IN MOST CASES, talk is cheap in the NBA. Make any prediction, and if you miss, just shrug and say, "I guess I was wrong." A case in point was Corey Blount, who predicted the Lakers would sweep the Jazz in the Western Conference Finals.

But when it's Michael Jordan making the prediction, it's different. If he says the sky is falling, you're probably going to want to start pricing hard hats.So after reading the papers on Saturday, I got the news I had been waiting for. Michael had spoken. He said, "We're going to win Game 7. I don't make promises. I only make promises to my wife. But we will win Game 7."

It was all I needed to hear. I booked my round-trip ticket to Chicago next week, non-refundable.

I have no problem at all if the Jazz play Indiana in the NBA Finals. Indiana is a nice team. It's a nice place. In fact, the Pacers are a replica of the Jazz: hard-working, tough, fundamental. Like the Jazz, Indiana is a team of good citizens. There is something truly appealing about a matchup of two smaller market teams, from basketball-crazy states, going for the championship.

However, I must confess, here is where I exit the Objectivity Freeway. When the Bulls and Pacers meet today in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, I will be cheering that Michael still has his stuff and the Bulls go on to meet the Jazz in the NBA Finals.

Normally I don't care who meets in the Finals. But this year I do. I want to see Chicago because I want to go back for deep-dish pizza and see if I can close off an artery in one night. I want to have another Authentic Chicago Dog, but this time with the hot peppers included. I want the Jazz to play the Bulls so I can drop by Harry Caray's and pay tribute to a guy so casual he broadcast games in his underwear.

There was a lot of stuff I missed altogether during last year's Finals. I got all busy covering games and forgot to cover Chicago. This year I want to do it up right. I want to ride the elevator to the top of the Sears Tower. I want to take the boat tour around the Lakeshore. I want to catch the late comedy act at Second City. I want to ride the L train around The Loop. I want to check out the Cook County Hospital to see if Harrison Ford is still chasing the one-armed man around the roof. I want to stop by Marshall Fields and pretend I'm considering paying $110 for a necktie.

I want to see what Dennis Rodman has to say about Utah this year. I want to see how good Michael can be in Game 5 without a 102-degree temperature.

During NBC's halftime show on Friday night, Karl Malone said he, too, wants the Bulls. Doesn't everyone? He said playing the Bulls would be a rare opportunity because "you don't get second chances."

Malone isn't entirely right. You do get second chances, though not often. Since the start of the NBA 51 years ago, 18 teams have returned to the Finals after losing the previous year. The kings of coming back for more are the Los Angeles Lakers, who have returned to the Finals six times. Five of those times they lost again. The Lakers don't seem to be very good at taking no for an answer.

Of those 18 returnees, nine won the championship on the second try. Eleven faced the same team they lost to the previous year, six of them winning the title.

The Jazz, then, have about a 50-percent chance of winning the title, whether they play Chicago or Indiana.

By this afternoon we'll know if it's the much-anticipated rematch with Chicago or the booby prize. We'll know if the Jazz won the Mustang convertible or the washer-dryer combination. We'll know whether they have a chance to win a championship or a chance to win a championship AND settle the score.

So, like the Mailman, I'm hoping it's Chicago in the Finals. I'm hoping to see the waterfront aquarium and Wrigley Field and Al Bundy. I'm hoping I get tackled on the set of the Jerry Springer Show. Lastly, I'm hoping it's Chicago in the Finals because it may be a last chance to see the greatest of 'em all, His Airness, when the games count most.

In "Dances with Wolves," Kevin Costner was asked why he would want to command a remote outpost in the American West. "I want to see the wilderness before it's gone," he said.

I want to see Michael before he's gone.



Finals return-trip results

Times a team has lost in Finals and returned next year: 18

Record on second try: 9-9

Times runner-up met same team next year: 11

Record on second try vs. same team: 6-5