NBA at 50 Interview
Q: What was it like heading into the 1990-91 season knowing that the Bulls couldn't get past Detroit is the playoffs?
Jordan: Well as you know, in 1989-90, mentally we were gearing ourselves up to get past this hump. But once again, we got to the hump and really couldn't get over it. In 1990-91, we vowed amongst ourselves that our whole focus was only Detroit. No one else made a difference and we had to play other games quite naturally. But each and every game that we played against Detroit, we considered it a war. This is a war against Detroit and Chicago. It was a rivalry that is being created. It's like, they had a standoff and they stepped over the line that you drew. And now, it's a matter of putting 'em back in their place and stepping over their line and controlling the situation. And we knew in 90-91, if we didn't do it then and we felt that we had the talent to do so, then we'd probably be fighting a mental challenge.
It's not really physical, it's mental because we had been knocked down so many times. So this was the year, this was a pivotal year for us to get over this team. We had success all season long. We seemed to be bonding together and getting stronger because of our disappointments. We felt that this is the chance to make them back down and shake our hands or gain some revenge from that. So it was an unbelievable feeling. But then, when the games came, it was an unbelievable nervousness because we were at the ultimate goal that we set forth for ourselves at the beginning of the season.
Q: When you beat Detroit, the Lakers were there waiting for you in the Finals. What was the feeling like?
Jordan: Well, I think we geared so much energy getting past Detroit that everything else was, at that time, secondary. Yeah, we were playing against the guy who's had the most success in the 80's and 90's in a sense, in the playoffs, which was Magic Johnson. You heard all of the conversations about it (being our) first time to the Finals, that we have to go through a learning experience and that no one goes in there and wins a championship the first year. So we didn't feel like the pressure was on us, but the challenge was there, especially for myself. Here, I'm going against one of the greatest players in the game. I had to guard him on the defensive end, and I want to beat him. I want to go against all odds and all odds were to win a championship.
Well, at the time we were faced against a team that was very experienced. They had James Worthy, Magic Johnson, Byron Scott, Sam Perkins, who was my teammate in 1982. Things were stacked against us, but we didn't feel that we had anything to lose. We got past the biggest hurdle that we felt was in our way, which was Detroit. When we lost the first game, we figured that was just off of nervousness and being in a situation. But yet, we still had a chance to win. So we drew energy from that. Hey, this team was supposed to be so dominant and yet more experienced, but they barely beat us. From that point on, we just had so much confidence. We just wanted to go out and make a name for ourselves and make a statement. We wanted to get ourselves into that elite class which is what Chicago has always wanted, but always had to settle to, well, wait until next year. That was the whole theme in Chicago and we wanted to erase that as quickly as possible. This was our opportunity to do so.
Q: Was that series against the Lakers a sort of passing-of-the-torch from Magic to you?
Jordan: In looking back, yes it was the passing of the torch of the eras in terms of L.A. controlling the 80's. We were (now) headed in the right direction. We could basically put ourselves in the predicament to be a dominant force in the 90's. We gained confidence from winning the championship being in the first year, but nothing was a given. We just had to maintain the consistency and the determination that we have had up to that point. In looking back, I think that was the time that the torch was being passed on and we were finally getting our diploma from that school of hard knocks and moving to the point where we were finally graduating into one of the elite classes in the game of basketball.
Q: Once the first championship was out of the way, what did the second championship do for the Bulls?
Jordan: We put a stamp from an organization standpoint that it wasn't a fluke the first time. But from an individual standpoint, I vowed to show to everyone that a scoring leader could also be a successful team leader. I vowed to maintain that type of consistency for this organization in winning championships. To do it twice showed...it gave us validity as an organization and gave us motivation to have an opportunity to do something Magic Johnson didn't do, Larry Bird didn't do and no other team has done in some time. We wanted to really solidify where this organization was headed, and where Michael Jordan as a leader was headed. So I drew motivation from that, that back to back. And it was a hard fight but I never doubted that we couldn't do it.
Q: That summer, you were part of the original NBA "Dream Team" that participated in the Olympics in Barcelona. What were your expectations heading into the Olympics?
