Before the Los Angeles Lakers won back-to-back championships in
1986-87 and '87-88 and the Detroit Pistons did the same in 1988-89
and '89-90, there had not been a repeat winner in the NBA for two
decades. It had been, in fact, an annual story for journalists who
cover the NBA. Why couldn't anyone repeat?
For those close to the league, however, there was an easy answer
to that question. It was just too damn difficult to find the same
blend of desire, motivation and team chemistry that earned a team its
first championship. The Bull team that prepared for the 1991-92
season provided a number of crystal- clear examples of what can
happen to sidetrack a defending champ.
Distractions? That didn't quite describe it. After the Bulls won
the championship in 1991, Michael Jordan was easily the most famous
athlete in the ! world, and he was spreading himself incredibly thin.
One moment he was hosting Saturday Night Live, another he was in
North Carolina for a ceremony at which a highway was named in his
honor, another he was filming a commercial for one of the numerous
companies for which he was a spokesman, another moment he and Scottie
Pippen were being introduced as charter members of the first U.S.
Olympic basketball team to include NBA stars. And all that, of
course, had to be fit in between his regular 36- and 54-hole golf
Even the Olympic announcement was not without its controversies.
Though Jordan vehemently denied it, there were reports that he had
lobbied to keep his Piston nemesis, Isiah Thomas, off the team, and
he took some heat for that. And the inclusion of Pippen, only lately
an elite player, on the Dream Team was criticized by some observers,
particularly those who remembered him as Mr. Migraine.
Then, too, word had begun to spread late in September about an
upcoming book that was said to be extremely critical of Jordan.
Written by Sam Smith, who had covered the team for the Chicago
Tribune, it was called The Jordan Rules and reportedly contained
detailed complaints from other players about preferential treatment
given to Jordan. Those complaints seemed to be borne out in early
October when Jordan missed what was called a ''mandatory'' team trip
to the White House, where President George Bush congratulated the
Bulls for winning the NBA title. Jordan said he was with his family,
but anyone who knew Jordan knew that his ''family'' included a
The troubles continued in training camp. Jordan was late in
reporting and testy when he did. The book, released on Nov. 13, was
indeed somewhat anti- Jordan. Some of the Bulls backed off the
criticisms they had made of Jordan in the book, but only partially.
Relations remained particularly strained between Jordan and Horace
Grant, who was considered by most members of the media to be the most
forthright member of the Bulls.
In short, no one would've been surprised if the defending champs
came out of the gate stumbling.
Instead, they came out smokin'. There were many reasons for this,
but they all boiled down to one: The Chicago Bulls of 1991-92 were
far and away the best team in basketball. Early in the season the
team quickly established a pattern. The Bulls would arrive in a new
town, where Jordan and his teammates would be asked about the
revelations in The Jordan Rules. They would answer that the book
was either inaccurate or exaggerated, and then they would go out and
tear up the home team. An early-season West Coast road trip set the
tone for the whole season. Chicago beat the Golden State Warriors,
Seattle SuperSonics, Denver Nuggets, L.A. Clippers, Portland Trail
Blazers and Sacramento Kings, all in a row. O.K., Jordan seemed to be
saying, you dis me off the court and I'll dis you on the court.
The Bulls spent most of the season chasing the NBA's alltime best
record of 69-13, set by the 1971-72 Lakers. They finally fell two
games short, at 67-15, but were clearly the class of the league going
into the playoffs. Jordan was again the shining star with a
league-leading 30.1-point scoring average, but Pippen, who averaged
21.0 points, 7.7 rebounds, 7.0 assists and 1.9 steals a game, was as
good a second banana as the game had to offer. Grant also had an
outstanding season, and B.J. Armstrong, who had had trouble making
his own take-it-to-the-hoop skills fit in the same backcourt with
Jordan, had begun to establish himself. Armstrong's 9.9 (oh, let's
just call it 10) scoring average for the regular season was a career
best. Out in Portland the talented Trail Blazers were putting
together an outstanding record of 57-25 in the West, but almost no
one noticed them because of the Bulls' supremacy.
Would the playoffs go just as easily for the Bulls?
No. Things never go smoothly when everyone thinks they will.
