Part VI: Jordan's Bulls take a step forward
Michael Jordan claimed NBA MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, All-Star game MVP and slam dunk champion honors during the 1987-88 season, his fourth as a pro. His Bulls finally advanced beyond the postseason’s first round. But it was the additions of Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant that would help make Chicago a serious contender.
Jordan put on a show for the slam dunk competition in 1988, winning his second straight with another flying, hanging Dr. J dunk from the free line, though some said it was a Chicago political fix and Dominique Wilkins should have won. There were no doubters on Sunday as Jordan had 40 points in the East win. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)
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Michael Jordan came into the 1987-88 season determined that the Bulls would be a serious challenger, that he would be personally less dominant.
Heck, it would be nine games before Jordan would score more than 37 points in a game, which was his average for the previous season. That ninth game, of course, was against the Pistons, and Jordan had 49 points. He never would forget, and it would only get worse for Detroit later that season.
But the key was before the season, actually just after the end of the previous season in the scouting process.
General Manager Jerry Krause, while hardly a genius of personal relations, was an excellent scout and talent evaluator. He’d identified this kid at a small college, Central Arkansas, as a sleeper in the draft. Krause had sent Bulls scouts to watch Scottie Pippen for a long time, noting Pippen’s extraordinary ball handling abilities as a high school point guard and long arms for defensive play. But Pippen began to excel at the pre-draft camps and moved up on all the draft boards.
Krause was determined to get him as he’d gotten the No. 8 pick in the draft from a prior trade with New York for Jawann Oldham. But Pippen now was moving up fast. So Krause made a deal with the Seattle SuperSonics, who had the No. 5 selection, as Sacramento with No. 6 was committed to Pippen. But the Bulls needed some luck and got it. Seattle wasn’t interested in Pippen, but wanted Reggie Williams of Georgetown. If he were available, Seattle was taking him and Sacramento would get Pippen.
The Bulls/Pistons games in the 1980s were some of the best the NBA ever has seen and one of the best rivalries in league history.
The coaching staff was clamoring for an athletic power forward to go along with Pippen in Clemson’s Horace Grant. Krause, however, was sold on North Carolina’s Joe Wolf. Jordan was OK with that. Eventually, coach Doug Collins appealed to Reinsdorf. Reinsdorf told Krause it was his choice, but just to know he was alone on it. Krause reconsidered and went with Grant with the No. 10 pick.
It didn’t suggest a championship to anyone at the time, but Krause also had quietly added to the coaching staff Phil Jackson. Jackson couldn’t get an NBA job because of his iconoclastic ways and had been coaching in Albany of the CBA. But Krause always kept an eye on him. Krause had pushed to draft Jackson when Krause was a scout for Baltimore, and when Phil was in the CBA, Krause would seek out Phil for scouting reports on league players. With no one in the NBA interested, Jackson eagerly aided Krause. Krause had tried to get Stan Albeck to hire Jackson in 1985, but Albeck wasn’t interested. Jackson had decided to leave basketball in 1987 when Krause called and suggested Jackson this time at least shave and wear a suit for his interview, which Jackson didn’t do for Albeck. Jackson got the job over Butch Beard.
By the end of the season, the Bulls would be a 50-win team for the first time in 14 years and Krause would be voted Executive of the Year by his peers.
It was a new roster with only Dave Corzine left from Jordan’s rookie season and John Paxson and Charles Oakley from Jordan’s sophomore season.
Yes, it was just about starting to be winnin’ time.
The Bulls opened 7-1 and then lost in overtime to the Pistons despite those 49 points, eight assists and six steals from Jordan. The Bulls then headed out for an eight-game trip and they won five of the first six to go to 12-3 as one of the league’s hottest teams.
It didn’t seem it would start that way after a famous Jordan meltdown in the preseason. Jordan believed Collins had changed the score in a practice scrimmage and Jordan’s team lost. Jordan stormed out and left.
“When you are a competitor, nothing is trivial,” Jordan explained.
