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By Sam Smith | 10.26.2015 | 3:50 p.m.
Phil Jackson said his Los Angeles Lakers team that won a pair of championships with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant and was in three consecutive NBA Finals always talked about it.
“My teams in the Lakers years would always say, ‘We want to break that record,’” Jackson recalled. “I would say, ‘Good luck.’”
Because 1995-96 for the Bulls was the Perfect Rainbow of an NBA season, even with some rainbow colored hair. So many incredible and incomprehensible factors came together to form the most beautiful basketball sign, a reflection of the brilliance of Michael Jordan, the refraction with Dennis Rodman and dispersion of unique and varied talents among a committed group of individuals to form this tremendous spectrum of brilliant achievement that lit up the NBA for one special and shining season.
It was the 72-10 Bulls season of 1995-96, this year being the 20th anniversary of that memorable time when these amazing elements came together to form for a sporting moment the most perfect of basketball teams.
The Bulls that season set the all time NBA record with 72 wins, the first team ever to break the 70-win mark. The Bulls would go on to have the best two and three-year records in league history thanks to that 72-10 start. And that 72-10 record was with their last three losses that season all by a single point and in often in dispute.
The Bulls won a record 44 games at home and 37 to start the season, both league records, along with 33 road wins. Their margin of victory of 12.3 per game tied for the best ever. Their 39-2 home record was the second best. Jordan led the league in scoring and was regular season and Finals MVP and all-defensive first team along with Rodman and Scottie Pippen. Jordan and Pippen were all-NBA first team. Toni Kukoc was Sixth Man winner, Jackson was Coach of the Year and Jerry Krause was Executive of the Year. Rodman led the league in rebounding and Steve Kerr was No. 2 in three-point shooting. Jordan and Pippen tied an all-time record when they both scored at least 40 points in a game. There has never been a team sports domination quite like the 1995-96 Bulls.
“It was one of those years where everything went right,” recalled Kerr, now the coach of the Golden State Warriors, who last season won 67 games. “There was incredible motivation; and everything clicked. As motivated as Michael always was, that year was another few degrees higher based on what he had been through, the absence from the game, the loss the previous year to Orlando. The motivation was just incredible. It carried on the entire season and that’s want made it so remarkable. That was all part of it in training camp and the mode he set, the competition level in the scrimmages and the practices; he set the bar really high and he was ferocious. That was just a byproduct of the tone he set right from the beginning.
“Any sort of big game that had anything special about it brought out the best in us,” said Kerr. “I remember the Houston game and they had Barkley and Hakeem and Drexler (and were defending champions) and they were going to be our equivalent in the Western Conference. We went to Houston and really took it to them (double digit win). The Lakers game when Magic came back to play and in the Forum and we hammered them (by 15), the four game sweep of Orlando (in the playoffs). That was supposed to be the clash of titans; we sweep them. It seemed like the bigger the challenge, the better that team played.
“I tell people all the time that record will never be broken,” insists Kerr. “It’s just impossible. That’s going to be like DiMaggio’s hit streak; it’s just not going to happen. Everything has to go right and even then it doesn’t matter. Everything went right for us last season and we won 67 games. Five games is a pretty big difference when you are talking about an 82-game season. Everything went right for us with the Bulls and we had Michael. That’s the thing; if we ever got to a point where we were going to lose or we looked like we were going to lose, he would just take over. And there aren’t guys like that anymore; guys like that don’t exist anymore. Kobe was pretty close; he probably came the closest. LeBron’s not like that. He’s phenomenal in his own right. But Michael was so unique, so gifted, so motivated, so talented that he sort of transcended everything and I just don’t see that happening again.”
It really all started the previous May in the playoffs when the Bulls lost to the Orlando Magic, advertised as the next great NBA dynasty, in a six-game playoff series, the clinching loss at home. Horace Grant from the first three Bulls title teams had defected to the Magic as a free agent and had a big series. Nick Anderson had mocked Jordan after Orlando stole the first game on a Jordan turnover with Jordan wearing his new No. 45 jersey--"No. 45 doesn't explode like No. 23 used to. No. 45 is not No. 23. I couldn't have done that to No. 23--on his return to the NBA the previous March from baseball.