The Bulls took care of the Miami Heat in three games, which hardly
prepared them for the suddenly dangerous New York Knicks, whom they
had beaten 14 consecutive times going into the postseason. The Knicks
shocked Chicago with a 94-89 victory in Game 1 at Chicago Stadium,
then won Game 4 at Madison Square Garden by a score of 93-86 to even
the series at 2-2. For the Bulls, the series brought echoes of those
terrible days of futility against the Pistons a few years earlier.
The Knicks slowed down the tempo, talked trash and banged Jordan and
Pippen around in an effort to break their will.
''A forearm, a hip, two hands in the back -- they do anything as
far as position goes,'' said Chicago frontcourtman Scott Williams.
And Jordan seemed to be nothing more than disgusted. ''Their methods
are no different from what Detroit's used to be,'' he said after Game
4. On the sideline even Bull coach Phil Jackson grew frustrated. He
was ejected near the end of the third period of Game 4 for repeatedly
giving an earful to the referees about the Knicks' physical style.
The Bulls regained the edge with a 96-88 victory in Chicago, but
by now an enervating and dangerous seven-game series seemed
inevitable. Sure enough, a seemingly tired Jordan missed 16 of 25
shots -- 22 of them from the perimeter -- as the Bulls lost Game 6 at
the Garden 100-86. Knick guard Gerald Wilkins, who was probably
getting too much credit for ''stopping'' Jordan, even proclaimed
before the decisive seventh game in Chicago that the Knicks had
hounded Jordan into becoming a ''mistake player.''
Gerald, that was a mistake. Chicago simply blew out the
overmatched Knicks 110-81 in Game 7 as Jordan scored 42 points.
Still, the seven-game series left people divided about what the
outcome meant. There were some observers who felt that the Knick
series proved the Bulls were vulnerable. But there were just as many
others who felt it proved that whenever he had to, Jordan could
simply elevate his game and take the Bulls along with him.
The entertaining six-game Eastern Conference finals against the
Cavaliers would make no one change his or her opinion. The Bulls won
the first game 103-89 and then decided -- what the heck? -- let's
take Game 2 off. They fell behind by a mind-numbing 20-4 at the start
(this was in Chicago, don't forget) and lost 107-81. Just as quickly,
they turned it around in Cleveland, building a 26-4 lead after eight
minutes and winning Game 3 105-96. And then they promptly got blown
out again, 99-85 in Game 4.
The series seemed to be a contest between two teams that didn't
quite know themselves. The Cavs were obsessed with criticism from the
media referring to the team as a bunch of ''marshmallows'' and
''cream puffs.'' Before Game 3, in fact, Cavalier officials used the
scoreboard in Richfield Coliseum to show a scene from the movie
Ghostbusters in which the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man tramples
everything in its path. When the game started, however, the Bulls
went out and trampled the marshmallows.
Though they were infinitely more self-confident than the Cavs, the
Bulls still couldn't seem to muster the collective killer instinct of
true champions, that steely-eyed desire to stomp on everyone and
everything that gets in the way. Old problems surfaced too. Both
Jordan and Jackson pointed to failures of the bench after the Game 4
loss and Armstrong took exception. ''I totally disagree with that,''
he said. ''If Phil and Michael want to point to the bench, then I
think it's something that needs to be talked about in-house instead
of going to the media.'' And Pippen, after a desultory second-half
performance (three shots, zero points) in Game 4, expressed
uncertainty over his role in the offense. ''I just didn't get the
opportunities,'' he said. ''I guess there were other guys out on the
court that were more important.''
Still, the Bulls got it back together for Games 5 and 6, winning
112-89 at Chicago and then wrapping up the series with a 99-94 win in
Cleveland. Beyond sending the Bulls into their second straight
Finals, Game 6 was particularly gratifying for Jackson because
Jordan, who did not have a great shooting game for three quarters,
was propped up by the solid all-around efforts of everyone else,
particularly Pippen, who was still hampered by a badly sprained right
ankle suffered in the Knick series. And then, in the fourth period,
Jordan took over with 16 points to assure the win.
