It is an oddity of sports. As much as team unity and togetherness are espoused, there are always exceptions. George Steinbrenner's New York Yankees made a reputation of feuding themselves all the way to the pennant.
The hottest team in the National Basketball Association lately is the Chicago Bulls. They are also a team that, if not in turmoil, at least has a number of aggravations that would make lesser teams wilt.Somehow, the disharmony hasn't spilled over onto the win-loss columns. The Bulls have won 12 of their past 13 games, that despite the fact that the team's two best players have been at odds with management in recent weeks. Meanwhile, illness and injury have also taken their toll.
Friday night in Chicago Stadium (6:30 p.m. on Fox-13), the Bulls play the Utah Jazz, perhaps the second-hottest team around. The Jazz have won nine of their last 11, including five straight road games.
The contest will be the fifth in a seven-game road trip for the Jazz. It will also be Utah's chance to even the score after losing on a buzzer shot by Michael Jordan, November 14 in the Salt Palace.
It has been a strange season for the Bulls. Although they lead the Central Division by six games, most of the news out of Chicago in the last month has been that of conflict. Basketball's biggest star, Jordan, was openly feuding with G.M. Jerry Krause and at one point wasn't speaking to him.
For Jordan, it has been an uncharacteristically turbulent year. Despite leading the NBA in scoring, he has been at odds with Krause over the G.M.'s failure to make the team a contender through shrewd deals. He was quoted as saying "the Bulls would be better if I were the general manager."
The criticism from Jordan came to a boil after Krause failed to sign Denver's Walter Davis after having two chances in the past year. Davis is now with the Portland Trailblazers.
Jordan has also complained about Coach Phil Jackson's plan to incorporate less Jordan and more team into their offense.
Some reports have even said teammates were privately unhappy with Jordan for criticizing them after losses.
In recent days Jordan has - at least publicly - smoothed things over with Krause for the good of the team.
Then there is the case of Scottie Pippen, the team's second-best player, who is making a relatively low $765,000 a year. Pippen has reportedly asked for a five-year, $16 million contract and Jordan backs him on the issue. Krause and the Bulls have been busy trying to woo Yugoslavian star Toni Kukoc for more than $3 million a season, while purportedly letting Pippen cool his heels.
Jordan complained, with good logic, that few foreign players have yet to make a large impact on the NBA scene. (The only possible exception could be Lakers' center Vlade Divac.) Some say the Bulls may never sign Kukoc.
Last week Pippen staged a "sick-out," missing practice in a protest over Chicago's delay in offering a new contract.
Regardless of the concerns, the Bulls roll on. They won nine straight games before finally losing to Indiana last Saturday. That was followed by a win Tuesday night over Milwaukee. Chicago has a 21-game home winning streak and has been winning by an average margin of 17.4 points a game during that span. Only two of their 29 home wins have been decided by four points or less.
Jackson appears confident he can ride out any problems the team has. "I grew up in New York. I played in a situation where 11 newspapers followed our every move, and a lot of things got boiled out that way. Controversy is healthy - as long as the team doesn't let it affect the wins," he told the Boston Globe.
"All you've gotta do is worry about playing," said Jazz Coach Jerry Sloan, when asked about distractions. "The Yankees knew how to focus when it came time to focus. That's the most important thing."
Physically, the Bulls aren't completely up to speed. Jordan missed Wednesday's practice due to a virus. Horace Grant also missed, due to a sprained ankle and Scott Williams was out with a bad shoulder.
However, none of the above troubles seem to have made a dent in the Bulls' confidence. As one Chicago writer observed, "I guess winning cures everything."
PREGAME NOTES: Thurl Bailey has scored in double figures in 15 of the last 18 games . . . John Stockton needs to average just 7.4 assists - his season average is 14.4 - the rest of the way to reach the 1,000-assist milestone for his fourth straight season . . . Rookie Andy Toolson has started 15 games, subbing in for Blue Edwards and Jeff Malone . . . Tony Brown's 10-day contract will expire on Sunday, but will likely be renewed for another 10 days while Blue Edwards recovers from a sprained ankle.