The First One

June 12th, 2016 | by Sam Smith

It took 25 years from birth for the Chicago Bulls to finally achieve sporting maturity, winning the franchise’s first NBA championship. In perhaps a moment of poetic symmetry, it was 25 years ago Sunday when the Bulls reached the pinnacle of basketball excellence, not only NBA champions for the first time but unveiling a new, likeable, wonderful basketball dynasty that would charm the worldwide landscape like few others.

“To this day, having played on the first three, I’m proud of them all,” said John Paxson. “And having been around the others in a different way, I’m proud of the organization, all six (championships). But, honestly, winning for the first time for this organization, it was unique, the experience, the vibe, the fans reacting to it. We had battled so hard through the years against Detroit, beaten, doubted and then to experience that and the way we did, it was special.”

The Bulls winning that first championship in 1991 in the Fabulous Forum, as the Lakers called it, and in such a dominant fashion over Magic Johnson and the Lakers remains one of the great moments and times in Chicago sports history.

The Bulls would, as we know, go on to win six championships in dominating the 1990s like few sports franchises ever dominated a decade. Their influence, celebrity and the fascination associated with those Bulls probably remains unrivaled in American team sports history.

And, to think, it seemed so unlikely in June, 25 years ago.

“We get the home court and then give it up right away,” recalled Bulls managing partner Jerry Reinsdorf. “Going to L.A., we were just hoping to win a game so we could come back to Chicago (it was a 2-3-2 format then). We’re down 14 points in Game 3, and when it’s over the staff is in the parking lot outside the Forum and I remember (them) saying, ‘We’re going back to Chicago! We’re going back to Chicago!’ We’d won a game, so there had to be a Game 6.”

But the Bulls went on to dominate the great and much favored Lakers, sweeping the three games in Los Angeles to introduce the new era.

“It was a real changing of the guard,” reflected center Bill Cartwright. “Almost similar to Golden State right now. People really liked us. There was the Pistons and the Lakers, the Celtics; we were kind of the real new kids on the block.”

They were loved, beloved really even with vanquishing the great Magic Johnson and the latest version of the West Coast basketball empire.

The Boston Celtics lived there almost from the start of the modern NBA in 1954, and then with a few exceptions generally traded it back and forth with the Los Angeles Lakers for almost the next four decades.

The Philadelphia 76ers, first with Wilt and later with Dr. J., threatened promise, if ultimately unfulfilled.

The New York Knicks dipped their toes in, but never could fully sustain very long. Similarly with the Portland Trailblazers, Washington Bullets, Seattle Supersonics and finally the Detroit Pistons, the boulder the Bulls could not dislodge. But in 1990-91 after playoff losses three consecutive years, it was the Bulls’ time.

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“Getting over the hump of the Detroit Pistons was the first thing I remember about that playoffs and that season,” said Horace Grant. “They beat us there (at the Palace) early in the season. But we felt as a team we had matured; of course, physically, but more mentally. I don’t think we felt we couldn’t beat them because of the previous year. We grew and grew as a team every year; each year we made a step forward to getting through Detroit and going farther.

“Then we get to the Finals and we were thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, what have we got ourselves into? What are we supposed to do and how we are supposed to do it?” said Grant. “We look on the other side and see veterans who have been there four, five times, Magic, James Worthy, Byron Scott.”

Few gave the Bulls much of a chance.

“When we beat Detroit, it was, ‘Yeah, you guys finally beat Detroit, but you’re not going to beat the Lakers,’” related Cartwright, now an alumni relations director at his alma mater, the U. of San Francisco. “And especially when we lost that first game at home. It as like, ‘You guys had a good season and you’re going to L.A. and it’s over.’”

Sure, the Bulls won 61 games that season and closed 31-7. They were 11-1 through the first three rounds. But this was the Lakers.

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But could there be Magic in the Air?

Portland had won 63 games, but the Lakers upset them in the conference finals. Still, it was considered no break for the Bulls, who were resting after sweeping the Pistons in four games in the Eastern Conference finals. Everyone knows—and assumed back then—you have to lose first in the Finals to learn how to win. And veteran Finals experience was necessary for success.

And the Bulls came to understand pretty quickly.

“The first thing that stands out was how kind of unprepared we were for the scene and not having been there before,” admitted Paxson, who has been with the Bulls since 1985 and is now basketball operations vice president. “I can still remember running out the very first time in the Finals in Chicago Stadium and everything was a blur, people all over the court, a scene we just weren’t ready for. It showed in that first game. We were kind of off. We’d played really well against Detroit and now we were off our game. And even though we had a chance at the end, we didn’t play our game. It was that stage, how unfamiliar, everything about it. There were TV people all over the court. Going through the layup line you were having to dodge people and the excitement of being there played into us being a little too up tight.”

