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10 STEPS TO THE TOP Despite already having the greatest player in history, the Chicago Bulls needed a grand plan to become the best

July 07, 1993
July 07, 1993

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July 7, 1993

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10 STEPS TO THE TOP Despite already having the greatest player in history, the Chicago Bulls needed a grand plan to become the best

In the midst of one of those blowouts of another hapless foe by
the Bulls, here's what you start to think about: What if 11 of the 12
Bulls took showers and the team became just you, three other guys
from the stands and Michael. How about it? You'd cruise to the W. No
question.
It doesn't take much skill to cling to Superman's cape, you
reason. Play a little D, set a pick or two, give the rock to MJ and
watch the overhead scoreboard explode. Right?
Maybe not.
Probably not.
No chance.
Playing with the greatest player of all time can't be as easy as
it looks from the mezzanine. If it were, Chicago would have nine
championship trophies by now rather than three, and former Bulls like
Steve Johnson, Orlando Woolridge, Caldwell Jones and Ennis Whatley
would be smoking victory cigars. Those four players were Jordan's
opening-day sidemen during his rookie season, 1984-85, and they rode
Superman's draft all the way to a 38-44 record.
Critics say the Bulls without Jordan are the Charlotte Hornets.
''It would be an accomplishment if this team, without Jordan, even
made the playoffs,'' says former Portland Trail Blazer coach Jack
Ramsay, who's currently an ESPN analyst. He may be right, but here's
the catch -- this team was put together to play with Jordan.
For the record, Jordan's accomplices in the starting lineup this
season were forwards Horace Grant and Scottie Pippen, center Bill
Cartwright and guard B.J. Armstrong. Throw in veteran guard and
previous starter John Paxson, and you have a supporting quintet that
has been together for four years, 295 victories, three NBA crowns and
two million ''What's it like playing with Michael?'' questions. The
answer? ''Amazing,'' says Paxson, speaking for all.
But if you think it's easy being one of these guys, living your
life holding somebody else's silk robe, just ask Lady Di how much fun
she had all those years standing behind Prince Chuck (the one from
London, not Phoenix).
No, the Bulls did not materialize by accident. Everything had to
be accounted for -- positions, skills, egos -- and then the mix had
to be made palatable to His Airness. Jordan destroyed forward Brad
Sellers, Chicago's first-round pick in 1986, body and soul because he
found Sellers too sugary. As late as the 1986-87 season the Bulls
were still decidedly mediocre. They finished 40-42, but the recipe
for success lay on the counter.
Says former NBA coach Dick Versace, ''To get the team to its
current level, Bull management had a plan arrived at through reaction
and pro-action.'' Reaction, says Versace, meant that general manager
Jerry Krause reacted to the stiffs on the team and dumped them.
Pro-action? ''That means they got Pippen and the other guys,'' says
Versace. O.K.
In fact, Chicago took 10 precise steps of action -- re-, pro- and
otherwise -- since owner Jerry Reinsdorf purchased the team in March
1985 with Jordan already aboard and the NBA title nowhere in sight.
Each was essential to the Bulls' success. Think of Jordan as prime
rib and the 10 steps as spices, silverware, fine wine, soft music,
etc. We, of course, are the lucky diners.
1) On March 26, 1985, 13 days after buying the Bulls, Reinsdorf
hires Krause.
Krause, a rotund and obsessive former scout and executive with
Reinsdorf's Chicago White Sox and other major league teams, replaced
Rod Thorn. Krause, who covets draftable sports talent the way a
gerbil covets seeds, promptly tried to figure out how to improve a
team that already had one great player as well as some of the
strangest. ''What a group,'' says Krause now, still quaking. There
were mercurial 7-footer Jawann Oldham, awkward Mike Smrek (as in
wreck) and drug-abuser Quintin Dailey, among others.
''I knew that with Jordan we'd never be bad enough to get a great
center in the draft,'' says Krause. ''And we were trying to build a
championship team around a two guard, which had never been done
before. So this was going to be tough.''
He made the decision to find players to complement Jordan, not
rival him. If he couldn't get an All-Star center, he would at least
pursue shorter players who were quick, tough defenders, solid
citizens and good shooters. ''We have , to have a shooter at every
position,'' Krause once said. ''Otherwise Michael will get doubled to
