From Paris with Love: Memories from the 1997 Bulls

They’ll always have Paris.

The Bulls will again Thursday against the Detroit Pistons in the Accor Arena that was previously known as the Palais Omnisport de Paris-Bercy. Though it won’t be quite the same. For one thing, this time it’s a regular season NBA game. 

Last time in October 1997, it was preseason as part of the McDonald’s Championship, which then was an almost annual competition of six pro league champions for a little more than a decade that was one of the first tentative steps in wading into the ocean of international basketball for the NBA. The tournament began in 1987 with the Milwaukee Bucks defeating the Soviet Union before the latter’s breakup, and then continued for nine competitions with breaks in Olympic years. NBA teams won all nine during NBA preseasons, though in 1990 the Knicks needed overtime to get to the final and the Lakers won by a basket in 1991 after losing to the Bulls in the NBA Finals. Like the iconic 1992 Dream Team, the McDonalds featured the best in the NBA with tournament MVPs going to Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and Tim Duncan in the final in 1999.

But there’s never anything like the Bulls. There’s Michael Jordan, who by then was making some progress toward the unofficial World’s Most Famous person title. The Parisian newspaper France-Soir as the Bulls arrived in 1997 ran a full page photo of Jordan on its front page under a headline that translated to, “The idol of young people is in Paris. It’s God in person.” The lead of that cover story read: “Michael Jordan is in Paris. That’s better than the Pope.” The sponsors were calling the event, Le Grand Defi, "the Great Challenge.”

So, is it really seven championships for the Bulls after winning that one?

Because that was Paris, the city with the unofficial title as the World’s Most Famous and Romantic City.

The French are both proud of that and, you know, a bit dismissive of others who are not as French. There's an old story about the French, how they consider their country, a fertile mixture of sea and sun, mountains and valleys bordered by the beautiful Pyrenees, the Alps, the Mediterranean, the Rhine River and the Atlantic, the most perfect place on Earth. So it is said that to balance the equation, God created the French people. France, itself, the home of the great philosophers and artists is said to be such a learned place that virtually everyone speaks difficult languages, like French.

The Bulls needed a smile, also, because there never had been an opening to training camp a few weeks before for a championship team like there was for those Bulls. And a five-time defending champion at that. After all, isn’t this supposed to be about winning and then the smiles, the celebrations and the era of good feelings? James Monroe never would have understood the 90s Bulls. Many other didn’t, either. Though it’s said genius is like that.

Of course, no one was that surprised given it was the fussin’, feudin’, and fascinating Bulls of immense title fame. 

The Bulls were coming off their fifth championship since 1991—every season starting in 1990 that Jordan played a full season—and now declaring it was just about over, a Last Dance, if you will, that coach Phil Jackson presciently declared and which everyone knows about now from the eponymous TV documentary.

Jackson had seriously considered walking away after the fifth title in 1997, sabbatical time for the professor. But sweet talk from his players and a sweet deal from team owner Jerry Reinsdorf in an agent and GM-free negotiation persuaded Jackson to return. But Jackson was ready to go. He’d always believed a coach’s voice had a shelf life, and GM Krause couldn’t be more eager to pull out another volume. A bit too eager, predictably for Krause, who sometimes had a tendency to turn customary into controversy. 

“Beyond this contract, Phil agrees it’s better we part company,” Krause had said while announcing Jackson’s one-year deal at the traditional camp opening media day. “At the end of next season, there will be a new coach here. We certainly want to look at building for the future.” Jordan quickly publicly tied his future to that of Jackson’s, saying he wouldn’t play for another Bulls coach.

Krause issued a press release declaring it was Jackson’s final season as NBA coach, Jackson already playfully talking about “Pink” Floyd as his successor, Krause acolyte Tim Floyd. It came out that Krause told Jackson even if the team won 82 straight games that was it, and then in one of the alltime solecisms Krause was interpreted to have said organizations win titles and not players. He was trying, as he often actually did, to spread credit around—OK, with a bit of hey look at me—but it went on to become another division in the ever growing civil war around the team.

