First Night: Chicago Bulls - Don't mention Jordan ... but they all did

The NBA is off and running at last. Andrew Longmore reports from Salt Lake City on life after Michael
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A few highly paid basketball players returned to their offices last week and discovered the awful truth that not everyone had missed them while they had been away. Traditionally, the rhythm of the NBA season quickens in the vacuum between the Superbowl and the start of the baseball season, but somewhere in the squabble over the inheritance of $2bn and the departure of its most saleable asset basketball has lost its appeal.

A full-page newspaper advertisement for TNT, the cable television station, reminded people that "this is the first night of the rest of your basketball life". Utahns considered the prospect for a moment, then said "Nah, don't think so", and went back to sleep.

The Delta Centre in Salt Lake City, venue for some epic battles between the Utah Jazz and the Chicago Bulls in the last two seasons, was about two-thirds full to its 20,000 capacity, an unprecedented slight on the hottest show in town. The Utah Symphony Orchestra are not generally considered a rival attraction to the Jazz, so the inescapable conclusion was not quite the one the spin doctors at the head of the NBA had anticipated. "The backlash of the lock- out, it has to be," said one journalist.

A poll in Utah's daily newspaper before Christmas had hinted at the apathy. Fifty per cent said they couldn't really care whether the Jazz played their season or not. It had not helped the cause that Karl Malone, their most charismatic figure, had spent much of the six-month strike telling listeners to his radio show that he had played his last game for the Jazz.

Malone wanted $20m a year, the new collective bargaining agreement, hammered out between owners and players in an all-night session a month ago, meant that a paltry $14m was the maximum clubs could afford. No one wept much for the Mailman's lost millions and there were as many jeers as cheers when he ambled on to the court for the opening game of the shortened season on Friday night.

Yet, only one person was really missing. It was like that Fawlty Towers episode. Don't mention Michael Jordan. Everyone did, of course, though the new team masquerading in the shirts and shorts of one of the greatest teams in sporting history did just about as much as it could to banish the memory, which is not necessarily a compliment. But the more the minutes ticked away, the more pronounced the imagery grew. Jordan's last act on an NBA basketball court came at the same Delta Centre in game six of the finals last season, a steal from John Stockton and then an elegant and utterly inevitable three-point shot which clinched a sixth title in eight years for the Bulls.

Observers are sure Jordan held the pose, arms extended in an exaggerated follow through, simply to allow the cameras to record the moment for posterity. On Friday, as the Bulls gallantly closed to within five points of the Jazz as the clock ticked down, they searched desperately for the inspiration Jordan had so routinely provided. Tony Kukoc, the most talented member of the reconstructed squad, had experienced a similar feeling of helplessness in a pre-season friendly. The weirdest thing, he said, was not the new faces or the new coach or even the fact someone else was changing in MJ's locker space. "The weirdest thing was that we were losing," he said.

The Bulls, by common consent, will be well versed in the art by season's end. Their own Chicago Tribune had placed them 28th out of 29 in a list of contenders for the coming season. Only the LA Clippers were deemed to be worse. Television has been even more scathing. With Jordan last year, the Bulls were scheduled 16 times on prime time national television. This season, without Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Denis Rodman, Luc Longley and Steve Kerr, their one and only appearance - against New York on 21 February - is confined to the eastern half of the country.

Defeat by 104-96 was not quite the debacle some had forecast, but there was the lingering sense that Jordan would have turned it around. "We mustn't think like that," Bill Wennington, the veteran centre, said. "This is like being in a different team altogether. The only similarities are that we wear the same uniforms and we play in the same venue. We can't rely on the past. If we keep looking for MJ every night, we'll be looking in the wrong place. Everyone on the team has to step their games up a bit." Kukoc did just that, bearing statistical comparison with Jordan, for one night at least. "I was worried about being embarrassed when I heard that the team was not coming back, but it is good for us to go out together and play as a team. The challenge for me is not to score 30 points every night but to make other players around me play better." Strangely, the inability to lift others was a criticism levelled at Jordan earlier in his career.

So haphazard have been Chicago's preparations, Tim Floyd, who was making his debut as an NBA coach, sometimes didn't have enough players on his roster to organise a full-scale practice. But Floyd - "Pink Floyd" as his predecessor, Phil Jackson, used to call him - has tackled what most regard as an impossible job with an impressively light touch so far.

"I'm not sure what I'm supposed to say to that," he said when asked about some dubious refereeing decisions. "I'm new to this league, but it sounds like a good observation to me." If the team felt the weight of the shirts they were wearing, their spirit seemed robust enough. Down for most of the game, the Bulls came close to hustling an uninspired Utah side out of their stride in the final quarter. "I'm glad to get that one over with," added Floyd. "Now we can concentrate on the future and some of the hype that has surrounded me can be deflected on to my players."

It is not just Chicago who are coming to terms with life after Michael. The whole of the NBA is taking a deep breath. Much of the money now lining the pockets of the players can be traced back to Jordan's unique ability to cross racial, social and cultural divides. Jordan was marketed not just as a brilliant athlete but as a good man. And humanity sells.

Jordan was the figurehead for an ambitious programme of global expansion, the main attraction for a thriving range of corporate sponsors and the one player who could be guaranteed to put millions on the television ratings. Jordan-related Nike products have earned an estimated $2.6bn since he first donned Air Jordans in 1984. But Forbes magazine suggests that the value in terms of image doubles the figure. In his absence, it is not only Nike who will have to rethink its marketing strategy. "They [fans] wonder about the future of life itself as well as basketball without Michael," says the basketball commissioner, David Stern. "There's not a lot of difference between Paris and Chicago. People want to know about the post-Michael NBA."

The danger already anticipated by Stern is that a sport which has four- fifths black players and four-fifths white spectators will succumb to deep-rooted and complex racial perceptions. The players, says Stern, have to understand their responsibilities to the public. Allowing fans in free to watch pre-season friendlies, promoting more player-fan interaction days, taking more time out to sign autographs have all been part of the charm offensive designed to soothe the impression of carelessness and greed fostered by the six-month players' strike. "We can promise fans a greater sensitivity to what players and teams alike can do to continue to win their hearts," Stern gushes. "We can also promise them a very competitive league."

The dismantling of Jordan's Chicago Bulls has given more teams a realistic chance of success. In time, Stern hopes, it will heighten interest in the league and help promote a new generation of clean- living, articulate, image-conscious, young stars who can carry on Jordan's work. In the meantime, Tim Floyd and what remains of the Bulls have to fashion a team from some unpromising cloth.

"I just want to identify short-term goals, like a series of five games. I want the guys to keep playing late and playing hard every night." Unflattering comparisons will be the new Bulls' nightly companions. "Michael Jordan?" Wennington regards another question quizzically. "He's retired, you know."