Sam Smith reflects on 30-year anniversary of the Bulls' first NBA title
"Those Bulls might have been the best defensive team in the history of the NBA."
Remind Me Later •
Michael Jordan came sprinting and bouncing through the door first, pumping his fist. His smile seemed to me more about satisfaction than accomplishment.
Finally, the Finals.
Magic was in the Air, but Michael Jordan had taken the air out of Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers. No one realized quite yet, but the tectonic plates of NBA distinction had shifted irrevocably. Their joy was unrestrained, which is predictable at such moments as many in sports have experienced. Yet, it also seemed as much therapeutic for all the hurt and pain it seemed to erase.
A gleeful Jerry Krause even hugged me. That's the definition of euphoria.
That was the night in Los Angeles thirty years ago Saturday—June 12—when the Bulls won their first NBA championship.
Not that anyone really expected much more than one. And certainly not the dynasty the Bulls became.
That's where it began, and I was happy to be there. The NBA a few years before had started to invite the traveling beat reporters and some local and national media into the locker room as time expired in the closing Finals game so we could witness that tsunami of emption and celebration. And get our clothes wet from Champagne spray. I probably should have saved that vest sweater for auction.
No, that's not Champagne, that's a Michael Jordan tear drop.
We've seen the picture many times of Jordan, his then wife Juanita to his left, cradling the championship trophy in his right hand while being interviewed by Bob Costas for NBC, his parents in the foreground. I was standing just to Jordan's left behind Juanita, leaning down mostly out of camera view to hear the historic comments we know always come from locker room celebrations. The reporter in the middle of it directly behind Jordan literally standing in Jordan's locker was Mike Downey, then a columnist for the Los Angeles Times and later the Chicago Tribune. He was also known as the husband Dean Martin's daughter, so he understood better than the rest of us where the camera would be for posterity.
Jordan was telling Costas he always competed for and sought this title, but if he never achieved his goal he would not be disappointed with his career. I'm glad I wasn't on camera to be seen rolling my eyes.
Jordan had just played all 48 minutes of the Game 5 clincher after 52 minutes in the pivotal Game 3 overtime win during which Jordan suffered a toe injury and then 44 minutes in Game 4. Players apparently didn't get as fatigued back then.
I never get tired thinking about that night and that week and that season.
Fans often ask me which championship season was my favorite. There's never hesitation about it being 1991, and not only because it was the first. I also believed it was the Bulls best team among the six championships because of the youth, athletic abilities and tenacity of the Big Three of Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. But also because of the depth of the reserves that was so crucial in the victory over the Lakers when even as Jordan, Pippen and Grant played so much, reserves like Cliff Levingston, Scott Williams and Craig Hodges repeatedly made big plays and outperformed the Lakers bench. Their bandwidth seemed so much greater than the Lakers, at least to me. And to many around that team. Were we just Homers? Or seeing that they were ready to cross home plate?
It would be the wellspring of athletic brilliance and legacy.
Everyone generally remembers their firsts. But as consequential as this was, it was equally unexpected. Especially to the Bulls.
It seems so unlikely now because the Bulls did win six championships in the 1990s, every year Jordan played a full season. People and especially sports fans and media tend to maintain this ordained belief, that if something occurred it also was destined, a basketball tautology. They won because they were the best and the best wins.
Even the Bulls didn't believe they were the best that season. They believed they were better than the Detroit Pistons, who'd knocked them out of the playoffs the last three years, and often embarrassingly so. But they still had to prove it. To everyone else. And really to themselves, as well.
The accepted formula for ultimate NBA success back then was experiencing defeat, learning from it, as the tired cliche went, and then winning. It was the league's ascendancy labyrinth. Like the Celtics performed in 1980 to the Lakers, the 76ers for six years until 1983, the Pistons to the Celtics in 1989. And now it was the Portland Trailblazers' turn. Portland lost to the Pistons in the 1990 Finals and then began the 1990-91 season with 11 straight wins and a 19-1 first six weeks.