Jordan: I don't think anyone knew what to expect. This was the first time that this was happening, and there was a lot of anticipation and a lot of hype. But yet, there was a lot of interest because the NBA is going abroad in a sense, international. There were so many people that watched us, that stayed up till 2:00 or 3:00 at night just to watch the playoffs. But now, they were going to get a good glimpse right up front. But we never really knew how big that was going to become until we started traveling around and we'd see helicopters and motorcades all over the place. That was bigger than we ever anticipated, and it's a thrill to be a part of because we were in some ways making history being the first professional basketball team to play in the Olympics. At the same time, we had to represent the game of basketball because so many people had heard so much about the NBA and some of the great players that played. We felt an obligation, an ambassadorship, about the game of basketball -- not just the NBA, but from college through high school, all the way down. This is our chance to export the game that we have kind of perfected. It was fun, and yet, we didn't know the hype that was in store for us.
On the Dream Team and it's popularity
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Q: Can you talk about the drive for a third title and the rigors that you went through?
Jordan: Mentally, I was getting exhausted. But yet, physically was way past exhausted. I think when you try to do something repetitively, you lose some of the hunger and some of the edge of what that accomplishment means. It was if we were being tested more so mentally than physically. Scottie Pippen and myself were just coming off almost a nine month season with two months or three months rest. (The challenge) was getting ourselves right back in the battle, against a lot more hungrier people and teams and organizations who wanted to get to where we were. We were on top, and the toughest part was trying to stay on top. It was a burden. It was a burden that weighed on us all season long, but we knew that all we had to do was sustain the regular season until we get to the playoffs and hopefully our experience and desires and what we had experienced in the past would be enough to fuel us to our third championship which would separate us from the Lakers and Pistons.
Q: Were the Bulls shooting for history with that third title?
Jordan: No, not really because the Boston Celtics won 11 so that wasn't really what we really geared up for. But in this era, and when we were playing for this organization, we felt that this is a chance to really put ourselves ahead of everybody else. That was a motivating factor for us. It was tough and you had a lot of problems from personalities either growing and improving and egos getting bigger. We had to contend with all that to where we had a common goal once we stepped on the basketball court -- and that was to win a championship.
Q: Talk about how you felt after you won...how the game started to wear you down.
Jordan: Well, it started wearing me down mentally because of all the things that were happening and some of the responsibility that I was gaining, and not just basketball but away from the game of basketball. For every individual who goes through something for that period of time and not really truly having a break, our breaks were not really breaks. My breaks were not really vacations. It was just a timeout. Mentally, I was exhausted. The expectations, the whole work ethic that we were involved, was wearing me down, and my father and I had a conversation of just stepping away because I forgot where I was. I forgot how I got there because being on top for so long, you forget about a lot of the stages and the steps that it took to get to that point.
On the steps leading up to, and reasons for, his first retirement and attempt at a baseball career|
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I knew mentally that I was getting worn down, and I was looking for a change. We talked many, many times about playing baseball. This would be an opportune time. "You just separated yourself away from all of the other players and more so. Let's walk away," he said. "Let's go and do something else." And I always said that once I walk away from the game, no one is going to know. It's just going to be something that I do. It's going to catch everybody by surprise, and this would be right down that alley. So when I walked away and I finished playing my last game in Phoenix in 1993, I knew that this was my last game and my father knew and most of my family and my friends knew. I was really emotionally drained at the time because of all the things that I had to carry from a mental standpoint of what was happening for me. When it all happened and it came to a conclusion, I felt relieved. I felt, that I had accomplished what I could accomplish for this moment, and I needed a break, seriously. That was the reason that I chose to walk away.
Q: Was there one factor that influenced your return to the NBA?
Jordan: The love for the game. The love that I truly felt when you get away from something and you have time enough to reminisce about the joy that it had brought to you and you experienced it a little bit with. I experienced it a little bit with my minor league teammates. Every Sunday they wanted to go play basketball and I'm saying I want to go play baseball. I want to learn what you guys have to teach me in baseball. But yet, you guys want to go play a pickup game which is something I've done many times. Once I got out there, it was a true love that I had for the game that started to lead me back to the game of basketball. With the disappointment and all of the politics that were happening in baseball, it was like a signal being sent to me, like, "Well, you've had your thrill. This is a good time to walk away from it because you're being thrusted into a position that you shouldn't get yourself involved in."
