When Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen returned from their Dream
Team summer, teammate Horace Grant was not exactly waiting for them
on the curb waving an American flag. Grant had long considered
himself an unappreciated piece in Chicago's grand jigsaw, and it
hadn't been easy for him to watch Jordan and, especially, his
erstwhile best buddy Pippen soak up the glory in Barcelona. Grant's
frustration bubbled to the surface in training camp, where coach Phil
Jackson, in an effort to rest his two Olympians, allowed them to
basically come and go as they pleased during the first week. Grant
bolted practice one day and, in several candid interviews, vented his
frustration over the ''preferential treatment'' and ''double
standards'' that existed on the Bulls.
So it was on a sour note that the two-time champions began their
quest to become the first team in 27 years, and only the third
ever, to win three straight NBA championships. Moreover, Grant's
dissatisfaction wasn't the only difficulty. Both guard John Paxson,
32, and center Bill Cartwright, 35, had undergone off-season
arthroscopic surgery on aging and battered knees. In fact, so many
players were riding so many stationary bikes during early October
that the Berto Center, the Bulls' practice facility, looked as if it
were hosting the U.S. cycling team rather than an NBA training camp.
Also, with Paxson's effectiveness limited, Jackson was again faced
with the dilemma of whether to elevate B.J. Armstrong into the
starting lineup. The 25- year-old Armstrong was a far better
penetrator and a more nimble defensive player than Paxson, but Jordan
had consistently stated that he thought Paxson better complemented
his own game. Most ominous of all for the Bulls was the presence of
two formidable challengers: the cocky and muscular New York Knicks in
the East, and the confident and talented Phoenix Suns, reborn under
the sign of newly acquired Charles Barkley, in the West. Both teams
were poised -- many observers said favored -- to defeat the
Chicago's history of thriving on adversity was well known, and
indeed, the red-and-black locomotive kept chuggin' along despite
occasional engine problems. Once the season got under way, newspaper
reports quickly surfaced that some players were unhappy with
Armstrong as a starter. But the Bulls played through it. The
off-season acquisition of veteran forward Rodney McCray proved to be
a bust, and the bench was even weaker than it had been in the two
previous championship seasons. But the Bulls played through it.
Pippen wondered out loud if Jordan had taken too many shots (49) to
get a spectacular 64 points in a 128-124 overtime loss to the Orlando
Magic on Jan. 16 at home. But the Bulls played through it. Grant had
some highly negative things to say about Pippen (''Scottie has become
arrogant and cocky,'' for instance) in an Inside Sports article that
appeared in midseason. But the Bulls played through it. General
manager Jerry Krause continued to alienate several players with his
avid courtship of Croatian sensation Toni Kukoc. But the Bulls played
Every time someone would speculate that the Bulls' run was going
to end in flames, they would string together a few impressive wins
just to remind everyone which team had the last two NBA championship
banners hanging in its & building. Over one stretch, from Jan. 5 to
Jan. 22, the Bulls suffered home losses to the Los Angeles Lakers,
the Magic and the Charlotte Hornets. Well, they must be dead, it was
said. But then they went on the road and beat, consecutively, the
Utah Jazz, the Sacramento Kings, the Los Angeles Clippers, the
Portland Trail Blazers and the Indiana Pacers. No, they're alive.
''Think of newlyweds,'' said Jackson one day in Los Angeles,
conjuring up metaphors for the season. ''The husband comes home right
after work every night and falls into the arms of his wife. They
can't get enough of each other. After a while, though, it gets a
little old, and now the husband starts hitting the bars before he
comes home. That's us right now. We're hitting the bars -- not
literally -- and feeling the tension when we get home. All teams that
have been through a lot of triumph and adversity together start
getting tired of each other. It's natural.
''Then there's the gunslinger thing. You come into town, and
everybody wants a piece of you, everybody wants to shoot you down.
That's how it is when you're the champion.
