Bulls' title mettle forged in Detroit
Twenty years ago, the Bulls ousted the hated Pistons on their way to a new dynasty
The Bulls locker room was weird. Not angry. Not despondent either. Just strangely matter-of-fact after Detroit's 19-point victory in Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference finals.
"It was not meant to be," said Michael Jordan after leading the Bulls with 31 points. "Detroit is a better basketball team on paper and today they also proved it on the court."
The Pistons, meanwhile, were their usual smarmy selves.
"It was just another game in the playoffs for us," said Pistons guard Isiah Thomas. "Maybe their youth and inexperience showed."
"Michael Jordan can't do it all himself," Pistons center James Edwards chimed in. "A couple of his teammates never showed up tonight."
Detroit reserve John Salley, who later won a ring riding Jordan's coattails, gloated that the Pistons had a superior bench.
"With the Pistons, every night someone else steps up," he said. "You look at the Bulls ... and Michael has to carry the load."
No question, it was a disastrous night for the Bulls. Jordan played through a sore wrist and starting guard John Paxson couldn't go at all because of a severely sprained ankle.
Scottie Pippen, averaging 19 points in the series to that point, was hampered by a migraine and double vision all night, and finished with just two points on 1-of-10 shooting with four rebounds. As a team, the Bulls shot 25 percent. But somewhere in that visitors locker room that night in Auburn Hills, Mich., amidst the gracious concessions and quiet acknowledgments, a different sort of resolve was born.
Jerry Reinsdorf noticed it, too.
"I went down to the locker room afterward to wait with everybody for the bus, and I was amazed at the attitude," the Bulls chairman said this week. "I came away not depressed but rather, OK, they embarrassed us, but we're going to win next year. The attitude was incredible. No despair, no despondency, just they beat us this time but not again."
And Bill Cartwright remembers something else.
"What I remember is that when the season was over, that next week guys were already in there working out. It was crazy," said the former Bulls center. "And that's where it started, where the intent started. People were excited, and we had the feeling that we're right there, we just work a little harder and we'll get it done."
The 1990-91 Chicago Bulls, who will be honored at halftime Saturday on the 20th anniversary of the franchise's first championship, will be remembered for a lot of things:
But maybe more significant than anything was the determination that took hold not just in the minds of the players who were pushed around that night for the last time by the Pistons, but in the organization itself as it shifted from a franchise on the rise to a dynasty in the making.
Paxson, who had ankle surgery 10 days after the '90 conference finals, said the goal that night was to get home-court advantage the following year.
"Given how we played them during that series, we felt if we had home court, we would beat them," he said this week. "We were disappointed but not broken."
As the Bulls further matured in their mastery of Tex Winter's triple-post "Triangle" offense and Johnny Bach's ball-hawking defense, and Pippen and Grant became stronger and more confident physically, Will Perdue said only one thing was left.
"I think in our case, we were no longer looking at it like we're going to go as far as Michael takes us, but we're going to go as far as Michael trusts us," said Perdue, then a third-year reserve. "As much as we used to bitch that Michael has to pass the ball more, some of us had to ask ourselves, 'Am I good enough that he can trust me?' "
I don't know if I'd call it fun, but I really despised that team because I thought they were a bunch of thugs, especially [Bill] Laimbeer, so it was nice to see them get humiliated in a four-game sweep. They didn't even know how to act like defending champions.” -- Jerry Reinsdorf on the Bulls beating the Pistons in the 1991 Eastern finals
The Bulls' bench became a much more useful component than in seasons past behind the high energy of Cliff Levingston, the shooting of Craig Hodges and bright flashes from rookie Scott Williams and B.J. Armstrong. And basketball fans, seemingly tired of the grabbing, lurching, 80-point-per-game style of the Bad Boy Pistons, embraced the team that was their free-flowing antithesis.
What was so fun to watch with those Bulls teams, in addition to the sheer greatness of Jordan, was how different they were from the rest of the league. Other than the occasional whistle from coach Phil Jackson as a reminder of perhaps a screen coming, there were no play calls from the bench, no plays at all in Winter's system but rather reaction to what the defense was doing, a style the Jackson-led Lakers would later embrace as well.
"Guys got to the point of trusting the offense, getting comfortable with it because it was not easy," Perdue said. "It came across as easier because we had the best bailout guy in the game in Michael Jordan. When the offense would break down in years past, we always knew with 5 seconds left on the shot clock to get out of the way and let Michael do his thing. But when the offense was going well, you couldn't beat it."
Jackson's style was to allow his team to fight its way out of its own corner. His teams were forced to communicate both offensively and defensively because they weren't going to be micromanaged from the bench on every possession.
"Phil was very good at letting that team grow up," Bach recalled. "Sometimes I'd say, 'Hey Phil, time for a timeout,' and he'd always say, 'I know it is Johnny, but am I going to have to call a timeout every time they run into this problem?' As you worked with Phil, you realized there was often a method to his madness."
