Seven months after winning their sixth championship in franchise history, the Chicago Bulls didn’t have enough players to practice when training camp got underway in January 1999. Randy Brown, one of the holdovers from the Michael Jordan era, remembers walking into a preseason team meeting, seeing just a few familiar faces. Guard Ron Harper had returned. So too had center Bill Wennington and point-forward Toni Kukoc. But just days after the league’s lockout had concluded and fresh off Jordan’s second retirement from basketball, the Bulls were left to wonder not how they would defend their three consecutive titles, but more so, if they could even take the Berto Center practice floor. Almost all my teammates are gone, Brown remembers thinking to himself.
“It hit home that we were gonna be here by ourselves,” he says. “That we had to get ready.”
Jordan’s inevitable announcement had been postponed for months due to tense labor negotiations. But on January 13, 1999, the Bulls legend officially put out his decision and took questions for 45 minutes. Longtime team play-by-play announcer Tom Dore remembers chatting with Jordan in a back hallway of the United Center before the press conference. “How are you doing?” Dore asked him.
“I’m disappointed. I wanted one more chance with the group,” Jordan said, before acknowledging that the franchise’s circumstances weren’t going to allow that to happen.
“So what are you going to do?” Dore replied.
“I don’t have a clue,” the NBA legend said, staring the team’s broadcaster straight in the eyes.
But the Bulls did have a clue as to how they wanted to proceed. In the summer of 1998, Chicago hired Tim Floyd from Iowa State as the team’s new director of basketball operations, doing so with a key caveat. “Should Phil [Jackson] not return by the end of the lockout, Tim will succeed him as head coach,” owner Jerry Reinsdorf said that summer.
Jackson did not return, so Jordan didn’t either. Neither did Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Steve Kerr and a host of others from the Bulls’ dynasty. In 1998-99, Floyd’s first year as an NBA head coach, the three-time defending champions won just 13 games. Their longest winning streak in the 50-game season ran just two victories.
“They say all good things come to an end at some point,” says Dickey Simpkins, a reserve forward on the Bulls’ second three-peat teams and member of the post-Jordan Bulls. “That season was just another reality that our run had come to an end.”
Conversations with a number of a players on the 1998-99 Bulls team reveal no disdain for Floyd, the man entrusted with overseeing the transition. Instead, as Simpkins says, “he was dealt an unfortunate hand he had no control over.”
In May of the Bulls’ Last Dance postseason, Jackson, then still the coach, was asked whether he knew Floyd was going to replace him. “Oh, absolutely,” the future Hall of Fame coach said. “[General manager Jerry Krause] has already committed himself.” When the GM’s daughter got married in the summer of 1997, Jackson was not invited to the affair. However, three of Jackson’s assistants were, according to a report from the Chicago Tribune. Tim Floyd was also in attendance.
In January 1999, Floyd assumed the seemingly unenviable position as head coach of the post-Jordan Bulls. And at a preseason open scrimmage in the United Center, he introduced his new-look team to fans. According to a New York Times report, he forgot to introduce guard Bubba Wells, who had been recently acquired in a trade with Phoenix. And the first-year coach later misidentified Robert Werdann, a forward who attended St. John’s, as being from Canada, mistakenly linking Werdann with Wennington, a Montreal native.
“I’m from Queens,” Werdann told Floyd as he took his bow to the crowd.
Days later, ahead of the team’s first preseason game, it was Wennington who addressed the home crowd.
“Last season was called the Last Dance,” he said. “This is more like the First Dance. There’ll be mistakes and there might not be the right chemistry right away, but we’re going to work hard. Give us a chance and we’ll get better.”
Effort, though, was not a problem for the ‘99 Bulls. And Simpkins recalls the Bulls’ new additions as being eager to “understand, learn and embrace the tradition, history and culture that was there.” The team had signed the young and talented Brent Barry as well as veterans Mark Bryant and Andrew Lang to help bolster a roster that featured seven returners from the ’97-98 season. “But it was just so many moving parts,” says guard Rusty LaRue, a member of both teams. “That’s what made it so difficult.”