Jordan changed back to his No. 23 jersey. The NBA fined Jordan for the uniform change. But the Bulls’ lack of a power forward to replace Grant combined with the strength and depth of the young Magic team proved too much for Jordan and the Bulls. Orlando won and went to the NBA Finals, eventually losing to the Houston Rockets.
“After that last game against Orlando the whole mood was we underachieved, that we’re a way better team; we were not ready,” said Toni Kukoc. “Michael admitted he wasn’t basketball ready and he’s going to take just a little time off and start preparing for the next season. And then everybody assumed if he is going to do that everybody else should do the same thing. Everybody came to camp in really good basketball shape. (Ron) Harper was one in really good shape and he got the role of the point guard. That atmosphere was: We are a better team than this, be physically ready and start playing from the start and see what happens.”
Though Jackson admits he was initially worried about Jordan’s preparation.
It was almost two years away from the game after retiring after the 1993 championship and beginning a quixotic adventure in professional baseball after the murder of his father. Jordan returned to the Bulls in March, 1995 to much acclaim, if not outright excellence. And now Jordan had gone Hollywood.
He was filming the Space Jam movie. And Jackson wondered how that was appropriate for a player who came back at less than his best with career low shooting and scoring other than in his 1985-86 injury season when he had playing time limits.
“I was concerned about Michael being in Hollywood,” Jackson admitted. “Everyone was telling me, ‘No no, he’s on it, basketball is his priority even though he’s doing Space Jam. Everybody is out there in L.A. and this has become the place to be, in Michael’s games if you are invited.’”
But there was a bigger issue: size.
With Grant’s departure, the Bulls were overpowered at power forward. Bulls managing partner Jerry Reindorf said he recalled Jackson saying often, “We need someone to fetch the ball.”
Jackson submitted a list with five top power forwards who might be available in trade or as free agents, players like Derrick Coleman and Jayson Williams. There were complications, but assistant general manager Jim Stack was lobbying heavily for Dennis Rodman. The erratic former Pistons provocateur was in San Antonio and seemingly melting down in the playoffs with bizarre behavior. He was deemed around the NBA too toxic. But with just a year left on his contract, Bulls general manager Krause was persuaded by Stack to take a chance.
“It became with the team, ‘Would you accept this guy?’” Jackson said. “I interviewed him the day before camp started; then I addressed the team. I talked about the addition of Dennis: ‘Guys are going to have to be tolerant; it’s not going to be a jealousy situation.’ I’ve always tried to make the rules to work for everybody; but he’s a guy who’s not going to shoot for an hour and a half because he doesn’t shoot. He rides a bike and will be ready. I told him I will fine him for every game late, but not the three-strike rule. It didn’t start well. I came in. He wouldn’t stand (or shake hands). Then he’s saying, ‘I deserve more money, I’m a better player, I’m not getting my due.’ and I’m telling him, ‘If you play, this is about a team reward, this isn’t about potential. This team pays on productivity. You’ll be compensated for what you do.’ He met me the next morning at the training center and we went through the building. Upstairs he was very interested in my Native American stuff in the team room. We seemed to have a Native American kind of connection.”
It was more than power forward, though. The Bulls had subtly been in decline in the third title year and endured only through the determination of Jordan, barely escaping the Knicks in the conference finals. The Bulls had a magical season of sorts in 1993-94 without Jordan, a controversial foul call in the conference semifinals against the Knicks, many believe, keeping the Bulls out of the Finals again.
