Growing Up | Classic Rivalry: The 1980s

Michael Jordan after hitting The Shot
In 1989, Michael Jordan hit “The Shot” vs. the Cavaliers—perhaps the greatest postseason hoop in basketball history.

By Brett Ballantini | Posted April 27, 2005

In the second of a three-part series, is turning back the hands of time to revisit the Bulls’ most heated rivalries. Part II: The 1980s. Read about the 1970s by clicking here now.

In the aftermath of Chicago’s utter failures of the later 1970s, the 1980s started by largely continuing that string of ineptitude—and ended nearer to the NBA Finals than ever before.

The disappointment and frustration of the early 1970s playoff runs had largely faded by the dawn of the new decade, when the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers would take center stage as the new dastardly duo attempting to keep the Bulls from the ultimate prize. The former matchup revived hatreds from the early 1970s, while the other was completely new. One got all the press, yet the other spawned the most replayed moment in NBA playoff history. One left the Bulls bruised and battered by defeat, the other made for some of the franchise’s greatest triumphs. And by the end of the decade, one rival was poised to topple while the other was left gasping in the dust.

Actually, the 1980s opened with real promise. The 1980-81 season began with longtime Bulls great Jerry Sloan as the team’s head coach, and not one, but two starters named to the Eastern Conference All-Star squad—Reggie Theus and Artis Gilmore. That team started slow but caught fire in March, winning 13 of 15 down the stretch and sneaking into second place in the Central Division on the last day of the season, with a record of 45-37.

Better yet, the Bulls stayed hot, upsetting the heavily favored New York Knicks (50-32) in their first round miniseries, 2-0. However, even after dropping four straight to the eventual NBA Champion Boston Celtics in the second round (the Bulls would go on to lose 10 straight playoff games vs. Boston that decade), the trio of Theus, Gilmore, and Sloan looked to be a good bet to annually push Chicago deep into postseason play.

Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way. None of the three ever reached the playoffs again for the Bulls, and within three years the franchise had dumped superstars Gilmore and Theus and fired Sloan.

The ensuing disarray—four coaches hired and replaced in less than four years—resulted in the Bulls’ most pathetic purge from the postseason: Two brief appearances (nine playoff games total) in the nine seasons between 1975-76 and 1983-84.

The first half of the 1970s had proved to be the glory years for the Bulls, who came within a ball bounce or two of making the 1975 NBA Finals. Nearly a decade later, in the second half of the 1980s, the club finally began to right its course. And the captain of that ship was one Michael Jeffrey Jordan, first fighting off the talent-rich Cleveland Cavaliers, and, later, a band of Bad Boys from Motown—the Detroit Pistons.

Phil Jackson
A cavalcade of coaches manned the sidelines for the Bulls in the ‘80s, eventually ending with certain Hall of Famer to-be, Phil Jackson.

Contrary to popular belief, the Bulls dominated the Cavaliers throughout most of the 1980s. In the same way that Chicago had played second fiddle to Los Angeles and Milwaukee in the ‘70s, the Bulls had Cleveland’s number in the next decade, going 32-24 against them as both franchises retooled.

The magnification of Chicago’s 101-100 come from behind stunner in Game 5 at Richfield Coliseum on May 7, 1989—the second straight first-round playoff triumph for the Bulls vs. Cleveland—adds to the perception that Chicago was the perpetual underdog. But while the Cavs had a solid team of lesser-known stars such as Mark Price, Ron Harper, Larry Nance, and Brad Daugherty, and was led by a Hall of Fame coach in Lenny Wilkens, it lacked a true supernova like Jordan, who could dominate seemingly at will to close out games.

“It seemed like every year we would have a good team, put together a great season, but go against the Bulls and lose,” says Cavaliers guard Craig Ehlo, who often matched up one-on-one against Jordan in those hard-fought playoffs. “A lot of people would point fingers at us because we could never get past Chicago. But a lot of other teams couldn’t, either.”

Not to say that the games between the two weren’t close; their 10 playoff contests in 1988 and 1989 were decided by an average of six points.

The circumstances with Detroit were decidedly different. Despite ushering in the 1980s with a horrible 16-66 record, the Pistons became one of the NBA’s most feared squads by the middle of the decade. Veteran of the 1970s Bulls Norm Van Lier recalls the rivalry with Detroit back when he played as one of “pure hate” and the resumption of the rivalry a decade later would prove to be even uglier. Beginning in 1988, four straight NBA Finalists—and three World Champions—ran through the Detroit-Chicago series.

