If these were the last days of the empire, if the musing from the owner's suite finally does what no opponent could and brings the dynasty down, then remember the Chicago Bulls the way they were last Friday night, when they won their fifth NBA championship. Remember the way Michael Jordan insisted that his faithful sidekick, Scottie Pippen, help him lift Jordan's fifth Finals MVP award. Remember Pippen standing near the edge of the court during the postgame celebration, holding a champagne bottle behind his back until Dennis Rodman--who everyone assumes will be cast out by the Bulls--walked by and then dousing the Worm in a gesture that was meant to tell him that for now, at least, he was still one of them. Remember how Jordan and coach Phil Jackson embraced for just a beat longer than you thought they would, clinging not just to each other but also to this moment, this team. And remember Jordan's words to the media. "We are entitled to defend what we have until we lose it," he said, after Chicago had defeated the Utah Jazz 90-86 at the United Center to wrap up the best-of-seven series in six games.
There are times when the financial books must be put aside in favor of the history books. If chairman Jerry Reinsdorf sets aside his notion of remaking the Bulls for the longer haul; if he re-signs Jackson and Jordan, whose contracts expire July 1; and if he resists the urge to trade Pippen, who can become a free agent after next season, the Bulls will have a chance to do what once seemed unthinkable: take a place beside the Boston Celtics of the 1950s and '60s as the two most imperial dynasties in NBA history.
Chicago has been so dominant since it won its first championship, in 1991, that its true competition is no longer its contemporaries. The Bulls' sustained success--five titles in the last seven years, including the last two in a row--puts them in competition only with those Celtics, who won 11 of 13 championships (including eight straight) from '57 to '69, and the Los Angeles Lakers of the Showtime era, who won five crowns in nine years, from '80 to '88. Chicago measures up well against both.
"Comparing teams from different eras is always an impossible thing to do," says James Worthy, a star forward on three of those Lakers championship teams and now an analyst for Fox Sports News. "All you can really do is compare how teams did in their periods, against the competition and under the conditions that were out there for them. If you do that, I think you would have to say that Chicago has dominated its time as much as any team the league has ever seen."
June 22, 1997
The Bulls have done so with less star power than either the old Celtics or Lakers. Boston counted on eight future Hall of Famers, led by center Bill Russell and including guards Bob Cousy, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones and Bill Sharman, forward Tom Heinsohn, sixth man Frank Ramsey and swingman John Havlicek. Los Angeles had center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who's in the Hall, guard Magic Johnson, who will be in the Hall, and Worthy, who should also be enshrined someday. Chicago has two certain Hall inductees in Jordan and Pippen, but the rest of the Bulls' lineup over the years, even with superb forwards Horace Grant and Rodman, has been remarkably nondescript for a dynasty.
"I think the Lakers came at you with more outstanding players," says Pat Riley, who was L.A.'s Showtime coach and is now the coach and president of the Miami Heat. "We had Byron Scott and Norm Nixon beside Magic in the backcourt, and we could come off the bench with people like Michael Cooper and Bob McAdoo and Mychal Thompson. The Bulls have role players who have done their jobs exceptionally well and the team has great chemistry, but I don't think Chicago has quite the firepower that those Lakers teams did."
That doesn't mean, however, that the three dynasties don't have similarities. They all revolved around one transcendent player whose passion to win matched his skills, a player who changed the game with his unique style. Russell proved that it was possible to dominate a game--and a league--with defense. The 6'9" Johnson was the first oversized point guard, the forerunner of the players who populate the league now, such as the Orlando Magic's Penny Hardaway and the Detroit Pistons' Grant Hill, who possess the height of forwards but the ball-handling and playmaking abilities of guards. Jordan has proved to be an endlessly inventive and fierce performer, particularly when a championship is at stake.
As hard as it is to believe now, there was a time when Jordan was thought to be all style and no substance, that he would win scoring titles (he now has nine) but not NBA titles because he could not elevate the play of his teammates. That seems even more ludicrous in light of his brilliance during these Finals, especially his performance in Game 5 on June 11 in Salt Lake City, when he crawled out of his sickbed with a stomach virus to score 38 points and hit the decisive three-pointer in the Bulls' 90-88 victory (box).
The three dynasties have had different personae--the Celtics were coolly efficient, the Lakers exuded Hollywood flash, and the Bulls are the hip basketball equivalent of rock stars--but they have possessed a similar mystique, an aura that could defeat a lesser team before the game began. "All great teams have that," says Worthy. "When we stepped out on the court some nights, you could see it in some guys' eyes: 'Uh-oh, Showtime.' You see the same thing with the Bulls. Just their appearance on the floor makes some guys' eyes get wide, and when the Bulls see that, they know they have you beaten."
Moreover, as these dynasties evolved, the Celtics, Lakers and Bulls added to their opponents' frustration by doling out defeat even when they weren't playing well. That was the story of Chicago's 1997 postseason, and it held true in the decisive Game 6. The Bulls led for only 4:54 of the entire game, only to win with a fourth-quarter rally, which culminated in guard Steve Kerr's jumper with five seconds left that broke an 86-86 tie. "Dynasties get better as they get older," says Riley. "After a while they begin to win games not so much on talent as on the confidence that comes with experience. They succeed because they know they have succeeded in the past. If you don't develop that ability, you cannot be a team that becomes a repeat champion."