Dore recalls having preseason conversations with his longtime broadcast partner Johnny “Red” Kerr about how they would handle the ’98-99 season. He says they tried to teach the game more during broadcasts and talk about the other team’s demeanor, among other subtle adjustments.
“Going in we knew we had a different job to do,” Dore says. “How do we get people to say, ‘You should still come and see this? That you need to watch our games.’”
Chicago opened the season 2–10 before picking up a late-February win against the Charlotte Hornets. On the final day of the month, the Bulls squared off against the budding Raptors, led by Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady. Barry scored a team-high 19 points against Toronto while Kukoc recorded 18 points and Simpkins and Brown added 17 points each. The game was tied in the waning seconds of overtime when Barry found Brown for an open, long two-point jump shot. “I remember it as the only game-winner of my career,” Brown says. “I almost ran to the border. I’m not sure what you call it. Maybe some karma for all the hours we put in.”
“That was a happy plane ride home,” Dore adds.
The Bulls wouldn’t win more than two consecutive games for the entire season.
Two nights after the joyous win over the Raptors, Detroit handed Chicago its worst home loss since the United Center opened in 1994, knocking off the Bulls 108–78. In doing so, it also marked Detroit’s first victory in Chicago since March 1990, back when the “Bad Boy” Pistons ruled the NBA.
“We’re coming off a championship and now we got this bulls-eye on our back,” Brown says. “We had crushed teams for years and now these teams are coming in thinking, ‘We are about to kick their a--.’”
It didn’t help the Bulls—sometimes dubbed as the Replace-a-Bulls—that practice time was limited by the lockout’s condensed schedule. Wennington explains players pushed themselves and tried to do the right things, adding that the veteran members of the team often met individually with Floyd to discuss the offense, in particular. But mistakes were rampant and Floyd was faced with an uncomfortable dilemma—in the center’s words, “Do I correct everything or not? Because if I correct everything, then we’ll never get nothing done.”
“The key is just you’re looking for anything positive to talk about,” Dore says. “And then Mike Tyson hit you with another one to the gut. And then Muhammad Ali hit you with a left to the temple. And then Joe Frazier hit you with an uppercut. That’s what it was like.”
On April 1, the Pistons beat the Bulls by 32 points, sinking Chicago to 9–22. One night later, Chicago returned home for what to that point in time was the worst drubbing in the franchise’s history, a 47-point loss to the Orlando Magic.
Still the fan base showed unwavering support. “We never got booed,” Brown says.
For a brief moment, though, during the team’s final game on May 5, the boos were prominent. For the final time that season, Dore introduced the team as the world champions on the TV broadcast. And at halftime of the team’s matchup against the playoff-bound Magic, the franchise raised a banner to the arena’s rafters, honoring Jackson, who was in attendance for the contest.
The former Bulls coach addressed the crowd and voiced both his gratitude and appreciation for their historic run. But as he thanked Reinsdorf and the organization for putting the night together, the crowd let out a chorus of boos. Seconds later, as Jackson thanked Krause for giving him the “opportunity years earlier,” the United Center’s disdain was even more pronounced. At the end of the night, the Bulls had lost by 20, ending the season with a 13–37 record.
Eleven months earlier, and just days after defeating the Jazz to claim their sixth title, the champs gathered at Jordan’s Chicago restaurant to share one final night together. They told stories and showered each other with toasts in celebration. While many players praised other individuals for their impact, LaRue, a rookie on the final title team acknowledged the group at large.
“Hey guys, I wanna thank you guys for ruining the rest of my career,” he said. “Because it’s all downhill from here.”
Like many others, he knew change was coming and that the defending champions would look different in a matter of months.
“That’s the part that hurts me,” Brown says. “That the greatest team ever was not given a chance to be beaten.”