It seems like only yesterday at North Central College in Naperville the likes of Dave "Super Shell" Schellhase, Erwin "Wolfgang" Mueller, Jumpin' Jimmy Washington, Jerry Sloan, Guy Rodgers, Johnny "Red" Kerr and the Chicago Bulls were the babies of the NBA, uncomfortably kicking and scratching their way into the basketball world. Of course, given players stayed at the Lawson YMCA in that era during training camp and were going through the cafeteria line with the residents, it wasn't the ideal childhood.
But the baby Bulls, tough and defensive oriented from the beginning like their modern era raging mascot, matured into among the most refined and accomplished in the NBA as the Bulls enter their 50th season in 2015-16.
Once something of an unwanted stepchild to the NBA after multiple Chicago franchise failures and relocations in pro basketball that included the Bruins, Duffy Florals, Studebakers, American Gears, Stags, Majors and Packers/Zephrys, the Bulls have grown into one of the league's most favored offspring.
- Michael Jordan, generally regarded as the greatest player the sport has known, leading the Bulls to six championships in eight seasons and with the highest scoring average in NBA history, 30.1 and just ahead of Wilt Chamberlain;
- With six championships and separate threepeats, the Bulls rank only behind the Lakers and Celtics for most NBA championships, thus being one of three dynasties in the sport;
- In 1995-96, the Bulls shattered the record for most wins in an NBA season with 72 and claim the unofficial title of greatest team ever. That's supported by winning 69 games the following season despite losing three of the last four games and thus claiming the greatest back to back run and three-year runs in league history;
- Producing arguably the NBA's greatest coach in Phil Jackson, whose 11 titles, six with the Bulls, makes him the most successful coach in league history. That along with having the greatest player in Jordan;
- Producing four Coach of the Year winners, including inaugural season coach Kerr, whose Bulls remain the only expansion team in league history to make the playoffs; league MVPs in Jordan five times and Derrick Rose once; All Star game MVPs in Jordan three times and Scottie Pippen once; Finals MVP in Jordan six times; Defensive Player of the Year for Jordan and Joakim Noah, Executive of the Year for Jerry Krause and Gar Forman and Naismith Hall of Famers for seven Bulls with five players and two coaches.
- Basically inventing the NBA's marketing game presentation with the Bulls' iconic pregame introductions, in game activities that have become the model throughout the NBA and a sellout streak lasting more than a decade.
All this from a franchise the NBA didn't much want and kept fighting to actually keep out of the league back in the mid-1960s. Chicago wasn't much bullish on basketball back then with a series of franchises failing. The old Gears in the mid-1940s were most successful thanks to local DePaul star George Mikan and went on to the 1947 National Basketball League championship. That league eventually merged with the Basketball Association of American to form the NBA in 1949. Though the NBA counts its beginning in 1946-47 with the BAA. The Gears owner became greedy with Mikan and started his own league, the Professional Basketball League of America. It failed. The BAA would then not allow the Gears back in and Mikan was picked up by the Minneapolis Lakers, whom he led to five NBA championships.
Harlem Globetrotters impresario Abe Saperstein from Chicago gave a new league a try with the American Basketball League in 1961 and the Chicago Majors. It lasted two years. At the same time, the NBA tried Chicago again in 1961 with the Packers. They became the Zephyrs after one season and then moved to Baltimore. They are now the Washington Wizards.
So when Chicago area businessman Dick Klein, a scholarship baseball and basketball player at Northwestern, attempted to put together a group for an NBA expansion franchise in Chicago, the league was non plussed. Initially, an expansion franchise was to cost $500,000. But every time Klein got enough money to make a commitment, NBA owners raised the price for admission, first to $1 million, then $1.25 million and eventually $1.6 million. They were sure Klein could not respond. Eventually he did with business titans like Lamar Hunt, Harold Meyer of Oscar Meyer and Dan Searle from G.D. Searle as original investors. Plus, a young TV executive from ABC, Roone Arledge, quietly urged the NBA to have the Chicago major market to enhance a TV package.
