Your author is a direct peer to Michael Jordan having graduated my undergraduate University in 1984 the same time Michael Jordan was coming out of North Carolina into the NBA draft after his junior year. I’ll spend the body of this article focusing specifically on the championship effort of 90-91, but, since this will be the first of a series of articles I’ll give a few paragraphs of background.
In the NBA draft of 1984 “the Dream,” or U. of Houston product Hakeem Olajuwon was the clear first overall pick, picking second and yearning for a big man the Portland Trail Blazers wisely took center Sam Bowie, the Chicago Bulls went out on a limb thinking that gangly guard from UNC Michael Jordan would develop NBA skills! The Bulls would emerge as a constant playoff team (their last previous playoff season was Jerry Sloan’s last full season as coach in 1980-81). Indeed the ’90’s Bulls would become synonymous with championships. The most significant part of MJ’s growth in my opinion was his ‘sophomore’ season. After leading the Bulls to the playoffs as a rookie MJ suffered a setback as a second year pro with a near season ending injury. In Game 3 against the Golden State Warriors, Michael sustained a broken foot that would sideline him until the Bulls were 24-43 and seemingly out of the playoff contention. Bulls management preferred coasting through the remainder of the schedule into a lottery pick and easing Michael back to health.
MJ would have none of that he played the rest of the season starting the final four games and concluding a 6-4 run that would squeeze them into 8th (past the Cleveland Cavaliers) and into a fateful first round match with the Boston Celtics. What is significant was the drive this illustrates, to Michael just playing out the string was not enough, would never be enough. He insisted on a (Bull) run to the playoffs that would garner him a worldwide reputation and veritably launch his superb career in earnest. During the first two games of the match with Boston at the storied Boston Garden, Michael would drop well over 100 points on a Celtics team featuring five future Hall of Famers (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, Dennis Johnson and Bill Walton) They also featured Danny Ainge in his prime. A notable quote was “Dennis was a prideful defensive player,” recalled Jerry Sichting, who would come off the bench and make what would be the winning shot in the second overtime. “He’s in the shower after that Game 1 when Michael has 49. He’s got the stat sheet stuck to the wall and he’s staring at it. He’s all soaped up and he says, ‘The good news is we beat them. Michael is never going to have another game like that again.’
This is a playoff performance for the ages perhaps a never to be eclipsed all time best. What is most remarkable is the mismatch the aforementioned Celtics at the tail end of their dynasty versus 30-52 Chicago with their rising star and a supporting cast that featured a (still green) John Paxson, Orlando Woolwridge, Charles Oakley and an aging George “Ice Man” Gervin. The rest of the Bulls’ roster was filled out by journeymen/role players. The most notable concept that I as a local Chicagoan and in those days living in the city I call my hometown, was the charge against Michael Jordan as being a self centered one-man show who could/would never motivate a supporting cast to greatness! [Michael and the Jordanaires, etc.] I think as he would routinely demonstrate that he took these allegations personally.
After the 1985-86 injury comeback season Michael would embark upon a quest of five seasons culminating in the subject of this article MJ’s/the Chicago Bulls’first NBA Championship. The building blocks would fall meticulously into place thanks to the two Jerrys (Reisendorfer [sic] and Krause.) First came Charles Oakley (before he came aboard MJ as a rookie was forced to lead the team in all significant stats [rebounding, scoring, assists and steals]) Charles Oakley set a club record with 18 offensive rebounds! His value to the team would ultimately be traded to obtain a legitimate NBA center Bill Cartwright. It was the 1987 draft that built the dynasty. Let’s be serious noone can expect to go deep into the playoffs with a team that features Brad Sellers and Granville Waiters as starters!
The draft is what truly launched our Chicago Bulls ’90’s dynasty: With two picks in the top 10, [Jerry] Krause selected Olden Polynice at No. 8 and Horace Grant at No. 10. He then traded Polynice and draft considerations to the Seattle SuperSonics for Scottie Pippen, whom the Sonics had grabbed with the fifth pick. Thus, moving forward we had surrounded MJ with a fifth and a tenth overall pick, John Paxson was already a steady companion in the backcourt. I believe it was truly the trade with New York Oakley for Cartwright that put the team over the top. There were other notable acquisitions such as Stacey King, Will Perdue, Luc Longley and Bill Wennington. These are significant since after Bill Cartwright’s retirement we would be able to employ a ‘three-headed’ monster at Center to keep running fresh legs at the Olajuwon’s and Shaquille O’Neil’s and Patrick Ewing‘s of this center prolific era of the NBA. Additionally the Jerrys mad certain Michael always had a reliable three-point shooter (BJ Armstrong, Trent Tuck and Craig Hodges most notably)
The other thing that put the Bulls dynasty in place was finally achieving success versus the Bad Boys of Detroit Rock City, the Motor City, Motown etc. In a coup d’etat we signed original Bad Boy Dennis Rodman in 1996. I will now segue into the 90-91 Championship season, in the preceding season only the Bad Boys boasted a defense with an average of less than 100 ppg. The Bulls dispatched their first round opponent Milwaukee Bucks 3-1 then rather easily dispatched Atlantic Division winning Philadelphia 76ers 4-1. This led to a seven game slugfest with eventual champs the Detroit Pistons. That series culminated in a humbling Game Seven loss in Detroit 74-93. We would average just 93 ppg against the Pistons while surrendering a mere 96 ppg. What was significant was Games 1-4 were all close 5-9 point margins of victory and the last three saw the home team win by at least 14 and two near twenty point blowouts.
