Posted Aug 31 2011 9:57AM
The final horn had sounded, the trophy presentation had been made, and long after the victory champagne had been sloshed into every corner of their locker room, there was really nothing else for the Chicago Bulls to do.
Except celebrate all over again.
Urged on by their unorthodox coach Phil Jackson and led by their otherworldly superstar Michael Jordan, the team that had wrapped up back-to-back NBA titles about an hour earlier made its way up out of the bowels of rickety old Chicago Stadium and held an impromptu love-in with the tens of thousands of fans who had remained in the stands.
There was Jordan, who had cried uncontrollably after winning his first championship a year earlier in L.A., holding the shiny gold trophy in one hand and huge victory cigar in the other as he played the head-of-the-snake role in a conga up and down the court.
If a team had earned the right to dance, it was the Bulls, who spent a long eight months trying to live in their own shadow, live up to the hype and expectations and finally emerged intact by defeating the Portland Trail Blazers 4-2 in The Finals.
After the preceding two NBA champions (Lakers 1987-88, Pistons 1989-90) had won back-to-back crowns, it seemed the only way the Bulls could validate their first win in 1991 was with a repeat. Assistant coach John Bach had acknowledged that way back in training camp when he said: "Only the Bulls can beat the Bulls."
The warning sirens were going off almost immediately when the defending champs lost two of their first three regular season games. But the panic quickly subsided when they went on a 14-game winning streak that put them at a lofty 15-2 in early December. Another 13-game tear put them at 37-5 just past the midway point, then the Bulls were practically able to do the backstroke while sipping umbrella drinks to finish with a 67-15 regular season record, the fourth-best in the history of the league.
Jordan had won his sixth consecutive scoring title (30.1 points per game) and Scottie Pippen's game continued to blossom as he scored at a clip of 21 a game and, for the time in his career, averaged more rebounds and assists than Jordan.
"Winning a lot of games in the regular season is fine, but it doesn't mean anything if we don't take care of business and get it done in the playoffs," Jordan said. "This is where the real work begins."
The real toil started after a 3-0 sweep of the Miami Heat in the first round. Going toe-to-toe one more time with their longtime rival New York Knicks, the Bulls needed every ounce of energy and late-game ability from their 1-2 punch of Jordan and Scottie Pippen to escape.
The hard-nosed, hard-driving Knicks were under the direction of coach Pat Riley, who had given up his "Showtime" persona from the Lakers and turned his team led by Patrick Ewing, John Starks, Xavier McDaniel, Mark Jackson and Anthony Mason into a bruising, physical bunch that played with a chip on their shoulder and dared teams to knock it off.
The Knicks pushed the Bulls, tested the Bulls and forced the Bulls to go to the very limit before Chicago escaped with a 4-3 series win that sent them on to the Eastern Conference finals.
There Chicago resumed its teasing, taunting, and tantalizing of the Cleveland Cavaliers, giving Brad Daugherty, Mark Price and company hope once again before snatching it away by closing out the series in a hard-fought six games.
By the time they showed up for the start of The Finals, the Bulls were a playoff team that had already walked dangerously close to the edge. They were, if not physically worn out, were mentally frayed by the journey.
The Bulls were facing a deep and talented Portland team that, after losing to Detroit in 1990, was returning to The Finals with a point to prove. There were even some in the media and on the periphery of the series who were bold enough to wonder if the Blazers' Clyde Drexler wasn't every bit the player as Jordan, only without the marquee billing.
As usual, Jordan was there to step up and answer any questions quite decisively. He scored 35 of his 39 points in the first half of Game 1, setting a Finals record of six 3-pointers in a half. After sinking one of them, Jordan famously looked over at the national TV announcers sitting at midcourt and shrugged.
"The Shrug" became another part of the Jordan lore as the Bulls took the opener 122-89, but Portland came back to claim a surprising Game 2 overtime win in Chicago and the battle was engaged.
After the Bulls won two of three games in Portland, they returned home for Game 6 with a chance to close out their consecutive championships. Yet if the season had proved anything, it was that nothing would come easy.
Chicago trailed 79-64 entering the fourth quarter and the raucous crowd at the old stadium was silent. Jordan sat on the bench as the period began and everyone appeared to be accepting of a Game 7 to decide it all.
"In my mind, frankly, no, I didn't think it was possible," said Jordan.
But a fourth quarter lineup that began with Pippen, B.J. Armstrong, Bobby Hansen, Scott Williams and Stacey King didn't simply play out the string. Hansen lit the fuse with a 3-pointer and a steal and the Blazers started to come unglued, making turnovers and forcing shots.
Jordan returned with 8 1/2 minutes to go and he and Pippen then stepped into their usual star roles to carry the Bulls down the stretch.
"Going into the series, I thought Michael had 2,000 moves," Drexler would say in the aftermath. "I was wrong. He has 3,000."
While Jordan and Pippen scored the Bulls' final 19 points of the game, it was the "supporting cast" of Armstrong, Hansen, Williams and King that deserved the credit for picking them up off the floor and not letting the defending champs get into a one-game-for-everything situation.
The 15-point fourth-quarter comeback was the largest in Finals history and the 97-93 victory in Game 6 finally got the Bulls to the finish line, more relieved than jubilant.
"If last year was a honeymoon for this team," said Jackson, "then this year was an odyssey."
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