Klein's group obtained the NBA's 10th franchise to start in the 1966-67 season, and as Klein liked to tell the story he was fishing around for franchise names to display toughness and daring and considering possibilities like the Matadors. Supposedly hearing that, one of his children said that was "bull." And so a logo was born.
Not quite as ferocious looking as it is today, the Bulls became a Windy City symbol for the tenacity and resilience of its city and a franchise that almost broke up on the shoals of respectability before landing safely amidst the great institutions of the game. Still, it was in the early 1970s that rumors and talks even developed about yet another move, perhaps to San Diego. But eventually Chicago Blackhawks owner Arthur Wirtz, fearing loss of a tenant in the Chicago Stadium, offered the Bulls a favorable lease. In fact, the NBA's birth in 1946 was mostly because the hockey owners with the big city arenas sought more events for their often empty arenas. Meanwhile, a new ownership group led by Lester Crown with the likes of Wirtz, Phil Klutznik, Hunt remaining along with Jonathan Kovler, and ship builder George Steinbrenner purchased the Bulls in 1972 for about $5 million, including debt. That group would eventually sell to the Jerry Reinsdorf group in 1984.
Although the Bulls would become the NBA's most successful expansion franchise, it was hardly a smooth path to legitimacy. The original expansion deal included a tradeoff to yield the draft rights to Carver High School's Cazzie Russell, then the nation's No. 1 player. The Knicks' Ned Irish was still seething over losing collegiate star Walt Bellamy to the Zephyrs expansion in 1961 and wanted Russell. The Bulls got out of it the promise teams could protect just seven players in expansion. So the Bulls ended up with some pretty strong talent in the original expansion draft of Kerr, who retired to coach, Sloan, Nate Bowman, Tom Thacker, John Barnhill, Don Kojis, Len Chappell, Barry Clemens, Al Bianchi (who also retired to coach with Kerr in the first ever co coach combination like the current head coach and defensive specialist), Gerry Ward, Jim King, Bob Boozer, Jim Washington, Jeff Mullins, Keith Erickson and McCoy McLemore. Klein also joined the NBA legions of that era to be fleeced by Red Auerbach as Klein sought Auerbach's guidance to select the expansion roster. In exchange, the Bulls promised not to select K.C. Jones, who went on to another title with Boston. Ray Meyer was Klein's first choice to coach, but DePaul leaders talked Meyer out of leaving. Former Illinois player Jerry Colangelo came on as a salesman and scout, boxing impresario Ben Bentley (the inspiration for Benny the Bull and who once wrestled a sleepy bear at halftime in one of Klein's promotions) to run public relations and a crucial trade for Guy Rodgers that gave the Bulls the first of their physical and fearsome All-Star backcourts. Rodgers and Sloan would be All-Stars for the expansion Bulls.
But this was Basketball 101 on the fly.
One of my favorite stories was in training camp when Klein, a Bill Veeck-esque showman and promoter, hired a hypnotist to feed positive thoughts and success to his starters. They underwent the hypnosis and then came out to scrimmage the reserves. Center Nate Bowman, loopy from the session, fell and broke his ankle and was lost for the season, leaving the Bulls without any true big man. They would be 2-16 that season against Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain and basically equally competitive against the rest of the veteran league.
They were built from the start on a quick pace with Rodgers and Sloan's toughness and forward Don Kojis basically inventing the NBA alley-oop with Rodgers, then named the Kangaroo Kram for the high jumping Kojis. Kojis in typical early era Bulls fashion would be put on the expansion list for San Diego after the season by mistake. On the plane ride to New York for the expansion meeting, the story goes, one of the owners got drunk and exchanged Kojis with one of his drinking buddies despite Kojis being a starter and the team declaring after the season to protect the starters.
The lack of a dominant center would be a franchise albatross for many years, even when the Bulls moved into championship contention in the early 1970's with Sloan, Norm Van Lier, Bob Love, Chet Walker and Tom Boerwinkle. The Bulls tried center after center following the loss of Bowman. One was the notorious Reggie Harding, coming off suspension for various criminal activities. Harding once held up a store in his Detroit neighborhood. The proprietor recognized him and said, "Don't do it, Reg." Harding answered: "It ain't me, man."
And so a franchise was born.
