Dear Chicago Bulls,
I’m not a sports guy. I didn’t play team sports as a kid and although I went to a few baseball (my Dad, who is a northsider, obviously took me to Cubs games), basketball and football games, I wasn’t really a passionate fan of any of the big three American sports. Sure when the Bears won the Superbowl in ’85 (I was 15 at the time) I had jumped on that bandwagon and was happy to “shuffle” along all year long. But football didn’t hold my interest and has always remained a sort of hot and cold thing for me.
But soon after the Bears Superbowl win, along came Michael Jordan. And then came Phil Jackson. And soon I noticed a change in my feelings toward professional sports — I started watching basketball on TV and learning about the game and caring about the Bulls. And at the same time the Bulls went on one of the most remarkable winning streaks in basketball history, including their famous six championship titles. I watched them all and they transformed me into a true basketball fan (and partisan Bulls fan, of course). Obviously I’m excited about the team again — Mr. Rose seems like the second coming of Jordan in some sense and his supporting cast is starting to gel around him. I hope Bill Simmons is right about who will wind up in the Finals this year.
Anyway, I have many fond memories of those championship years (and some crazy stories, including the only time a police officer pulled a gun on me in my life when I foolishly threatened to drive through a Bulls Championship imposed blockade to see my future wife) and now you can share in some memories as well.
The latest Chicago Magazine has an excellent feature article, which is a look back at that first championship, from some of the players and people involved in the season. Below are just a couple of choice quotes:
[After losing the Eastern Conference Finals to the Detroit Pistons in ’89 for the second time in a row]
KRAUSE (general manager): I went in the office, and on Monday morning, which was our supposed exit day, I looked at [head trainer] Al Vermeil’s training area. There were 11 players there at 7:30 in the morning, and they were sweating like pigs. I called [chairman Jerry] Reinsdorf about three hours later and said, “We’re going to win this year.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “If you just saw what I saw, they understand finally.” We had the best summer of workouts that we ever had.
MICHAEL JORDAN (starting guard): I knew I had to get stronger. If I was going to go into the post, then I was going to have to play like a big guy. I still had my quickness so I knew if I got stronger, I could turn the tables. Teams such as the Pistons and Knicks had figured the only way to throw me off my game was to throw me out of the air. I’d had enough. I wanted to start dishing out the punishment instead of taking it all the time.
[On playing with Tex Winter’s infamous triangle offense]
SAM SMITH (Bulls beat reporter, Chicago Tribune): Phil was a student from the Knicks school of things, when it was five scorers and the floor was balanced and you could go to any of the guys. He believed in that concept that you only win with a balanced team and teamwork.
CARTWRIGHT (starting center): The truth is that it took probably half a season before everybody embraced it, and I can remember the game [when] it happened. It happened in Denver on a road trip, and we carved them up pretty good. After that game, I think everybody pretty much felt like, This is a really good offense, and we’re going to do really well with it if we can just stay with it and execute it and have everybody on the same page.
[On Tony Kukoc and whether or not players need to like one another]
SMITH: Pippen was always complaining about his contract. And now they’re recruiting Kukoc. [Negotiations to bring the European player Toni Kukoc to the team that year ultimately fell through, to the delight of Pippen and Jordan and the consternation of Krause. Kukoc would not join the team until 1993.] Because the fans were so locked into Jordan and Pippen and the team and so negative toward Jerry Krause, [the wooing of Kukoc] was looked at as some kind of betrayal. It was ludicrous. [Management was] trying to improve the team—trying to get the best player in Europe basically for free.
KRAUSE: Toni was an unusual situation. He was the Jordan of Europe. He was a god. He could not walk down the street without getting mobbed. Phil and I are sitting there watching him play, [thinking that] we got stupid lucky [by drafting him in 1990]. He’s better than I ever thought.
JACKSON (head coach): Yeah, you know, the players got wind of it a little bit—they knew that we were enamored with Toni. But we knew he’d taken the contract with [the] Benetton [team] in Italy and he was getting paid really well with them.
SMITH: [Phil Jackson] did take advantage a little bit of Krause. He fed the Kukoc thing a little bit in his own sly way—with a comment here or there in a way that might provoke the players. The Bulls guys didn’t hate one another. They sort of hated all the outside forces. Jordan didn’t hate Pippen. Grant and Jordan didn’t get along particularly, but they didn’t hate each other. They hated Krause and they hated [Pippen’s] contract. They hated Kukoc.
JERRY REINSDORF (chairman): But these off-the-court things, they weren’t that important. You go back to the Oakland Athletics of the early seventies. When they won five divisions and three World Series in a row, these guys used to fight in the clubhouse. They didn’t like each other. The important thing is what do you do when you’re out on the field, out on the court? And there was certainly a unity among the [Bulls] players.
[On finally beating Detroit in the Eastern Conference Finals]
SMITH: Toward the end [of the fourth game], Rodman threw Pippen into the stands. Pippen got a cut on his chin, six stitches or something. And didn’t retaliate, didn’t lose it. Just came back on the court and made his free throws. That sort of symbolized [the Bulls’ attitude]: “We’re past this now, those who are resorting to this. We don’t have to. We’re just better.”
REINSDORF: [The Pistons] acted like spoiled children in the fourth game, and they walked off the court. It didn’t bother me that they didn’t shake hands, but the idea that they walked off the court before the game was over, walked right by our bench—that certainly was a low-class thing. But in a way, I was glad. They had the dirtiest player who ever played in the NBA on their side—Laimbeer. He was just terrible. I despised that entire team, as I think all Bulls fans did. Not only did we beat them but we frustrated them.
PAXSON (starting guard): It was incredibly satisfying, the fact that they had to walk by our bench. You could still see Isiah was kind of ducking down, shoulders kind of slouched, trying not to be seen. The disappointing thing about that is they had a similar circumstance with Boston where [the Pistons] had to overcome [the Celtics]. When they did, when they finally beat Boston to get to the finals three years before, [Celtics forward Kevin] McHale and all those guys went right to them and were like, “Congratulations, you’ve earned it.” We obviously didn’t get the same thing. But it did kind of validate what we believed in—that we played the right way. They were really good, but their time had come and gone, and it was our turn now.
As the kids say, RTWT. And I look forward to beating Miami in six in the Eastern Conference Finals and finishing off the Lakers in Five in the Finals!