But even in defeat, as Sam Perkins made an unlikely three pointer to give the Lakers the final 93-91 margin with 14 seconds left, the Bulls found solace and optimism even in defeat.

“When Perkins hit that three we had a few seconds left,” recalled Grant, who represents the NBA as an ambassador and will be assuming a similar role for the Bulls this fall. “I remember Phil calling a timeout and Michael taking the shot and I remember the shot going in and out. Sam made a hell of a shot, sure. But we get an open shot. Even with Michael missing that shot, we watched that on film the next day and that gave us confidence. Even though we lost the game, we had Michael shooting a last shot that almost goes in. It’s that close and we saw so many little mistakes.

“You have to give credit to the leadership,” said Grant. “Michael and Phil, in terms of relaxing. That was Phil’s message: ‘Embrace this moment because you never know if you’ll get here again.’”

It was the oddest post game loss.

Jackson had that wry grin leaving the old Chicago Stadium and reserve Cliff Levingston was even making predictions of victory.

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“When we lost Game 1, we didn’t play well and we felt the Lakers played the best they could,” said Levingston, a longtime minor leagues basketball coach who now coaches girls basketball in northwest Indiana. “I remember going downstairs to the old locker room in the Chicago Stadium and saying, ‘We can sweep ‘em.’ Michael came over and says, ‘You have to win the first game to sweep.’ I said, ‘We’ll win the next four.’”

“After we lost that first game at home we knew it was just a matter of time,” insisted reserve guard Craig Hodges. “We knew we were the better team. We felt we had the better players and better system and we were locked in. I didn’t feel there was a team who could beat us.

“We had arguably the best player in the league, knew what we were capable of and how to play,” said Hodges, now back at his Rich East alma mater coaching. “With the whipping Detroit put on us, I feel we were primed to win, like Oklahoma City and some of the stuff they’re going through. We went through those whipping to prepare for a win.”

The Bulls would dominate the Lakers in a 21-point win in Game 2 that is most remembered for Jordan’s much shown switch hands layup late in the long decided contest.

But it was earlier when Jordan got into foul trouble—and played fewer than 40 minutes for the only game in the series—that the Finals and basketball history changed.

Jackson had been thinking about it during and then after the Game 1 loss.

The Bulls had success against Cleveland in prior serieses trapping and double teaming Mark Price to have someone else initiate the offense. But could you do that to Johnson, the amazing 6-9 point guard, like no one before in the NBA.

1991-06-05 - Gm 2 v LAL - 1991 NBA Finals - Scottie Pippen defends Magic Johnson - 1 - (Bill Smith)

“Game 2 when Michael got early fouls guarding Magic and the defensive switch was Scottie (Pippen) going on Magic and he basically started played him 94 feet up and down the floor. That was the huge thing,” said Paxson about the pivotal element of the series. “Magic was unlike any other point guard. You couldn’t guard him with me or B.J. (Armstrong). You had to guard him with a bigger player. Michael and Scottie were asked to jump in the point guard’s lap and pressure 94 feet. This was the first time, really, Scottie had to do it, but it made a big difference, kind of slowed them down a little bit, got them out of rhythm.

“The other thing Scottie pressuring Magic did was take time off the clock for them to get into offense,” explained Paxson. “They played a lot through the post with (Vlade) Divac and Perkins and we did a lot of doubling through the baseline side. We turned their bigs toward the baseline and doubled that way to give them few releases. It limited what their bigs could do out of the post. I basically stayed attached to Scott. With Michael and Scottie able to scramble and use their length for deflections and steals and Horace and Bill the double team guys. That was the beginning.”

“A.C. Green had to bring the ball up and it was brilliant,” said Cartwright. “It was ‘My God, Magic can’t get them into the offense.’ It really crippled those guys because Magic initiated the offense. That was the tactical move to get them out of sync and once we had them out of sync we were a team who could score.”

Jackson said it really wasn’t in the planning before the series.

The belief was to have Jordan on Johnson because Pippen had to stay with James Worthy. But then Jordan got up on Worthy and got bench help from defensive players like Levingston.

“I remember Phil telling me in order for me to play I had to play James Worthy,” said Levingston. “My goal was whatever I could do. He was saying against the West Coast teams I didn’t play as well because they are not as physical. I remember thinking I had to find a way to be on the floor. I knew I had to play great defense on Worthy and played mostly defense to stay on the floor.”

“The prospect of putting Pip on Magic was planned after Game 1,” Jackson confirmed. “We felt we needed more pressure on the ball. MJ guarding Worthy was an issue, but it never became ‘the problem.’”