The expansion Bulls were the surprise of the league, defeating a powerful St. Louis Hawks team in their opener after coach Richie Guerin predicted the Bulls wouldn't win 10 games. The Bulls then were unveiled in Chicago, defeating Rick Barry and the Warriors and Elgin Baylor and the Lakers. NBA regular season games were a traveling carnival back then with the Bulls playing "home" games in Evansville to take advantage of Sloan's popularity as well as away games in places like Ft. Wayne, Providence, San Jose, Fresno and Memphis. The Bulls' fast start and exciting, relentless play captivated Chicago and before long the old International Amphitheatre at the Stockyards was turning away fans. But that was also the time of the great McCormick Place fire. With trade shows more lucrative, the Bulls were kicked out of the Amphitheatre for playoff games, going to the Coliseum on the near South Side, mostly known for 19th Century political conventions and about as up to date.
The Bulls would wake up the Hawks and the NBA that season and were swept in that first playoffs. But from that initial success, the Bulls built one of the most feared and fearsome teams of the early 1970s, averaging more than 50 wins for five seasons after the acquisitions of Love and Walker to ride Dick Motta's forward oriented offense. Sloan and Van Lier were the embodiment of the logo and the community spirit to the point the great stars of the game, like Jerry West and Walt Frazier, would openly and constantly complain about having to play the Bulls and endure their physical tactics.
Guards were iron filings to Sloan and Van Lier.
Sloan, whose body endured dozens of bruises, breaks and tears in a scene fitting of the Spirit of '76 (make that '66), was known for taking the most charges in the league. Sloan would routinely step in front of lumbering big men like Wilt Chamberlain or Willis Reed, draw a charge and then leap up screaming in their face, "I'm not scared of you!"
The Bulls broke through in 1970-71 with their first 50-plus win season and went on to records of 57-25, 51-31 and 54-28 through 1973-74. Then playing in the Western Conference, they would be thwarted each season in the playoffs by the Lakers and Chamberlain or the Milwaukee Bucks and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Those Bulls had their chances, losing a seventh game to the Lakers and Chamberlain in 1971 and again in 1973 when they blew a seven-point lead with under three minutes remaining and Chamberlain blocked a Van Lier shot with the Bulls ahead by a point in the last minute.
By then Motta had won a power struggle to oust Klein and take over as coach and general manager, the beginning of the end for that contender. Motta also chased out general manager Pat Williams, who'd made the trade for Walker, and scout Jerry Krause, who would return briefly as general manager after Motta's departure and then for 18 years under Reinsdorf in 1985.
Though it did at first seem like 1974-75 was the year. The Bulls swapped defensive specialist Clifford Ray for star center Nate Thurmond, though unbeknownst to the Bulls Thurmond was in massive decline. Thurmond put up the first quadruple double in NBA history in his debut, but faded fast. The Bulls would get to the conference finals in 1974-75 after going 47-35. Leading the conference finals series 3-2, they lost Game 6 at home in the famed "Mother's Day Massacre," and then went to California and lost Game 7. The Warriors would go on to sweep the Bullets to win the 1975 championship. The fiery Motta in a shocking post game diatribe blamed the loss on Love and Van Lier for their early season holdouts, which Motta claimed cost the Bulls home court advantage and the series. The team would convulse from within and with Sloan getting injured the following season and his career ending, the Bulls would fall to 24 wins.
But the decline was short lived as the NBA finally merged with the ABA and the Bulls got the rights to future Hall of Fame center Artis Gilmore. Finally, a star center! After a stumbling start in 1976-77, Gilmore led the Bulls to the hottest closing kick in the league, a 20-4 rush to the finish that would first declare the Chicago Stadium the Madhouse on Madison Street. Rollicking standing room crowds estimated at more than 22,000 in a building that was listed at capacity at 18,676 had the fire marshal looking the other way and cringing. It was Chicago. Winks were accepted.
The Bulls, however, had the misfortune of running into the eventual champion Portland Trailblazers in the best of three first round. Portland prevailed 2-1 in what coach Jack Ramsay and star Bill Walton said was their toughest series of the playoffs.