Meanwhile, Dennis Rodman was holding out for a new contract and not in training camp with the team. The team said he had bronchitis. Scottie Pippen was pouting about the failure to agree to a new deal and had postponed foot surgery until September so he wouldn’t be healthy to start the season as a sort of worker’s statement. He also was not with the team in Paris.

Talk about it being time for a vacation. Maybe even leave the country.

—— The Bulls played three preseason games in the U.S., losing two at home and winning a road game at the U. of Kansas. And then it was off to Paris to play in the international tournament with five league champions. Phil Jackson had his new tuft of hair under his lip and doesn’t seem worried, at least about Paris. He calls the new addition his Frank Zappa look. There was some mothers of invention sort of hijinks on the roomy 747 the Bulls arranged for the flight over. They borrowed the plane with an upstairs bedroom from the Rolling Stones. But venerable assistant Tex Winter became vulnerable and hardly got any satisfaction when the players short sheeted the upstairs bed Tex was going to use for a nap on the way. Hey, they’re really still kids. Good sign.

—— It was straight to practice after the nighttime flight that arrived at 7:30 at Charles de Gaulle airport. Phil wanted to get the team on Paris time, so it was a workout and then suggestions everyone try to stay up and get on a regular schedule. Michael rarely sleeps, anyway, so it was no problem for him, though he barely worked out with the team.  Michael was limping from a toe problem. “Had an infected toe the last week or so," Jordan said. "It's not major. I don't think it will affect the way I play. I sat out the last 30 minutes (of practice) to get treatment." 

—— It wasn’t the expected knockout to start as the beat French champion Paris-St. Germain-Racing 89-82 in the opener, which was the semifinals for the Bulls. Everyone was there. Tennis star Yannick Noah with his kid, Joakim, also. PSG wasn’t one of the top European clubs, but they played slow, won rebounding 53-46 and held the Bulls to the fewest points of any NBA team in the McDonald’s tournament era. But Jordan with 28 points, seven rebounds, six assists and three steals was the difference, as usual. Steve Kerr and Scott Burrell sealed it with late threes after the Bulls gave up most of a 19-point lead in the third quarter with Jordan resting. On to the finals against defending European club champion from Greece, Olympiakos. ''Without Michael Jordan, we would have won,'' PSG's Yugoslavian coach, Bozidar Maljkovic, said. Kind of heard that one before. Hey, without the architecture, the food and the Seine, Paris would be Houston.

—— Not that Michael was picking on the European kids, but it looked like some of the opposing players were the ones we saw outside our Intercontinental Hotel pleading for autographs. “If we were playing in the league the way we were playing tonight, there is no way we win the ball game. Fortunately, we played a team that seemed to be more nervous than we were,” Jordan said. He scored or set up every Bulls point in the first six minutes of the PSG game and had 26 points after three quarters. Mike left in the third quarter with the Bulls leading by 19. France cut the Bulls lead to four late, but Jordan returned to restore order. Though Jackson didn’t like the trend. “Someone else is going to have to fill it up, and if Michael has to take it up, it's going to put a lot of pressure on him to play under duress," Jackson said.

—— As season previews go this McDonalds tournament was a bit worrisome with Pippen out at least a few months and Rodman, well, we never quite know. Jordan said when he sat down against the French team the Bulls lost confidence to some degree. ”I think we've got a lot of work to do,” he said, a bit wary of this Last Dance season. “I don't think we're where we need to be to start the season. If we think so, we need to look in the mirror a little bit.” It was beginning to look with Toni Kukoc feeling some plantar fasciitis like maybe a rerun of the 80s and the old archangel offense. You know, Save Us, Michael.

