Part XI: Michael Jordan leads Bulls to three-peat
"[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," writes Sam Smith. "But you know it would have gotten there more quickly if he did." (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)
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.
The Olympics changed the rules for 1992 and allowed NBA pros to play. The team was called the “Dream Team." No, it wasn't the two-time champion Bulls, who were going for the three-peat in the 1992-93 season.
Many said that so-called Dream Team was the greatest team ever assembled, although Larry Bird was about to retire and Magic Johnson had retired already with the HIV virus. He would return briefly to play in the 1995-96 season. Still, it was the All-Star team to beat all All-Star teams. So Michael Jordan had to be there.
Jordan, though, wasn't so sure he'd play and when the NBA was recruiting players in 1991, Jordan was saying he wasn't interested. The Olympics, however, was the big event for the players' sponsors, so Jordan eventually agreed to play. There was a caveat in his informal talks with the selection committee. No Isiah Thomas. It put coach Chuck Daly in a bit of an embarrassing position given Thomas was his star. But Daly officially, at least, was not listed as part of the selection committee to give him an excuse with his players.
Jordan had just come off a successful, albeit controversy marred season. And now the playoff games were adding up. There would be little rest in the summer as the team had a training camp in La Jolla and then a stay in Monte Carlo before moving onto the games in Barcelona. It wasn't exactly heavy lifting, but there was little time to recover from the long season and playoffs.
Jordan had talked about easing through the experience, though his competitiveness would not allow it. He initially talked about just being in the background, though when it came down to it, you knew he couldn't be. Of course, Jordan was the leading scorer in the gold medal game in the rout over Croatia and Toni Kukoc.
Jordan actually arrived at the Olympic training camp just weeks after the end of the Finals with an edge. No surprise there. It was like when you haven't slept enough. So there was Jordan engaging in some classic trash talking with Bird, a noted trash talker himself, chiding Bird for now being the team's M.L. Carr for "being down the end of the bench waving that towel." And certainly Jordan was letting Drexler know how those Finals went.
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images)
Grant Hill was being prepared to be one of those next Jordans, and Hill once told me remembered Jordan telling him in a scrimmage, "I'll get the ball wherever I want and you can't do anything about it. Then I'll do anything I want with it and you won't be able to do anything about it." That was in a scrimmage USA Basketball brought college stars in to play the pros. The kids actually won the first scrimmage against the lackadaisical pros. It woke them up. The pros won the next day's scrimmage by 56 points, a pattern that would continue as the U.S. team rolled through the games.
The talk was that the practices were some of the best games ever played, as the U.S. players went at one another without any serious competition in the real games, during which Daly never even called one time out.
There would be one issue, though, since marketing actually was a big reason Jordan played at a time, as even Bulls coach Phil Jackson was worried about Jordan's potential burnout and mentioned it to Jordan as the season ended. Jordan led a group of players representing Nike, including Charles Barkley and Scottie Pippen, who draped the American flag over the Reebok logo on their jerseys. Reebok was the official game sponsor. So even amidst the feel good result, there was more critical media comment about Jordan's actions.
In addition to a weary Jordan, it was a tired and beat up Bulls team coming into the 1992-93 season. Bill Cartwright and John Paxson were slowed coming off surgeries, and Jordan and Pippen were given time off to recuperate from the Olympics, Pippen skipping one of the two-a-day sessions, and Jordan all of camp until the exhibition games began. Horace Grant, who'd complained loudly about Jordan's special status when Jordan skipped that White House trip in 1991, was the only regular asked to practice full time. He eventually would storm out of a practice after having been told to run extra sprints.
It was becoming clear it was going to be the longest season.
Though once the games started, Michael was pretty much back to being Michael Jordan as the Bulls opened 7-1. Jordan was averaging a quiet 27 per game when the team headed west and he had to take over. The Bulls lost in overtime to the Lakers despite 54 points and 13 rebounds from Jordan. Jordan then put up 40 to beat the Suns and 49 to beat the Warriors as the Bulls finished the western portion 4-1.
The Bulls still looked sharp heading into the New Year at 22-7, and Jordan exploded a few weeks later with the second biggest scoring game of his career when he put up 64 points in an overtime loss to Orlando.
My highlight was March 19 at the Stadium. Jordan had 52 a few nights earlier in a win over Charlotte. Even 50 now was becoming just another game. Is that being unappreciated? Meanwhile, that March 19 night, the Bulls beat Washington. But a young shooting guard named LaBradford Smith scored 37 for the Bullets against Jordan and was pretty happy about it. Jordan was quietly fuming. As so rarely happens, the Bulls were playing the then Bullets the very next night in Washington. Jordan told teammates on the bus as the team headed for the airport after the game that he'd get 37 in the first half.
He almost did, a shot at the buzzer at the end of the first half keeping Jordan from surpassing Smith's 37 from the previous night. Jordan finished with 47 points as the Bulls routed Washington.
However, it wasn't the same Bulls team...