But the Bulls were convinced Jordan would not return to basketball. Scottie Pippen, who had impressively led the Bulls that season in probably the best season of his career, also was convinced Jordan would not return. He badgered Jackson and management for help in the form of a shooting guard, the top free agent available and his close friend, Ron Harper. Harper was a transcendent athlete coming out of Miami U., and one reason the Cleveland Cavaliers of the late 1980s were rated higher than the Bulls. Harper wasn’t as good as Jordan, but Harper was so athletic Jordan couldn’t dominate his position like he did against so many other teams. But Harper would be traded to the Clippers and tore his ACL in January 1990. Harper returned to be a top scorer, but not the athlete he was. Still, he had averaged about 20 points per game. But Harper could not adjust to the offense and in his first season with the Bulls and he regressed more than any player in the NBA, averaging 6.9 points and playing behind Pete Myers despite receiving one of the richest contracts in team history.
“Jerry Reinsdorf always said guys in basketball maintain their averages year to year, but in baseball you can’t depend on a guy,” said Jackson. “He said a guy can hit .300 and then be .240. There weren’t the swings in basketball. But Harper did. I had seen what we could be after the Orlando series. We (also) needed a big guard at that time; rotations were important. Tall guards to get after (Anfernee) Hardaway and (Nick) Anderson. They had Brian Shaw. We needed a big guard corps, so we allowed BJ (Armstrong) to be exposed (in the expansion draft). I asked Michael (to start) to play point guard; not until later that year did we realize any of those three guys, Pippen, Harper or Michael, could take on a guard (defensively) and we were very effective. Michael probably struggled more than those two did defensively playing at the top of the floor. He was more comfortable playing on the wing.”
So the pieces for a team were coming into place, if not certain. There was Rodman to replace the rebounding, Harper to help defend against the big backcourts. And there were the holdovers who mostly showed up after Jordan’s first retirement in 1993, disappointed and under siege. They had eyed the Bulls as a place to collect championship rings from the periphery. Now they were in the spotlight. But they learned.
“Everybody matured from a basketball standpoint and understood the game, understood what was needed to be done,” said Kukoc. “The new guys were going into their third years, Steve and Bill (Wennington) and myself and Luc (Longley) and other guys. So I think we got that triangle offense down, understood how it functions and, obviously, when you have guys like Michael, Scottie, Dennis, Harper you feel really good playing on the defensive end as well.”
So the elements were coming together to complete a great team on paper. But there’s that indefinable quality that so few can bring, the relentless nature. Sure, Jordan was always competitive to a fault. But this was something they’d never seen before.
“We understood from the start Michael was upset losing in the playoffs the year before,” said Wennington, now a Bulls radio broadcaster. “I think it was within the first week or couple of days of practice and I’m talking to Steve Kerr and he’s saying ‘Mike is playing with a big chip on his shoulder.’”
(Kerr, by the way, had a big bruise under his eye as that was when Jordan punched him in the face during a rough practice session.)
“We looked at each other and said, ‘This could be a real interesting year.’ We didn’t know how interesting,” recalled Wennington. “But you could tell right away it was going to be a different kind of year.”
How different no one could imagine, though it wasn’t completely clear early in the season.
Yes, the Bulls won their first five games, but against weaker teams. The first big test was regular season Game 6 in Orlando against the defending Eastern champion Magic with Shaq and the dynamic Hardaway, the latter becoming the new model for the best backcourt player. Hardaway was spectacular with 36 points, outplaying Jordan as the Magic won in Orlando.
The Bulls returned home and the NBA world had made up it’s mind: It was Hardaway’s World now. Remember the L’il Penny alter ego character? Air Jordan was now to be a thing of the past. There was a new star. Jordan, predictably, was determined. And a pattern would develop.
“I remember losing to Orlando early,” said Kerr. “Then we rattled off a run of maybe 10 in a row.”
Actually, it was five, a loss and then 13 straight wins.
“After the first month of the season we realized how good we were,” said Kerr. ‘It was just sort of a shock if we did lose. And then automatically when we did lose, we’d soon just come out the next game with an anger that came from Michael. He didn’t ever want to lose.
Losing one game would spur the next 10-game streak and we’d keep going from there.”