The Bulls began to skid the next season with the ill-fated and infamous so called astronaut draft of Tate Armstrong, Mike Glenn and Steve Sheppard (surnames of early U.S. astronauts), failing to make the playoffs the next two seasons and going through coaches Ed Badger and Larry Costello, the latter who had coached Abdul-Jabbar to titles in Milwaukee. The Bulls did draft a young, popular scoring star in Reggie Theus in 1978, and then after the 1978-79 season reached back for their glory in hiring Sloan as head coach.
Though perhaps the biggest what if in franchise history occurred before Sloan's first season when the Bulls lost the then coin flip between Eastern and Western Conference teams for the No. 1 draft pick and Magic Johnson. One of the reasons sophomore Johnson declared for the draft was he wanted to play with a center. The coin flip was between the Lakers with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Bulls with Gilmore. Johnson had come to know Gilmore and then preferred the Bulls because he wanted to stay closer to his Michigan home. The Bulls called heads and Johnson went to Los Angeles and five titles with the Lakers. Of course, then there likely would have been no Michael Jordan in Chicago in 1984.
The Bulls selected David Greenwood with the No. 2 pick.
The Bulls actually had a trade agreed to with Portland for Maurice Lucas for Gilmore and then would have taken Bill Cartwright with the No. 1 pick to pair with Lucas and Theus. But dealing with the billionaire owners for general manager Rod Thorn had become unwieldy. By the time the then infamous Big Seven could be contacted to agree to the deal and cash considerations, yet another trade would vanish. It would occur numerous times until Steinbrenner in 1984, even after drafting Jordan, virtually begged managing partner of the Chicago White Sox Reinsdorf to take the Bulls off their hands.
Though the Bulls would have one more pre-Reinsdorf group run.
Inspired and goaded by Sloan, the Bulls in 1980-81 finished second in the Central Division with Gilmore and a rugged backcourt of Bobby Wilkerson and Ricky Sobers along with Theus. The Bulls swept the Knicks in the playoffs and then lost to the eventual champion Celtics. But the following season the Bulls could not make a deal with Wilkerson and lost him, rookie Orlando Woolridge held out and Sloan didn't even make it through the season with a discordant Larry Kenon. General manager Rod Thorn fired Sloan and coached the last 30 games. The Bulls then went through a pair of sub-30 win seasons that set them up for the draft of their lifetime as with the No. 3 pick in the 1984 draft, the Bulls selected Michael Jordan from the U. of North Carolina.
And basketball, not only in Chicago, changed forever.
It wasn't just basketball because the kid with the bright smile, the tongue sticking out and the air beneath his feet was the coming of history. No one really knew, though Dean Smith was telling everyone before that 1984 draft the NBA never had seen anyone like Jordan. The Bulls had used high draft picks for shooting guards before, so GM Thorn said, sure Jordan was terrific, but it's not like rookie shooting guards turn around a franchise. And then there was Michael Jordan.
I remember Jordan dominating the 1984 Olympics and the Spanish coach saying, "Everyone jumps and come down; Jordan still up." We had to see this.
Jordan as No. 3 pick in that draft is one of those NBA legends and lore. After all, as they joke about coach Smith, he was the only one who could hold Jordan under 20 points. Michael averaged 17.7 in three years in college, though he was two-time player of the year and made the winning shot for the 1982 championship: Shot I.
Everyone wanted Hakeem Olajuwon in that draft, and the Bulls cleverly traded high scorer Theus that season to lose 27 of their last 33 games. But Houston "resting" Ralph Sampson in crucial spots down the stretch managed to lose an extra game in losing nine of their last 10 and a chance to get Olajuwon. The Bulls settled for No. 3, and when Portland passed on Jordan to select Sam Bowie because they had Clyde Drexler and were in need of a center, Chicago began its greatest sports dynasty.