''Before the season I anticipated the worst, and so far it hasn't
been that. But, no, it hasn't been easy either. No matter how you
break it down, success comes down to three things -- execution,
enthusiasm and healthy bodies. All of them have been more difficult
for us this year than they were the last two years. And since we're
going for a third championship, something very, very rare in this
league, they should be more difficult.''
So the Bulls endured, banking on the brilliance of Jordan, the
sometime brilliance of Pippen, the hard-nosed consistency of Grant
and the calming presence of Jackson. Sure, they lost to teams that
they had toyed with the two previous seasons, but never did they drop
more than two games in a row, a remarkable achievement in the war of
attrition that is an NBA season. Gradually the Bulls and the Knicks
drew closer to a showdown on the final day of the regular season that
would seemingly decide home court advantage through the Eastern
Just like that, though, the Bulls lost their edge. Two days before
the April 25 showdown with the Knicks, Chicago lost 104-103 to the
Hornets in Charlotte, thus surrendering any chance it had of enjoying
the home court advantage against the Knicks. Then, in what many
observers took to be an omen for the postseason, Pippen had a
dreadful two-of-16 shooting game in an 89-84 loss to New York at
Madison Square Garden in the regular-season finale. The Knicks
finished 60-22, the Bulls 57-25. Chicago looked far too beat to
But the Bulls suddenly and unpredictably got their second wind.
Perhaps it was just their experience. Perhaps Jackson's long-range
plan of saving legs and lungs by cutting back on Chicago's signature
94-foot defensive pressure had worked. Perhaps Jordan was fired up by
the expectation that he would probably not win his third straight MVP
award (which turned out to be true; both Barkley and Houston Rocket
center Hakeem Olajuwon finished ahead of him), despite having led the
league in scoring for the seventh consecutive season and in steals.
Perhaps all three were factors.
In the first round the Atlanta Hawks fell in three easy pieces,
Jordan punctuating Chicago's superiority by returning from a
third-quarter ankle injury in Game 3 to score 14 points in the final
period, basically on one leg. The Cleveland Cavaliers were next to
meet the broom. Jordan made Cav coach Lenny Wilkens pay for not
double-teaming him by draining a 17-foot jumper at the buzzer in Game
4 for a 103-101 win in Cleveland. That made Chicago 7-0 in the
Next came the beast from the East, the Knicks, who chewed up
Jordan and spit him out in a 98-90 Game 1 victory at the Garden.
GOAT! screamed one New York tabloid after Jordan made only 10 of 27
shots. He spent so much time issuing mea culpas (''I won't walk away
from the blame''; ''I told the team I let them down''; ''I'm not
afraid to say when someone gets the best of me'') between Games 1 and
2 that one thought that at any moment he was going to have to take
responsibility for the Feb. 26 bombing of the World Trade Center.
Jordan was similarly off target -- 12 of 32 from the floor -- in Game
2, which the Knicks won 96-91. At this point in the series, the
Knicks' cocky young shooting guard, John Starks, was clearly
Then, just as rapidly as it had faded, the Bulls' pride
resurfaced. Maybe it had nothing to do with Jordan's boycott of the
press, but maybe it did. On May 27, The New York Times reported that
Jordan was spotted at an Atlantic City casino on the night before
Game 2. The story so angered Jordan that he clammed up. Perhaps as a
show of support for their teammate, but probably as a way of escaping
what some players considered to be daily drudgery, most of the Bulls
followed suit, and their relations with the media were distinctly icy
throughout the series.