The Bulls, as we saw reiterated in the Last Dance documentary last year, were obsessed with the Pistons. I remember when the team went into Detroit for the first time that 1990-91 season just before Christmas. They were much more feckless than fearless in a double digit loss. It did seem like they'd be broken up after that season. Jordan was growing more frustrated with Pippen and Grant and their apparently inability to match Detroit's tenacious tactics. They seemed not to be growing as much as melting in that competitive incubator. Jordan was discussing replacements. When the team just before the All-Star break returned to the Palace at Auburn Hills and won, they talked about it being a breakthrough with their first road win against those Pistons. I didn't see it that way since Isiah Thomas was out injured. But if it's your story, you can tell it your way.
It seemed more like an ember; it became a flash point.
But when the Bulls returned from that All-Star break still with just one All-Star while the Celtics had three and the Pistons, 76ers and Bucks two each, it was the Bulls who seemed like a different team. That win in Detroit somehow did appear profound. They played with a purpose and poise I hadn't really seen before.
Because of Pippen and Grant, they were the least experienced among the East's best. But they were the most athletic, and that threesome flying around the court, trapping, pressuring and running was exhausting the other teams.
The Bulls won nine straight and 17 of 18, and hiding in plain sight they had become the second half Trailblazers team that began the season 19-1. But images and ideas often are fixed on first glance. And so the NBA had made up its mind even as the Bulls were 29-7 after the All-Star break.
Then the Bulls opened the playoffs beating the Knicks by 41 points to start the three-game sweep, took Charles Barkley and the 76ers in five games and famously and infamously swept the Pistons into their elaborate and premature perambulation. That made it 41-8. To me, that was magic. Not Magic.
The ritualistic media exercise before any of these series, especially back then, was to analyze position by position and predict a winner. I knew even living so sheltered in Chicago, as the West Coast glitterati saw it, that the Lakers had a lot of championships and Magic Johnson and James Worthy and famous fans. But I really did believe the Bulls were better. Not just because of Jordan as most media focused on the Jordan/Johnson confluence.
Jordan and Johnson really weren't great friends yet as much as they would become because Johnson was so often featured favorably in comparison to the high scoring, frequent shooting Jordan as the model basketball player. Sure, the narrative went, you can score and beat him one-on-one. But Magic checked all the banal boxes, played the right way, made teammates better. It just made Jordan so mad! Plus, if that wasn't bad enough, Johnson was buddies with Isiah Thomas, though that relationship was fracturing with their Finals opposition. Still, Isiah! And they called Rodman the Worm?
The Lakers were broken down, though no one realized how much at the time. They weren't supposed to be there, actually, but pulled a surprise upset of the Trailblazers in the conference finals. The next three seasons they would not finish higher than eighth. Of course, that became without Johnson.
But I believed that Bulls secret weapon of defense—which wasn't secret to those of us around the team all season—would be too much for the slower, aged Lakers. Those Bulls might have been the best defensive team in the history of the NBA, though no one ever mentioned it. Jordan was a former Defensive Player of the Year and regarded as the league's best defensive guard. Pippen was soon to be recognized as the league's best defensive wing player and may be the best defensive perimeter player in league history. Without advance notice, you're always a year late for recognition. No one said it then. They did by the close of the 1992 Olympics. Grant was probably the most athletic defensive power forward in the game. Coach Phil Jackson had those three trapping and sprinting and pressuring. And for all the attention on Jordan's ubiquitous scoring, the Bulls were dominating teams with defense.
So I picked Pippen over Worthy and Grant over Sam Perkins to make a point and selected Bulls in 5.
This is not to say I know how these things, often so quixotic, will conclude. I get as many wrong as I do correct. Like everyone else. We're around the game all the time. But it doesn't mean we know what will happen. If we did, the betting sites would make me a billionaire. I always would say if I knew what was going to happen, I'd just live in Vegas. When that was where you had to go if you were a wiser guy.