Jackson laughed considering that series and the way the game is played now.

“What a strange game we are watching now these years later,” Jackson said. “No post-ups in memory from (most of these) games. The Lakers posted up four players, Worthy, Magic, Perkins, Vlade, and maybe more.”

So it was off to Los Angeles and Game 3.

The Lakers, though vanquished in Game 2, had the expected response of doing what they had to do in winning one game. The Bulls, however, felt they had the formula.

7B - 1991 - ECF - Bulls fan (NBAE Jonathan Daniel)

Though as these things go, it came down to a play, a shot, and it was Jordan who made it, going full court after a timeout to face up and make a jumper over Scott to send Game 3 into overtime. The Bulls dominated the overtime to regain control of the series.

“That’s probably one of those moments,” said Paxson. “We don’t go into overtime, maybe that gives the Lakers confidence; us winning that game, we walked out feeling pretty good and Game 4, really all three road games, we took it to them to start. The tenor in a playoff series can change on a small thing. Michael making that shot and winning Game 3, who knows what would have happened (if he didn’t).”

The Bulls were rolling and ready now.

“We felt after the Game 3 win we had the confidence,” said Grant, who scored 20 points in Game 3 and 22 in Game 4. “We all had the confidence we were going to be NBA champions.”

Grant averaged 39.6 minutes in the series, playing fewer than 40 minutes once. Pippen played at least 40 minutes in every game, averaging 43.6 minutes, and Jordan averaged 44 minutes and played 52 minutes in Game 3. Jordan and Pippen each played 48 minutes in the Game 5 clincher.

“That’s why my knee and back hurt so much now,” laughed Grant. “It’s hard to fathom hearing guys these days playing 40 minutes and everyone saying they need rest and shouldn’t play.”

The Bulls dominated Game 4 with a 97-82 victory, and it seemed over with Worthy and Scott injured for Game 5. But the Lakers using just seven players and Tony Smith and Elden Campbell off the bench combing for 33 points looked like they could get the series back to Chicago and another game. Then came that famous timeout halfway through the fourth quarter with the Lakers leading, Jackson asking Jordan who was open, Jordan finally responding Paxson and then the championship.

“I never looked at it as that dramatic,” said Paxson. “To me it was, ‘Hey Michael, Magic’s doubling you, look for Pax on the weak side.’ That’s what I heard.

“They weren’t going to guard Michael with Magic,” said Paxson. “So Magic was guarding me and Scott was smaller than Michael and they had to double Michael. The way we played out of the triangle and moved the ball, I was available. I didn’t take a ton of shots; Game 5, I took maybe 12 shots (nine of 12). Not like I was jacking up shots. I was smart enough to realize I was reliant on how other teams were going to play Michael, Scottie, Bill. If there was going to be a lot of double teaming, I was going to find open areas; I wasn’t the guy with the ball creating my own shot.”

And then Pippen had the ball and tossed it up, the Bulls hustling to their locker room and the celebration beginning in Los Angeles and all over Chicago.

1991-06-12 - Gm 5 v LAL - 1991 NBA Finals - Locker Room Celebration - MJ-Pax-Cartwright (NBAE Andrew Bernstein)

“When that buzzer went off and we were champions, that feeling was surreal,” said Grant. “Like an out of body experience. You can’t believe you are here and a world champion and everything you went through with these guys. I hugged my teammates and ran into that locker room and hugged some more people.”

“You could finally say you were the best and how much it meant to MJ, the organization,” said Hodges. “All of us, a lot of emotions on all levels in what we accomplished and were capable of doing going into next season.”

“I had waited for more than a decade,” said Cartwright. “It was a great accomplishment. Nine years in New York, it was not something you ever know if it will happen. It was a gradual process, what good teams go through where you overcome your nemesis. I had a family, friends who call you, all your relatives who call you; it was a family celebration. A celebration for everyone in my family, all my friends, all of my ex-coaches. Everybody, everybody got a piece.”

“I remember the bus ride from the game to the hotel,” Armstrong said with a laugh. “How bad everyone smelled, played the game, poured champagne and no one showered. Then rode the bus to the Ritz Carlton. Everyone still in their uniforms three hours later.”

“We were the underdogs,” noted Levingston. “Everyone said we couldn’t do it, it being the first time going to the Finals. We didn’t know what it was like. The first game we bought into that and we played unsure. After that we went back to the way we played and it seemed the game became easier and slowed down.

“I remember the night of the championship,” recalled Levingston. “I felt we’d win and it was just by how much and then it was like a boulder lifted off everyone. We finally accomplished it and won the title. It was such a relief, joy, the feeling of being on top of the mountain. You are the best and knowing everything you accomplished and went through to get there.”

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