It's no coincidence that all three dynasties had coaching stability. Jackson has overseen Chicago's entire championship run. Riley, who began his Lakers stint early in the 1981-82 season, coached four of the five L.A. champions. (Paul Westhead was in charge in '80.) Red Auerbach led Boston to all but the final two championships of the Russell era; he became the Celtics' full-time general manager in '66, with Russell taking over as player-coach. On the surface Auerbach and Riley, both tough, no-nonsense types, appear to have more in common with each other than either has with the laid-back, philosophical Jackson. But behind the gruff image, Auerbach had some of the motivational qualities for which Jackson is celebrated. "Red was more similar to Jackson than you might think," says Heinsohn, who himself won two championships, in 1974 and '76, as Boston's coach and is a Celtics broadcaster. "He was not a Prussian general sending his guys out of the trenches and into the machine guns. He allowed his players to express their opinions from training camp to the last shot of the game. Jackson does the same thing. They're both great handlers of people."
With their extended dominance--and especially considering those record eight championships in a row--the Celtics must still be ranked as the NBA's preeminent dynasty, but the Bulls are closer to them than it might appear. If Jordan had not retired for 18 months, thus missing the 1993-94 season and most of the '94-95 campaign, Chicago's latest championship might very well have been its seventh straight, and the Bulls would be setting their sights on Boston's mark. The last time the Bulls lost a playoff series when Jordan played the entire regular season was in '90, when the Pistons beat them in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals.
However, even if the Bulls had won seven straight titles, they would still face the argument that their achievement was less impressive than the Celtics' because of the caliber of their competition. There were eight teams in the NBA when Boston won its first title, and the league had expanded only to 14 by the time the Celtics won in 1969. Chicago won its first title in '91, in a 27-team league that has since grown to 29. With more teams, the thinking goes, the talent has been spread more thinly than it was in Boston's era, making it easier for a good team to dominate. It is telling that while Russell's Celtics had Wilt Chamberlain and his teams (the Philadelphia and San Francisco Warriors, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Lakers) as constant rivals and the Showtime Lakers had Larry Bird's Celtics, the Bulls have had no consistent challenger. Chicago has beaten five teams in the Finals: the Lakers, the Portland Trail Blazers, the Phoenix Suns, the Seattle SuperSonics and the Jazz.
"When we played, the league was not diluted," says Heinsohn, a Celtics forward from 1956-57 through '64-65. "Today you can be a good team with only two outstanding players, but in those days every team had at least three or four players in that category. What the Bulls have accomplished is remarkable, but I would have to say that it was harder to win a championship in those days than it is now."
These days, though it may not take as large a nucleus of stars to win a championship, it is harder to keep that nucleus together. In this era of free agency and the salary cap, successful teams tend to break up as the players responsible for that success command bigger salaries. That's why the strongest challenge to the Bulls' dynasty is coming not from any other team but from Reinsdorf, who has to meet their growing payroll. Chicago lost Grant to free agency in 1994 when he signed with the Magic. This off-season the Bulls would dearly love to keep forward-center Brian Williams, a key late-season acquisition who played well in the playoffs, but Williams is a free agent and Chicago doesn't have room under the salary cap to offer him the more than $5 million a year he is seeking. There have been reports that Reinsdorf and vice president of basketball operations Jerry Krause have contemplated trading Pippen before he becomes a free agent, partly because he will no doubt be in search of a huge contract.
"Those are things we didn't have to worry about," says Heinsohn. "In the old days, you joined a team and you stayed with them until they traded you. We didn't have to worry about Russell becoming a free agent and taking a bunch of money to go play for the Cincinnati Royals. That's why I think the Bulls' greatest accomplishment has been keeping that nucleus of Jordan and Pippen together all these years. It definitely would have been harder for us to keep our team together and win all those titles if players could have moved around the way they can today."
If they played today, the Russell-era Celtics also would have had to survive more playoff games to win their championships. The postseason wasn't nearly the long, grueling ordeal for the Boston teams that it has been for Los Angeles and Chicago. In each of their first eight championship seasons, the Celtics had to win only two series to take the title, and they needed to beat only three playoff opponents to win each of their last three championships of the Russell era. By contrast, the Lakers' championship teams needed to win three series twice and four series thrice, and the Bulls needed to prevail in four series in each of their championship seasons. More opponents mean more of a chance of being beaten. However, the relative ease with which the Bulls have gone through postseasons during their reign is the one aspect of championship performance in which they have surpassed the Celtics and the Lakers.
Chicago is the only one of the three dynamos that is undefeated in the Finals. (The Celtics lost to the St. Louis Hawks in 1958; the Lakers lost to the 76ers in '83 and the Celtics in '84.) Astonishingly, the Bulls' title teams have never been pushed to a seventh game in the Finals, and overall they have played only one seven-game series, in the '92 Eastern Conference semifinals against the New York Knicks. The Lakers played three seven-game series, all in '88, their last championship season, and the Celtics made a habit of playing--and winning--seventh games: They won all 10 they played during their championship years.
Although Chicago and L.A. have won with more ease in the playoffs, Boston was the more dominant regular-season team. The Celtics finished with the best record in the NBA in nine of the 13 years that spanned their dynasty, while the Bulls have had the best record in three of the last seven years, and the Lakers finished on top in the regular season only in the last two seasons of their nine-year run.
So it says here the Celtics still reign as the premier dynasty, but the Bulls have surpassed the Lakers, and Jordan isn't finished yet. The confetti was still floating from the United Center rafters last Friday night when he looked into a television camera and held up his fingers to symbolize Chicago's titles. Jordan did not hold up five fingers. He held up six.