The Bulls went out on their Western Conference circus trip, winning five of six as they lost in Seattle. That would be the other major contender with Orlando. It was a wearying trip and the Bulls headed into Vancouver at the end of the trip 11-2. Jordan, in one of those rare not in the air occasions, was dragging as well. The lowly, 15-win Grizzlies that season were leading the Bulls late when a backup guard named Darrick Martin, who had played in some of those summer games in Hollywood, ran by Jordan on the Bulls bench yelling at Jordan that he knew they were going to win. Yes, you know what comes next.
Jordan went back into the game, scored 19 points in the last six minutes (he had just 10 before) and the Bulls won going away. “I told you not to trash talk me, little man,” Jordan chided as the game ended.
“By Christmas, New Year’s we found ourselves seven, eight, 10 games in front of second place,” recalled Kukoc. “So we just kind of started focusing on our basketball, our game, the way we played. Heard a couple times, ‘Let’s go through the next month without a loss.’ Stuff like that. It wasn’t important that much the team we were playing against; the main focus was on our game, the way we played, the way we needed to execute, the way we needed to understand what is happening on the court more than, ‘Oh, we are playing New York, we are playing Orlando.’ It was all about the way we played.”
Now the Bulls were really rolling, 23-2 before a narrow loss in Indiana and then 18 straight wins for a 41-3 start as they rolled into Los Angeles amidst the hype of Magic Johnson’s return and then dominated the Lakers. The conference race was basically over even with Orlando winning 60 games that season.
“People started talking about (70 wins),” recalled Wennington. “I remember talking to a guy, him saying we can do it. But it was mostly early and it was, ‘Let’s play and see what happens.’ I know in the media everyone was denying it when we were 30-3, but at that point guys were thinking about it. Like. ‘Heck, something could happen here, let’s try to make it happen.’ That was before All Star break.
“With Phil another goal was the amount of wins doesn’t matter; our goal is to get to the playoffs and win the playoffs,” said Wennington. “He said, ‘We are not going to worry about numbers. We are going to worry about where we need to be in the division and place ourselves for the playoffs.’ He was always deflecting and distracting us from specific numbers. It was Jason Caffey’s rookie year and I remember walking in the locker room one time and Jason was looking at me and shaking his head and saying, “Is it always like this?” I turned and looked at him and said, ‘Jason you need to pay attention to what is going on with this team because it is never like this. This is freaking amazing what is going on now; it freakin’ doesn’t happen.’”
Even some of the losses were amazing.
The Bulls went to Denver after the emotional victory in Los Angeles and everything else that can occupy you in Los Angeles and got behind by 25 points at halftime. The Bulls actually came back to take the lead with Jordan scoring 39 points. But they ran out of fuel and the Nuggets won to make the Bulls 41-4.
“We had a start like that our second year after we won our first championship (1991-92, 37-5) and Jerry Reinsdorf sent me a note that said, ‘I hope you are not trying to break the all time best record,’” Jackson related. “I was like, No, we’re just playing.’
“They just liked to win every game,” Jackson said of that 1995-96 team. “Didn’t take games off. That was a team that really liked it. Michael was out to prove something, that his comeback was going to be for real, the him you saw in the playoffs last season was a guy who wasn’t at his peak in basketball performance level. He wanted to drive that home. Dennis was proving to be what he always has been, a great rebounder and defender and disturber. He was great at it. It fit like a glove. Toni and Dennis played center. We had a mobile, manipulative, ball handling group of guys. People had a very hard time against that lineup.”
The Bulls had their only back to back losses that season losing in Phoenix the next game as Charles Barkley and Kevin Johnson got a bit of revenge for that 1993 Finals. But then the pattern reemerged: Seven straight wins, a loss in Miami and then six straight wins to get to 54-6.
“There was no letup even during practice,” Wennington recalled. “He (Jordan) was 100 percent all the time, pushing everybody and challenging everybody and going at guys from the get go. He was really focused on what needed to happen and what he was going to do himself. But also the guys around him who were taking time off. He kind of let it be known the only reason you didn’t practice was if you were dead or at least couldn’t walk.
