Part XIV: Jordan's Bulls go 72-10 and win fourth title
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.
Jordan averaged 27.3 points, 5.3 assists and 4.2 assists in the 1996 NBA Finals as the Bulls defeated the Seattle SuperSonics 4-2. It was Jordan's fourth NBA Finals MVP, but not the last.
(Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images)
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You wouldn’t call it a failure as Michael Jordan in 1994 played against professional baseball players and batted just over .200, then came back to the NBA in March 1995, after almost two years away and averaged nearly 27 points. But the 1995 playoff loss to the Orlando Magic probably had been, since that failure to be promoted to the varsity in high school, the first time Jordan had felt as humbled.
He had failed in get to the Major Leagues, though the labor issues stood in the way in the end. And he hadn’t been able to push his team past the Magic and contributed to the loss.
Talk about being challenged.
Jordan had agreed to star in a live/animation movie, Space Jam, but it was hardly Jordan’s priority. It was to become Michael Jordan again. Jordan arranged in the summer of 1995 during Space Jam filming for a basketball court to be erected on the movie lot. The games there became the highlight of the offseason for NBA stars. Several, including Jordan buddies Charles Barkley and Patrick Ewing, appeared in the movie. So Jordan was able to practice against the best in highly competitive circumstances.
Michael was no longer the explosive leaper he once was after being out of the game for so long and the natural effects of aging. Plus, there were the exercises and conditioning for baseball that changed his body. But he had become much stronger, even more a student of the game, and had developed an indefensible fall away move in the post. Plus, he still had the attitude and raging competitiveness, and he could dunk in your face if he needed to.
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.
(Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images)
There’s a nice line from the Bull Durham movie when the young kid pitcher is called up to “the Show,” the major leagues. The veteran catcher, Kevin Costner, advises the kid that no matter what happens, no matter how badly you lose, the secret is to be confident, positive, self assured and arrogant. That was Michael. You could beat him, but he never was a loser.
The Orlando series also demonstrated the Bulls still were short a power forward with the departure of Horace Grant.
Phil Jackson was pushing management to trade for Derrick Coleman, a 20 and 10 player with the New Jersey Nets, who’d worn out his welcome with questionable behavior and attitude. Jackson actually delighted in taking on the challenge of players others feared, given Jackson’s confidence in himself and his coaching methods. It’s why many believe only Jackson could take on a player like Ron Artest this season in Los Angeles. But management didn’t want to risk a chance on Coleman with three years left on his contract.
The other player of interest was Dennis Rodman, the longtime Bulls nemesis in Detroit who’d led the league in rebounding with the Spurs. But Rodman had become a toxic with a mess with suspensions and aberrant behavior. He had seemed to cost the Spurs a chance at two championships, as Rodman dabbled in a bizarre image change with entertainer Madonna. He had a year left on his deal and the Spurs were desperate to be rid of him.
GM Jerry Krause was dubious. But the feeling was it was worth the chance, and cheap at $2 million for one season. The Bulls would eventually deal Will Perdue for Rodman.
If Rodman proved a distraction, they’d just cut him. Still, they wanted to run it by Jordan and Scottie Pippen. Jordan was enthusiastic, though he’d later admit he rarely, if ever, spoke with Rodman those three seasons because it was so difficult to get Rodman’s attention. I used to get letters from a southern Illinois educator who said Rodman was a classic case of undiagnosed and untreated Attention Deficit Disorder. Jordan would later say when he had to make a point to Rodman he’d grab him by both temples and demand Rodman look him in the eye and then ask him several times if he understood what Jordan was saying and to repeat if he did.
Rodman wasn’t stupid. Really, just shy and eventually acting out. He turned out to be a much smarter businessman and promoter than most, and though his overall impact was somewhat overstated, he had terrific series in the playoffs bothering the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Karl Malone with his tenacious, unorthodox play.
Ron Harper, who’d been humbled by his failures as the big free agent in 1993, came back in his best shape in years, and Jordan was at a fever pitch.
