The greatest decade in Bulls franchise history began with a headache.
It came to an end perhaps with some head scratching. But if you give it some thought, it ranks as perhaps the second greatest era in NBA history behind the Boston Celtics nine titles in 11 seasons.
And it probably was all worth it the way it left the Detroit Pistons and the rest of the NBA in pain over the torment of watching the Bulls dominate sports arguably worldwide to become one of the great teams of all time.
It was Scottie Pippen’s famous migraine headache in Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference finals that many believed might be the enduring photograph of franchise misery, Pippen in excruciating pain before the game, a towel draped over his head and rival Pistons players mocking him and the Bulls.
It could have been an end, but it was a beginning even with the desperate loss to the eventual champion Pistons.
After that game, Michael Jordan was as committed and determined as he was during any fourth quarter of his career. Jordan generally displayed some acceptance after previous Bulls playoff disappointments. He’d say the team had progressed from the previous season, which they basically always did, going farther in each playoffs. It was progress. But Jordan sensed previously the Bulls were not more talented, as difficult as it was for him to admit.
This time he would not accept that.
The Bulls had won their three home games against the Pistons in that 1990 conference finals, the last one by 18 points. Each time, the Bulls scored more than 100 points. Phil Jackson had counseled that was the Bulls formula: Get the score over 100 and the Bulls would win because their athletic talent was superior. That Game 7 would be Pistons 93-74.
Jordan was fuming afterward, telling every player never again; never again would they lose like this, and lose to the Pistons. It was Jordan’s strongest message and met willingly. Instead of scattering for the summer, as usual, almost every player was back in the Multiplex training facility within days working toward the 1990-91 season.
So take a journey with me of my recollections of the 90s and those great Bulls seasons.
That 1990-91 season was all about beating the Pistons. Really, hardly anyone was talking title. The unofficial formula for ultimate success in the NBA was get to the Finals, lose—thus learn like the Pistons did, the 76ers—and now it was the Trailblazers turn. And when Portland started the 1990-91 season at 19-1, it made sense. This would be Portland’s turn and maybe the Bulls after that.
The Bulls had a huge setback in December, losing badly in Detroit. Jackson afterward said this group might not be good enough. The talk was if they didn’t make it this season it was time to start again, perhaps make those trades Jordan was suggesting of Pippen and Grant. Though Isiah Thomas was out injured, the key game of that season was just before the All-Star break in Auburn Hills. The Bulls won with B.J. Armstrong making big shots down the stretch. Though Thomas was injured and didn’t play, the players felt it was a turning point to win in Auburn Hills. The Pistons scoffed at it and would win in Auburn Hills later that season. But the Bulls would with the two playoff wins there, win 10 of the next 12 games in Detroit. The Evil Empire would be no more. The wicked witch was dead.
The Bulls would sweep the Knicks to open the 1991 playoffs, creating the opening for Pat Riley to become coach. Then it would be 4-1 over the 76ers and Charles Barkley and then the sweep of the Pistons. After three quarters in Game 1 of the conference finals, the Bulls barely led. It was time for Jordan’s break. A group of Bulls reserves regained almost a double digit lead; Jordan came back to finish it and the phrase, “My supporting cast” was born.
The Bulls went to Detroit for Game 3, got their score over 100 points and the Pistons were done. On the off day leading 3-0, Jordan let it all out, telling media the Pistons were undeserving champions because of their cheap shot, dirty tactics and an embarrassment to basketball. Not so politically correct. The Pistons heard about it the next day in the newspapers, which was how things worked then, and decided to sort of boycott the ending. They did their famous walk off with about seven seconds left, essentially validating Jordan’s view.
Suddenly the Bulls were in the Finals, and the Lakers and Magic Johnson were there after a surprise win over Portland. “If we’re going,” Jordan declared, “we may as well win,” Really, there was little title talk until then.
The Bulls lost Game 1 at home when Sam Perkins forgot he was supposed to try a two to tie and made a three to win. The Bulls then dominated the Lakers in Game 2 and with the game long decided, Jordan made his famous switch hand layup that is much shown in clips. Jordan pulled out Game 3, the pivotal game many Bulls felt they needed to win to get the series, by going full court in the last seconds to tie the game with a jumper. And then the Bulls won in overtime as John Paxson hardly missed anything. Jackson had Pippen and Jordan harassing Magic Johnson out of the backcourt—hello, anyone, that’s how you play the Warriors this season—and the Bulls blew out the Lakers in Game 4. One game away from the Bulls’ first title.
The Lakers held on until late in Game 5 when Jackson famously demanded of Jordan, “Who’s open?”
