At the highest echelon, Jordan and All-Star point guard Scottie Pippen work better together than ever. The talents of Dennis Rodman, basketball's foul-mouthed, orange-haired, all- over tattooed bad boy, have been successfully harnessed - though Rodman did miss six games for butting a referee earlier this year. But the Bulls took that deprivation in their stride. Contrary to what many experts expected, the team has shown extraordinary depth.

At least as much as the trio of mega-stars, the heroes of the season have been the likes of Randy Brown, James Edwards, Jud Buechler and Steve Kerr and Luc Longley - hardly journeymen of their sport, but not household names either. All have exhibited that astonishing single-mindedness of purpose: "We deserve to win 70," Pippen said at the weekend, "because we've been so focused for every single game."

But the best in history? The question is no more answerable than whether Louis would have beaten Ali, or Bobby Jones have defeated Jack Nicklaus. The game has changed, argues the Cleveland Cavaliers coach, Mike Fratello, "but I can attest to their greatness." Pippen makes the same point. "I don't think you can compare teams with the 1970s, but for anyone 20 years old or so, they can look at us and say we're the best basketball team they've ever seen."