It was hardly immediate as general manager Krause under new ownership began his addition by subtraction arrangement to rebuild a team around Jordan, the 1987 draft with Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant providing the building blocks for the Jordan foundation.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Stadium came back to life amidst the incredible performances of Jordan, unharnessed from his collegiate masters and an instant sensation in the NBA. Nine games into his rookie season, Jordan had one of the biggest scoring games in franchise history with 45 points and was on his way to Rookie of the Year as the team's leader in scoring, rebounding, assists and steals. The domination was only beginning, along with the influence and the entertainment as Jordan became even in the era of Magic and Bird the most popular figure in sports. He made appearances on late night TV shows, graced magazine covers and began his massive influence on the market with his Nike sneakers, longer shorts and soon to come balding acceptance along with earrings for men. Michael made everything cool.
The Bulls made it to the playoffs in Jordan's rookie season, losing 3-1 to the Bucks. Then three games into his sophomore season, Jordan suffered the only serious injury of his career with a broken foot. He was back late that season and truly delivered his message of brilliance with 63 points in a playoff loss to the Boston Celtics, a Celtics team in 1986 that many would regard as perhaps the best team ever.
Fully healthy and determined, Jordan blasted out of the starting gate for new coach Doug Collins in 1986-87 with 50 points in an opening night victory in New York. Jordan went on to have the most prolific scoring season in NBA history among everyone other than Wilt Chamberlain in averaging 37.1 per game. Jordan had a half dozen games of at least 50 points after the All-Star break, including 61 twice and at least 50 in three of the team's last four games. The Bulls were eliminated by Boston again in the first round of the playoffs. But basketball was now a Chicago religion as the Bulls would begin a home sellout streak that would last 610 games into the 2000-01 season.
With the additions of Pippen and Grant and Jordan determined to silence those who said he was just a scorer, in 1987-88 Jordan won the league MVP award for the 50-32 Bulls while also being named the league's Defensive Player of the Year. Jordan won the All-Star game MVP and slam dunk contest as the Bulls inevitable march to a championship began with a first round playoff series victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Bulls were upended in the next round by the Detroit Pistons in what would begin one of the great rivalries of the era, the Bulls losing playoff series to the Pistons for three consecutive seasons until sweeping the Pistons on the way to the 1991 NBA championship.
The Shot II came in the opening round playoff against the Cavs in 1989 as Jordan's winner at the buzzer in Cleveland shocked the heavily favored Cavaliers. The Bulls went on to upset the favored Knicks and lose in six games to the eventual champion Pistons. The following season, 1989-90, the Bulls went to a seventh game in the conference finals before again losing in Detroit to the eventual champions.
It was now the Bulls time, and it would be for most of the decade of the 90s with the greatest basketball dynasty since the Boston Celtics of the 1960s.
Here's how I remember those championship years:
It was the year of innocence. No one really thought championship. It was all about getting past the Pistons. Portland was supposed to be the next champion having lost in the previous Finals and starting the season 19-1. But the Bulls won in Auburn Hills just before the All-Star break to challenge the curse and then exploded down the stretch with 29 wins in their last 36 games. They swept the Knicks with Jordan's power slam dunk over Patrick Ewing serving notice, took out the 76ers in five, swept the Pistons and sent them off as poor losers stalking off the court and went into Los Angeles after splitting at home to sweep the mighty Lakers and Magic Johnson for the first championship in franchise history after the first ever 60-plus win season. Jordan was regular season and Finals MVP, one of six Finals MVPs he would win, and both all-NBA first team and all-defensive first team. Michael and the Bulls were the undisputed kings of the NBA. Starting in that championship season, the Bulls would not lose three consecutive games the rest of Jordan's tenure with the team.
One year wonders? That's what it looked like as the 1991-92 season dawned. Michael Jordan passed on a trip with the team to the White House, ostensibly for a family trip. He was engaging in an inappropriate gambling weekend with at least one convicted felon. Some players objected to Jordan missing the trip. Outsiders called for an NBA probe and suspension. So the Bulls started out 1-2 and then won 14 straight including sweeping the feared circus trip with a double overtime win in Portland. The Bulls later in the season back home would blow out eventual Western Conference champion Portland. Jordan and Scottie Pippen started the All-Star game and Craig Hodges won his third straight All Star shooting contest. The Bulls went on to smash the franchise record with 67 wins. Pat Riley had built a physical, rugged, attacking, intimidating team in his first season in New York. They would take the Bulls to a seventh game in the conference semifinals, one of two playoff seventh games the Bulls would play in their six championship seasons. But Jordan would come out in Game 7 with 42 points as the Bulls easily pulled away for a 29-point win while Jordan was facing down Knicks' intimidator Xavier McDaniel. The Bulls took care of Cleveland and came back from 15 behind late in Game 6 against Portland in Chicago to win the championship, setting off one of the greatest city sports celebrations in history.