This season began a trend which would continue throughout the ’90’s, winning the circus trip. Every year in Mid-November the Bulls would take a seven plus game tour of the Western Conference to enable the Chicago Stadium to host Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey. this season we rallied to a 4-3 mark with wins @Clippers and Denver to go with wins over the Jazz and Seattle. Having split our first twelve the healthy return from the circus trip two consecutive wins seemingly restored confidence in a squad that would end the season 61-21 (strikingly similar to this year’s version’s 62-20). The Bulls would roll through the season with a combo 1-2 punch of a formidible starting five (MJ, Pippen, Ho. Grant, Cartwright and Paxson) and a truly deep bench rotation. The true NBA fan understands that you must be able to get quality minutes from your bench usually toward the end of periods 1 & 3 and extending into the second and fourth quarters.
In Chicago we were able to defer to BJ Armstrong, Stacey King, Cliff Levingston, Will Perdue and Craig Hodges. We also had a young Scott Williams and Dennis Hopson available as needed. What this created was a constant flurry of energy and defensive aggression no matter whether the starters or the second unit were on the floor. There was frequently some combination of these as frequently Scottie pippen would play with four bench guys (similarly Luol Deng will frequently head a second unit squad while the other starters rest.) The Bulls would close the year with a convincing 108-100 win over Detroit signalling them what was in store later in the playoffs. Additionally, after the early struggles the Bulls would only lose two in a row twice more all season in early December and early April. (Much like the 2010-11 version).
Also of note in a mark of consistency the 90-91 squad beat every team in the NBA except the Houston Rockets and the San Antonio Spurs. In the MJ led era we always had a difficult time with the trio from Texas (Dallas Mavericks). This year’s squad beat every other team one of only two teams to accomplish that; the other, San Antonio Spurs lost ignominiously to the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round. In the playoffs the rise of the Bulls of the nineties literally rampaged through the East then man-handled the esteemed Los Angeles Lakers led by none other than Magic Johnson. Sweeps of the worthy New York Knickerbockers and the Detroit (Bad Boys) Pistons bracked a second round 4-1 dispatching of the still formidable Philade lphia76ers. These were the end of the Charles Barkley era 76ers. The Knicks were a perrenial dogfight for the Bulls during the ’90’s, yet they were ingloriously swept aside on this occasion.
Finally on Sunday May 19th the EC Finals against Isaiah Thomas and Co. commenced. In an epic dismantling the Bad Boys would be swept aside by winning margins of eleven, six eight and twenty-one. This led to the now infamous illustration of lack of sportsmanship as to a man the Pistons went to their home locker room without so much as a handshake to congratulate their worthy opponents! Detriot would rise again but not for over a decade! This presented an epic clash of Magic’s Prime Time Lakers and Chicago’s new look Bulls featuring two of the three largest markets in the US to the great joy of the NBA powers that be! In a two-three-two format it was considered of primary importance that the home team took both games one and two. Thus the sucker punch of a stolen game one by the Lakers seemed to doom the Bulls to another year of trying to achieve the ultimate prize.
Magic’s triple double (ten defensive rebounds, eleven assists and nineteen points) led four Lakers in double figures and a narrow 93-91 victory. Game Two was a message sender 107-86 Bulls win in which we narrowly out rebounded the Lakers 36-34. Leaders with seven were AC Green, Magic and Will Perdue, BUT the Bulls dominated with our starters as all of our big three scored at least 20 (Grant & Pippen 20 each and Jordan with 33). The Bulls would proceed to sweep three games at the Lakers venerable Forum culminating in a Game Five where the ailing James Worthy was shelved and Magic was quoted (and I paraphrase) Michael was driving constantly until when he was doubled he was just dishing and Pax went crazy on us! (John Paxon scored 20 on nine of twelve shooting, NO three pointers [two FTs]). True to his developing reputation as MJs second fiddle Scottie Pippen was Game Five’s scoring leader out scoring MJ 32-30, the Lakers wer led by Sam Perkins’ 22 and Elden Campbell’s 21.
While a healthy James Worthy would likely have forced at least a Game Six but I do not believe MJ would be denied this title even with Worthy at full strength! Since the Bulls 2010-11 version just suffered back-to-back ten point losses I am now on a mission to conclude this retrospective look at all six title seasons over the course of this upcoming week. I have high hope of winning three out of four but the pragmatist is bracing for a (shudder) Heat Mavericks finals. I thank you for taking this trip down memory lane with me!