While a finesse team like Cleveland had little to offer when it came to stopping Jordan, Detroit applied brute force to get the job done. The Pistons largely neutralized Jordan with coach Chuck Daly’s “Jordan Rules” (essentially, don’t let Jordan enter the paint without putting him on the floor), and the remaining Bulls—young stars Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, in particular—were rendered ineffective by a flurry of Bill Laimbeer elbows, Rick Mahorn forearm shivers, and Dennis Rodman shoves from behind.

While Jordan was the ultimate puzzle piece, the Bulls had found themselves again suffering at the very top as the team tried to battle through Cleveland and Detroit. While the Sloan to Rod Thorn to Paul Westhead to Kevin Loughery to Stan Albeck cavalcade of coaches provided zero continuity for the early-1980s Bulls, 1985-88 coach Doug Collins provided, in contrast, a little too much coaching, constantly changing and adding plays with red-faced zeal. GM Jerry Krause’s decision to fire Collins and elevate assistant Phil Jackson to head coach in 1988, on the heels of the Bulls first conference finals berth in 14 years, will forever be one of the gutsiest moves in basketball history.

“Phil is a pure intellectual, and you don’t find many of those in the NBA,” says Jim Cleamons, who served under Jackson in Chicago for five Bulls titles and is now a member of the New Orleans Hornets’ coaching staff. “He doesn’t allow the game to consume him. He has extraordinary mental strength. And, looking back, that’s just what the Bulls needed at the time.”

Scottie Pippen applies defensive pressure to Bill Laimbeer
After countless muggings and cheap shots delivered over the years by Pistons Bad Boy Bill Laimbeer, the Bulls grew tired of turning the other cheek, and were only too happy to dish out a few of their own when opportunity knocked.

As heroic as Jordan’s play and tough attitude were in the face of the aggressive Pistons—from starting at point guard and upsetting Detroit at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Game 1 of the 1988 playoffs to playing in the wrestling ring the Pistons turned the lane into every postseason—play after play, the team hungered for the stability and confidence Jackson quickly provided.

If Jackson best represented Chicago’s transition from conference bridesmaid to NBA World Champion on the sidelines, one Bull best represented it on the floor: Bill Cartwright. Chicago had engaged in a long love affair with Cartwright, and if a proposed trade of Gilmore to the Portland Trail Blazers in 1979 had been consummated, the Bulls would have grabbed the San Francisco grad with the No. 2 overall pick that year. Instead, “Mr. Bill” was acquired under much controversy in 1988, when GM Jerry Krause sent popular bruiser Charles Oakley to New York for Cartwright and a No. 1 pick (Will Perdue).

While the Bulls seemingly had lost what muscle they had to fight off the Bad Boys, Cartwright was a true center (the first of the Jordan era), whom Assistant Coach Jackson had long lobbied Krause to acquire. Cartwright brought a coach’s demeanor to the floor, strength, leadership—and a willingness to throw more than a few elbows, if needed.

“There was never a time Bill was in a game where he wasn’t working hard,” says former Bulls center Tom Boerwinkle. “His approach rubbed off on the other guys, and he was more than willing to stand up for himself and his teammates. He was an outstanding addition, one that ultimately turned the Bulls into a champion.”

“The Pistons were almost exclusively focused on attacking us, physically going after us,” says Cartwright, who later coached the Bulls and is now a New Jersey Nets assistant. “They were almost too focused. We discovered that if I was able to slow down their aggression, it threw them off. They wouldn’t go back to being so aggressive or dirty.”

Most famously, Cartwright threw an elbow in an April 1989 contest that drew retaliatory punches from guard Isiah Thomas. Thomas was not only suspended by the league for throw the punches, he also broke his hand in the melee. Such outbursts, common as they were in the midst of Detroit’s back-to-back title runs, actually foreshadowed the end of the Bad Boys era.

Bill Cartwright
The controversial trade in 1988 that shipped Charles Oakley to New York for Bill Cartwright is often credited as being the final piece to the team’s championship puzzle.