—— It as a cool scene in the game with PSG with the coach yelling for forward and high scorer with 20 points Eric Struelens from Belgium to get more physical with Jordan. So Streulens made an exaggerated attempt to bump Jordan out of a post-up and then seemed to apologize. “I could sense he was a little bit nervous," Jordan said. ”I could see it wasn't in his nature to do that. It was kind of a joke to me.” Jordan was playing through  a troubling ingrown toenail the trainers were treating and hoping it wouldn’t be an issue for the season, so the Bulls were trying to limit him some. Levels the playing field a bit too much without Pippen and Rodman.

—— It was Paris, but there was a United Center feel in that opener for the Bulls. The crowd booed a politician, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin. Ray Clay did the intros, there were acrobat mascots, the Luv-a-Bulls and loud choruses of the familiar thumping of Whoomp, there it is from Tag Team. NBA commissioner David Stern got in on the Jordan adulation, too, telling French media, “He’s the most famous athlete of his time, and perhaps, with Muhammad Ali, of any time. Michael Jordan came along at the same time that sports marketing developed and that global television had extraordinary growth. There will never be a growth spurt like that again.”

—- Jordan revealed to international media he’d been here in Paris just about a month before. He’d often go to Europe in the summers as his fame grew in the U.S. so he could walk around mostly unrecognized. He kept a beret on most of this trip. They knew his name, but not so much his look. Now with the attention from this tournament, he didn't think he’d be able to do that again. Not without a retinue of security. Jordan also was in Monaco and Spain the past summer. His wife, Juanita and kids, now eight, six and four, came along for the McDonald’s Championship, so Jordan mostly stayed in the hotel. The kids went to EuroDisney. “I could sit at the outdoor cafes and not be bothered. Obviously, basketball has grown tremendously, so it's hard for me to go anywhere unnoticed anymore,” Jordan explained about his growing fame. 

 —— It was tough times for Steve Kerr, the reigning NBA three-point shooting champion from the previous season’s All-Star weekend.  Kerr wobbled in fourth in the tournament's three-point competition. Nikola Loncar of France defeated Pichi Campana of Argentina for the title. Jud Buechler was sixth.

—- All the tournament teams were entertained one night at a belly dancing club called the Buddha Bar and Michael did come along for that one. He was with the team for a picture at the Eiffel Tower, also, earlier in the day in the rain. Though in his snappy beret. Pressed by adoring international media at a new conference—there supposedly were 1,000 credentials issued—about seeing the sights and hoping for the basketball god to say something gauzy about their fine city, Jordan seemed embarrassed about not having been around. After stumbling a bit, Jordan said he’d gone to the “Luge,” We think he meant the Louvre. Everyone laughed; he did, too. We think he did go out for some Cuban cigars to bring home since you can’t buy them in the U.S.

—- That news conference was unlike anything we’d seen. Jordan was asked by a Chicago television reporter, of all people. whether he felt safe in the city where Princess Diana was killed. The team stayed a block away from the Ritz,  Diana's last stop before her ill-fated limousine ride. He was asked a question in Spanish and laughed, giving the translation himself that the reporter had asked for an autograph for his son. Jordan was asked again what it’s like to be like God. "It's certainly an embarrassing situation for me," he said. "I play a game of basketball. I try to entertain for two hours and then let people go home to their lives. I could never consider myself a god.”

—- The players were scattered around Paris doing promotional stuff for the NBA. Ron Harper signed autographs at an Fnac electronics store, Toni Kukoc went to a Foot Locker, Luc Longley to the Galleries Lafayette to sign autographs standing next to a Jordan mannequin. Luc got a big laugh out of it as he never was a big favorite of Michael’s for his erratic offense and said it was the nicest Michael’s been to him. Bill Wennington did a promotion with a Chicago TV station, Jason Caffey, Scott Burrell and Jud Buecher went to, of course, McDonalds. On the Champs-Elysees, however. The team as a whole visited kids at a hospital in the Paris suburb of Villejuif. 

—- (Wennington is the only Bulls player to return this time from that trip. He’s now a Bulls radio broadcaster. Also returning is then trainer Chip Schaefer, now Dr. Schaefer, Director of Performance Health for the Bulls. And Sam Smith (me), then with the Chicago Tribune and now bulls.com).

