Celebrating 1990-91 - Cliff Levingston
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Cliff Levingston remembers they all seemed a bit nervous, a mixture of uncertainty and relief as the Bulls opened the 1991 Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers. Everyone knew they'd gotten over the big hurdle, the Detroit Pistons, but no one knew quite what to expect now.
"We all were nervous that first game," recalls Levingston. "It's the Lakers and the Finals. And no one had been that deep in the playoffs before. So they beat us on a Sam Perkins three and we really felt this was for the taking now. We knew we didn't play well, guys are out of sync and Michael has a last shot at it. After that first game, I knew we were winning.
"I remember going into the locker room after that game and saying, 'Let's get a sweep now,'" said Levingston.
"Michael says, 'Cliff, you've got to win the first game to get a sweep.' So I said, 'Let's sweep from this point on.'"
As we know, the Bulls did, taking their first championship in five games, and it was truly a milestone for veteran reserve Levingston as well.
"That was my first championship. In anything playing basketball," said Levingston. "High school, college, no AAU. It was the first I ever was a part of. To me, it felt like I finally reached the point in my career where I was a contributor to something important."
Levington, who'd played previously with the Pistons and Hawks, was one of the veteran additions who solidified the team's depth and gave that Bulls team so many options. While Scottie Pippen was flashing onto Magic Johnson in a key matchup in the Finals, Pippen was having issues at times with the tricky James Worthy.
"He'd beat Scottie baseline," recalled Levington. "Phil came to me and said to stop Worthy on the baseline and I feel it was something that we did all season, to stay ready for when you get the chance.
"To this day, that's my biggest message to kids, that it's not about the minutes you play but the productivity in the minutes given to you," says Levington. "I try to tell kids you play five minutes, make them the best five minutes you can. Be productive. Whenever I came off the bench (Levington played in 78 games that season), my whole focus was to do the best I could in those minutes. If you're a sub you're not going to get big minutes no matter what you are doing. The starter is coming back in. So do everything you can in that short time. Understand your role.
"I remember something a mentor of mine, Caldwell Jones told me," said Levingston. "He said, 'Stars come and go. Role players last.' Every team needs role players. You can be around a long time if you understand what it takes."
Levington has been teaching those lessons in a coaching career that has taken him to the CBA, ABA, USBL, where he won a championship, and to the Qatar national team. He now works basketball camps in Michigan City, Ind., a long way from the club ownership he was involved with after his career. But like the valuable role player he became, Levington also understood those reserves for the 1991 Bulls played a vital part in the championship picture.
"I guess my personal highlight was in January when it all started clicking for the second unit," Levington said. "We started understanding the movement of the offense and I think that was a big turning point for the team (from early February on the Bulls had the league's best record).
"We started to feel not if we were going to win but how much we were going to win by," said Levingston. "It was like the light bulb came on and we saw everything clearly. I remember one week Tex Winter comes in with this old reel of black and white film from Long Beach State and we're wondering why we're watching that.
"But all of a sudden we could see the flow of the triangle offense and it clicked in," said Levingston. "Here I was a veteran and it's nothing I've seen before. And the second unit began to click and the starters gained confidence in what we were doing."
(The reserves made the difference in two of the biggest games of the season, the win in Auburn Hills before the All-Star break and the first game against Detroit when the reserves broke from an even game with Michael Jordan off the floor).
"We grew in confidence," said Levingston, "and it helped make us a complete team."