death.''
2) On June 18, 1985, the Bulls acquire Charles Oakley.
Krause, who had often stated that he wanted only ''athletes'' on
his team, promptly went out and snared the 6 ft. 9 in. Oakley in a
draft-day swap with the Cleveland Cavaliers. In return the Cavs got
Whatley and frail rookie Keith Lee. Oakley turned out to be a
bruising hulk whose main skills were yanking down rebounds and acting
mean. ''I took Oakley because the team was soft,'' says Krause. ''He
started our toughness.''
Oakley became Jordan's bodyguard, Marty McSorley to Wayne Gretzky.
In time he would serve an even larger function in the building of the
team.
3) On Aug. 1, 1985, the Bulls hire Al Vermeil to be their
strength-and- condit ioning coach.
That's right, the brother of famous burnt-out NFL coach Dick
Vermeil has helped transform the Bulls from a weak bunch into a fit
bunch. Although the Bulls don't have the bulk of, say, the Knicks,
they have the fibrous strength of a pack of Dobermans. And it shows
in their defense and their fourth-quarter fire, much of which can be
attributed to Vermeil's program. A former strength coach for the San
Francisco 49ers, Vermeil has an NFL championship ring to go with his
three from the NBA.
4) On Oct. 29, 1985, the Bulls get Paxson.
Paxson, who had played the previous two seasons with the San
Antonio Spurs before becoming a free agent, is not a star, nor will
he ever be, but he works hard, says little and can bury the J. Just
ask the Phoenix Suns.
As a starter in 1991-92, Paxson led all point guards in field goal
percentage and had the fewest turnovers. Now, as a sub for Armstrong,
he gives the ball to Jordan and then hangs near the three-point line
in case Jordan gets into trouble and needs a bailout man. It was
during Chicago's first title run, against the Los Angeles Lakers in
the 1991 Finals, that Paxson's worth became obvious to all.
''Who's open?'' coach Phil Jackson asked a frustrated Jordan
during a timeout in Game 5.
''Paxson,'' answered Jordan.
Jordan passed off, and Paxson finished with 20 points, including
10 in the last four minutes. Jordan had 10 assists. And Chicago
finally had its crown.
5) On June 22, 1987, the Bulls acquire Pippen.
Here was the maniacally secretive Krause at his best -- scouting,
spying, calculating, dissembling, acting, wheeling and dealing -- all
so he could land this 6 ft. 7 in. diamond in the rough from NAIA
Central Arkansas in the 1987 draft. Krause had taken one look at
Pippen in a predraft camp, had seen that he could shoot and jump and
had ''arms down to his toes,'' and had gone after him like a hound
after a rabbit. The Bulls, who had the eighth pick in the draft,
gave the Seattle SuperSonics the rights to that pick, plus a second-
round selection in 1988 or 1989, as well as other considerations, for
the rights to Seattle's first-round choice. Seattle, which had the
fifth pick, selected Pippen for the Bulls; Krause took forward Olden
Polynice of Virginia for the Sonics. Guess who got the better deal.
When paired with Jordan on a full-court press or a fast break,
Pippen becomes part of the most explosive midsize tandem ever to play
the game. A member of the NBA's All-Defensive team at small forward
each of the last two years, Pippen is harder to get past than
Spider-Man.
But like all the other Bulls, Pippen simply fits in. The ego is in
check. When asked on a Bull profile sheet if he would share one
random thought with the public, Pippen wrote, ''Give and you will
receive.'' Give to Michael and receive rings in return.
6) On June 22, 1987, the Bulls draft Grant.
Taken in the same draft that produced Pippen, the 6 ft. 10 in.
Grant is the power forward who helped cement Krause's coronation as
1987-88 NBA Executive of the Year. And just think, Krause had to be
talked out of drafting North Carolina's Joe Wolf by Doug Collins,
Chicago's coach at the time.
Grant's athletic ability allows him to run with Jordan and Pippen,
and his strength and work ethic have made him the team's leading
rebounder.
Sometimes the usually agreeable Grant gets perturbed enough with
his low- scoring (13.2 points per game during the 1992-93 regular
season), lunch- bucket role to lash out at his higher-profile
buddies. ''I've even thought about stealing the ball from Scottie or
Michael so I can take a shot,'' he told an interviewer last fall. In
the end, though, he always chills and returns to business.
7) On June 27, 1988, the Bulls trade for Cartwright.
Getting the ungainly Mr. Bill from the Knicks in a trade for
Oakley was the move that put Chicago over the top. Krause and the
coaching staff had decided that the summit was unattainable with the
current center, Dave Corzine, and that it might be sometime in the
