Part X: Jordan and the Bulls go back-to-back vs. Portland

Michael Jordan Hall of Fame

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By Sam Smith | | 09.03.09

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So much for the glory of a championship. But what about the weekend with Slim Bouler? The 1991-92 season wasn’t about to just be a continuing championship celebration.

The Bulls, like most teams, dispersed quickly after the end of the 1990-91 season. There was a rally at Grant Park (not named for Horace) in downtown Chicago near Lake Michigan, and then everyone took off. There was the ritual trip to the White House to be congratulated by the president. The Bulls wanted to do it just before the exhibition season opened. But the players are not officially obligated until the start of the preseason.

So Jordan skipped out. He said he had a family vacation planned and didn’t want to change his plans. Plus, he was not yet officially required to be with the team. So the Bulls went without Jordan, and when the team returned, the media was filled with debate about whether Jordan had ceded his responsibility as team leader by refusing to go to the White House. Jordan was angry and held a press conference to defend himself and his choice.

Only later would it be revealed that Jordan wasn’t on a family trip, but on a gambling and golf weekend with some shady characters, including Bouler, a convicted drug dealer. Jordan would blame the embarrassment of his company on bad referrals, though it would be continuing fodder for many in 1994 that Jordan was forced to leave basketball because he was secretly suspended by the NBA for gambling and associating with unsavory characters.

So let’s deal with that right away: Not true.

Jordan would be asked to meet with commissioner David Stern about the gambling activities. But I used to joke that if you examined Stern’s suits closely you’d see the material around his slacks’ knees worn out from begging Jordan to stay in the game.

Like many media organizations, the Tribune looked into the big gambling trip and some of the characters involved. The NBA had declared they would investigate. But every time a Tribune reporter asked one of the principals, like Bouler, what the NBA investigators asked, they’d say no one from the NBA ever contacted them. The NBA didn’t want to hear a negative word about its biggest star and biggest money maker for the league. They had no intention of punishing Jordan unless they absolutely had to based on something someone else might have found. The NBA wasn’t looking for anything damaging about Jordan, so it never found anything.

Michael Jordan

And there really wasn’t anything to find. Was he a big gambler? Sure. We all understand that. He still is. Perhaps he could have selected better company, but it appeared they were out to make what they could from Jordan instead of trying just to get him some bad publicity. Bouler also was a known golf hustler, apparently to everyone but Jordan.

But it was just the beginning of one controversy after another, and I played my part as The Jordan Rules book came out in November. To this day, I feel, as I did then, the overall portrait of Jordan is fair and not negative, that it merely showed the dynamic of a team with strong personalities and a driven competitor. But I also learned about being a target. Several of my newspaper colleagues sensationalized and fabricated material about the book. So much for wanting to see someone else have some success. Reports in the Sun-Times and Boston Globe said the book detailed the sex lives of the players. The book never mentioned anything of the sort, but, hey, it made for an even better story.

I remember the old saying about newspapers: 95 percent of what you read in newspapers is true. Except the five percent you have personal knowledge about.

It did help sell a lot of books, though at the time, amidst the death threats and harassment I was getting, it didn’t seem so great. I remember turning on the TV and seeing one of the local anchors doing one of those goofy walking and talking things they do on local news to show they can walk and talk. And he was kicking a book into a sewer. Someone told me another anchor was burning the book on his sportscast, though I never did see if it occurred.

The thesis was I had destroyed the Bulls and they would collapse amidst the turmoil. I knew nothing of the sort were possible since the players shared all the information with me and if there were issues, they had bigger ones. John Paxson and Bill Cartwright were without contracts. Grant felt the team was grooming Stacey King to replace him. Scottie Pippen wanted a raise and was furious about the Toni Kukoc recruitment. Scott Williams was trying to sign overseas and the team was trying to trade Dennis Hopson with his blessing. There may never have been a more successful dysfunctional bunch in NBA history.

But when they were on the basketball court, it remained a thing of beauty. It was the secret success to the team, one the Bulls have been criticized for pursuing over the years. If you get good character guys who want to compete, you have a chance.

The players might have their internecine issues, but it never went as far as the court. The Bulls stumbled to open 1-2, though Jordan was into it quickly with games of at least 40 points in the second, third and fourth games of the season.

After that 1-2 start, the Bulls reeled off 14 straight wins, including sweeping the six game circus trip. I was particularly relieved since before that trip began, the Sun-Times and local TV was filled with reports of the team’s imminent demise. That quieted with a 14-game winning streak...

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