The individual battle that everyone was waiting for in the Finals
matched the league's best shooting guards, Jordan and Portland's
Clyde Drexler, who was considered Jordan's near-equal on pure
athletic ability. In fact, it wasn't close to an even match, and both
players knew it. Jordan was far superior to Drexler as a shooter and
ball handler and had more grace under pressure -- not to mention
more off-the-court endorsements and all-around star appeal. The two
players mirrored in many ways the Bulls-versus-Blazers series. There
was much to like about the Blazers, much championship potential in
their roster, but they seemed to have a fundamental weakness when it
came to mental toughness.
Game 1 in Chicago Stadium began with a shrug. Not a shrug as in
''Who cares?'' but a shrug as in ''Who knows? Even I can't explain
it.'' That's the look that Jordan flashed at his buddy Magic Johnson,
who was sitting courtside as an NBC commentator, after Jordan
converted the last of his six three- pointers in the first half.
Jordan finished the first 24 minutes with an incredible 35 points to
all but finish off the Blazers, who ultimately went down 122-89.
Before the series began, when Jordan was asked to compare his game
with Drexler's, one of the things he said was ''Clyde is a better
three- point shooter than I choose to be.'' So in Game 1 he chose to
show up Drexler in that department, too. Drexler seemed to almost
physically disappear from the Chicago Stadium floor, taking only 14
shots and making just five of them. Jordan, meanwhile, turned into a
passer in the second half and finished with ''only'' 39 points.
That was a calculated move and a wise one, since it enabled the
proverbial ''supporting cast'' to share in the triumph.
Drexler had already fouled out when the Blazers rallied to win
Game 2 by 115-104 in OT. Game 2 was as shocking a loss as the Bulls
experienced in the postseason. Being unprepared to play, as they were
in, say, Game 2 of the Cleveland series was one thing; blowing a
nine-point lead in the final 4:09 at home was something else again.
Most disturbing was Jordan's lack of composure down the stretch --
after being whistled for a foolish reach-in foul, he was hit with a
technical after screaming at referee Jess Kersey.
Drexler finally put together a solid performance (32 points, nine
rebounds) in Game 3 in Portland, but none of his teammates were there
to help him. The Bulls' 94-84 win was a strange one because no one on
the team really played well. But perhaps the game's ugliness could be
attributed to the swarming Chicago defense, which can throw teams so
out-of-kilter that the game suffers along with it.
Did someone say ''suffer''? That's what Bull fans were doing after
a Game 4 fold-o-rama by Chicago that paralleled the team's collapse
down the stretch in Game 2. This time Chicago was up 80-74 with 7:42
left when it suddenly went flat and lost 93-88. Flattest of all was
Jordan, who went scoreless over the last 10 minutes and later
mentioned (complained, really) that he was tired because Pippen's
foul troubles had kept him on the floor for 44 minutes.
So now the series was tied 2-2 even though the Bulls had dominated
all but about 10 minutes of the four games. Couldn't this team that
won 67 games during the season do anything the easy way in the
Game 5 would almost certainly decide the series. Win it, and the
Bulls would have two chances to get the title back in Chicago. Lose
it, and the Blazers moved into the driver's seat.
One of the game's first plays set the tone for what would follow.
With the score tied 2-2, Jordan streaked back on defense, broke up a
Blazer fast break, then came back down and drilled a three-pointer.
The Blazers could not begin to match the Bulls' ferocity and lost
119-106 to send the series back to Chicago.
Would the Blazers even bother to show up? Whaddya think, Bulls by
No such luck. Continuing its pattern of doing things the hard way,
Chicago trailed 79-64 going into the fourth period, which began with
four reserves (Armstrong, Williams, Bobby Hansen and Stacey King)
on the floor with Pippen. Anyone for a Game 7? But then began the
most incredible comeback in Finals history. Hansen, who wouldn't even
be with the team the following season, hit a three-pointer and made a
key steal. King made three free throws and a jumper. Pippen hit a
layup. The Blazers double-dribbled, traveled and threw bad passes.
Jordan, after checking back into the game, took over down the stretch
with three jumpers, two baseline drives and two clutch free throws.
When the dust cleared and the Blazers were able to shake the
cobwebs from their brains, the Bulls had a 97-93 win and were dancing
on the scorer's table, fists and champagne bottles held high. The
Trail Blazers' Danny Ainge seemed to sum up these Bulls when he said,
in a subdued losers' locker room: ''I don't think they're a great
team. Let's just say they're a very good team with one great
Fair enough, Danny.
But how about if they were to win three straight titles?