Jordan and Pippen helped lead USA Basketball to the overwhelming and inspiring Olympic victory with the 1992 Dream Team. As a result, they were slow in starting the 1992-93 season with extra time off in training camp. The Bulls won 10 fewer games and finished second to the Knicks in the conference even as Jordan tied Wilt Chamberlain for a record seven consecutive scoring championships. The Bulls then won the first seven consecutive playoff games with Jordan's Shot III at the buzzer to close out the second round sweep, finally shutting the hard luck Cavaliers' window. Then came the inevitable battle with the Knicks, who won the first two games in New York with John Starks closing Game 2 dunking over Jordan and the Knicks counting a title. But the Bulls came back to win four straight, the crucial game being the fifth in New York as Jordan, Pippen and Horace Grant famously denied Charles Smith at the rim to hold off a Knicks Game 5 win. The Bulls then went to Phoenix where Jordan scored at least 40 points in the first four games of a wild series with a triple overtime and then John Paxson's three-pointer to win the title in Game 6 in Phoenix.
Then came the shock to the world well beyond basketball. Michael Jordan's father, James, was murdered in a robbery during the summer and Jordan announced in October he was retiring from basketball. It was the biggest news story in the world as Jordan added amazement to shock as he would go on to become a minor league baseball player for the Chicago White Sox, riding buses to games and fighting curve balls. The Bulls would have a season almost as remarkable as Scottie Pippen was All-Star game MVP and a top league MVP candidate with the Bulls winning 55 games even without Jordan. Grant and B.J. Armstrong became All-Stars as the Bulls won 11 of their last 14 to declare themselves contenders even without Jordan in one of the most understated, yet impressive seasons in their history. After sweeping Cleveland in the opening playoff round, the Bulls suffered one of the most controversial foul calls in playoff history as it appeared they were about to take a 3-2 lead in the conference semifinals against the Knicks in New York. But going down 3-2 instead, the Bulls eventually would lose Game 7 in New York to end that glorious season.
Life without Jordan seemed a certainty now as the Bulls recruited shooting guard free agent Ron Harper with the opening of the new United Center in 1994, though lost Horace Grant to the Orlando Magic in free agency. The team sputtered along at mostly a .500 pace for most of the season until the shocking and again world wide news that Jordan was returning—famously "I'm back!"—to the NBA. Jordan was improving in baseball and the White Sox believed he could even reach the major leagues with the September callups that season. But a baseball labor action intervened and Jordan didn't want to be in the middle. Again, it became the biggest story in the country as Jordan returned to the Bulls March 19 in a loss in Indiana. The Bulls went 13-4 down the stretch to finish with 47 wins before falling to the supposed heir apparent Magic with Shaquille O'Neal and Penny Hardaway in six games. Jordan declared this would not occur again.
There was the Dream Team. This was the Dream Season. There likely never has been as dominant a season in American team sports as the Bulls shattered the NBA's alltime record for wins. There also likely was never a more famous group given the addition of Dennis Rodman with changing hair colors and bizarre stunts. The circus trip now was the Bulls season. The Bulls became the fastest NBA team ever to reach 50 wins and set a record with 44 consecutive home wins. If a game mattered, the Bulls blew out the opponent, like going into Houston to defeat the defending two time champions by double digits. Coming off the disappointing playoff loss to Orlando in his return to basketball, Jordan devoted his summer to workouts and saving the Looney Tunes characters in the Space Jam movie. Even teammates from the first threepeat said they never saw the manically competitive Jordan as determined, an early sign in training camp when Jordan got into a fist fight with teammate Steve Kerr. The Bulls started 41-3, essentially ending the Eastern Conference race, lost two straight and then won 13 of 14. They were 60-7 near the end of March and all that was left was the countdown to the record as the Bulls blew by the Lakers' 69 with four games left. The Bulls last three losses of the season were all by a single point. The Bulls then swept Miami with Pat Riley, took the Knicks in five games and broke up the Orlando team that was expected to be the next dynasty in a four-game sweep that led Shaquille O'Neal to bolt for the Los Angeles Lakers. It was clear to Shaq he wasn't winning against Jordan and this Bulls team. The Bulls then won the first three against Seattle in the Finals, the Supersonics so intimidated they declined to have Defensive Player of the Year Gary Payton even defend Jordan. The Bulls took a break after starting the playoffs 14-1, lost two and then won the fourth championship easily back home in Game 6.
