I once had the pleasure of covering an NBA team that featured the league's Most Valuable Player, the scoring champion, the top rebounder, the Sixth Man of the Year, and three members of the All-Defensive team. Think about that for a moment. That's insane. Is there anything else I can tell you about why I rank the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls as the greatest team I ever followed around with a pen and pad? Oh, yes -- they went 72-10.
That, of course, was the best regular season in NBA history, and they followed it with a 15-3 postseason on their way to the first championship of the second three-peat of the Michael Jordan era. But it wasn't just on-court excellence that made the Bulls the best assignment a writer could ask for. They were a journalistic gold mine, full of fascinating characters (The one-man circus that was Dennis Rodman, anyone? The charismatic, yet shark-like Michael Jordan?) who gave rise to complex relationships.
Rodman, the rebounding demon, and Scottie Pippen tolerated each other, but not much more. "We have a good relationship," Rodman told me during training camp. "We don't speak, but we have a good relationship." Coach Phil Jackson and perpetually rumpled GM Jerry Krause (I always thought they were great buddy movie waiting to happen -- think Jeff Goldblum and Danny DeVito.) were never entirely sure the other was necessary. Jordan was kicked out of practice after giving Steve Kerr a black eye during a scuffle, then called him almost immediately to apologize profusely. Hanging around the Bulls for a week didn't just guarantee you with enough material for a story. You walked away with enough for a book.
Every visit with them provided at least one "did-I-really-just-see-that?" moment, sometimes on the court, and sometimes off. On the court: I remember seeing Jordan, the league's leading scorer and MVP, palming the ball in his right hand as Washington Bullets guard Brent Price gamely, but futilely tried to harass him. Price was crouched low, working furiously on defense, but every time he slapped at the ball, Jordan simply held it farther away, a Globetrotter toying with a General. At one point he faked a pass over Price's head, pulling it back just as the Bullets' guard turned to see where the ball had gone. It was the perfect symbol of how the Bulls treated the rest of the league as their plaything that season.SI VAULT:The Bulls cement their greatness (06.24.96), by Phil Taylor
But those scenes were no more memorable than the ones that I saw when the games were over, including the sight of Rodman and the artist formerly known (at the time) as Prince heading off into the night together after another Bulls win, no doubt headed for some Chicago hotspot where it was Androgynous Celebrity Night. Rodman, who joined Jordan and Pippen on the All-Defensive team, was like a magnet for Hollywood types. The late Gene Siskel, the well-known film critic and passionate Bulls fan, once told me that he was more nervous to meet the Worm than when he met Robert DeNiro. After one playoff win, I remember seeing Rodman walking casually down a hall at the United Center, completely unconcerned that supermodel Cindy Crawford was scurrying along in leather pants and high heels, trying to keep up with him.
I had taken over the NBA beat for SI while Jordan was off playing baseball, so the 1995 preseason was my first opportunity to approach him without a crush of other reporters around. The Bulls were playing an exhibition in Peoria when I introduced myself before the game. I knew that he had refused any one-on-one interviews with SI writers ever since we had put him on the cover of the magazine about a year earlier, swinging and missing as a White Sox farmhand, with the headline: Bag It, Michael.
So, I was ready for him to brush me off angrily when I told him where I was from, but instead he just smiled and said, "You know I don't talk to you guys, right?" I wish I could remember exactly what I said in reply. It was something absurd, like, "Yeah, I figured you were waiting for us to send in a heavy hitter. Here I am." The reason I can't recall it exactly is that whatever I said actually drew a chuckle from Jordan, and all I could think was, I just made Michael Jordan laugh.
We talked for a few more minutes -- me trying to convince him to drop his ban on SI, him politely refusing. I told him I'd try again soon, and he told me I was welcome to do so. Then he said, "You know one thing you guys should do? Hire more black writers." Surprised that he was at all aware of the racial makeup of our staff, I told him I would pass that on to my editors, which I did. It was the only thing Jordan ever said to me that showed a hint of social consciousness. I asked if doing that would improve our relationship with him. He smiled again and said, "I just think it's something you guys should do." I think about that when I hear Jordan criticized for his unwillingness to talk about social issues. He spoke at least once. Quietly, but he spoke.
During that preseason no one had any idea that the Bulls would have a historic year. Even as they were blowing through the league, not everyone was that impressed by their dominance. The Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies had joined the league that season, and there were those who felt that Chicago, with a Sixth Man of the Year -- Toni Kukoc -- who was good enough to start for most teams, was merely taking advantage of the dilution of talent.
SI VAULT:Bulls toying with the rest of the NBA (01.29.96), by Phil Taylor
Even the Bulls themselves weren't ready to say they were the greatest. "We're not the best team in NBA history, we're just the best of what's out there right now," Rodman said around mid-season. I'll let the bar room historians argue over how the Bulls stack up historically, but because they were as fascinating as they were fabulous, their title as the best team I ever covered is undisputed.