He clearly had overreacted, though no one could fully comprehend the magnitude of his competitive attitude. Collins actually apologized and he and Jordan literally kissed and made up a day later, and it was the top story that day in the Chicago TV news.
The trip, meanwhile, was a revelation.
Game 15 to go 12-3 contained one of the classic Jordan episodes.
Jordan scored 47 points and on one play dunked over one of the Jazz guards. Fiery Utah owner Larry Miller at courtside yelled for Jordan to “pick on someone your own size.”
Shortly thereafter, Jordan dunked over seven-footer Mel Turpin. “He big enough for you!” Jordan shot back.
Back home, the Bulls completed a season sweep of the 1986 Western champion Rockets as Jordan had 44 points, nine assists and five blocks, including blocks against big men Olajuwon and Ralph Sampson.
No one is sure if there was a connection, but Sampson was traded after the game. Jordan had been questioned after his big scoring season in 1986-87 about his number of shots with even Larry Bird saying he shot too much. This was the kind of game that showed Jordan could do just about anything he wanted just about better than anyone.
Jordan’s fury against the Pistons continued in an overtime loss in Detroit on Dec. 15 as Jordan had 38 points and 12 assists and it exploded Jan. 16 in the Chicago Stadium in the biggest brawl between the bitter rivals.
With Jordan driving to the basket, Rick Mahorn grabbed Jordan and threw him down. Oakley then bear hugged Mahorn and Collins joined in, grabbing Mahorn around the neck. Mahorn then tossed Collins over the scorer’s table. Collins jumped back up and went after Mahorn. The Bulls went on to win 115-99 as Jordan had 36 points, 10 assists, 10 rebounds, four blocks and four steals.
The All-Star game that season was in Chicago in brutally cold temperatures hovering about 20 below zero. But the Bulls were hot at 27-18 and Jordan was the hottest.
He put on a show for the slam dunk competition, winning his second straight with another flying, hanging Dr. J dunk from the free line, though some said it was a Chicago political fix and Dominique Wilkins should have won. There were no doubters on Sunday as Jordan had 40 points in the East win.
The Bulls stumbled some coming out of the All-Star break, though Jordan got on a scoring run again with 49 against the Kings, 46 against Cleveland, 39 against Seattle and 52 in Portland. You watched it and it started to become routine. Everyone agreed Jordan was good. You just never realized how good until you considered what he was doing.
Greatness, really, is defined by consistency, and every game you could count on a great performance. That is the true pressure of sports, to perform under all circumstances, and no one did it like Jordan. Everyone expected it, and Jordan produced.
Still, the Bulls fell to 31-25 despite Jordan’s scoring run in those games. But a trade bringing in Sam Vincent and moving him alongside Jordan helped the Bulls finish strong with 10 wins in the last 13 games to end the season 50-32.
The highlight of that closing kick was April 3 in Detroit, Easter Sunday. It was the Pistons again and Jordan had become a god-like figure in basketball.
The Bulls won 112-110 as Jordan scored 59 points and added six assists. To make it that much sweeter, Jordan blocked an attempted Isiah Thomas game winner with the score tied at 110, recovered the ball and was fouled and made both free throws for the victory.
Could this be happening this often?
Managing partner Reinsdorf had a policy of not renegotiating contracts. But it was clear to Reinsdorf no prior precedents applied to Jordan. Jordan had signed a seven-year $6.3 million contract as a rookie in 1984. There was much talk at the time of Magic Johnson’s $25 million deal covering 25 years, which later was renegotiated to fewer years.
Reinsdorf contacted Jordan’s agent, David Falk, and the two quickly agreed to a then-record eight-year $25 million renegotiated deal for Jordan. It was announced April 8, just before Jordan went out and got 40 points and eight steals to beat the Knicks. It would start a marvelous finishing kick with Jordan then scoring 44 against the Bucks, 47 against the Knicks and 46 on the last day of the season over Boston, all in victories.
The Bulls were moving on to the playoffs the favorites for the first time with Jordan and with home court advantage against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Jordan was ready. After all, his Bulls had yet to win a playoff series. That was about to change...