Just to let everyone know 1995-96 was exception, the Bulls opened the season 12-0, effectively ending the Eastern Conference race by Christmas and were 42-5 by early February, on pace again to win 70 games. The Bulls would establish another all-time NBA record with the best two season record as they put on the breaks the last week of the regular season, losing three of four games to finish 69-13 and equaling the Lakers' win record that stood for 25 years. The Bulls again breezed into the Finals with a sweep of the Wizards, the next supposedly great young team with Chris Webber, 4-1 over both Atlanta and Miami and then in six games over Utah in the Finals amidst the infamous "flu" game when Jordan became ill before Game 5 in Salt Lake City. Barely able to stand in timeouts, Jordan, nevertheless, scored 38 points and made a last minute three to clinch the win, collapsing into the arms of teammate Scottie Pippen as the game ended. The Bulls returned home with Steve Kerr making the game winning shot for title No. 5 on a pass from Jordan.
The famous Last Dance with Phil Jackson declaring it to be his final season coaching the Bulls and Jordan saying he would retire if Jackson left. Scottie Pippen also declared his desire to play elsewhere as a free agent after the season. Still, the Bulls in this farewell tour that was the story of sports won 62 games to make it the winningest three-year run in NBA history. Toni Kukoc and Rodman excelled with Pippen missing the first part of the season after surgery and the Bulls set the NBA's alltime sellout streak record by passing 500 straight. The Bulls opened the playoffs sweeping the Nets, beat Charlotte in five, had perhaps their toughest ever playoff test against Reggie Miller's Pacers with a Game 7 win and then again defeated the Utah Jazz in six games, Jordan making the winning shot with a held pose that seemed to signal a final goodbye.
There would be a labor disruption following the 1997-98 season, and Jordan, indeed, would announce his retirement again, though he would return in 2001 playing for the Washington Wizards under a promise of ownership, which didn't occur. Jordan eventually would become owner of the Charlotte Bobcats/Hornets. Though the Bulls are much accused of breaking up the six-time champions, Jordan was offered a contract to remain for as long as he wanted. Every other player on the team would get a contract to match Jordan's tenure. But Jordan was insistent on leaving as Tim Floyd replaced Jackson and Pippen departed as a free agent with Houston though a complex sign and trade. The Bulls thus began the process of rebuilding. The Bulls did add a quality free agent in Brent Barry in 1998-99, but were 13-37 in the shortened season and missed the playoffs. It began a slow decline of personnel changes that led to two of the poorest back to back seasons in league history at 17-65 and 15-67. The Bulls grand plan of building around high school seven footers didn't work and it took two coaching changes, the hiring of Scott Skiles, John Paxson replacing Jerry Krause as general manager and the drafting of Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon and Luol Deng for the Bulls to return to the playoffs in 2005.
The Bulls would fail to make the playoffs just once between 2005 and 2015. That was in 2007-08 after the dismissal of Skiles. But the draft would yield star Chicago guard Derrick Rose, whose play earned him a league Most Valuable Player award and the Bulls a trip to the conference finals in 2011 after a league best 62-20 season under coach Tom Thibodeau. The Bulls seemed prime for another title run in the shortened 2011-12 season as the only team in the NBA along with the Spurs to win 50 games. But Rose suffered a catastrophic injury in the opening game playoff win and the Bulls were eliminated in the first round.
Now as the Bulls play their 50th season in franchise history, the story is only continuing and perhaps on the way to even greater heights.