Cartwright’s willingness to stand up, as well as his ability to shift between composure and aggression, ultimately would propel the Bulls past the Pistons. But in the 1980s, the Pistons literally had their way with Chicago, going 40-19 in the decade and winning three straight playoff series.

However the Bulls were able to take some satisfaction in the last two series defeats. In the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals, they dealt the Pistons their only two losses in the entire postseason. And in 1990 an ankle sprain (to John Paxson) and migraine headache (Pippen) prevented the Bulls from reaching the NBA Finals, a series lost in a listless 93-74 Game 7 in Detroit.

An interesting postscript to the rivalry arrived at the start of the 1990s. In 1990-91, the Bulls ascended to the elite of the Eastern Conference, finishing the season with a 61-21 record. Determined to never again be shoved around by an aging Pistons crew, Chicago blew past Detroit in four straight games, scoring almost 107 ppg to punctuate the process.

Particularly memorable was the insult that Thomas instigated to end that series—and, though no one knew it then, extinguishing the rivalry between the teams. In the waning seconds of Chicago’s 4-0 sweep, a 115-94 throttling on Detroit’s home hardwood, the Pistons starters, led by Thomas, stalked off the floor, directly in front of Chicago’s bench, refusing to shake hands and accept defeat with dignity and class. That rash decision cost the Pistons crucial currency in the history books, which now over-accentuates the Bad Boys (nee “bad sports”) element of Detroit’s back-to-back champs as well as Chicago’s white-knights role throughout the 1990s.

“I would hope that at the end of the day, history will bear us out in terms of what was reality and what the perception was,” Thomas says today of the rivalry’s end. “Sometimes your emotions get the best of you, and you react with no thought. In your mind, you look back and wonder, ‘What was I thinking?’ But when your emotions get the best of you, you lose all rationality.”

For the Bulls, the single-mindedness of Jordan, Cartwright, and Jackson would catapult them way beyond Detroit and into a record-breaking decade to come.

Michael Jordan on the rise
As the 1980s came to a close, it was becoming apparent that Michael Jordan and the Bulls were on the verge of greatness.

“The Shot”

It seemed that no club could do much to stop Michael Jordan. But the team that experienced his wrath more than any other had to be the Cleveland Cavaliers. In 1988, Jordan started the playoffs with a 50-point game vs. the Cavs and Craig Ehlo; in Game 2 he went for 55 vs. Ron Harper. Jordan later notched his top-scoring game of 69 points against Cleveland in 1990. He ended a series in a sweep in 1993, on a fadeaway game-winner vs. the so-called “Jordan Stopper,” Gerald Wilkins.

But, most significantly, in 1989 Jordan hit “The Shot” vs. the Cavaliers—perhaps the greatest postseason hoop in basketball history. Ehlo was the unfortunate defender who became a permanent staple in American homes not because of his worthy accomplishments on the court, but because he was the last player to be beaten (All-Star Larry Nance was juked earlier in the inbounds play) on “The Shot,” to be forever replayed as a “greatest hit.”

Ehlo actually went from hero to goat in this slugfest, scoring an open layup on a superb inbounds play with three seconds remaining. However …“We knew that there was too much time, that they were going to get a good shot off,” Ehlo says. “And we knew the ball was going to go to Michael.”

There had been six lead changes in the final three minutes of the game, and with the Cavs up 100-99 Brad Sellers inbounded to Jordan, who quickly shed Nance, dribbled left, and elevated. Ehlo jumped with Jordan, who hung in the air and pumped as gravity took a hold of Ehlo, who returned to earth. With one tick left on the clock, Jordan released, and … swish.

“When the ball left Michael’s hands, the noise was deafening,” recalls longtime Bulls TV announcer Johnny “Red” Kerr. “When it went in, the [Richfield Coliseum] was like a wax museum.”

A stunned Cavaliers crew would never overcome the shock of that single basket. “That was the beginning of Chicago’s ascension to greatness,” says Cleveland point guard Mark Price.

Perhaps forgotten in Chicago’s dominance of Cleveland in the 1980s was the fact that in 1988-89 the Cavaliers swept the season series, 6-0. The Bulls—and Jordan—made sure no momentum was lost when it counted.

Says Ehlo: “As much as I wish we won, it was a great game to be a part of.”

For Jordan and the Bulls, that great game—and unforgettable shot—gave them the confidence to eventually topple Detroit, and do so much more.