—— World Champions, unofficially. Jordan scored 27 points in 29 minutes in the finals rout of European champion Olympiakos, 104-78. “I think hopefully the fans were pretty pleased despite the little time I was on the basketball court,” Jordan said after playing 29 minutes. Randy Brown had 12 points and Steve Kerr had 10.  Olympiakos’ Lithuanian forward Arturas Karnisovas, whom Bulls fans now know as the Bulls basketball chief but then a former Seton Hall player, was voted the best player the previous season in Europe. He played for Spanish and Italian league champions  and was one of the better shooters in Europe. He led Olympiakos with 19 points and European journalists were saying he was a better player than the Kukoc: "If we play respectable, more power to us. If we get beat by a lot of points, more power to them,” Karnisovas told media before the game.  His Seton Hall coach, P.J. Carlesimo said Karnisovas was a sure NBA player, but at the time teams weren’t taking big risks on European players and the financial rewards were much greater in Europe.

—— Olympiakos also featured the balding 6-10 Dragan Tarlac, who was at the time a future target of the Bulls for a post-Jordan era. “To come play in the NBA is my dream because the Chicago Bulls are the first team in the world and the NBA," Tarlac said through an interpreter. “I think I am not ready. If I was ready, I already would be playing in the NBA. I know very well how good Chicago is because I always watch the games and I know the heritage (at power forward) and would not want to shoulder that yet." Jackson actually liked what he saw in Tarlac. “Tarlac demonstrated his ability on the blocks to score, the fact that he wouldn't back down," Jackson said after the game. "We went out to play him real hard even though he's somewhat part of our family as he hasn't come and joined the team yet. I told our players before the game to remember what happened to Toni Kukoc in the Olympic Games. We had to play (Tarlac) real physical and cut him down from scoring and he still proved he could score in the post and have the physical composition to play with us. He got Luc into foul trouble early. He certainly showed potential.” (Tarlac went on to average 2.4 points in 43 games, 12 starts, for the Bulls in 2000-01 before returning to play in Spain and Russia).

—— Jordan in the final game win did have some fun for the fans, which he’s always aware of doing. “Put a little extra mustard on top of the hot dog,” he explained about some moves. There was one in the first half when he skirted the baseline, swooped under the basket and stalled out in mid air to score and draw the foul. ``I think a lot of people in the stands were looking for something unique,″ he said. ``It just happened to go in. I gave one guy (Milan Tomic) a fake and I thought he lost his shoes. He was laughing about it, so I laughed.″ It’s also what has separated Jordan from the many nexts. Jordan always understood his obligation to the league, the game and the community because of who he became and never took games or even plays off. He’d often say how this could be someone’s only NBA game they’d ever see, so he owed them a top performance. And one dig for farewell from Jordan: “If they were dreaming of playing Michael Jordan all alone, this was their opportunity. But this is not television; they couldn’t change the channel.″

—- Jackson was pensive as he contemplated what he knew would be a difficult season after this brief hiatus. “For me," Jackson said after the award ceremony, "it's probably time to step aside for a year and look at the rest of the teams and the direction the game is going. I (also) think it's time for Bill Bradley to run for president and I want to be the first one to throw his hat in the ring for him if he hasn't gotten it in there already. I told him I would drive his car when he's out campaigning." But seriously, Jackson added, “We’re going to have to see how good we can be. If we're .500 when Scottie comes back, maybe 15-15, we'll be in great shape. There's no reason to say we're behind the eight-ball yet. This ball club could very well end up not winning 50 games, yet still go through and win a championship. It's a matter of getting together when we have to." (The Bulls started 9-7, but were 24-11 when Pippen returned in January).

—- And then it was back to the real world of the NBA. But first there was nine hours in the air. And Jordan was getting out the cards and the cigars. No one’s sleeping!

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