I merely wanted to make a point about how good I thought those Bulls were.
Though in a series one or two plays can change everything.
I remember running into some Bulls staffers after Game 3 in the parking lot outside the Forum. They were giddy and celebrating. Great overtime win, I agreed. Sure, they said, but now this meant the series would return to Chicago. Yes, they were just hoping not to be swept in LA.
And suddenly my five-game Bulls win prediction was a story.
How dare I! After all, this was the mighty Lakers!
Jordan, sure. But the Bulls?
Just another hick town Cassandra.
The Los Angeles media, often adopting a Hollywood tone, tends to be dismissive in a condescending way. Like life in LA. They often seemed to prefer to treat newspaper stories like motion picture treatments. You know, I could be writing Citizen Kane if I wanted to. They go to the beach while the rest of us are cowering in our offices, reluctant to face the biting elements to fight our way home. They wake late and party late, and invent everything. And then they tend to be especially disdainful of the Midwest. I recall reading Mayberry often instead of Chicago.
There also was an egotistical national sports media experiment at the time led by Frank Deford from Sports Illustrated fame. He was hired to lead an all sports daily superstar newspaper of supposed superior quality with only the best writers. Of course, the rest of us who weren't included were resentful, especially with the new paper's similar patronizing tone. And so as the Finals series began, both the LA Times and the National were writing stories about how ill-informed, dysfunctional and chauvinistic the Chicago media was by thinking the Bulls could win. And especially me. And in five games!
One National column was about how I needed to be fired if that was my knowledge of the NBA. You always hate to see colleagues lose their jobs, though I have to admit I wasn't that depressed when the National went out of business on the day the Bulls won Game 5. I know, but I couldn't ignore the coincidence.
Hey, I was just making a guess and a point. Who takes this so seriously?
So back to Game 1, Perkins in his attempt to make a shot to tie the score got confused and stepped behind the three-point line. He converted what became the winning points when Jordan's fatal final attempt bounced in and out.
The local Chicago media worked in the hockey press box in the old Chicago Stadium, which was an overhang at the East Side of the arena. Brian McIntyre, the NBA's chief pr executive and former lead Bulls media staffer, was walking out of the Stadium just below where I was working. "You're right on target for five," he said with a hearty laugh.
Earlier I had been down to the locker rooms, which were a floor below the basketball court in that old building. Later after the interviews, I found Jackson in one of the corner rabbit warrens in the basement maze of the old building. Jackson always would retreat to one of those spots after a game to drink a beer and smoke a cigarette. "Tough one," I said. Jackson smiled. "It was a great game," he said.
He didn't elaborate much, but it seemed like the loss gave him confidence. That's it? That's all they've got? The great Lakers?
His eyes seemed to say it. Or was it the haze and rat poison left in the wall cracks?
Game 2 became a rout for the Bulls, completed with Jordan's famous switch hand layup after the Bulls had long broken open the game with 12 straight field goals in a game Jordan made 13 consecutive shots. You still can't watch an NBA commercial without hearing Marv Albert's famous call, a spectacular shot by Michael Jordan! It was that 13th straight field goal.
That also was the game that began Johnson's decline. His exhaustion seemed to grow game to game as we attributed it to Jackson's strategy after Game 1 to alternate Pippen defending Johnson with Jordan. Jordan defended Johnson in Game 1, but Jackson went to the taller and longer Pippen in Game 2, and then toggled between the two as the games progressed. Johnson attempted to rest on defense by playing against John Paxson. But Paxson had the series of his career, shooting 65 percent with all the open space as Johnson often attempted to help on Jordan. Paxson in the series attempted just four three pointers and the Bulls attempted just 21 in the five games combined.
Johnson had this hollow look of fatigue and defeat as the series continued. No one ever speculated just a few months later he'd be announcing his retirement because of HIV.
Jordan made another Shot in the Game 3 crucible which set the Bulls on course to the title.