next century before the team could draft a young stud who could
blossom in the middle. So when New York came knocking for a power
forward to assist Patrick Ewing, the Bulls tossed out the supposedly
untouchable Oakley and scarfed up Cartwright -- bad foot, sharp
elbows, corkscrew shot and all.
''Picking Scottie was a great thing,'' says longtime Bull analyst
and former head coach John Kerr. ''And getting Horace at that spot
was great too. But both those things were logical. Getting Bill was
the big move. It made the difference.''
It was made possible by a chain reaction of good fortune. Krause
had hired Vermeil, who had built up Grant, who was now sturdy enough
to replace Oakley, who had protected Jordan, who was to be the
beneficiary of it all. Cartwright, expected to provide scoring relief
for Jordan, turned out to be a defensive ace. His scoring average has
declined steadily since he arrived in Chicago -- 12.4 points per game
in 1988-89 to 5.6 this season -- but his ability to harass opposing
pivotmen has freed his teammates to play their own gambling, frenzied
defense without worrying about helping in the middle.
Beyond that, Cartwright is a calming influence on his sometimes
hyper teammates. He is, as Chicago Tribune writer Don Pierson put it,
''the team's anchor, its link to reality.'' What's more, he is now a
man of history, having joined George Mikan and Bill Russell as the
only starting centers to win three straight world titles.
8) On June 27, 1989, the Bulls draft Armstrong.
Armstrong at first appeared to be a clueless, baby-faced point
guard who would soon be establishing himself with the Topeka
Sizzlers. Why did Krause take him? ''Because I liked his shooting,''
says Krause. ''I wanted another Paxson.''
Once Armstrong realized the Bulls don't really have a point guard
in their offense, he started to figure out that standing calmly
behind the three-point stripe and burying wide-open treys might be a
way for him, like Paxson, to make his mark. This season, his first as
a starter, Armstrong led the league in three-point shooting
percentage (.453). And, wouldn't you know it -- as Krause says --
''B.J. is really a great person, too.''
9) On July 10, 1989, the Bulls promote Jackson from assistant to
head coach, the first move toward building a good coaching staff.
In his nine seasons with Chicago, Jordan has played for Kevin
Loughery, Stan Albeck, Doug Collins and now Jackson. Each of them has
taught him something different, but each has also learned from the
star. Jackson, who followed the successful but overly intense
Collins, has the kind of laid-back, off-the-wall demeanor that seems
appropriate for a team that needs soothing more than it needs firing
up. He learned from Collins's mistakes.
Then, too, there are the Bulls' three assistant coaches -- Jim
Cleamons and a pair of wise senior citizens, Tex Winter and John
Bach. The last two offer a sort of reassuring counterpoint in a
vicious world where old age starts at 30.
10) The Bulls acquire a decent bench.
This season it consisted of Will Perdue (drafted June 28, 1988),
Stacey King (drafted June 27, 1989), Scott Williams (signed as a free
agent on July 25, 1990), Rodney McCray (obtained in a trade Sept. 18,
1992), Trent Tucker (signed as a free agent Oct. 5, 1992) and Darrell
Walker (signed as a free agent Jan. 28, 1993). They are good practice
players, and they have good attitudes. As Tucker, who was acquired
for his long-range shooting, puts it, ''It doesn't have to be stated;
everybody knows who the man is.''
The bench changes often, but one thing remains the same. ''The
guys they bring in have character,'' says King. They have to, or else
Jordan will turn them to jelly.
''He just kills guys,'' says Krause. ''People wonder why I don't
bring in a young two guard to work under Michael. I can't. Michael
wrecks whoever is across from him in practice. A kid can't handle
that.''

This is an article from the July 7, 1993 issue

Those are the 10 basic steps that took the Bulls to the top,
though there were plenty of little shuffles that also contributed.
For example, says Cartwright, ''getting beat up by Detroit all those
years really helped us grow.''
But the team's development went mostly according to plan. Nothing
was guaranteed. With bad moves and bad luck and bad teammates, Jordan
could have ended up like Chicago's favorite great loser, Ernie Banks.

''Sometimes I wonder what it would have been like if I'd gone to a
lousy team where I started right away,'' says King, no doubt speaking
for a number of his fellow subs. He ponders this a moment and then
smiles. ''But here I have three rings. I'm a piece of the puzzle. Not
a big piece, but a piece. And it feels good.''