Shining Moment

Michael Jordan dazzled as the Chicago Bulls won their first NBA title
Michael Jordan dazzled as the Chicago Bulls won their first NBA title
June 23, 1991

After answering every bell for the Chicago Bulls this season, including the ultimate one that tolled for the Lakers in Los Angeles last week, Michael Jordan was apologetic for getting a late start on the first day of his summer vacation. "Alarm clock malfunction," said Jordan last Saturday morning, sliding into a booth at a restaurant in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield, not far from Jordan's home. "Can you believe I missed my first tee time? The official beginning of the golf season?" He shook his head in amazement.

Jordan was scheduled to play a second round that afternoon at one o'clock, and his breakfast companion suggested that maybe, just maybe, he was too tired for 36 holes, considering the events of the preceding few days: an NBA championship on Wednesday followed by an all-night victory party in Los Angeles, a mini-homecoming ceremony on his lawn on Thursday, a motorcade and rally in downtown Chicago on Friday and an overall emotional catharsis that, in scope and intensity, surprised even Jordan.

"Too tired for golf?" said Jordan on Saturday, genuinely perplexed. "You're kidding, right?"

And so this is Michael Jeffrey Jordan in late spring of 1991—an indefatigable 28-year-old still enchanted with games. But he is somehow different, somehow transformed. The Bulls' first NBA title, secured with a 108-101 victory over the Lakers in Game 5 of the Finals at The Forum, didn't earn for Jordan—as it did for such teammates as Scottie Pip-pen, Horace Grant and John Paxson—much more fame. Jordan has had an astounding measure of that since he came into the NBA in 1984. Neither will the title do much for his bank account, as it will for Pippen's; last Friday Pippen received a five-year contract extension worth $18 million. Jordan will average about $3.7 million per year from the Bulls over the next five years (undoubtedly the best deal for a franchise in all of sport), and his earning power off the court (in excess of $10 million a year) defies credulity. He says he expects to reduce, not increase, his off-the-court commitments.

"The difference," said Jordan, tapping his chest, "is in here."

This feeling of inner peace means no more moments of doubt, however fleeting, no more wondering if he was a true winner like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird or Julius Erving, all of whom have played on teams that won NBA titles. "I think people will now feel it's O.K. to put me in the category of players like Magic," said Jordan, pushing around waffles on his plate. "Personally, I always felt that in terms of intensity and unselfishness, I played like those type of players. Some people saw that, but many others didn't. And the championship, in the minds of a lot of people, is a sign of, well, greatness. I guess they can say that about me now."

It would be hard to say anything less after Jordan's masterly performance throughout the five games of the Finals, the last four of which were Chicago victories. He scored with metronomic consistency, averaging 31.2 points—a 36-point effort in Game 1 was his high, a 28-point night in Game 4 his low—and a .558 shooting percentage from the floor. (By contrast, Magic, who recognizes a good shot better than anyone, averaged 18.6 points and .431.) Jordan also averaged 11.4 assists, 6.6 rebounds, 2.8 steals and 1.4 blocked shots. And his energetic defensive play, along with that of Pippen and Grant, the other two members of what assistant coach Johnny Bach calls the Wild Bunch, was the key to the series.

In sum, Jordan turned in what was probably the finest all-around performance in a five-game Finals series, of which there have been 11 in NBA history. Jerry West, for example, had more points (33.8 average) in the five-game 1965 Finals between his Lakers and the Celtics, but Jordan set five-game records for assists (57 to Bob Cousy's 53 in 1961) and steals (14 to Terry Porter's 10 in 1990). And few guards have grabbed more rebounds, Magic being one of them: He got 40 rebounds in the series to Jordan's 33. When NBA officials collected the ballots for MVP near the end of Game 5, several members of the media asked, "Are you serious?" Jordan won unanimously.

The Bulls were also helped by a sound game plan. Coach Phil Jackson sniffed out the Lakers' true weakness—the lack of a penetrator who can consistently break down the defense off the dribble—and massed his defensive strength to double-and sometimes triple-team L.A.'s post-up players. The Lakers could muster no counterpunch, and time after time they mindlessly threw the ball into the post, only to have Sam Perkins, James Worthy or Vlade Divac—their vision "occluded," as Bach put it, by the pressure—dribble frantically out to the corner, taking precious seconds off the 24-second clock. L.A. coach Mike Dunleavy finally confused the Bulls somewhat by giving playing time to the young and talented Elden Campbell and Tony Smith in Game 5, but that strategy was more or less forced upon him by injuries to Worthy and Byron Scott. There is no doubt that the Lakers, in contrast to the healthy Bulls, were tired and somewhat battered after an enervating six-game Western Conference final against the Portland Trail Blazers. But there is also no doubt that Jackson decisively outcoached Dunleavy when it counted.

Best of all for the Bulls, Jordan's performance, while sometimes show-stopping, was never showy. (Well, ignore, if you can, the moment late in Game 5 when he blindly tossed in a 12-foot bank shot over his shoulder as he walked to the foul line.) That gave plenty of room for the talents of Pippen, who scored a game-high 32 points in the clincher, and Paxson, who shot a remarkable .653 from the field for the series, mostly on radarlike jumpers from the perimeter. In Game 5, Paxson broke the game open when he scored 10 points in the final four minutes, mostly on long, clutch jumpers. Grant, a gutty power forward in a small forward's body, epitomized the Bulls' team effort; he didn't attempt a single bad shot in five games and averaged an economical 14.6 points on .627 shooting. No wonder the Bulls' .527 team shooting percentage tied the 1989 Pistons for the best in NBA Finals history. And no wonder Jordan insisted that the other four starters, Pippen, Grant, Paxson and center Bill Cartwright, be included in the now traditional "I'm Going to Disney World" commercial filmed shortly after Game 5, for which they divided $100,000.

