Part IX: World champions for the first time, page 2
The 1990-91 season had to be the season for Michael Jordan and the Bulls. Everyone knew it. They'd gone seven with Detroit and lost. There was now only the Finals or failure.
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The Bulls blew through the first round of the playoffs against the Knicks in three easy wins, in effect, setting the stage for the hiring of Pat Riley and the playoff wars to come with the Bulls.
The Bulls took the 76ers in five games in the next round, the most entertaining a Game 3 shootout in which Jordan scored 46 points. But the Bulls lost on a Hersey Hawkins three with 10 seconds left. The Bulls were in a close one in Game 5 with Pippen in foul trouble. Jordan scored the last 12 Bulls points on the way to 38 as the Bulls closed out the series. It was Pistons time again, but this time opening back in the friendly Chicago Stadium for the first time in these epic duels.
Game 1 became one of the great turning points in Bulls' and Jordan's history. The Bulls, as expected, blew out to an early lead. But Detroit pushed back and got within three at the end of the third. This would be a devastating home loss. Phil Jackson always rested Jordan to open the fourth quarter. But could he again? It was a test of the coach as well, and Phil made the point that you need the team to win. So he stayed with his policy and took out Jordan. Horace Grant was the only regular to stay on the court, this time with Will Perdue, Hodges, Armstrong and Cliff Levingston. The Stadium crowd was horrified.
But Perdue was terrific and the Bulls took a nine-point lead over the first five minutes of the quarter. Jordan, who finished with 22, returned with Pippen and the Bulls went on to a 94-83 victory. Jordan was impressed. It's when he coined the famous term, "My supporting cast."
Jordan scored 35 in Game 2, 15 in the final quarter as the Bulls won 105-97. They were halfway there and taking the Pistons' game away. They won in a defensive struggle, they talked trash with Jordan mocking and harassing Dennis Rodman and they held on and fought back.
The Bulls bolted out in Game 3 and the Pistons fought back to lead. But the Bulls surged ahead with Jordan scoring 33 and Pippen 26. Pippen was standing up to Rodman like never before and before it was over, Rodman in frustration would throw Pippen into the stands, the cheap shots and dirty play now the weapon of losers. The Pistons made one last push in what was looking like the end of their run. They got within five with about two minutes left when Mark Aguirre stole the ball form Pippen and fired ahead to Joe Dumars. But Jordan recovered and got one of his five blocks in the game and the Bulls pulled away to take the effectively insurmountable 3-0 lead.
It was fun, and time to rub it in from there. The bitterness flowed out from the Bulls on the off day between Games 3 and 4. Jordan eagerly told Detroit reporters the Pistons were unworthy champions because of the way they played. The newspaper headlines on the day of Game 4 in Detroit screamed of the Pistons not deserving their two championships. The Pistons' players were furious and could talk about little else before the game. Perhaps it wasn't great sportsmanship, but Jordan had gotten them back. He got in their heads like the Pistons always did in the Bulls', and it led to what was perhaps inevitable. The majority of Pistons players not only refused to shake hands with the Bulls players after the game, but they walked off the court before the game was over in the Game 4 loss.
The Pistons were condemned nationwide for their lack of sportsmanship and professionalism, their crown being tarnished immediately. It was so sweet as the Bulls danced out of the Palace, Jordan with 29 points, eight assists and eight rebounds in the closer.
The Bulls were in the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
No one really ever had thought about it. Everyone knew academically where you were if you won the conference championship, but not even Jordan thought about a championship. All they could think about was the Pistons. The Pistons were dead. As the Bulls were riding home, Jordan said they were going to the Finals, so they may as well win it.
Look, no one expected the Bulls to win this championship. Few expected them to be there. It was supposed to be Portland's with a league-best 63 wins. They were upset by the Lakers in the conference finals. But now it was the Lakers. Yes, Magic and Michael, finally. But how could these kids stand up to that great tradition?
There were some great stories from that Finals, though I'll start with the one about me. Writers covering teams always do a series matchups of each position and picking the winner. I don't get all the picks right, though I do OK. I generally tell people if I really knew, I'd just live in Vegas and bet the games. Anyway, I began to look at the matchups and the teams and was convinced the only Lakers' edge was with Magic. And I knew Jackson was thinking about playing Pippen against Johnson, which he did more full force after Jordan got in early foul trouble in Game 2. Magic, basically, always was indefensible in the half court because he could see over every defender. But not the long armed 6-7 Pippen. Sure, I'd been with the Bulls so I was biased. But I thought the Lakers were less veteran than aging, a slow team without a great inside presence and not able to handle the athleticism.