Similarly, there was no love lost between the two teams,
especially between the two coaches, Jackson and Pat Riley. Once
Chicago cut through the Knicks' muscular mystique, however, New York
was easy pickings. Perhaps the biggest change in the NBA in recent
years has been the ability of an outstanding defensive team to defuse
a dominant center with pressure on the perimeter. That's what Chicago
did to Patrick Ewing time and time again by hassling New York's
guards into turnovers or, at the very least, injudicious use of the
Game 3 in Chicago was a 103-83 rout for the Bulls. Jordan poured
in 54 points in a 105-95 Game 4 victory that tied the series at two
games apiece. Back in New York, Jordan put together a brilliant
triple double (29 points, 10 rebounds, 14 assists) as the Bulls won
Game 5, 97-94, a victory that all but broke the Knicks' spirit. New
York showed up for Game 6 in Chicago, but two huge baskets by Pippen,
a jumper from the corner and a three-pointer, were the crucial blows
in a 96-88 victory that sent Chicago into its third straight NBA
The New York series had been, as much as anything, Pippen's
coronation as a premier player. Had an MVP for the series been
selected, the suddenly consistent Pippen would've probably gotten the
nod over Jordan, who alternated streaks of brilliance with long
periods of woeful shooting. Still, Pippen knew that the stage in the
Finals would belong to Jordan and Barkley, whose spirit and inside
scoring had lifted the Suns in three difficult Western Conference
playoff series, against the Lakers, the San Antonio Spurs and the
Seattle SuperSonics. Pippen would turn out to be right about that.
Several days after the casino flap, a book written by a well-known
San Diego businessman named Richard Esquinas was published, alleging
that Jordan had run up $1.25 million in gambling debts on the golf
course. Would this be the distraction that would finally rip apart
the champions? Not a chance. Jordan first answered the charges in an
interview with NBC that ran during halftime of Game 1 of the Finals.
He admitted to having played high-stakes matches with Esquinas but
denied that his debt was anywhere near seven figures. Jordan
continued to weave a broken-field route around the inquiries until
they had all but run out and there was only basketball to talk about.
And what basketball it was. Jordan scored 31 points in Game 1, a
100-92 Bull victory, and 42 in Game 2, which Chicago won 111-108,
thus becoming the first finalist in history to steal the first two
games on enemy turf. Barkley was nervous and out of sorts in Game 1
(he converted only nine of 25 shots), and even after he matched
Jordan's 42 in Game 2, he did not seem to be enjoying his moment in
the sun with the Suns.
Could it be? Was the third title going to be a stroll in the park?
Would the Suns even bother to make the trip to Chicago?
Oh, they showed up all right, and, perhaps predictably, the Bulls
started to make things tough on themselves. They talked of the
distractions they had to deal with back in Chicago -- ticket
distribution, family members underfoot, parties to plan -- and lost a
129-121 triple-overtime classic in Game 3. They talked about the
''burdens'' and ''pressures'' of three-peating and squeezed out a
111-105 victory in Game 4 only because Jordan scored 55 points. They
watched as the good-natured Suns won the hearts of Chicagoans with
their humor, their looseness, their visit to Wrigley Field and
Barkley's nightly pub crawl. Phoenix won Game 5 108-98.
The Bulls made jokes about having to drag themselves back to the
desert to win the series -- Jordan had vowed that he wouldn't
accompany his teammates if they let him down in Game 5, and Jackson
rued the fact that the trip would force him to give up front-row
tickets to a Grateful Dead concert in Chicago -- but this was no
laughing matter. The idea that the Suns could steal the series,
laughable when the Finals began, unfathomable when the teams arrived
in Chicago only 12 days before, was now no worse than ''unlikely.''
The Bulls were clearly not clicking on all cylinders in Game 6,
and the cold truth was that both Grant and center Bill Cartwright had
somehow played themselves out of the offense. Pippen, befitting his
unpredictability, was alternately brilliant and terrible. Fortunately
for the Bulls, their three- point shooting, normally a Suns' weapon,
was clicking. Armstrong, Jordan, Paxson and even little-used reserve
Trent Tucker combined for nine treys in the first three periods,
which ended with Chicago leading 87-79.