In addition to working on the movie in the summer, Jordan had gotten involved in the labor negotiations. When he returned from baseball the previous spring, he was prevented from making more money and remained the best bargain in sports and most underpaid player. Jordan always said he’d abide by the deal he signed and wouldn’t campaign for a raise. His contract was coming to an end at the close of the 1995-96 season, so the Bulls just let it go.
Steve Kerr, who had joined the Bulls when Jordan left for baseball, was the Bulls players representative, and in negotiations that summer was defending the players’ position. Those positions were split as some agents of star players, like David Falk, were pushing for a bigger split for the top players. Kerr had made some comments in players’ meetings that Jordan interpreted contrary to him.
One day in training camp, Kerr was playing Jordan and it got physical. Jordan was aching to get into the season and saw Kerr, briefly, as an opponent, and just lost it and punched out Kerr. Jordan had once had a similar episode with Will Perdue, when Perdue had laid a hard pick on him in practice and Jordan punched Perdue, demanding why Perdue didn’t set screens like that in games. Jordan was on edge and ready to go.
I remember talking to Bill Walton before that season started. Walton always was a great admirer of Jordan’s from being dunked on and run past in that famous 63-point game in the 1986 playoffs. Walton told me he could see this Bulls team being the greatest team ever. With Rodman, I laughed. Then I remember my buddy from the Chicago Sun-Times, Lacy Banks, writing a story saying the Bulls could win 70 games and eclipse the all-time record set by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1972. Could it be? I remember talking to Kerr about it, and he said the players had seen that stuff and laughed about it. He said no one in this NBA with all the travel and demands and level of play could do that. I guess I should have asked Jordan.
Maybe just to let everyone know he wasn’t kidding, Jordan opened the season with 42 points to beat Charlotte. The Bulls ran off five straight until going into Orlando, where Penny Hardaway outdueled Jordan with 36 points and the obituaries were quick to come: Hardaway was the heir to Jordan. It was the Year of the Magic after they’d lost in the 1995 Finals.
The Bulls would see the Magic a month later and this time Jordan would get 36 in an easy win as they now were 17-2.
Though much media angst comes from the traditional November circus road trip, the answer to the problem is always the same: Have good players. The Bulls would go 6-1 that season out west in November, though it looked like 5-2 for awhile. The Bulls had just lost in Seattle and beaten Portland back to back and were in Vancouver. Jordan seemed to be coasting through the game with 10 points in the fourth quarter as the Bulls were trailing against the expansion team. Guard Darrick Martin began to taunt Jordan about being unable to score against him. Who? Jordan’s eyes blazed.
Jordan scored 16 of the Bulls’ next 18 points and 19 for the quarter. Martin had been pulled several minutes earlier and lectured the rest of the game on the bench about keeping his mouth shut while playing Jordan. The Bulls won by six and moved on to beat the Clippers as Jordan scored 37. Don’t mess with Big Bad Michael.
Jackson said that was the game when he really knew Jordan was back. Martin was traded shortly thereafter.
The Bulls lost one at Indiana just after Christmas, but then won 18 straight. In that streak were 48 and 46-point efforts for Jordan in consecutive games on the road in Washington and Philadelphia. Denver broke the 18-game winning streak just before the All-Star break, taking a 30-point lead that Jordan almost erased with 39 points before the Bulls lost by six. The Bulls then lost in Phoenix and headed to Golden State, Jordan’s personal House of Horrors still from the 1985 broken foot. But Jordan wasn’t going to allow the Bulls to go into the All-Star break with a three-game losing streak. He scored 40 points and grabbed 11 rebounds to lead the Bulls into the break at 42-5.
Could this be happening? The players now began to talk about 70 wins, about being invincible. Jackson didn’t want to hear it, saying it was just about getting to the playoffs in good health and ready to win a championship. But Jackson also always emphasized the journey, and Jordan insisted this one should be special...