Part XI: Jordan leads Bulls to three-peat, page 2

After winning the gold medal with the Dream Team in Barcelona, Michael Jordan and the Bulls went back to work in what Sam Smith describes as Chicago’s "longest season." But the 1992-93 campaign would end well for Bulls, who clinched their first three-peat

Michael Jordan Hall of Fame

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

B.J. Armstrong had replaced John Paxson as a starter. But it was a joyless regular season, for the most part, a chore just to get to the playoffs, where the Bulls came in with 57 wins and without homecourt advantage, which went to the Knicks with a 60-win season. It figured to be the toughest road to a title yet.

The head scratcher to many around the Bulls was the change in Jordan. He was more reclusive, less talkative. He would tell teammates at times he was quitting after this season, that he'd had enough, that the game wasn't as much fun. It wasn't as much fun for him as the Bulls' core players were aging quickly and the players the team had brought in were older veterans, like Trent Tucker and Rodney McCray. Jordan, perhaps, loved practice the most, the challenges, the small bets on shots and confrontations, the demands and endurance. But these Bulls couldn't practice anymore like they once did and that joy had disappeared.

Another sign was a late season appearance by Dean Smith at a game. Smith had always promised Jordan he'd see him play as a pro, though he never had. Was this a sign? The notion was quickly dismissed as the Bulls began to roll through the playoffs.

The Bulls swept a glad-to-be-there Atlanta team and for the fourth time in six years, then met the Cavs and dusted them off in a sweep. The Cavs finale was a desperate struggle with Jordan—you'd know it—hitting a high arcing fallaway as time expired for the two-point victory. It was being called, "The Shot II." Jordan finished with 31 points and nine rebounds after a slow start with just eight in the first half. And the Cavs never were the same and headed toward a rebuilding.

The Bulls were headed toward New York and a Knicks team ready to fight.

The Knicks won the first two games at home with John Starks putting the exclamation point on the Game 2 win with a driving slam dunk over Jordan.

Jordan had come to that game on the heels of the stately New York Times engaging in some classic New York tabloid journalism. Jordan had gone to Atlantic City with his father and some buddies the night before Game 2 and the Times breathlessly reported he'd gotten in at 2 a.m. Those of us who'd been around Jordan for years had laughed at the story. We wondered why he'd gotten in so early. Jordan's lack of need for sleep was legendary. But the New York media was in classic overkill, and Jordan was growing more embittered. He felt he'd been open and cooperative for years and this was how he was being repaid. The heck with all of them. And then there was Starks dunking and the Eastern media celebrating the end of the Bulls.

The Bulls went back home and dominated a self-satisfied Knicks team that, in retrospect, lost the series when they didn't come out hard to put the Bulls away with Jordan having a rare playoff debacle game in Game 3, shooting three-of-18 and scoring 22 points. So in Game 4, Jordan was ready. He blitzed he Knicks with 17 points in the first quarter and didn't stop. He had 27 by halftime and scored 18 of the Bulls’ 24 third quarter points and finished with 54, the most points ever scored against the Knicks in a playoff game. So they thought the Bulls were dead, eh?

It was back to New York for Game 5, the infamous Charles Smith game. Little remembered was the way the Knicks gagged up almost a dozen free throws down the stretch. Smith had a chance to put the Knicks ahead in the last seconds but was stripped going up by Jordan and then blocked three times by Pippen and Grant. Jordan recovered the ball and pitched out to Armstrong for the winning margin as Jordan recorded a triple double with 29 points, 14 assists and 10 rebounds. The Knicks were beaten, and the Bulls closed it out back home in Game 6 and headed to Phoenix to play the Suns and MVP Charles Barkley.

Best record in the league, the MVP, and Dan Majerle, a favorite of GM Krause. Krause had tried to draft Majerle, and often would tell Jordan he wouldn't score like he did if he'd play against Majerle regularly. You figure Majerle was saying, "Thanks, Jerry" with an edge for those inspiring comments.

Those certainly were challenges enough as Jordan went on to have the biggest scoring Finals ever, averaging 41 points in the six games, most against Majerle.

The Bulls won the first two games in Phoenix as Jordan in Game 1 had a quiet 31 points, though 14 in the fourth quarter when the Suns got within three. Barkley scored 42 in Game 2, but it wasn't enough to offset Jordan's 42 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists. The Suns went to Chicago seemingly dead and pulled off a classic in a triple-overtime win despite 44 points from Jordan. But Jordan didn't take long to spike the Suns' momentum and confidence.

Jordan scored 33 of the Bulls 61 first half points—the Suns never much thought about defense at any time in their history—and with the Bulls hanging onto a one-point lead in the last 13 seconds, Jordan scored and was fouled to clinch the victory as he scored 55 points, the second-most points ever scored in a Finals game.

Game 5 in Chicago became the "Save the City" game as the Suns, now loose and ready to lose, made light of the extra security precautions to prepare for the victory celebration and the mayor counseling fans to be calm. The Suns led all game despite 41 for Jordan.

Sit back and consider this run in the NBA Finals on the game's biggest stage in consecutive games: 42, 44, 55 and 41. That's 45.5 in a four game stretch at the biggest time. Consider in those four games Jordan also averaged nine rebounds and 6.5 assists. No, he didn't drive the team bus. But you know it would have gotten there more quickly if he did.

But still with a 3-2 lead, it was a subdued Bulls team that climbed back on the team plane to return to Phoenix with the temperatures above 110 degrees. Until Jordan walked onto the plane and announced, "Hello, World Champions."

John Paxson would hit the big winning three. But after a Bulls meltdown to open the fourth quarter and the Suns up by four with just over a minute left, Jordan grabbed a Suns miss and drove the length of the court to get the Bulls within two. It was Jordan's ninth point of the quarter. It also was the Bulls' ninth. Majerle then shot an air ball. The Bulls got the ball to Jordan, who passed to Pippen who threw to Grant inside, and Grant back to Paxson for the famous three. Grant would then block Kevin Johnson's final attempt to close out the game. Jordan would finish with 33 points, eight rebounds and seven assists and all the points in the fourth quarter but Paxson's three.

It was party time for the third time. But the smiles wouldn't last long. For the Bulls, for the NBA, and especially for Jordan.

Michael Jordan | Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame | Class of 2009