“I remember one day being the last getting taped and I’m in the locker room and we’re going to start in 15 or 20 minutes,” Wennington related. “Ron Harper and Toni Kukoc were in the training room and had let it be known they weren’t going to practice. While I’m getting taped, Michael comes in and says, ‘Harp what are you doing?’ He said his knee was a little sore. ‘I’m sitting out today.’ Michael says heck with that. ‘Get on the floor! We don’t need you in here.’ Then he looks at Toni and says ‘What’s wrong with you?’ Toni says, ‘My hand, my thumb hurts.’ Michael says, ‘No, we don’t need either of you guys in there; we don’t need anyone in here. We need you out there. Unless you can‘t walk you are out there.’ They got up, got taped and got out there. That was kind of it for everyone. You didn’t sit out practice unless you were injured badly. If you sat out, you weren’t playing.
“Talk to a lot of guys and they’ll tell you our practices were harder than the games,” Wennington added. “Competitive every day, pushed ourselves every day. Not two hour practices; shorter later in season, but had an edge and competition. James Edwards was with us that season. Even he knew this was special. He said when he was in Detroit with the Bad Boys they played hard, but it wasn’t like this, pushing every day and working it.”
The Bulls had three of their former hated rivals from the Pistons on that 1995-96 team in Rodman, John Salley and James Edwards, the latter two mostly there for an eventual hack-a-Shaq if needed. They played on Pistons teams that won consecutive titles with three straight Finals appearances when they averaged 59 wins per season. It was not like this.
“The thing I saw was no letup, no complacency,” said Edwards, now a Detroit businessman. “Every game they went out like it was their first game or last game; once we got closer and closer to that record they played stronger and stronger every game. Even that last home game losing by a point to Indiana on a call.”
It was becoming the NBA Finals shuffle for the Bulls. They were so dominant they finally even had to remind themselves there was more to this.
“Ron Harper had those t-shirts made up that read, ‘It don’t mean a thing without the ring,” noted Kerr. “It wasn’t something we talked about a whole lot, more that we were just riding the momentum.”
It carried through the end of the season, the 70th win in Milwaukee in Game 79 as TV helicopters followed the Bulls bus up I-94 to Milwaukee in a national event. The Bulls would close 72-10 and then sweep Miami to open the playoffs, take New York in five, the Knicks’ lonely win in overtime, and then turn the anticipated duel with the Magic into a rout and four-game sweep.
O’Neal was so flummoxed he almost didn’t come to the last game and soon left Orlando as a free agent for the Lakers.
The Bulls were 11-1 in the playoffs. They went into the series with a Western Conference champion Seattle team that won 64 games and won the first three games for a 14-1 playoff start. It was one game to the title and a record playoffs, too. The media celebrated the Bulls as the greatest team ever for two off days in Seattle and the Bulls finally took a breath. They then lost twice. But they returned to Chicago and shut down the Supersonics for a double digit victory and the 1996 championship that became so expected but took more work and effort than anyone could expect.
“The team had spirit and energy and had great fun,” said Jackson. “It was an adult group of guys; we did not have a lot of young players. It was a great team. It didn’t have terrific size; we bet on Luc being our stopper against Shaq because he was unafraid and had a big body and he could hold the charge. We could come down and double and he was a good passer from the high post.
“We never anticipated Michael would return back to the way he was, if not better,” said Jackson. “He was more of a post up scorer, get to the basket and still score, amazing. Scottie was at the top level of his game and had a leadership role that was very strong. We weren’t huge like that team we had in the 90s, the first three peat with Horace and Bill (Cartwright) and Stacey (King) and Scott Williams. But with Dennis as a post player defending centers and being active and stripping and knocking the ball away, the length of the defenders on the outside and Toni being as long and active as he was, defensively what that team could do was impressive. (Assistant) Jimmy Rodgers had been with the Celtics and seen the great teams and he was awed by the way this team played.”
Likely never to be seen again or duplicated.