Sam Smith reflects on the 1990-91 season
"There's nothing like that first one in life, first date, first car, first kiss, first championship," writes Sam Smith of the 1990-91 Chicago Bulls. "That one was the best. I was there for them all, for all the games and the celebrations and there never w
It was the first championship for me as well.
That 1991 Bulls title was a heck of a ride and one of the great, really unexpected sporting seasons. As close as the Bulls kept coming and as great as Michael Jordan was, it wasn't expected in Chicago. The Chicago Tribune, where I worked then, hardly paid attention. I was basically the only writer working on the story, though columnist extraordinare Bernie Lincicome loved Jordan and basketball and would come around often.
I'd been around the Bulls since Jordan arrived in 1984, even spending a day with him during his first week in Chicago for a magazine story. I'd been doing backup work on the NBA first for the great Bob Logan and then Bob Sakamoto. I'd taken over the beat in the 1987-88 season.
Back then there was no team charter and a family atmosphere around the NBA. Jordan made less than $1 million per season, which seemed like a lot at the time. It actually still does.
Life was casual in the NBA. A writer traveling with the team was part of the team group. You made your own travel arrangements, but you coordinated with the team schedule. So you flew the same commercial flights, stayed in the same hotel, more Sheratons and Marriotts than today's Four Seasons and Ritz Carltons. You rode the team bus. In fact, the league allowed you on any team's bus. As a credentialed writer, and there were just a few regulars, you could hop on any team bus to and from a practice or airport as teams sometimes overlapped at hotels and in cities.
Travel arrangements were 12 first class seats for the active players and the rest back in coach. I'd usually finagle to get a seat with Phil Jackson, Johnny Bach or Tex Winter, and that's where I really learned the game. Tex would bring in his book he wrote on the triangle offense and he'd go over diagrams with me. He gave me a book to take home once and study. When I looked close, I realized it was the one he signed for his mother.
That was Tex, just a good 'ol guy who loved the game, like most back then. You can take the kid out of poverty but sometimes you can't take the poverty out of the kid. Scouting wasn't very formalized then. The staffs were far fewer and the budgets tighter. Usually an assistant would go out ahead to scout the upcoming opponent. I remember once we were in New York and had a future game with the Nets and the team wanted Tex to head over to New Jersey to take a look at the Nets. Tex insisted the team bus drop him at the Port Authority bus terminal and he'd take a bus over. No, no, Phil insisted. Please, take a cab. Tex refused, said it was too expensive even if the team was paying. Tex just couldn't justify a $35 cab ride when it was $4 for the bus.
Tex is a Hall of Fame nominee this season and I hope he gets in. He suffered a serious stroke a few years back and I'd love for him to see this.
Johnny, the great storyteller, was enthralling with his war tales of serving in the South Pacific and even playing in the NBA in the late 1940s. He knew everyone and every play ever run.
I'd gotten to know Phil a few years before I got on the beat when I was doing a magazine story on the CBA and he was in Albany. I'd spent a weekend out there with him and kept in touch as he always had a way of seeing things that I'd never thought of but which made sense. He was really shy, which most mistook for arrogance given his controversial nature as a flower child of the 1970s. Talks with him were a human behavioral lab that got me thinking of writing a book about that season.
I'd always thought the best sports book I ever read was the Breaks of the Game and the best sports writer I ever read was David Halberstam. I wondered if I could do something like that, though I knew never as elegantly. Phil had always told me about the talent around the league, but he always talked about so many more things that made up a team, this group well being, as he liked to put it.
When you were a regular traveling back then you became if not a part of the group, a prominent appendix. Life on the road wasn't that glamorous, and back then Jordan's posse was three guys--Fred Whitfield, who is still with him in Charlotte, Fred Kearns, and Adolph Shiver. They'd travel to some games, but couldn't afford to all the time. So Jordan would invite some of us to hang around and play cards. My buddy Lacy Banks of the Sun-Times would engage in some spirited games with Jordan, whom I'd always tell I wasn't gambling with a guy making a $1 million when I was making $25,000. I once told him I'd put up my salary as a percentage of his in bets. He'd grumble and call me names and off he and Lacy would go into another game. No, I wasn't the competitor Jordan was.
I know when I wrote The Jordan Rules some felt it was harsh on Jordan. But I didn't see it that way. I saw him as a most endearing guy, a classic man's man, whom you loved to be around but who could frustrate you with his powerful personality. I always saw much more good in him and so enjoyed his dad, James, who was a wise, calming force around when Michael would grow most frustrated.
"Give him time, he'll be fine," James would counsel those around the team when anxiety set in.
I can only imagine how much he still misses him.
Michael never much liked to show anyone that softer side. He felt if you showed weakness your opponent would some time use it against you. It was part of the constant challenge to his teammates. Though tough on them often, he was a truly remarkable leader as leaders tend not to be nice guys. We know where those nice guys finish.