The Lakers, back home for Game 3, hit the Bulls with an 18-2 run after halftime and a 13-point lead before the Bulls crawled back into the game. But Vlade Divac, stumbling with a loose ball, gathered it and scored for a three-point play and 92-90 lead with 10.9 seconds left. It seemed like a 2-1 Lakers lead to come and maybe the start of a sweep.
Jackson chose after a timeout to allow Jordan to dribble up full court. Jordan dashed to the right elbow before the Lakers could set and made a jumper with 3.4 seconds left to tie the game. Then the Lakers didn't get off a shot. Though Jordan played 52 minutes and scored 29 points, he was just 11 of 28 and scoreless most of the second half until that last shot. He made The Shot. Not many others. Cliff Levingston had a big game with Pippen in foul trouble and Grant scored the last two baskets of overtime and had 22 points and 11 rebounds.
The home court guard rail was becoming a third rail for the Lakers.
The story coming into Game 4 was Jordan's jammed toe from Game 3. But it was mostly the Bulls jamming up Johnson with the Pippen/Jordan tag team. Indicative was one possession when the Lakers tried to post Johnson and Jordan and Pippen squeezed him into a 24-second clock violation. It got to a point that the Lakers had to have Worthy in the backcourt to set screens so Johnson could dribble into the front court. Yes, that Magic Johnson. The Lakers bench was invisible and with a few minutes left in the game, once self-assured fans were heading for the beach; it was garbage time with bench players in the last three minutes of a Finals game. Jordan still played 44 minutes with continued acceleration.
It was 3-1 Bulls and it now seemed there was no way the Lakers could recover with both Worthy and Byron Scott out injured for Game 5.
The Lakers never seemed to play with much energy or panache most of the series. But the suddenly patchwork Lakers gave it more of a try. The usually late arriving fans were involved from the start, chanting defense from the first possession. They seemed somewhat less contemptuous of Chicago. Lakers rookies Tony Smith and Elden Campbell played most of the game on a two-player bench. Terry Teagle started for the Lakers. Magic did get 20 assists, and the Lakers were tied with six minutes left. Could it be? Suspense? Nah.
Jackson told me later that summer about that famous timeout with about six minutes left when he asked a jittery Jordan who was open. Paxson then closed out the first championship in the Bulls 25th anniversary season with a shooting performance that should endear him to Chicago forever. Few in the history of the city's sports have done more at a more significant time.
With seconds left in the game and the result effectively determined, Johnson eased up court and attempted a last long shot. Jordan blocked it. Take that!
Pippen picked up the loose ball and bounced out the last few seconds with his right hand raised in triumph in the closing scene we often see. There were no post game congratulations in court among the opponents. It wasn't done much in that era, and fans spilled onto the court and circled the Bulls triumphant players like one of those scenes from the end of the British Open golf tournaments. Fans could be trusted a bit more back then. Jack Nicholson shook Jackson's hand as he left the court. Phil didn't seem impressed. Johnson did shake hands with some Bulls players and coaches in the narrow hallway the two teams shared in the Forum on the way to the locker rooms.
Albert and Mike Fratello as the game ended were discussing the national surprise of the Bulls win and Jordan finally answering those questions about whether a team ever could win with a player who scored so much. No one asked that question again.
Jordan immediately sunk to the floor upon entering the locker room, seemingly to hide some emotions. The burden of expectations and ambition had been weighing on Jordan for many years like the Bulls Atlas he was. He carried the cargo of a franchise. Now his celestial presence would be earned. The players quickly gathered in a circle for a prayer, one of their regular post game customs. Though there was some Champagne spraying around this time. Another was to cross off the number left to a title.
Starting in Game 1 back against New York, the Bulls had a row of numbers in a countdown on the locker room chalkboard. It was usually Craig Hodges crossing a line through a number after each win. "Hodgy," Jerry Krause was shouting. Hodges crossed off the last number 1. Krause gave Hodges a long embrace.
Johnson came to the locker room door, where he congratulated Jordan. There didn't appear to be a torch in his hand.
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