Jordan the heart and soul of the Bulls run

SPORT IN ANOTHER COUNTRY; The dominant figure in American sport is in lethal form, reports Rupert Cornwell
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The Independent Online
Even Leonardo must have torn up the odd canvas in disgust, and presumably Jack Nicklaus at least once in his professional career shot a triple-bogey. So it may yet be that, come tomorrow morning, the Seattle Supersonics are still alive in the National Basketball Association championship, having at last defeated the rampaging Chicago Bulls. But beyond the immediate vicinity of Puget Sound, hardly a soul in America believes it. A 4-0 Chicago sweep is as good as done, and a casebook study in psychological warfare on the basketball court - in any sport, for that matter - is all but over.

For, at least as much as in the heart or even the limbs, this profoundly disappointing series has been won and lost in the mind. Yes, the Bulls may very well be the greatest team in NBA history. Certainly the statistics say so - an unprecedented 72-10 regular season followed, assuming they win tonight, by a 15-1 record in the play-offs and a fourth championship in six years. Yes, Michael Jordan is probably the all-time greatest NBA player (Chicago's city fathers have already so decreed by erecting a statue to him outside the United Center before the man is even retired, let alone dead). And who else could have reeled off 15 straight points towards the end of the second quarter on Sunday, lifting the Bulls to a 62-38 lead that killed the game?

But the Sonics, possessed of the second-best regular season record, should be nobody's pushover. This ought to have been a sensational series. However, even more than their athletic prowess, what truly sets the Bulls and Jordan apart is their will to win, and the conviction they will do so. This is arrogance, but divine arrogance, the knowledge they will not be - cannot be - denied. Even before the first two games in Chicago (won by the Bulls 107-90 and 92-88) the ferocious hunger for victory was visible. Like a prize fighter who stares down his opponent at the weigh-in, the Bulls showed inferiority in the Sonics before the opening bell. Seattle's Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton are two of the finest young talents around. Thus far they've played like rabbits in front of a cobra.

Not so Jordan, possessed of an extraordinary ability to lift his side's game a gear whenever required. Last Friday the Bulls' Croatian guard, Toni Kukoc, was having a limp, dismal game two when Jordan came over to him. "Are you scared ? If you're scared then go sit down." Kukoc exploded for eight points over less than two minutes in the third quarter, enough to swing a tight contest in which the Bulls were way below their best.

Now Chicago are in Seattle for games three and four (and five, should Leonardo spill his paint). In a basketball arena, enclosed and thunderously noisy, home-court advantage normally means something. But Jordan had that small problem worked out in advance. "Basically, we wanted to take the crowd out of the game, and we did." He kicked the team into overdrive, opening an 18- point lead after 15 minutes, 24 points by the end of the half. From this kind of deficit in basketball, there is as little hope of return as for the football team down 3-0 after half an hour. The crowd might have been at a Beethoven concert. At the final buzzer, Seattle had been washed away, 108-86.

By then it was like a fight which the referee ought to stop, or a wretched afternoon at the corrida. A poor-quality bull (no pun intended) has nothing left. Stop the grisly, demeaning charade, the non-aficionado wishes with all his heart. So it was in Seattle on Sunday evening, You almost turned your eyes from the TV screens. By the fourth quarter, Chicago were missing free throws by the hatful - but who cared? Jordan was on the bench with a towel around his shoulders, grinning and chatting, mission accomplished with a personal 36 points scored. On court Scottie Pippen, the Bulls' second superstar, was controlling the game effortlessly.

It was left to Dennis Rodman, the third member of the Bulls' trinity of superstars, to play Technicolor matador. His hair a peacock's tail of blue, green, yellow and orange, the monstrously egotistical Rodman leered, pranced and taunted (as well as making 10 rebounds). Finally, in the middle of the fourth quarter, he goaded Sonics' forward Frank Brickowski to lash out and be ejected from the game. Not that it mattered. The Sonics by then had been pricked, poked and speared into oblivion. Afterwards Rodman sneered that "Seattle is totally out of its rhythm. All they're doing is trying to mess with me, trying to get into my head. They don't understand, you can't mess with the master." The sad thing is that in that innermost recess of the mind, where great athletes draw last and deepest, the Sonics have all along understood the point precisely. You don't mess with the Bulls. That's why this depressing NBA series was over before it began.