Raging Bulls

It has been many a season since Michael Jordan took second Billing anywhere, let alone in a basketball arena. But Friday night at the Great Western Forum was a Magic night. Jordan seemed perfectly content to play a supporting role, greeting Magic Johnson before the game with a Hollywood hug. And his words were graciously deferential. "Whatever makes him happy is fine with me," he said. "This is what the NBA is all about--challenges and rivalries." Then Jordan and the Chicago Bulls took the court and never gave it back. Johnson scored 15 points, a worthy performance for a 36-year-old man playing only his second NBA game in almost five years. But he was upstaged not only by Jordan, but by his running mates. On one play, the balletic Scottie Pippen went by, up, and over Magic before casually tossing in a no-look, over-his-shoulder basket. And the always decorous Dennis Rodman laid hands on Magic, reminding him that the only celebrities with free passes were sitting in the grandstand.

Record pace: While Johnson made the headlines last week, it was Jordan's Bulls who were making NBA history. After Friday's 99-84 victory, Chicago's record was 41 wins and 3 losses--on pace for an incredible 76 victories this season, which would shatter the league record of 69. "Didn't think this season would be this good," said Jordan, who is back in his customary, perch atop NBA scorers. "But it's important to remember that 70 games won and no championship doesn't mean much at the end of the day."

The Bulls' record and championship pursuits are all the more remarkable because Chicago is the NBA's oldest team. Its starters average 31 years; and its three stars are shining in what used to be sports' twilight years; Rodman will soon be 35, Pippen is 30 and Jordan turns 33 next week. Pippen remains the NBA's most versatile player, and Rodman will capture his fifth straight rebounding title. The changed man is Jordan, who, in the second season of his comeback, has reinvented himself as both athlete and teammate. For the first time in his career, Jordan has been working out regularly and embracing a Bulls-developed regimen, centered on rapid-fire weight lifting and aimed at developing "explosive strength" over endurance (box). "I didn't think I needed to before," Jordan told NEWSWEEK in a rare extended interview. "It's really been a plus for my game."

That's hardly the only change. It once seemed that the only Bull with whom Jordan was remotely comfortable was coach Phil Jackson, whose masterful handling of the team's disparate egos and temperaments should earn him an NBA lifetime achievement award. Though he still abides by his own special rules, Jordan appears totally at ease with his teammates. His practice corner, with Pippen and starting guard Ron Harper, frequently erupts in laughter. The three compete after practice to see who can elude the media. Jordan almost always loses, caught in the throng before he reaches his black Mercedes (license: RARE AIR). On the road, Jordan, who used to hang with his own entourage, often club-hops with his two teammates.

Shared pain: Jordan's newfound friendship with Pippen stems from Scottie's having spent a season in Michael's sneakers. After Jordan took off for minor-league baseball, Pip-pen felt the pain of intense pressure. "Now he has a better appreciation of my life," says Jordan. "When two people share the same circumstances, they connect." Pippen concurs: "I really had no idea what he had to deal with until he left." It is a reflection of Jordan's newfound respect for Pippen (as well as newfound tact) that he calls this year's Bulls "Scottie's team." Pippen laughs at that: "I don't know why he says it; it's really wrong. Just ask the fans."

Actually, it's Jerry Reinsdorf's team, and the crusty Chicago owner has the problem of re-signing both Jordan and coach Jackson after this season. But Jordan is, forgive us, the man. Before training camp began, it was Jordan who called up Rod-man, his controversial new teammate, "to make sure we were all on the same page." Jordan was satisfied, and the two have developed a cordial relationship. While they are "total opposites" off the court, Jordan says that "on the court we are very similar: both consummate pros." Rodman hasn't changed (except hair colors), but he has toned down his act and has been booted from only one game. And the Bulls simply don't care if Dennis exercises to Randy Travis songs or enjoys comparing nail-polish notes (his choice: Rio Red by Revlon) with a female reporter. "Michael knows he can count on me," Rodman says. "I'm just here to put gas in."

Jordan hasn't completely mellowed. He maintains exacting standards for both himself and his teammates and will blister offenders. During last week's win over Houston, Jordan screamed at center Luc Longley after he let Hakeem Olajuwon get in Michael's way. "Scottie has a little bit more sensitivity toward the players' feelings," admits Jordan. "I'm trying to acquire that."

Fundamentally, the Bulls rely on the strategy that led them to three consecutive NBA championships in the early '90s. They run the triangle offense, a three-man game on one side of the court that relies on passing and picks and utilizes the improvisational skills of Jordan and Pippen. It observes the team's most glaring weakness, at center. NBA conventional wisdom says the Bulls are most vulnerable in the playoffs to a team with a dominating center, like Houston's Olajuwon or Orlando's Shaquille O'Neal. But Chicago compensates with speed and aggressiveness on defense. In a league with talent diluted by expansion, that may prove enough. That and of course, the re-energized Mr. Jordan. "I had gotten very bored with basketball--very bored," he said. "Baseball helped me re-establish the motivation I needed to come back."

Ever the competitor, Jordan thinks that Magic's return may be a bit easier than his own because Magic never stopped playing basketball. "He shouldn't have any of the problems I had getting back into the mix of the game," said Michael. "I expect him to come back on top." Or, at least, near it. Because right now, the way the Bulls are playing, there's just no room at the top.

RUN LIKE A BULL

Phil Jackson and strength coach AL Vermeil rely on a four-step program to keep the aging team fit.

Players need strength in concentrated bursts: think of a dunk. First they build their "maximal strength"--the amount of weight they can lift. Then they shift to speed lifting, rapid presses that produce explosive power.

One secret to avoiding injury is a strong midsection--the abdominal and lower-back muscles. A solid core distributes the shock of hard landings through the body. To build the torso, Bulls do sit-ups, toss medicine balls and ride atop a large Swiss ball, flat on their bellies.

Massage therapists loosen the players' muscles. While they're poking around, the therapists search for the signs of hidden muscle tears. Once identified, the rehabilitation can begin before the injury gets severe.

Seven meals and snacks each day. The diet is 60 percent complex carbohydrates (fruit, veggies and grains), 25 percent protein (meat, fish and poultry) and 15 percent fat. Coaches remind players to eat breakfast and avoid fast-food outlets except for endorsements.