When he first came to the Bulls out of that North Carolina defer-to-seniors system he was prepared to defer and never said much, keeping to himself and staying with a friend or two, first Rod Higgins, and then Charles Oakley. Eventually, it would become clear the Bulls would have to build around him and he'd emerge along with his talent.
I recall him saying often how much the early success meant as it gave him confidence. Look, he was a 17-point scorer in college. He didn't know.
But he became famous quickly. And even as he'd told me in that first interview in 1984 he took home economics classes because he always felt he was too ugly to attract a woman—really—he became a national darling. The NBA teams do a lot of work with charities and Michael was becoming a favorite of the Make a Wish foundation where the kids with illnesses come in for a visit.
I can remember several instances of these little girls coming in, scared and anxious as they moved nervously toward him. He'd get down at their level, give them a hug, talk as if they were the same age, sign a few things, pose for a picture. Great stuff. Then he'd turn to someone, sometimes with a tear he was trying not to show, and ask how he could play a game after seeing a kid like that.
It was kids all around, really.
It still was a classroom of mostly kids, as many teams are, and I remember how Phil would treat them at times like a congregation, his parents being ministers, and as a teacher of life. Everyone flew the short hop cities between Houston and San Antonio and Seattle and Portland. We'd ride the bus. Phil always wanted them to see things, wonder about the world.
I still remember vividly when the first Gulf War was declared during that first championship season in January 1991. We were in Atlanta and everyone wondered as we still went through little or no airport security what would happen. Were we at war? Could they get here? Nah, no way they'd come to Atlanta.
I didn't get to sit in on team meetings, though I did watch practices when the team used the Multiplex health club in Deerfield. Phil hated anyone on the practice floor as that was sacred ground to him, so I'd watch from outside. There was no curtain to close and the weight room was amongst the members. It was very egalitarian.
When it was clear the U.S. had repelled Sadaam, the argument was whether to go into Baghdad. Phil would bring current events into the locker room, and he wondered what the players thought. The kids--Jordan, Pippen, Grant--wanted to bomb away, take them out.
Phil asked questions. What if we do and then the little kids of those people grow up and one day plant a bomb in the Lincoln tunnel? How prescient he was, although back then we all thought any such thing was impossible.
But there was basketball and there was life and Phil felt a responsibility to his flock to prepare them for the big games and beyond. I thought about writing a book about him. Heck, no one was even interested in Jordan.
As amazing as that seems now, when I decided this was too intriguing a group of people to explain in newspaper stories, I found an agent, a brilliant editor specializing in sports, Shari Wenk, and wrote up a sample chapter. She took it around to New York publishers and it summarily was rejected. Several asked who was I, which I understood.
Others said Jordan was just some Midwestern basketball scorer. Who really cared? Yes, I still have those letters. Finally, a publisher, Simon and Shuster, said they'd take a flier as a regional book. Of course, we'd all get lucky. The Bulls would win and Jordan would instead of breaking an ankle win over sporting America.
The book was a great success. I'm still proud of it and wouldn't change anything except for writing an acknowledgement of thanks to Jerry Krause as well because I left him out then as we weren't on good terms. But because it contained passages about Jordan being less than perfect, which was not accepted at the time, it became a source of controversy and I suddenly became a story. Never where a reporter wants to be. My old colleague from the Sun Times Jay Mariotti wrote a series of columns declaring the book would destroy the team and they'd never win again. I was becoming somewhat unpopular, though the Bulls and Jordan did fairly well after publication in October 1991 and I was off the hook.
I decided to write the book because I wanted to tell their stories. I loved the guys on that team and their quest, and when they won that championship I had to be as happy, if not quite included in the celebration.
Though Phil's wife, June, one of my favorites, gave me a big hug in the locker room as family members were allowed in back then. Krause gave me a hug, also. I hugged back. It was that kind of moment. I remember the way Krause counted down the games from 15 to a championship and after each win he'd search out Craig Hodges, hug him and say how many were left, like: "10, Hodgy!"
Look, there's nothing like that first one in life, first date, first car, first kiss, first championship. That one was the best. I was there for them all, for all the games and the celebrations and there never was the joy like there was for that one. We've seen the film many times of the locker room and Jordan in tears.
It also means so much more when it's unexpected. The Bulls weren't supposed to win before the season started or before the Finals started.
No one really ever talked much about a championship that season. It was always Detroit, Detroit, Detroit. It almost was as if there were no Finals. Plus, it wasn't the Bulls' turn, anyway.
The general route back then in the NBA was you had to get to the Finals and lose, sort of pay your dues and get your experience, and then you might break through. No one just went to the Finals and won. And Portland was taking the right route. They'd lost in the Finals to the Pistons in 1990 and then just blew out in front of everyone to open the 1990-91 season, starting 19-1.
