Part XIV: 72 wins and back on top, page 2
In the 1995-96 season, Michael Jordan proved to the world that not only was he back, but that he was still the best in the game. That season, so were his Bulls, as they went 72-10 and captured the team's fourth championship.
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The Bulls came storming out of the break with 12 wins in 13 games, including a March blowout in which Jordan had 53 points, 11 rebounds and six steals. Oh, right, it was against the Pistons.
It was a significant game for more reasons than that. Former Bulls coach Doug Collins was then coaching the Pistons and it was classic Jordan, as Collins was complaining about foul calls early and yelling at the referees. The Bulls were 30-0 at home and the refs didn’t need to help them (the Bulls were in the midst of a record stretch over two seasons of 44 straight home wins). Jordan, with that familiar twinkle in his eye, walked by Collins and corrected him. Jordan said the Bulls were then 29-0 but would be 30-0 after the game was over. This also was Jordan’s first full season playing in the new United Center. He had shot poorly there when coming back the previous season and still didn’t feel comfortable, often complaining about the shooting background. When the playoffs ended in 1995, Jordan walked to the microphone in the press room after the final home game loss and said, “They should blow this place up.” But Jordan felt the win over the Pistons was a watershed moment for him as he shot 21-of-28 and felt he’d defeated the curse of the new arena.
A few games later, Rodman was at it again, head butting a referee and getting suspended, though it hardly distracted Jordan and the team, as Jordan had 37 points and 16 rebounds in the win that night in New Jersey. Rodman, actually, would miss 45 games those first two seasons with the Bulls from injury and suspension and the Bulls would win more than 80 percent of those games as well. The NBA had never seen anything like this.
The Bulls were going for 70 now and no one could stop them. The Bulls reached it in Milwaukee in Game 79 and a one-point loss to Indiana in the penultimate game kept the Bulls from 73-9.
Jordan had been MVP of the All-Star game and would be MVP for the season and the Finals. Willis Reed in 1970 was the only other player to win the award trio. Jordan won his eighth scoring title while still averaging more than 30 points per game. This was as close to perfection for an individual and a team as there could be in professional team sports.
Jordan and Scottie Pippen were all-NBA first team and all-defensive first team. Toni Kukoc was voted best sixth man and Phil Jackson was coach of the year. Rodman was the league’s leading rebounder.
The Bulls swept Miami to open the playoffs by an average of 23 points per game, and then beat the Knicks in five as their only loss was in overtime despite Jordan trying to gamely rally the team with 46 points after scoring 44 in the opener.
The addition of Dennis Rodman, who averaged 14.9 rebounds per game in 1995-96, helped propel the Bulls to a 72-10 regular season record.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)
Then it was Orlando, and the Magic just quit. Grant was hurt early in the series as Rodman was outrebounding him 21-1 and O’Neal had to be persuaded to even attend the final game as he was hurt. Jordan scored 45 points in Game 4 to conclude the 4-0 sweep and make final the revenge from the previous season. Shortly thereafter, O‘Neal would leave the Magic as a free agent and sign with the Lakers.
The Bulls were 11-1 heading into the Finals, 83-11 on the season. And then the Bulls won the first three games of the Finals over the Seattle SuperSonics. The Bulls took a breath and Seattle won two games. But the Bulls closed it out easily in Chicago in Game 6 and Jordan had fulfilled his promise to return himself and the Bulls to the top of the basketball world.
And then he cried for the promise he’d fulfilled in his heart to Pops.
I’d seen it before, in 1991 in the locker room in L.A., when Jordan cradled the championship trophy with James standing by his side, seven long years of determination and frustration cascading out. Pops always was by Jordan’s side on some level. But this was the first championship since James was murdered in 1993. Jordan wrestled away the ball as the final buzzer sounded and fell to the floor in a tearful episode that would continue into the locker room.
“This is probably the hardest time for me to play the game of basketball," Jordan noted after the win. "I had a lot of things on my heart and on my mind. But I had the good fortune to achieve."
"I think about him every day," Jordan told reporters later on. "I'm pretty sure I always will. Every day of my life. What affects me (most) is that my dad is not there for his advice. Now all I have is myself to try to make the best judgments for my family and me. So I have to accept that."
I always envied Jordan for the wonderful relationship he seemed to have had with his parents. James seemed truly a buddy and was outgoing and perpetually friendly. Mom, Deloris, was a sturdy force. Talk about racism never came up much because, as I recall, Deloris always had told the kids that they could achieve whatever they set their minds to no matter the barriers.
I see a lot of that even today passed down to Michael’s kids. It’s impossible to imagine what it is like being the son—and playing basketball—of the game’s greatest player. But Jordan’s sons, Jeff and Marcus, always seem to have handled the attention with grace and aplomb. It shows, also, what a wonderful job in raising them Jordan’s former wife, Juanita, especially, has done despite the overwhelming wealth and pressures of carrying that great American name.
You really wanted it to go on forever, though Jordan was heading toward 35 and you began to savor it more because you knew now this had to have an ending before too long.