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Tales from the Bench of the 1990s Chicago Bulls

Even the rotating cast of bench players for the 1990s Bulls were treated like rock stars in public. But they had to work hard for that honor.

In January of 1993, NBA veteran Darrell Walker received a call from Bulls general manager Jerry Krause. “Would you be interested in a 10-day contract with us?” Krause asked him. “With you guys, absolutely,” Walker responded.

The Pistons had waived the 6’4’’ guard earlier that season and before the Bulls reached out for his services, Walker’s NBA career seemed all but over. He had played nine seasons, but was still looking for what had been an elusive first NBA title. What better team to join than the two-time defending champion Chicago Bulls? A first 10-day contract turned into a second 10-day, which turned into a contract for the rest of the season. By June, Walker had won a title. “I was able to be part of the Rolling Stones,” he says of what turned out to be his final NBA season.

Beginning in the 1990-91 season, 44 different players played at least one game during each of the Bulls’ six championship runs. Besides Jordan, just Scottie Pippen was on all six of those teams. No other player won more than three titles with the dynasty. The mainstay role players of the franchise’s first three-peat were not part of the second three-peat. Turnover was constant and Jordan was the “ultimate competitor,” says center Will Perdue. “He truly was the definition of win at all costs.” Alongside the historic core of Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson, the Bulls' bench was caught up in the life with the best and most famous basketball player, and team, in the world.

“Jordan was the frontman of the biggest, most iconic rock group,” says Scott Williams, a reserve big man who played for the Bulls between 1990 and 1994. “We were the backup singers.”

Just joining the Bulls was akin to a walking into a high-profile audition. Perdue averaged more than 18 points and 10 rebounds in his final season in college before Chicago selected the Vanderbilt graduate No. 11 in the 1988 draft. “When I got picked, I was like ‘I’m going to play with Michael Jordan,’” he recalls. “It wasn’t necessarily, ‘I was going to play for the Bulls.’”

As Episodes 3 and 4 of ESPN’s heavily-watched The Last Dance documentary laid out, Jordan emerged as the league’s best player years before his first title. Perdue says he never questioned if he was good enough to play with Chicago. Instead he questioned if he was “ever going to live up to the expectations of MJ.” He wasn’t alone in wondering what he could do to satisfy the transcendent star.

Unlike Perdue, guard JoJo English went undrafted after his four-year career at South Carolina. English caught the attention of Bulls management during the 1992 Rocky Mountain Revue summer league and was invited to Bulls camp that fall. There were nearly 50 players invited to Chicago’s rookie camp, and English was one of just six to be brought to veteran camp. While English was taking his physical, he felt an energy change in the building: Michael Jordan had just walked inside.

Jordan was relentless on the team’s undrafted players, testing their toughness throughout the camp. He called English “South Carolina,”—birth names had to be earned. “There were a lot of talented guys at that training camp that didn’t make it because they weren’t mentally tough,” says English, who spent time with the Bulls in three separate stints between 1992 and 1995. “But I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything in the world.”

Like English, Williams also joined the club as an undrafted rookie, doing so in the fall of 1990, at the start of the Bulls’ first title season. He remembers that it was like “playoff basketball in October.” Similar to the Bulls’ star, Williams attended North Carolina. But while Jordan didn’t go easy on anyone, he did make sure that the 6’10’’ forward had Nike sneakers to wear during his rookie season.

Will Perdue and Bill Laimbeer

Throughout Chicago’s first two title-winning seasons, the franchise didn’t have a private practice facility. Instead, it used just a single court at the Multiplex health club in nearby Deerfield. The team would try and drop screens to shield spectators from watching practice, but “you could hear what was going on,” Williams says. On the occasional days when Jordan didn’t enter the gym 100%, Perdue says the team’s leader might have talked more trash, trying to bait teammates into jawing back at him. But once a player chirped back, “it was like throwing gasoline on a fire. He wasn’t gonna stop,” explains Perdue, who played with the Bulls from 1988 until 1995.

The Bulls often played three-on-three or five-on-five with the starters battling the reserves. “We’d always get our a** kicked,” Williams says. And even when occasional games were close, Williams recalls that “they would just give the ball to MJ down the stretch and s**t, we didn’t have a guy who could stop him.” As the 90s showed, no other team in the world had a player who could effectively stop Jordan, either.

Perdue adds that there were a few instances when Jordan got so pissed at assistant coaches Jim Cleamons and Johnny Bach—the two coaches who often officiated scrimmages—that he would basically leave practice. “You guys aren’t going to cheat me and aren’t going to give me an opportunity to win, so I’m outta here.” Perdue recalls Jordan saying.

During the second half of the 92-93 season, The defensive-minded Walker battled Jordan during practice, never shying away from a matchup. Throughout one particular workout in which Jordan was making countless tough shots, Pippen yelled at Walker to “stop him.” Jordan barked back at Pippen, “Why don’t you come stop me?”

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“They were intense at all times,” Walker says. “But when games started, everyone was ready to go.”

The veteran guard made just 28 regular season appearances during his one year with the team. However, there were no true rest days. “I felt like I played every game that season, because I was guarding Jordan in practice,” he says.

Away from the floor, the Bulls’ supporting cast was very much caught up in the orbit of Jordan. English remembers being stunned during his first training camp to see thousands of people outside of the team’s hotel ahead of preseason games. As a result of such fanfare, the Bulls would often shuffle into their lodgings through back entrances and use back elevators.

Alias names were often needed for protection. Perdue says he went by “Cosmo Kramer,” of the '90s hit sitcom Seinfeld. And the veteran center recalls that some of his teammates would constantly change their pseudonyms to the point that he occasionally would have to guess whose name belonged to whom. Still, it was worth the effort. If room number information leaked, fans would call the hotel at all hours. Radio stations would try and phone rooms to ask for brief interviews no matter how much action a player saw.

Venturing into public settings also required a constant awareness. While Perdue says Jordan was “kind of his own guy,” and didn’t (or couldn’t) frequently attend group gatherings, even the team’s bench unit “couldn’t just go to the mall and to the food court.” If one player made it clear he was a Bull, then waves of fans would rush over. “One or two autographs didn’t exist,” Perdue says. “You would suddenly look up and there’s 50 people standing there.”

“The entire restaurant would want to come over,” Williams adds, recalling what eating out with Jordan was like.

Like he had hoped, Walker’s lone season with the Bulls resulted in a championship. He remembers sitting on the plane next to the future five-time league MVP as the team returned from Phoenix and prepared to celebrate its third title. As they smoked victory cigars, the two started to unwind. At one point during the flight, Jordan looked out the window before turning to the veteran guard. “You know, D-Walker, I think they’ve seen the last of me,” he said.

“Seen the last of me?” Walker replied.

“Yeah,” Jordan responded.

Walker tried to reason with the Bulls’ mega-star. Maybe he was just worn out from the whole season or from dealing with the media pressure. Spending time in North Carolina with family, playing golf and drinking red wine might be a fix. “What if somebody’s gonna offer you $30 million?” Walker asked.

“I don’t need $30 million,” Jordan told him.

That October, Jordan did abruptly retire. “I guess he was serious,” Walker says.

As for Walker, he never made a formal retirement announcement. “I just quit playing and started working directly for the NBA Players Association,” he says.

Such was life for those on the Bulls’ bench.

“We realized he was going to get the headlines,” Williams says. “It was just a matter of accepting your role and being part of something special.”

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