The Bulls, however, seemed fatigued in the fourth period, failing
to execute on offense, reaching and holding on defense. On their
first 11 possessions of the period, they missed nine shots and
committed two turnovers. Meanwhile, five free throws and a Richard
Dumas layup allowed Phoenix to draw within a point, 87-86. The Bulls
continued to regress, returning to the prechampionship ! days, a time
when everyone stood around and watched Jordan perform, his teammates
stopping just short of applauding. In fact, no Bull except Jordan
scored for the first 11 minutes and 56.1 seconds of the fourth
period, and Jordan couldn't quite keep pace with the Suns. Phoenix
led 98-94 when Jordan missed a turnaround jumper with 1:30 left. At
that point it looked for all the world as if the Bulls were going to
be extended to seven games for the first time in their three-peat
Jordan, though, just couldn't let it happen. ''I turned it up a
notch,'' he said later of his defensive rebound and coast-to-coast
layup, which brought Chicago to within two, 98-96, with 38.1 seconds
remaining. Phoenix forward Dan Majerle, who had been a deadly
accurate long-range shooter throughout the series, then air-balled a
jumper from the corner, and the Bulls called timeout with 14.1
seconds showing on the clock. All over America, coaches who had been
beaten by last-second Jordan heroics got out their mental playbooks
and designed ways to stop him.
Jordan threw the inbounds pass to Armstrong, who passed it back to
Jordan. Jackson had figured that Jordan would have a better chance of
getting to the basket if he gave up the ball and then got it back. So
Jordan threw to Pippen in the frontcourt and cut past him. Sun guard
Kevin Johnson did an excellent job of smothering Jordan, so Pippen
pivoted, looking to take it strong to the rim. However, Phoenix
center Mark West stepped in Pippen's path, which left Grant open
along the left baseline -- but not nearly as open as Paxson, who was
lingering behind the three-point line. Grant quickly chucked the ball
to Paxson, who launched a shot that temporarily suspended time.
''I knew it was in as soon as Pax shot it,'' said Jordan. And he
Moments later, after Grant had blocked KJ's final attempt at the
buzzer and as the Bulls' celebration began, one could only wonder
what at all was left for a man who had won those seven straight
scoring titles and been named to the All-Defensive team six straight
years. How much better could Michael Jordan get? Which basketball
ghosts would he now chase on his way to the Hall of Fame?
There would seem to be only four players with whom to
realistically compare Jordan: Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, who were
both three-time regular-season MVPs; Bill Russell, the ultimate
winner; and Oscar Robertson, whose versatility, leadership and
coldhearted competitiveness during 13 seasons make $ him the closest
to Jordan in playing style.
The first two are picked off by the fact that Jordan has guided
three otherwise average teams to the title; Magic and Bird made
already good teams great.
Comparisons made across the ages are often unfair, but they are
most judiciously made by players who have seen both generations. And
Jordan gets overwhelming support from two such men, Willis Reed and
Bob Cousy, perceptive observers then and now.
''There's no question in my mind that Jordan is the best,'' says
former Knick star Reed, now general manager of the New Jersey Nets.
''The guy wins scoring titles, and he's one of the best defensive
players of all time. That says it all.''
Cousy, a centerpiece of Celtic lore, once selected Bird as his
alltime best, but not anymore. ''As far as I'm concerned, Michael is
Nureyev against a bunch of Hulk Hogans,'' says Cousy.
Robertson? Well, the Big O's feat of averaging a triple double
over the course of a season (30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.3
assists in 1961-62) will probably never be matched, not even by
Jordan. But night in and night out, he did not play Jordan's brand of
defense, which on the ball is hard- nosed and off it is a gambling,
''Oscar was great defensively when he wanted to be,'' says
67-year-old Bull assistant Johnny Bach. ''But Michael is the
When it was all over, after Jordan had been awarded his third
straight MVP award for the Finals, after Paxson had been toasted as a
clutch player and after all the Bulls had spoken of how tough the
three-peat road had been, Krause stood in the visiting locker room,
which reeked of the sweet perfume of victory champagne and honest
sweat. ''You know,'' said Krause, ''I really think the fourth one is
going to be a lot easier.''