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Fran Blinebury

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An iconic NBA image: Michael Jordan is overcome with emotion after winning his first title.
NBAE via Getty Images

Jordan, Bulls finally climb ladder to title in '91


Posted Sep 15 2011 4:23PM

There were just under seven minutes left in Game 5 of the NBA Finals and his team was down three when coach Phil Jackson took a kneeling spot in the huddle and looked Michael Jordan straight in the eyes.

"Who's open?" the Bulls coach asked his superstar player.

Jordan said nothing.

"Who's open?" Jackson asked again.

"Paxson," Jordan finally replied.

"O.K., let's find him," Jackson said.

So Jordan did.

Six minutes later, with the Lakers still clinging to a two-point lead, Jordan drew the defense to him and then whipped a crosscourt pass to John Paxson, standing all alone in the left corner, simply nailed the shot, the Lakers never scored again and the 1991 Chicago Bulls wrapped up the first of their six championships.

If only it been so easy.

It had taken the Bulls seven fitful years to reach the mountaintop after that day when Michael Jeffrey Jordan landed in their laps as the No. 3 pick in the 1984 draft.

It had taken riffling through the deck of coaching cards -- Kevin Loughery, Stan Albeck and Doug Collins -- until finally landing the ace of diamonds in Jackson, the former free spirit appendage on the Knicks championship machine in his playing days, who became part-mystic, part-motivator, part-maestro on the Bulls bench.

It had taken the rumpled and perennially underappreciated general manager Jerry Krause to wheel and deal, maneuver and draft and assemble a collection of talent that could not only surround Jordan's nonpareil skills, but supplement them. From trading for Scottie Pippen on draft night in 1987, to making Horace Grant the No. 10 pick just a few minutes later to swapping top rebounder Charles Oakley for the often-maligned center Bill Cartwright, Krause meticulously assembled the pieces of what would grow into the NBA's modern-era dynasty.

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Michael Jordan and the up-and-coming Chicago Bulls were charged with facing NBA royalty in Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

It had taken the building all of those tough calluses through so many seasons of trying to scale the mountain and falling short. For the first three years of Jordan's career, it was the veteran lineups of the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics who perennially served notice that the Bulls were not ready. The Bulls were wiped out three straight times in the first round, winning only one of 10 games. Jordan himself had staked his flag with his 63-point effort in Game 2 of 1986 playoffs at Boston Garden, yet the Bulls still lost in double overtime.

It had taken more than even the immortalized last-second Jordan dagger over a helpless Craig Ehlo in the deciding Game 5 at Cleveland to hone their sharp edge and forge the mettle of a true contender. For three straight years -- 1988 to 1990 -- the Bulls' rite of spring was stepping into the ring against the rugged Bad Boys of the Detroit Pistons and getting punched out.

The start to the 1990-91 season gave little indication of what was to come as the Bulls stumbled to 0-3 out of the starting blocks, falling to Philadelphia, Washington and Boston. But things turned around in a hurry as Chicago closed out 1990 with a sizzling stretch of 14 wins in 17 games and rolled into New Year's day with a 20-9 record.

The meat of the schedule found the Bulls in full stride as they ripped off winning streaks of seven, seven and eight games. Jordan was on his way to averaging 31.5 points, 6 rebounds, 5.5 assists and shooting 53.9 percent from the field and putting a hammerlock on his second MVP award. The Bulls won their division for the first time in 16 years and set a franchise record with 61 regular-season wins.

Still, there was the gantlet of tough opponents to run in the rugged Eastern Conference that would prove if Chicago had truly taken the next step up to the elite level. And even when they swept the New York Knicks 3-0 and handled Philly easily at 4-1, there remained the roadblock of the Pistons.

It was assistant coach John Bach, quoted in Sam Smith's book, "The Jordan Rules," who probably summed up the Bulls' attitude best going into the Eastern Conference finals: "They're the albatross. We've really got to get them, kill them, and end this Detroit thing. That's the only thing that will really get us respect and make us feel like a winner."

It was the Bad Boys who had invented the so-called Jordan Rules to contend and corral the game's best individual talent and the two-time defending champions figured to still pack a punch. However, it was the Bulls who delivered the wallop in the form of a 4-0 sweep that was so complete and so shocking that the demoralized Pistons slinked off the floor before the final horn sounded in the clincher, offering no congratulations to Jordan and his teammates.

If the Bulls were going to at long last complete their climb up the ladder to a title, there could be no more fitting and opponent in the NBA than Magic Johnson and the L.A. Lakers, who had affixed their purple-and-gold stamp in the 1980s by winning five championships. This was the matchup that would test the Bulls against the league's royalty and test the singular brilliance of Jordan against Johnson and his ability to lift up his teammates.

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The Bulls captured the 1991 title on the heels of Phil Jackson urging Michael Jordan to find a wide open John Paxson down the stretch of Game 5.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

After a splendid Game 1 that was such a work of art that it could have been hung behind a velvet rope in the Louvre, the Lakers had a 93-91 win and everyone believing they were still kings of the mountain.

Everyone, that is, except the Bulls. This was finally a different team carrying more experience and more confidence. While it was Jordan's up-and-down-and-right-to-left-and-around-and-under-double-pumping layup in the fourth quarter that was replayed over and over on TV, it was the inspired play and the in-your-face defense by Pippen on Magic that set the tone from the opening tip.

A year earlier, Pippen had done considerable damage to his reputation by calling in sick for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals with a migraine. But the multi-talented forward had done a brick-by-brick reconstruction job all season long by dedicating himself harder in the weight room, on the practice floor and by standing up to virtually every challenge.

That breakthrough 107-86 rout in Game 2 was like a dam bursting and there was simply no stopping the Bulls. They took Game 3 in overtime in L.A. and whipped the Lakers by 15 in Game 4.

The popular line being circulated was that the Bulls were finally reaching their potential because Jordan was finally giving up his one-man act and learning to trust his teammates, his self-described "supporting cast."

Of course, the problems of the past could always have been that the supporting cast had never been capable of supporting enough.

"I am not their baby-sitters," Jordan famously said.

The truth is, Krause simply went out and got better players and they were finally able to rise to his level. It was never a case of the rest of the lineup taking the Bulls over a hump that Jordan couldn't clear. It was all of them finally going out and playing with the same determination and confidence and execution as he did.

"It's pretty simple," Magic Johnson explained. "The team with the most good players usually wins."

So it came to that timeout with just under seven minutes left in the game and Jackson posing the question to Jordan:

"Who's open?"

And it came to that possession with less than a minute showing on the clock when Jordan provided the answer.

It was never easy.

The end of the beginning. The start of something big.

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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