Skip to main content

THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON 1 The first title drive, in 1990-91, came down to a face-off between M.J. and M.J.

In June 3, 1990, a Sunday afternoon, Scottie Pippen had a
headache. And the Bulls were still hearing about it in training camp
four months later. The NBA's most famous migraine, which had limited
Pippen's effectiveness and helped the Detroit Pistons embarrass
Chicago 93-74 in the Eastern Conference finals, seemed an apt symbol
for the can't-quite-get-over-the-hump team from the Windy City. The
Bulls were weak, the Pistons were strong. The Bulls cracked under
pressure, the Pistons stepped up. The Bulls didn't want to win badly
enough to play hurt, the Pistons turned pain into pleasure.
Michael Jordan was exempt from the aforementioned criticisms of
the Bulls, of course, but that was part of the problem. The team that
showed up at training camp in October of 1990 was still Jordan and
his ''supporting cast,'' the Jordanaires as they were known
throughout the league. They had the talent to turn back the Pistons,
who were fresh off their second straight championship and third
consecutive appearance in the Finals, but whether they had enough
heart was a question mark.
Still, there was much reason for optimism. Jordan was as good as
ever, having averaged a league-high 33.6 points per game in the
1989-90 season, and, boy, was he hungry for a title. Horace Grant
came back to camp carrying 20 extra pounds, as well as a pair of
white, high-tech prescription goggles that looked like something out
of a Devo video; the former would help him in the wars underneath the
basket, the latter would help him actually see the ball come off the
rim. And Grant would be getting help from offensive rebounding
specialist Cliff Levingston, who was added to the roster via free
Best of all, Phil Jackson had a year's experience under his belt
as the team's coach. Some still doubted this erstwhile creature of
the '60s, but those in the Chicago organization recognized him as a
competitor first and foremost, a man committed to winning.
Jackson began the 1990-91 season -- how else? -- by trying to
convince Jordan that he had to shoot less and spread the wealth more.
That idea was a hoary one around Chicago, having been advanced
previously by Jackson's predecessor, Doug Collins, who was fired
after the 1988-89 season. But Jackson, a master psychologist, seemed
just the man to carry out the plan. He intended to do it by getting
Jordan and Co. to employ assistant coach Tex Winter's triple-post
offense, an attack that stresses continuity and motion rather than
isolations and setup plays for a single player. Collins had never
been completely sold on the triple-post (known more popularly as
''the triangle'') and was consequently both unable and unwilling to
sell it to his players.
The Bulls, Jordan in particular, took to the system reluctantly.
Jordan was routinely spectacular, even as he reduced his scoring
average as requested, but he seemed uncomfortable. He sometimes
scoffed at the offense and called it ''that triangle stuff.'' Reserve
center Will Perdue, referring to the programmed movements of the
triple-post, likened it to ''ballroom dancing.'' And some players,
most notably Levingston, just didn't get it at all. But Jackson was
firm in his belief that the Bulls had to run some sort of offense
that got everyone involved, lest they continue their pattern of
playoff futility.
''No, Michael doesn't need the offense,'' Jackson said in December
1990. ''It limits him, no doubt about it. But we've let Michael clear
out and try to win it by himself, and we've come up short. So let's
see if we can get other people involved in the offense.''
And so the Bulls' ship sailed swiftly yet uncertainly through the
regular season. The team was simply too good not to find success, but
it was also too adventurous not to encounter rough seas along the
way. Little did the Bulls know at the time, but their proclivity for
courting distractions, and for ultimately finding strength through
trials, would continue over the next two seasons.
Pippen played a major role in all this. On Feb. 22 he made public
his long- simmering resentment over his $765,000 salary for '90-91.
He believed he was one of the league's best players and should be
paid like one. He was correct about his talent, but there were those
in the Bulls' front office, as well as on the Bulls' roster, who
believed that he had still not sufficiently proved himself in big
games. Backup center Stacey King also complained to management that
he was not getting enough playing time. But Jackson handled the
distractions smoothly.
Then, too, this was the season in which general manager Jerry
Krause began his avid courtship of Toni Kukoc, a star player from
Yugoslavia who was relatively unknown outside of Europe. As much as
anything, though, Krause's pursuit of Kukoc united the Bulls. Jordan
was the most vocal in expressing his opinion that the Bulls did not
need Kukoc, but, in fact, no Bull wanted him. Why should they? They
were playing well and wanted a chance to win a championship with the
same basic group that had gone to the Eastern finals two years in a
With Jordan averaging ''only'' 31.5 points a game, good enough for
his fifth straight scoring title but his lowest average since his
injury-plagued second season, the Bulls finished the regular season
with the league's second-best record (61-21, to the Portland Trail
Blazers' 63-19) and headed into the playoffs on a high note. No one
doubted that the Bulls would again make it to the conference finals,
but some people doubted whether Chicago had the toughness, Jordan
notwithstanding, to beat the Pistons, who had won only 50 games.
The Bulls swept the New York Knicks in the first round and lost
only once while eliminating the 76ers in the best-of-seven second
round. During Game 3 of that series Grant had a shouting match with
Jackson after the coach criticized him for passive play. But, for
once, it sounded like the truth when the Bulls blamed the flare-up on
good, honest aggressiveness rather than bad team chemistry.
Meanwhile, the Pistons did indeed make it to the conference
finals, though their journey was not an easy one. It was widely
accepted that Detroit general manager Jack McCloskey would break up
the team after the playoffs, win or lose, and no Piston was feeling
too secure. Ten of the team's 12 players were 30 or over. Several
players -- John Salley, James Edwards and Vinnie Johnson, most
notably -- were complaining about their salaries, and there was the
general feeling that the Pistons' physical style had taken the team
about as far as it could go.
