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The Road to the Top

Jordan 1988 dunk
Before he earned his six championships, this jaw-dropping dunk from the free throw line helped define his career.

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Michael Jordan goes out on top, having led the Chicago Bulls to six NBA Championships and having won MVP honors in each of those NBA Finals. A 12-time All-Star, 10-time scoring champion and five-time league MVP, he was the most celebrated athlete in all of team sports, the centerpiece of the Chicago Bulls dynasty that dominated pro basketball in the 1990s.

He made the game look easy, more so, perhaps, than anyone who ever laced on sneakers. Yet those six championship rings did not come easily, not for the Bulls and not for Jordan.

Remember the scene on June 12, 1991, in the visitors' lockerroom at the Great Western Forum? Jordan's Bulls had just defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 108-101 to win the NBA Finals in five games, giving the 25-year-old franchise its first NBA title. As he sat in front of his dressing stall and clutched the championship trophy, his wide Juanita on one side, his father on the other, pandemonium all around, Jordan cried-tears of joy, tears of relief, tears of fulfillment.

"When I came here we started from scratch," he said. "We started at the bottom and made it to the top. It's been a long, long seven years, a lot of bad teams, a lot of improvement, step by step, inch by inch. I never gave up hope. I always had faith."

Jordan's faith often was tested during those early years in the mid-1980s, when all his individual brilliance could not change Chicago's losing ways. He joined a team that had stumbled to a 27-55 record the previous season, a team so bereft of talent that even with Jordan it would be four years before the Bulls would break .500. As a rookie, Jordan led the Bulls in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals-a testament not only to his own skills, but his teammates' ineptitude. "Michael and the Jordanaires," they were dubbed, and on many nights Jordan not only was the lead singer but he was the entire show.

A prime example was Game 2 of the 1986 playoffs, Jordan's second season in the NBA. Chicago had squeaked into the postseason field with a 30-52 record after a bizarre year in which Jordan broke his foot in the third game of the season, sat out 64 games, then returned to action following a public squabble with management, whose preference was that he sit out the remainder of the season and not risk further damage to the foot. But sitting on the sidelines was torture for the ultra-competitive Jordan, so even though doctors said he was jeopardizing his career, he insisted on playing the final 15 games of the season and his presence was enough to get Chicago into the playoff field.

Although the Bulls were swept in the first round by the eventual champion Boston Celtics, the second game of that series firmly established Jordan's place in the NBA firmament. Playing before a national television audience on the hallowed parquet of Boston Garden, Jordan scored a playoff-record 63 points as the Bulls extended the Celtics into double overtime before bowing 135-131. Boston's Larry Bird, the league MVP that season, was left shaking his head in amazement. "I didn't think anyone was capable of doing what Michael did to us," he said. "He is the most exciting, awesome player in the game today. I think it's just God disguised as Michael Jordan."

Healthy for a full season, Jordan won his first scoring title in his third season, averaging a career-high 37.1 ppg and leading the Bulls in scoring in a staggering 77 of 82 games. He scored 40 or more points 28 times, 50 or more six times and set a franchise regular season record with 61 against Atlanta. Yet still the Bulls finished below .500, at 40-42, and again they were swept from the playoffs by Boston in the first round.

In just three seasons, Jordan had established himself as the greatest individual talent in the game and had turned the Bulls into a hot ticket, drawing capacity crowds every night, home or away. But still they were a losing team; the championship rings belonged to Bird and the Celtics, to Magic Johnson and the Lakers. "Until I win a championship, there will always be something missing," Jordan said wistfully.

The 1987-88 season proved to be a turning point, for both Jordan and the Bulls. The draft yielded Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, two talented frontcourtmen who had the athleticism to run with Jordan, and the result was 50 wins and a first round playoff victory over Cleveland. Jordan had perhaps his finest all-around season, becoming the first player ever to lead the league in scoring and steals in the same season. The All-Star Weekend in Chicago proved to be his personal showcase; on Saturday he repeated as slam-dunk champion, beating Dominique Wilkins by scoring a perfect 50 on his final dunk, then on Sunday he came back to pour in 40 points and lead the East to victory. Jordan was chosen league MVP and Defensive Player of the Year, an unprecedented double.

The next year is best remembered in Chicago, and in Cleveland, for "the Shot." For the second time in a row the Bulls met the Cavaliers in the playoffs and it came down to a decisive fifth game. With Chicago trailing 100-99 in the closing seconds, Jordan got the ball in the frontcourt on the right side, dribbled to his left into the foul circle and went up for a jumper. Craig Ehlo leaped to try for the block and got a hand in the way, but Jordan pulled the ball back and waited, seemingly suspended in mid-air, until Ehlo passed by him. Then, with Ehlo on the floor, Jordan released the shot on his way down and the ball found nothing but net at the buzzer. Jordan responded by pumping his fists in celebration as a stunned Cleveland crowd stared in disbelief. It became one of the most replayed moments in sports television.

But it was still just one playoff series. The Bulls' road to success was blocked by the Detroit Pistons, who ousted them from the playoffs three years in a row from 1988 through 1990. Much was made of the "Jordan Rules" devised by Pistons Coach Chuck Daly, but they were largely a mind-game designed to heap more pressure onto the Chicago star. The Pistons basically did what every team tried to do against Jordan, which was funnel him toward the middle of the court where the player guarding him could get help from teammates. The Pistons succeeded where others failed because their players had the right combination of athletes and attitude to make it work.

In 1991, however, Jordan and the Bulls would not be denied. After setting a franchise record with 61 wins in the regular season, they swept New York and beat Philadelphia in five games to set up yet another showdown with Detroit. But this time the Pistons were no match, losing in four straight games, a series that was so one-sided and humiliating for the two-time defending NBA champions that most of their players sulked off the court in the closing seconds of the finale, passing by the Chicago bench without the customary congratulatory handshakes.

After that it was on to Los Angeles, where the much-anticipated Finals matchup between Michael and Magic turned into a passing of the torch. The Bulls won in five games and Jordan finally had his championship. The dynasty had begun.