Five Paxson baskets later the Bulls were dancing, Jordan and his dad were crying and a dynasty was emerging.
The defending championship season started amidst controversy, Jordan skipping the traditional White House visit (the Bulls only went two of six times) in what later was disclosed to be a gambling weekend. There was my “Jordan Rules” book and cries it was the end. So the Bulls went on to win 67 games in one of the most dominant seasons in NBA history. They won 14 straight almost to start the season and were 36-5 at home.
The Pistons were dead and the Cavaliers, a lesser version with Ron Harper gone, were closest, 10 games behind and little true threat. The Bulls were at least 10 games ahead of everyone in the league.
But after a routine first round sweep over Miami, the Bulls faced only their second seven-game playoff series in their title years.
Riley had built a team of borderline thugs with John Starks, Anthony Mason and Xavier McDaniel to beat them up if you didn’t have the talent to beat them. McDaniel famously brutalized Pippen until Jordan literally challenged McDaniel to a fight during one of the games. The Knicks surprised the Bulls in winning the opener in Chicago, and the Bulls were fighting up hill the rest of the way, then facing Game 7 at home. A one year fluke?
Jordan’s father, James, counseled a frustrated Jordan before the game to be aggressive. Jordan usually came on strong later in games, preferring to watch how opponents were playing him early to develop his response. This time it was scoring from the start with Jordan scoring 42 points and 12 of 13 at the free throw line and the Knicks basically never having a chance.
The Bulls then took out an overmatched Cavs team in six and Jordan opened the Finals with his famous shrug making six three pointers. It was also the message to Trailblazers star Clyde Drexler, whom many in Portland were insisting should be the league MVP. Jordan’s Game 1 dominance made Drexler a mental wreck much of the series. Still, the Bulls were facing another seventh game back home with Portland leading by 15 entering the fourth quarter of Game 6. Reserve Bobby Hansen made the shot of his life to get the Bulls going on a run, pressure burst the fragile ‘Blazers’ ballhandlers and the Bulls pulled away for the back to back title.
It would be the first title win back in Chicago and such an intense and raucous celebration that it shut down North Michigan Avenue for hours after the game and caused enough destruction that city officials begged for civility the next year during the Finals when the Bulls at home had a 3-1 series lead over the Phoenix Suns.
It would be a lot more difficult in 1992-93 after Jordan and Pippen came back from the exalted Dream Team experience. Riley had ramped up those Knicks even more, and they got playoff home court advantage with a better regular season record. The Bulls won 57 games, three behind the Knicks, setting up the much anticipated hostilities.
The Bulls cruised through the first two rounds with sweeps, Jordan finally ending the Cavs’ run with a game winning buzzer beater in the Game 4 sweep game. Then came the Knicks.
The Knicks won the first two, Starks punctuating the Game 2 win with a dunk over Jordan. The New York Times also became breathless and hysterical, reporting Jordan had gone to Atlantic City to gamble between Games 1 and 2, suggesting it cost the Bulls Game 2. Jordan was furious and engaged in a media boycott as the Knicks committed the ultimate mistake. They said they only needed to win one. They were talking like losers. Riley was furious. The Bulls swept the two games, and then it was back to New York for the infamous Game 5. It looked like the Knicks would close it, but Jordan, Pippen and Horace Grant denied Charles Smith at the rim of what could have been the game winner. The Bulls prevailed and went home and knocked the Knicks out easily in Game 6.
Then it was on to Phoenix, where Barkley’s addition enabled the Suns to win a league best 62 games. But Jordan, freed from the evil physical East play, had one of the great Finals in history, averaging 41 points, 8.5 rebounds and 6.3 assists in 46 minutes per game and even shooting 40 percent on threes. The Bulls won the first two in Phoenix, lost a ridiculous triple overtime in Chicago, then made it 3-1. The Suns players, finally relaxing, joked they needed to save the city after all the public service announcement about not rioting after the win. The Suns won by 10 in what would be Jordan’s final game in the Chicago Stadium.
But Jordan never doubted.
As he walked onto the bus for the trip to the airport and back to Phoenix, smoking a cigar he famously greeted his teammates, “Hello, World Champions.”
Though it would take a Paxson three pointer for the win and Grant’s saving block in the last seconds to preserve the 99-98 threepeat.
Then came the shock of the decade, first the murder of Jordan’s father and then Jordan announcing in October that he would retire from basketball. Jordan would enhance the bombshell by further deciding to take up professional baseball and play for the Chicago White Sox double A minor league team in Alabama.