But, clearly, this was Jordan's show—"a tribute to Michael," as Jackson put it. It may have started out as the Magic and Michael Finals, but Jordan had left the ol' purple-and-gold warrior in the dust by the time the final buzzer sounded. Magic knew it, too. He calmly answered question after question about Jordan in the locker room and never showed a trace of jealousy or pique, a tranquillity forged at least in part by his nine Finals appearances and five championship rings. Those who had visited the Chicago locker room reported Jordan's teary reaction to winning the championship and asked Johnson if he, too, had felt so emotional after his first title, way back in his rookie year of 1980.

"No, I didn't react that way, but there's a good reason for the difference," said Magic. "I was so young [20], so unschooled in what it took to win an NBA championship. So I know exactly what Michael is feeling now because I felt that way later in my career, when it took so much more effort and sweat to win it."

Over breakfast on Saturday, Jordan said that Magic's analysis was correct.

"After we won the NCAA championship in my freshman year [at North Carolina in 4 1982] I felt happy, but not all that emotional," said Jordan. "I remember seeing Jimmy Black and a few of the other guys really crying, and I'm thinking, What's going on? This is supposed to happen, right? You come to college and you win a championship.

"But in the pros I've seen it from the opposite side. All the struggles, all the people saying, 'He's not gonna win,' all those little doubts you have about yourself. You have to put them aside and think positive. I am gonna win! I am a winner! And then when you do it, well, it's just amazing."

Still, even Jordan was surprised by the tidal wave of emotion that struck him as he entered the locker room after Game 5 and knelt for the team prayer. He sobbed, at times almost uncontrollably, as his wife, Juanita, and father, James, sat beside him, massaging his arms and shoulders. He had almost stopped crying when a friend led a smiling woman into the circle. "Michael, it's your mother," the friend said. And he broke down again as Evelyn Jordan kissed him, patted his cheek and retreated into the background. "I figured he'd react that way because it took so much hard work," said Evelyn. Recalling the moment, Michael again seemed touched. "You go through that as a kid," he said. "Your mother comes over to console you about something, and that makes you cry even more. But my mom? She handled herself like a movie star."

Which is how Jordan was treated when he arrived back in Chicago at 4 p.m. Thursday. At least 100 well-wishers from his neighborhood and beyond—"Seems like everyone in Chicago knows my address," he said afterward—had turned his front lawn into a minicarnival. Letters, telegrams (one from North Carolina coach Dean Smith), balloons, posters and drawings were tacked to his front door, and there were flowers and plants—"Enough to open up a florist shop," he said—piled up on his porch. He shook his head. "Sometimes I can't believe my life is so crazy," he said.

As for the Bulls' immediate future, Jordan, predictably, had his opinions. Over the past few seasons he had been outspoken in his criticism of general manager Jerry Krause, and although early in the playoffs he said he was willing to eat his words if the Bulls won the title, he didn't sound quite so repentant on Saturday.

"I don't regret anything I said [about Krause], because I was honestly expressing my feelings at the time," said Jordan. "Our bench was not playing very well, and I thought we needed help. Fortunately, they responded. But I think next year we'll have to build on it to stay strong."

The big questions among the frontline players are Cartwright and Paxson, both of whom are unrestricted free agents. The Bulls are expected to make Cartwright an offer, though it remains to be seen if he will accept one instead from a team closer to his Northern California roots, such as Golden State or Sacramento. "I think it's going to be up to Bill," said Jordan.

There is no such ambivalence in his feelings about Paxson. "Pax signed his own contract with his play in the Finals, and if they don't sign him, I will be one upset Bull," said Jordan. "Anybody playing beside me is going to have to knock down those shots that Pax did in the Finals. We've always communicated well on the floor, but in the Finals it was really something. I always knew where he was as soon as I got double-teamed. And I know how he wants the ball—waist-high and in rhythm. He gets it too high or too low, he doesn't shoot it. I want Pax around, that's for sure."

And Jordan will probably get him. Krause had made no move on Paxson as of last weekend, but the feeling is that the general manager will make a solid offer and that Paxson will accept it. The championship season was the first in the 25-year history of the franchise, and Chicago fans will not take kindly to a major breakup. As Jordan finished his breakfast on Saturday, a middle-aged man approached his table sheepishly. "I don't want to bother you for an autograph, Mr. Jordan," he said, "but I just have to thank you for what you've done for Chicago."

Indeed, the 1991 Finals will go down as a championship won for a city that has given the NBA some of its finest moments over the years. And it will go down as the series in which the Bulls' supporting cast at last shrugged off its tag of "the Jordanaries." But make no mistake about it—the victory belonged most of all to Michael Jordan, who, for now at least, sits atop the basketball world, higher even than Magic. And for those who felt that Jordan was already the king, consider the 1991 Finals his coronation.

PHOTORICHARD MACKSONAfter seven years of striving, Jordan at last had the championship trophy in his grasp. PHOTOBILL SMITHA bit of the bubbly? Jackson treated Cartwright to a champagne shower after Game 5. PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOSThe curtain came down on the Magic and Michael Show with a heartfelt, warm embrace. PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHIn Game 5, Pippen (33) concluded a strong series with 32 points, but it was Paxson (5) who buried the Lakers with his timely shooting. PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOS[See caption above.] PHOTOBILL SMITHJordan took his eye off the prize for a second to chat up Krause... PHOTOBILL SMITH...but he guarded the hardware on the flight home... PHOTOBILL SMITH...and triumphantly displayed it to fans who greeted the team at O'Hare Airport. PHOTOANDREW D. BERNSTEIN/NBA PHOTOSThe earthbound Magic could but watch as Jordan lifted the Bulls to unaccustomed heights.