The picks are for fun, but I was convinced the Bulls were a lot better. So to make my point, I picked the Bulls to win in five and gave the Bulls the edge at every position but point guard. The national media went nuts. The L.A. reporters tend to be smug and a bit uninformed about much outside Los Angeles. There also was a national sports publication then called The National, also the height of arrogance in selling itself as putting out sports literature. It, predictably, was out of business in months. The National's basketball columnist wrote I should be fired for such an outrageous pick. So much for fun and discussion. The L.A. Times' guy said it was another example of Chicago being Mayberry from the Andy Griffith show.
And then Sam Perkins, not realizing where the three-point line was, stepped behind it with seconds left and instead of shooting a tying jumper, won Game 1 with a three.
My pick wasn't looking that good.
Jordan had 36 points and 12 assists, and I remember running into Phil Jackson walking out of the Stadium that afternoon. He was smiling. I asked him why and he said it was a terrific game. Sure, the Bulls had lost. But I think Jackson understood they really could stand up to the Lakers and win this series.
Game 2 demonstrated that. The Bulls absolutely dominated the Lakers with Jordan getting 33 points (on 15-of-18 shooting) and 13 assists and making one of the greatest plays ever seen late in the game. He switched hands on a driving layup as Perkins stepped in front, moving the ball from right to his left hand and laying the ball in. The shot had no impact on the final score, but was the story of the game. No one had ever seen anything quite like it. Pippen and Grant each had 20 points and John Paxson was burying Byron Scott and hit all eight of his shots as the team shot 62 percent. It was on.
The Bulls traveled to Los Angeles for Game 3 and the Lakers came out hard. But the Bulls battled back and despite Jordan not shooting well, he was moving the ball. Little remembered from that series was Jordan averaging 11.4 assists and failing to record double figures in assists in just Game 3 when he had nine. Still, the Bulls trailed with seconds left by a basket.
Jordan told Jackson he wanted the ball, but wanted to take it full court instead of at halfcourt to get a better look at the defense. Jackson agreed and Jordan drove and hit a jumper to tie the game and then knocked the ball away from Vlade Divac to send the game into overtime. From there the Bulls pulled away for an eight-point win with Jordan scoring half of the Bulls 12 overtime points.
My pick was looking better.
The Bulls dominated Game 4 and it looked like it was over. The Bulls won by 15 points as Jordan had 28 points and 13 rebounds and the Lakers couldn't keep up. They'd yet to score 100 points in any game and Johnson was tiring from the harassing defense of Pippen and Jordan. Johnson would soon learn he has the HIV virus and would retire from basketball before the start of the next season, though he eventually would make a brief comeback with the disease under control. Johnson and Jordan had by then worked out their differences, and when Johnson got the news of the diagnosis, Jordan was one of the few people he called to inform.
And now Worthy and Scott were hurt for Game 5. The Lakers played their most spirited game of the series and led by eight after three and 93-90 with a timeout with about six minutes left. It was a classic moment in the season and the maturation of Jordan and the Bulls. Amid the thundering din, Jackson questioned Jordan, "Who's open!" Jordan finally responded after the second time that Paxson was. Pass him the ball, Jackson suggested.
Jordan still would finish with 30 points and five steals. But with the Lakers still loading up to stop Jordan, Jordan found Paxson four times for scores and the Bulls pulled away to win 108-101 and win their first ever NBA championship. Michael Jordan finally was also an official NBA winner.
The locker room was a tremendous scene with Jordan in tears and embracing the trophy with his dad standing by. I was in that locker room that night, and though I would see all the Bulls championships, for me, that was the best. Those players had struggled for years and went through massive disappointments. They weren't a dynasty. They were a bunch of wide eyed kids who'd finally faced down the doubting world. You are supposed to be indifferent when you are a reporter with a team, but I was thrilled for them. I never have admitted it before, but I hugged Jerry Krause that night. He deserved it as well. Not the hug. Keep that to yourselves.
I was glad for them and the heck with the journalistic hypocrisies. It also so happened I was writing a diary-of-a-season book that year. I got lucky. I happened to pick the right season and it would become, The Jordan Rules. Yes, Michael ruled.
It would be just the beginning.