Indeed, Jackson began the psychological warfare before the series
by planting the by-no-means-novel idea that the Pistons played dirty.
At the same time he prepared his own team to deal with Detroit. This
time the Bulls would not back down. This time they would talk a
little trash and throw a few elbows in return. Yet, at the same time,
they would refuse to get drawn into playing Detroit's physical style.
Chicago's game plan was predicated on disrupting Detroit's set-up,
halfcourt offense, thus forcing the Pistons to play at an accelerated
pace with which they were less comfortable.
Jackson's plan worked remarkably well. The scrambling, rambling
defense that assistant coach Johnny Bach had been working to
implement over the previous two seasons was finally beginning to pay
off. It was a natural for the Bulls. Jordan and Pippen were solid
on-the-ball defenders, but they were also good at sneaking into the
passing lanes for steals. Grant was a roaming free safety, quick
enough to deflect passes out front and still recover to challenge
loose shooters underneath. And center Bill Cartwright and guard John
Paxson were sound fundamental defenders who didn't make mistakes.
Their steadiness compensated for the chances taken by Bach's
''Dobermans,'' his term for Jordan, Pippen and Grant.
Detroit never had a chance. Just seconds before Chicago completed
a four- game sweep with a 115-94 victory at the Palace of Auburn
Hills (the site where Pippen had suffered his migraine a year
earlier), the Pistons walked off the court. Their stated reason for
the gesture was to show both team unity and their contempt for what
they considered the Bulls' complaining ways. Yet the Pistons
succeeded only in showing their own utter frustration and the cold,
hard fact that the Bulls had clearly surpassed them as a mature,
confident, championship-caliber team.
The Bulls' opponent in the Finals was something of a surprise,
though hardly a mystery. The Los Angeles Lakers, considered a bit too
creaky to be playing for a ring, had surprised everybody by disposing
of the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals in six games.
These Lakers were no longer the - runnin', gunnin', fast-breakin'
Lakers of the mid-'80s. They were slower now and featured a halfcourt
game built around the incomparable leadership and playmaking of Magic
Johnson and the post-up abilities of forwards James Worthy and Sam
As much as anything, though, the 1991 championship series was a
play within a play, a minibattle between Magic and Michael, the two
brightest stars and biggest names in the NBA. No professional sports
league is as dependent on the cult of personality as the NBA, and now
its two brightest personalities were going at each other, dribble for
dribble, smile for smile, endorsement dollar for endorsement dollar.
''You can't overhype Magic Johnson versus Michael Jordan,'' said
Laker backup center Mychal Thompson.
From a basketball standpoint Magic, who was nearing his 32nd
birthday, could not match the skills of the 28-year-old Jordan, who
was still an ascending star. But Magic's game had never been about
skills, though he had them aplenty. It was widely recognized that no
player of his generation could get the most out of his teammates,
squeeze the absolute maximum out of a team, the way Magic could. And
those were precisely the qualities that some saw lacking in Jordan's
Michael and Magic had been fairly close off the court since the
1987-88 season when Magic, the veteran, took it upon himself to get
to know Jordan and to build a bond between them. They had gotten off
to a rocky start during the 1984-85 season when Jordan, then a
rookie, was frozen out at the All-Star Game by some of his Eastern
Conference teammates. It was widely believed that Jordan's nemesis
from the Pistons, Isiah Thomas, organized the boycott, but Jordan
always felt that Magic, Isiah's best buddy, had something to do with
it, too. Magic was always vague on the subject, but, whatever his
involvement had been, he certainly did not want any differences
between them to continue. Magic is nothing if not shrewd, and he
accurately perceived that a long- running feud with the NBA's
brightest individual star would be counterproductive, both for
himself and the league.
Neither star was the most important player in Game 1 at Chicago
Stadium, however. That honor belonged to Magic's long-armed teammate
Perkins, who calmly hit a three-point jumper (off an assist from
Magic) with 14 seconds left to help the Lakers to a 93-91 victory. To
most everyone's surprise, the Lakers went up 1-0.
The Bulls had played, in general, like the Bulls of old: too much
Jordan, % too little of everyone else. Cartwright, Grant and Paxson,
for example, had only six points apiece. Would the team revert to
previous form, even though the Lakers seemed less formidable than the
No. In Game 2, Jordan was almost otherworldly, hitting 15 of 18
shots from the floor in a 107-86 rout and putting a move on the Laker
defense that remains a staple of any Jordan highlight reel. Early in
the fourth period he drove the lane and raised the ball as if to dunk
with his right hand, but on seeing Perkins slide over to stop him, he
shifted the ball to his left hand for an underhanded scoop shot.
Just as satisfying for Jackson and the other Bulls, however, was
the performance by Paxson, who made all eight of his shots from the
floor. At times, even during the Finals, Jordan had subtly rebelled
against the limitations of the triple-post offense, and Jackson had
to remind him that Paxson was open time after time.
In Game 3, with Jordan again spreading the wealth, it was much the
same thing. During a third-period run that erased a 67-54 Laker lead,
eight different Chicago players scored, and Jordan had only two free
throws. Of course, it was Jordan who sent the game into overtime on a
14-foot jumper with 3.4 seconds left, and he who dominated the extra
five-minute period in a 104-96 win.
That victory seemed to take the air out of L.A., which was
struggling to figure out Bach's double-teaming rotations. The Bulls
coasted to a 97-82 win in Game 4, and, on a glorious Wednesday
evening at the Forum, they won the franchise's first title with a
108-101 Game 5 victory that was easier than the final score
When it was over, the reactions of Jordan and Krause, long-time
adversaries, were identical. Both were overcome with joy, the latter
because he had taken so much criticism for not getting Jordan enough
help, the former because the victory assured that his place in the
Hall of Fame would not include the odious asterisk -- did not win a