On why he returned to basketball in 1995|
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The next thing you know, I was out of baseball and leaning towards getting back into basketball after talking to Scottie Pippen, Phil Jackson, who I really and truly care for because of the experiences that we had, and B.J. Armstrong. I felt, let's make a shot at it. Let's make a run at it. My father, at the time, was not around, and he always wanted me to be happy in whatever choices I made.
Q: What type of encouragement did he give you, and how did it effect your decision to return?
Jordan: His motive and his encouragement was always that you want to have a freedom of choice, and if you ever have a freedom of choice, you make that choice, whatever the freedom may be, whatever the choice may be. Here I am in a position to exercise that and I had some reservations about it, especially initially of what people may think in terms of a credibility standpoint. But, the answer to that was that I truly loved the game. It wasn't for the money. It wasn't like I was broke. I truly love the game and I missed it and I needed the break.
Q: When you came back, there was a new breed of players that had not tested themselves against you.
Jordan: Well, it was a challenge. One of the reasons I left was because I didn't have as many challenges as I did previously. Now I had all the challenges in the world. People were presenting different challenges to me and that's something that I was really thriving about. Young kids were talking trash to me. Some of them were physically, athletically a lot better than I was. But I think another championship -- to do what hadn't been done as far as I could remember. What separated me from them was I knew more. I knew how to win. I knew what it took. So that was a challenge to prove and see if you could teach these kids what it takes about winning. Not just physical skill but how to apply that in similar situations. The same thing that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird did to me in the 80's basically. It was my responsibility to teach these young whippersnappers how to do that, and in the midst of all that, it was a challenge to come back and win.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about winning 70 games in the 1995-96 season?
Jordan: No one anticipated or no one even thought of 70 games. That came within the whole works of trying to get to a championship. So all the team accolades started to come about because the teams taking on a different change with Dennis (Rodman), with Luc Longley, with some of the other players, Toni Kukoc, which I never had the opportunity to play with and now I was playing with. Scottie was and Phil were the only constant reminder to what happened in 1993. I felt compelled each and every day when I got up to go out and somehow tune up and get back to where I was. So I was that much more motivated to prove to the world that they shouldn't write me off yet. Even though we were not successful in 1995, I don't think physically I was prepared for it. In 1996, we're going to come back and we're going to show that the organization is right back where we were. And the '90s is our era. We want to continue to keep it going in that way, as long as I'm playing the game of basketball. It was more gratifying but more determination because of all the eyes that were dissecting the game or dissecting the team or the organization. So, I felt compelled to try to take it an extra mile so that we could cover those loop holes.
On the '96 season as a comeback for him and the Bulls' 70 wins and fourth title
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Q: What did you miss most being away from the NBA?
Jordan: Competing at the highest level of competition. You have a challenge each and every time that you step on the basketball court, not too many situations provide that for you and enjoy it at the same time. Here we are playing a game, and it's considered a job. It's the easiest job in America, where you could go out and play for two hours and gain all the notoriety and respect of millions and yet, be the best at what you do. That is the dream and enjoyment that I get out of the game, and that's what I forgot or lost along the way of getting to the top.
Q: What are you most appreciative of at this point of your career?
Jordan: Appreciation of the opportunity. A lot of people never get an opportunity to express themselves or succeed or have the opportunity to succeed. I'm very appreciative of the opportunity to see the best, play against the best and hopefully evolve to be one of the best. And very few people get that opportunity and the desire to do so.
Q: It must make all those hours in the gym worthwhile.
Jordan: Well, I think what you initially do is you learn this about the whole season from start to finish. And all the work and all the times that you didn't want to do it or you didn't feel up to it and you pushed yourself to do it because of that moment. That moment that you're about to experience of winning a championship and being the best in the world. It was many days that you felt, "Well, is it worth it ? Could you just somehow take a day off and get by and yet still achieve what you want." Those are the moments that you push yourself to get to that ultimate goal. Now, that you've gotten to it, you take a moment for reminiscing to understand the gratification that came out of that push and that desire and that determination that you questioned so many times over the length of that year. And yet, it was finally accumulating to what your motives and your ulterior motives were from day one and that was to win a championship.
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