In practice, Jackson would go an entire scrimmage not speaking a word if he felt his players weren't talking enough to each other on the floor. Or he would lecture and then turn out the lights and make his team play in the dark if it wasn't paying attention.
Coming into his own in just his second season as an NBA coach, Jackson tried to enlighten his players. Once, he brought in a psychiatrist who counseled prisoners on death row to speak to them. Another day, it was Jerry Garcia from the Grateful Dead. And still another, former Knicks teammate and then-U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley.
Waddle & Silvy
Former Bull Cliff Levingston joined "Waddle & Silvy" to discuss the 1990-91 season, playing for Phil Jackson and his famous chant.
Jackson intertwined movies with game films, taught his players to meditate and walked around sprinkling sage on the court, an old Native American custom, he explained, to rid the place of evil spirits.
"He'd burn it in the film room," Williams recalled, "and we'd be like 'Is that really sage?' "
And, of course, there were the infamous books he gave out as Christmas gifts.
"Still to this day there were things Phil did I haven't figured out," Perdue said. "Pax got 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.' It was like 600 pages, and he was really trying to get through it but he couldn't understand the underlying meaning. So I remember we went into this bookstore in San Francisco and the guy said, 'Oh, well, you really needed to read this book first before you could understand that one.' Pax was so [ticked]."
After Chicago finished with a division title and a franchise-best 61-21 regular-season record, the '91 postseason set up nicely for the Bulls, even better when the Lakers' victory over Portland in the Western Conference finals gave the Bulls home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.
After sweeping the Knicks in the first round, and getting past the Sixers in five games, the Bulls submitted the Pistons quickly and easily, winning the best-of-seven series in four straight, the final game deliciously coming in Detroit by a 21-point margin.
"I don't know if I'd call it fun," Reinsdorf said, "but I really despised that team because I thought they were a bunch of thugs, especially [Bill] Laimbeer, so it was nice to see them get humiliated in a four-game sweep. They didn't even know how to act like defending champions."
Reinsdorf was referring, of course, to the Pistons' hasty exit from the court in which they refused to shake the Bulls' hands.
"I didn't have any heat for those guys," said Cartwright. "They couldn't play any other way. They did what they had to do to win. That was the personnel they had. What we had to do was overcome it.
"I remember Phil telling us when we played them, 'We have to bend but not break.' We knew it was going to be a physical game, and we just had to play through it and play our game. And that's what ultimately defeated them, opening up the floor and getting them to play a game they didn't want to play."
Bach said the team had to trust Jackson and go against some basic instincts first.
"Phil promised them they could win if they could run the offense efficiently and forget about retaliation," he said. "He said, 'We will retaliate by winning.' We had some real hard fouls on both ends the year before, and I remember us retaliating and Phil said, 'That's over. We are not playing that type of game. We will play our game, and we'll beat them.' "
"I felt we truly earned it," Paxson said. "We were a group that had been together for several years, and it hadn't come easy. Overcoming the Pistons was a big hurdle, and it was extremely satisfying to know we had overcome that obstacle. And when we did, we realized how close we were to an NBA championship and that motivated us even more."
Easier to see and appreciate two decades later are the pieces that beleaguered GM Jerry Krause had put into place. From the promotion of Jackson to head coach to the acquisition of Cartwright from the Knicks in '88 in exchange for Charles Oakley -- Jordan's closest friend on the team -- to the finagling to get both Pippen and Grant through the draft that same year in 1987, it all worked.
"Obviously we had a great star player, but what I remember is the team unity, the togetherness, the brotherhood that reinforced everything I loved about basketball," Williams said.
The 1990-91 Bulls
Look back on the team that delivered Chicago its first NBA title, from Michael Jordan to Dennis Hopson. Gallery »
After temporarily losing home-court advantage in the Finals following a Game 1 loss to the Lakers, the Bulls won the next four straight, the final three at the L.A. Forum, behind the MVP performance of Jordan and the indispensable contributions of his "supporting cast."
"When Pax shot 65 percent and lit up the Lakers [in Game 5, scoring 10 points in the latter stages of the fourth quarter to seal the title], everyone was like, 'Where was that guy before?' " Perdue recalled.
"Well, he was always there but this time Michael gave him the ball, and he hit the shots. It's not as simple as Michael just making the pass or Phil making the sale. It was Michael developing trust and guys stepping up when Michael passed to them."
Reinsdorf said only Jackson could convince Jordan to buy into the system that ultimately brought the Bulls six championships.
"Michael was such a winner, so determined to win at all costs, that he was going to win it himself," Reinsdorf said. "It wasn't until Phil convinced him to trust his teammates and Krause gave him teammates he could trust, that we won.' "
And it was in that victorious locker room where Reinsdorf found himself in 1991, once again quiet and almost matter-of-fact as Jordan wept over the Larry O'Brien trophy, his father James' arm draped around him.
"I was just thinking how unbelievable the moment was," Reinsdorf said. "I wasn't jumping up and down, I wasn't yelling, I wasn't screaming. I was very calm. I just remember standing in a corner, surveying the room and this wonderful moment."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.