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It’s been almost two months without professional sports around the world, and as they say: nature abhors a vacuum. So ESPN decided to fill that vacuum with “The Last Dance” – a riveting 10-part re-telling of the Bulls final Championship season in 1997-98.
It’s the closest thing to professional sports that there is right now.
Last Sunday night, Cavalier fans had to re-live a particularly painful memory of one of Chicago’s seminal moments – Michael Jordan canning “The Shot” at the Richfield Coliseum back in 1988. Lenny Wilkens’ teams were some of the most talented in the history of the franchise, but Jordan’s Bulls frustrated them at every turn, beginning on that Sunday afternoon in early May.
The Wine & Gold winning some Championship hardware of their own in 2016 softens the blow last week’s “Last Dance.” Maybe now we can sit back with a nice bowl of popcorn, watch the Bulls’ 1998 melodrama continue to unfold, and pass our NBA heartbreak on to the good folks in Salt Lake City. They know it’s coming.
Cleveland and Chicago, both pre- and post-Michael, have had an interesting history as storied Central Division rivals. It hasn’t been all MJ pumping his fist over a collapsed Craig Ehlo.
So as you continue to enjoy “The Last Dance,” here’s a quick Cava-List that looks at some of the memorable minutiae from half-a-century of beefing with the Bulls.
OK, the Bulls have gotten the better of the Wine & Gold over the years. They picked on the expansion Cavaliers right out of the game – winning the first 10 meetings and 17 of the first 18 before Cleveland turned the tables and won seven straight.
Of course, streaks don’t mean everything. As Air Jordan himself recalled, Cleveland dropped the Bulls in all six regular season meetings before "The Shot" send Lenny’s squad packing.
In the regular season, the Cavs and Bulls have squared off 219 times – the first time just before Christmas in 1970, the last time in Cleveland’s final game before the COVID-19 health crisis caused a suspension of play in March. Chicago has won 128 of those games; the Cavs, 91. The Cavaliers are 56-53 all-time vs. the Bulls at home; 37-75 in Chicago.
The Cavs have played 34 postseason games against the Bulls. The only team they’ve faced more in the Playoffs is Boston (46). The Cavaliers have won 14; the Bulls, 20. In the Playoffs, the Cavs are 9-8 at home, 5-12 on the road.
Each team had its Era led by players wearing Numeral 23 – although Chicago had the original.
Michael Jordan’s brilliance was the only thing that stood between those supremely-talented Cavaliers teams and The Finals. In the five seasons that Cleveland faced Jordan in the Playoffs over that stretch (1988, ’89, ’92, ’93, ’94), the Cavs won an average of 51 games per season.
After dropping the Nets in four games and beating the Celtics in seven in 1992, the Bulls took three of the last four to win the Eastern Conference Finals and beat Portland to win their second straight title. The Cavaliers were swept in four games the following season and in lost in three the year after that.
That final time the Bulls sent the Cavs on vacation, LeBron James was only 10 years old (and probably rooting for the player and team that did so). But he was wearing Wine & Gold when they next met in the playoffs.
The Cavs had a .261 postseason winning percentage against Chicago when they finally met again in 2010. But this time the Cavaliers had the hammer and Cleveland won in five contentious meetings.
After a loss in Game 1, Joakim Noah uttered the famous quote: “You like it? You think Cleveland is cool? I’ve never heard anyone say I’m going to Cleveland on vacation. What’s so good about Cleveland?”
After scoring 40 points in the next game, LeBron’s quote might’ve been even better. “(The Bulls) were talking the whole game. Every time I caught the ball over there (by the Bulls’ bench), they were daring me to shoot the ball. So that’s what I did. They asked me to shoot a jumper and I did that, over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.”
The Cavs won that series, 4-1, before falling to the Celtics in the next round.
In 2015 – in LeBron’s second incarnation with the Cavs – the Bulls had Cleveland on the ropes, leading the Eastern Conference Semifinals, 2-1, after Derrick Rose banked home a game-winning three-pointer in Chicago.
But James worked his magic again, splashing home a baseline jumper at the end of regulation in Game 4 at the United Center to even the series. The Cavaliers proceeded to win a tight game back at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse before blasting the Bulls by three touchdowns in the Windy City to seal the deal.
Every team has players that have tormented it. And Hall of Fame players have tormented many teams. But when you scan the Cavaliers record books, Michael Jordan has been Cleveland’s absolute nemesis.
Against the Cavs, Jordan holds the opponent regular season record for points in a game (69, and is tied for second with Allen Iverson with 54) and field goal attempts (39).
In the postseason, he holds the individual marks for points in a game (55), points at half (30, twice), field goals attempted (45) and attempted in a half (25), free throws attempted (27) and attempted in a half (13).
In his first career game against the Cavaliers – on December 27, 1984 – Jordan went for 45 points on 20-for-33 shooting and barely let up from there. In 67 career regular season games against Cleveland, he averaged 30.6 points per, with 11 40-point games, two 50-point games and his 69-point explosion. In the postseason, he upped his average to 37.0ppg.
Finally, here’s a little list within the List on the Cavaliers-Bulls rivalry over the years ….
** The Bulls are a franchise that believes in tradition – the uniforms, the Alan Parsons intro. The bus route from the hotel is the same. The hallway that leads to both players locker rooms hasn’t changed since “The Last Dance” (and maybe long before that). Not much has changed about the media room or media seating either. Columnist Sam Smith sits in exactly the same spot. Their game notes are still called the “Bull Sheet.”
** The Cavs and Bulls have some notable players who share a common DNA, such as Luol Deng, Derrick Rose, Carlos Boozer, Nate Thurmond, Ben Wallace, Ron Harper, Larry Hughes, Steve Kerr and Kyle Korver.
** From 2003-09, Kettering, Ohio native John Paxon was the Bulls general manager. From 1999-2005, his older brother Jim was GM for the Wine & Gold.
** On every trip to Chicago, Zydrunas Ilgauskas used to get a postgame visit (and gift) from a member of the local Lithuanian newspaper – anything from a cheese wheel to a general care package, which included Lithuanian candy for his two adopted sons. Chicago is home to the largest Lithuanian population in the U.S.
** Editor’s Note: Fans always claim to be at games they weren’t really at, but I really snuck in through a side door at the Coliseum for Jordan’s 69-point game. My close friend knew an usher – who also let us slip in for the J. Geils Band and Rush on separate other occasions.
** Former President Barack Obama sat courtside for the Bulls home opener vs. the Cavaliers on October 27, 2015. He showed up just before game time with a large Secret Service presence looking casual with rolled up sleeves and left just before the end of the third quarter.