The Bulls would have a surprising and amazingly good season with Pippen at his best, first MVP of the All-Star game and a 55-win season without Jordan, just two fewer than the previous season. It was the most remarkable followup season to a star’s departure.
But after—yet again—knocking out the Cavaliers in the first round of the playoffs, the Bulls endured what many consider one of the greatest officiating gaffes ever as Pippen after the shot went was called for a foul on a Hubert Davis miss that should have ended Game 5 with a Bulls win and 3-2 series lead. The Bulls would return home to win Game 6, but lose down the stretch in Game 7 of the conference semifinals. The Knicks would go on to get to the Finals after defeating an Indiana team against whom the Bulls were 4-1 that season. It has long been argued that one call perhaps prevented the greatest ever followup to a franchise personnel departure.
But with Jordan still pursuing baseball, the 1994-95 season didn’t go as well. Horace Grant left as a free agent for what many believed would be the next dynasty in Orlando with Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway.
The Bulls were bumping along barely above .500 when the baseball lockout/strike prevented Jordan from being involved with the major league team in spring training. He left and soon returned with the most famous two words in NBA history, “I’m back!”
Jordan’s return to the NBA March 19 in Indiana was one of the biggest stories in the world. The Bulls would go on to close the season winning 13 of 17 with Jordan putting up his famous double nickel 55 points in Madison Square Garden.
After a first round series win over Charlotte, the Bulls fell in six to Orlando. Though not before Jordan went back to his old uniform No. 23 from No. 45 after Nick Anderson chided that 45 wasn’t as good as 23.
The Bulls needed a power forward and Jordan needed a break.
They got it in historic fashion as Jordan made the Space Jam movie and played basketball every day on the movie lot and the Bulls signed the controversial Dennis Rodman, whose presence with Jordan, Pippen, Jackson and the Bulls produced the most famous, notorious and successful basketball team in history.
The 1995-96 Bulls were 72-10 with a domination virtually unheard of in pro sports. They won virtually every major award after a 41-3 start and even more so with Rodman’s antics, changing hair colors and his band of misfits along for the ride that created one of the most unusual cultural oddities ever in sports.
The Bulls went on to streak through the playoffs 11-1 in the first three rounds, sweeping the Magic in the conference finals and breaking up the Magic and chasing O’Neal out of the conference and to the Lakers. The Bulls then won the first three games in the Finals for a 14-1 start before relaxing with two off days, losing two and then wrapping up the fourth title back in Chicago.
It became just get me to Grant Park in 1996-97 as the opposition melted away. Miami won 61 games and wasn’t even considered a serious threat. Little discussed about that Bulls season was they simply got tired of dominating the regular season. They started out 12-0 and this time were 42-5 as the race was pretty much over by then. They easily had back to back 70s when they pulled up, losing three of the last four games to finish with 69 wins to tie for the second best season of all time.
Then it was mostly another romp through the playoffs, this time 11-2 going into the Finals and winning the first two, as Jordan began it by showing up the latest MVP contender, Karl Malone. Rodman insulted Mormons for a while and then Jordan willed himself through the flu/food poisoning in the famous Game 5 before the Bulls again closed it out back home.
Then Jackson labeled the 1997-98 season, “The Last Dance,” as all good and even great things must come to an end. Jackson said he wouldn’t agree to another contract whether the Bulls won a title or not. Jordan said he wouldn’t play again for another coach and Pippen said he would sign elsewhere as a free agent even if Jackson and Jordan returned. Welcome to the good feelings for another threepeat.
Yet, they would impress in an uneven season that still netted 62 wins. Pippen missed the first half with injury and the Jazz had the tiebreaker for Finals home court, which only set the stage even better for Jordan’s posed winner in Game 6, the ultimate farewell to the ultimate career before a shocked Salt Lake City home crowd. Those Eastern Conference finals against Larry Bird’s Pacers with Reggie Miller went to a seventh game and to this day Bird still talks about a jump ball lost with five minutes to go he believes changed the outcome and prevented the Pacers from pulling the upset. So the Bulls had six titles in eight seasons and it was over.
The 1998-99 season would not begin until February after a labor dispute and the Bulls would not be back in the playoffs for seven years. Jordan did retire, though we know briefly again for a lamentable return in Washington. The Bulls had a new coach in Tim Floyd. They got through the 50-game season with 13 wins and several holdovers, headlined by Toni Kukoc, soon to be cashed in for yet more draft picks and free agent Brent Barry here and gone.
Things looked bright for the new millennium with the lottery balls coming up for the Bulls and the No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft. The decade of good feelings was done. It was a sweet memory and not soon to be repeated.