Part IX: Jordan's Bulls world champions for the first time
The locker room following Chicago's win in the 1991 NBA Finals was a tremendous scene with Jordan in tears and embracing the trophy with his dad, James, standing by. They weren’t a dynasty, writes Sam Smith. They were a bunch of wide eyed kids who’d finally faced down the doubting world. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)
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This, the 1990-91 season, had to be the season for Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Everyone knew it. They'd gone seven with Detroit and lost. There was now only the Finals or failure.
The Bulls weren't going to ride this team forever. It was Michael Jordan's seventh season in the NBA, and just about every one of his personnel suggestions had been rejected. He wanted Walter Davis and not Pippen. He wanted Buck Williams and not Grant. There was ACC and North Carolina written all over his choices, but he also wanted veterans and tougher guys. He didn't think Grant or Pippen would stand up to the Pistons like they needed to. And now the Bulls added Dennis Hopson. Not that Jordan had anything against the quiet kid from Ohio State and the Nets, but under salary rules at the time, the Bulls needed some flexibility to make a deal. Jordan gave up $100,000 of his salary, something guys like Magic Johnson had been doing in recent seasons to help their team add players. Jordan thought the Bulls finally were going for Davis, now in Denver with his career winding down. And there was Phil Jackson and that triangle offense Jordan still doubted because he wasn't sure of the other guys.
Jordan felt he had reason to worry. He had 34 points and seven steals in the opener. Then he had 28 points and 10 rebounds and in the third game he had 33 points and 12 assists in shooting less. The Bulls were 0-3.
Jordan put a stop to all that pretty quickly as the Bulls went to Minnesota and won. Jordan then scored 41 points on 17-of-25 shooting as the Bulls won in Boston. Jordan's scoring continued to be down as the Bulls went west. He was averaging 27.3 points and just over 20 shots per game. The Bulls were 6-6 after they beat the Clippers in Los Angeles as Jordan scored just 14 points. Jackson was having the Bulls play through those long scoring droughts, and it was starting to work as the Bulls set a franchise scoring record in a 155-127 win over Phoenix with Jordan scoring "only" 34 points. The Bulls won seven straight, but came home and lost to the Trail Blazers 109-101.
I remember seeing Bulls managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf during that game, as the Trail Blazers were in the midst of a 19-1 start and blowing through the NBA. We agreed no one was going to beat Portland that season, that after losing in the Finals to Detroit the pattern was it was now their turn. But we felt the Pistons were finally within reach. I would run that theory by Jordan later and he agreed. He didn't think about losing, but agreed the goal for the season was to beat Detroit.
But it was beginning to look like it never would happen.
In the 1991 NBA Finals, it was finally Magic vs. Michael. But it was Pippen who would take over defensive duties on Johnson as the Bulls won the series 4-1.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)
The Bulls went into Auburn Hills Dec. 19 and it seemed the nadir of their collective experience. Jordan had 33 points and six assists and shot 13-of-22. But the team was a mess again, intimidated and dominated in a blowout loss, 105-84. It seemed after all this time the Bulls had gotten nowhere.
Even Jackson was growing concerned. He told the team afterward that if this group didn't come together soon, it was clear management would have to begin making major changes.
The Bulls went home and beat the Lakers as Jordan had 33 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists, and then the Bulls and Pistons were scheduled for the Christmas Day game again, this time in Chicago. It wasn't a complete Pistons team as the Bad Boys were getting awfully cranky and several refused to fly on the team charter Christmas Eve, as required, and came the morning of the game. Jordan was busy that morning as well, as Juanita went into labor almost a month early with their first child and gave birth the morning of the game. Jordan never has needed much sleep with his hummingbird metabolism. So he went out and scored 37 points. The Bulls won comfortably as the team was into a run of 11 wins in 13 games.
During that run in a win in Philadelphia Jordan scored 40 points, including his 15,000th point, now celebrating his 5,000th and 10,000th points also against the 76ers.
One of my favorite moments of that season took place about that time off the court, in the sanctity of the locker room, and years later, I would marvel at the prescience of Phil Jackson.
The first Gulf War was coming to an end and the question was whether the U.S. troops, having the Iraqis on the run, should go into Baghdad. Jackson has long been known for his full life coaching methods, which have included books for the players on the road, meditation sessions and discussions of the world beyond basketball. So that day Jackson decided to ask the players what they would do.
The young guys, like Jordan, Pippen and Grant, all were for attacking, a show of U.S. might to wipe out the enemy. As it happened, though it wouldn't become public yet until a Pippen arrest for gun possession a few years later, the young guys were buying guns and often carrying them, ostensibly for protection. Jackson told the players to think. He said, sure, the U.S., and then with real coalition forces, could go in and overwhelm Iraq. But what would that do? Would it create a hatred for the U.S. and the West so deep that you create enemies and 20 years later they are blowing up a plane with one of your children on it? It was a hypothetical that got the players attention at the time, and most backed off. Sometimes I wish Bill Bradley had become president and Jackson did get appointed secretary of state, which was often joked about. Others have done worse.
The Bulls, meanwhile, were rolling now, and the big game was again in Detroit right before the All-Star break, though the Pistons would minimize it. Isiah Thomas was out with a wrist injury. No one realized it then, but age was catching up with the Pistons and they were starting to come apart.
Jordan had 30 points and nine rebounds in the narrow Bulls win, though second-year guard B.J. Armstrong also came up big down the stretch. It was a good sign, though Jordan still was concerned about the lack of veteran experience. He lashed out at General Manager Krause as Jordan still was pushing for Davis. Jordan insisted the Bulls needed veteran depth, which always has been a requirement for playoff success. Instead, Krause was busy pursuing European star Toni Kukoc and suggesting Kukoc would be a player to rival Magic Johnson. It would only further alienate the players and create early difficulties for Kukoc when he finally did join the team in 1993.
It was a big All-Star weekend for Craig Hodges with his second straight three point contest win with a remarkable 19 straight threes in one stretch.
The Bulls came charging out of the All-Star break with consecutive nine-game winning streaks sandwiched around a loss in Indiana. Jordan wasn't putting up the ridiculous scoring numbers, but the Bulls were doing it with more scoring balance and the recently named—by assistant John Bach—Doberman defense involving Jordan, Pippen and Grant harassing ballhandlers all over the court. In one game, the Bulls held the Cavs to five first quarter points. The Bulls were developing the identity of a dominating defensive team to complement the game's best offensive player.
The Bulls were the hottest team in the league. After beating Atlanta on March 20 to go to 50-15, they backed off a bit. Still, Jordan went for 42 in a win against the Nets, 44 in a win against the Magic and 46 in a win over the Bucks just after the Bulls lost again in Detroit on April 12 despite 40 from Jordan. The Bulls finished the season with a franchise record 61 wins with a home court streak of 26 straight wins during the season. But they were just 21-18 against teams with winning records. The hope was to get to the Finals. Just get past Detroit…