I remember talking with Bulls managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf early that season and as I've found with most general managers and owners they generally think the worst will happen for their teams. Most have been disappointed so much it comes naturally. So we were talking about the season and the championship, and, like everyone else around the Bulls, Reinsdorf said he wasn't worried about any title. "Portland was going to win it, anyway," he said. Everyone knew that.
To me, that also was the best and most talented of the six champions. Sure, they won more games in 1996, the team most list among the best ever. But, to me, the most talented was that 1991 team. They just never quite realized how talented until they were doing it. Often when you are in the middle of history you never believe it is that special because you were there.
Jordan and Pippen were at their absolute athletic peaks, which cannot be said about any of the second three peat teams. From 1996 through 1998, they were smarter and more experienced, but not close in talent. Dennis Rodman was nowhere near the athlete and offensive player that Horace Grant was.
Plus, in 1991 you had Bill Cartwright and John Paxson healthier and before they began to break down with injuries. If any Bulls team could match that one it was the following year, though I'll take the desperation of the 1991 team.
And it never was easy that season, starting 0-3 of all things, two of those losses at home, losing badly in Detroit just before Christmas in the first rematch from the seven game conference finals, a shaky 4-3 on the circus trip. But when they got it together after the All-Star break they began to blow through the league, 12 wins in their last 16 road games, winning streaks of 11 games and nine games, 20 of 21 in one stretch. Jordan scored at least 40 in three of the last five games of the season.
How about opening the playoffs with a 41-point win? Sweeping the first and third rounds and winning 4-1 in the conference semifinals and NBA Finals? Going 15-2 in the playoffs while that 1992 team had seven playoff losses and barely survived a seven gamer with the Knicks in the conference semifinals. No Bulls playoff team ever was as dominant playing against higher level competition.
This was Magic and the legendary Lakers.
The playoffs become a blur for everyone. But come playoff time the team did get a charter aircraft and I was on my own chasing them around. To lend some perspective to still how little the media believed in the Bulls, just Bernie Lincicome and I were traveling in the playoffs. By 1998, the Tribune assigned 16 writers. Not that newspapers ever saw the future well.
The rest of the nation didn't think much of the Bulls, either.
We knew, and we in Chicago began to believe, at least those few of us following the team regularly. A sense of confidence was growing like we never saw before and we mostly were certain the team would beat the Pistons even if everyone wondered if something would happen like it always seemed to.
When the Bulls went up 3-0, the series, obviously, was over. It was Jordan who provoked that Pistons walkout with his amazing media session after practice on the day off between Games 3 and 4. He'd been beaten and beaten up so much by the then Bad Boys and still was seething even with the series effectively over. Michael was a world class trash talker, as we knew, and that was probably his best day.
He'd generally say the politically correct thing in the media, but didn't much care, anymore. He launched into this remarkable soliloquy about the Pistons and how undeserving they were as champions because of the way they played and how they'd brought disrespect to the game. It was stunning, amazing stuff and the Detroit papers were filled with it the next day. I knew the Pistons would do something, though I never quite expected that.
So as we were getting ready for the Finals I looked at the matchups for the matchup feature all newspapers do and as I ran them down I began to realize there was no way the Lakers could win, that the Bulls were just too athletic.
All those picks reporters do are for fun and debate, but the L.A. media tends to take itself a bit seriously, sort of an L.A. smug thing. If you watch the Academy awards you know. I picked the Bulls in five giving, as I recall, only Magic an edge on Paxson.
The L.A. media was furious. They liked to refer to us in Chicago as Mayberry.
And so when Perkins hit that three to win it in Game 1, I was working in the hockey press box, where we sat in the old Chicago Stadium. Brian McIntyre, the one time Bulls p.r. guy who became a legendary league media chief, called up to me and laughed about my pick.
"Right on schedule," I said with a laugh.
I have to admit I was wavering a bit at that point.
But then the Bulls absolutely blew away the Lakers in Game 2. And when Jordan sent that Game 3 into overtime and the Bulls won, we knew it was over. Imagine that, the Bulls winning the NBA championship.
I was supposed to be writing and observing, but that locker room scene was more for me like seeing something wonderful happen to your long suffering family. There was so much joy and relief and love. I just stood and watched the scene around, the hugging and laughing and smiles. It probably was the last truly innocent time for that team what with the pressures, the scrutiny and the maelstrom constantly around Jordan and the interplay with the organization and team and media.
This one was just about basketball and competition and what was best about the game. They hadn't become worldwide celebrities and icons yet. They were just a bunch of guys playing a game.
It was a wonderful year.
The 1990-91 team finished with a 61-21 record and won the NBA Championship by defeating the Lakers 4-1 in the 1991 NBA Finals.