Chicago Bulls Franchise History
Just a single bounce of the ball in any number of playoff games could have changed everything. The Chicago Bulls proved a success right from their freshman season in 1966-67, becoming the first expansion team ever to make the NBA playoffs. Their fifth season dawned as the decade turned, and the team would embark on four straight 50-win seasons—and a five-year playoff odyssey that few franchises have ever suffered.
The 1970s Bulls were a team of immeasurable promise, and their starting five equaled any in the league:
- Point guard Norm Van Lier rejoined the Bulls in 1971 and made All-Star, All-Defensive (six times), and All-NBA teams in Chicago. “Norm was Mr. Energizer Bunny,” center Clifford Ray says. “He was so hyper; he needed to be calmed down all the time. He gave everything he had on that basketball court every night.”
- Shooting guard Jerry Sloan was an All-Defensive honoree for each of the first five seasons of the 1970s. “Jerry wasn’t blessed with the most natural talent, and he’d be the first to admit it,” Bulls center Tom Boerwinkle says. “He made up for it in guts and dedication. He would never give up on a play, and never backed down from anybody.”
- Small forward Chet Walker, considered washed up at age 28 by the Philadelphia 76ers, was a Bulls All-Star at 32 and 33, his 11th and 12th NBA seasons. “Chet was Mr. Clutch,” Van Lier says. “When we were slumping and needed a basket—we called it a ‘need’ play—Chet would get one.”
- While most remember power forward Bob Love as purely a smooth scorer, the three-time All-Star also was named to three All-Defensive teams in Chicago. “Bob could score, for sure, but he played both ends of the floor,” says 1974-75 teammate Nate Thurmond. “He guarded the Rick Barrys, the Elvin Hayeses, and the Spencer Haywoods, better than anybody.”
- Boerwinkle was the unsung member of the quintet, a center whose “wide-body” appearance belied an uncommon passing talent. “He was the greatest passing center in the history of the NBA,” Love says. “You didn’t recognize his talent until you played with him. I still dream about my backdoor cuts, and Tom hitting me with a bounce pass between eight guys for an easy layup.”
But Chicago’s promise was so thoroughly crushed by near-misses that by the middle of the decade, the Bulls were a shell of a team. Who were the primary nemeses torturing the Windy City Toros? Hollywood’s golden boys, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the boisterous neighbors to the north, the Milwaukee Bucks. For the first four years of the 1970s, the Bulls saw their season end at the hands of one or the other. One key cog says the reason why is simpler than you’d think.
The battles among this triangle of elite Western Conference terrors were more complex than that, of course. Each team had its advantage over the others—yes, the Bulls could not match L.A. or Milwaukee in the middle, but neither could those teams equal Chicago’s high-flying forwards, Walker and Love. A whisker separated the Lakers’ Gail Goodrich-Jerry West backcourt duo from Brewtown’s Oscar Robertson-Jon McGlocklin and the bruise brothers from Chicago, Van Lier and Sloan. And forget the sweet-shooting L.A. guns or Milwaukee’s fire-and-ice combo—Chicago’s Stormin’ Norman and Spider Sloan were unlike anything the NBA had ever seen.
“Those guys were the best pair of defensive guards on any team, ever,” Love says. “That ball was like a piece of cheese, and they were two rats. If the ball hit the floor, watch out. I was so glad they were on my team.”
The rest of the NBA took notice on the Bulls’ pace-setting duo, too. “They were two crazy guys who put their life on the line every time out on the court,” Golden State Warriors Hall of Fame forward Rick Barry says. “They took charges and dove for the ball, two incredible competitors who defined Chicago’s backcourt.”
“Jerry and Norm were basketball players, but you looked at them with their scars and bandages, and you wondered whether this was going to be a football or basketball game,” says Bucks forward Bob Dandridge. “They were playing a rugged, hard-nosed brand of basketball that wasn’t too common in the league at that time.”
The Bulls’ defensive approach and meticulous offense were a stark contrast to the Lakers and Bucks, both celebrated for their attacking offenses. This underdog Chicago team was led by an unknown coach in Dick Motta, who drilled his team like a Soviet bloc gymnastics coach. Crowds, traditionally sparse enough to saddle Chicago with a reputation of being unable to support pro basketball, packed the Stadium to cheer on the “Monsters of Madison Street,” whom they embraced as their own.
“Something about that Interstate 94 rivalry was special,” Dandridge says. “It was almost a people’s rivalry between Chicago and Milwaukee. We always seemed to bus in right in the middle of rush-hour traffic; Chicago Stadium wasn’t the most modern-looking building in existence. Chicago’s toughness was apparent before you even stepped on the floor.”
The Lakers dealt the Bulls their first crushing blow of the decade, a seven-game nail-biter in the 1971 Western Conference Semifinals. The Bulls were the favorites due to the injury absence of both West and Elgin Baylor, but L.A. still enjoyed home-court advantage as Pacific Division champ. The Lakers took the deciding seventh game, 109-98, behind Chamberlain’s 28 points, 19 rebounds, and six blocks. In the triumvirate of Seventies Setbacks for Chicago, this was No. 1.
In 1971-72, the Bulls defied expectations by surging to a 57-25 record. In fact, discounting their poor record vs. the Lakers (1-3) and Bucks (2-4), they were a 54-18 team. Yet the Bulls were but a speed bump in the record-breaking 69-13 Lakers’ road to their first L.A. title, getting swept 4-0 in the Western Semifinals.
It was two playoff eliminations in as many seasons at the hands of the Lakers. “I don’t think it was a lack of confidence,” Boerwinkle says. “Sometimes you’re just happy to be in the playoffs, but we had a good mix of veterans and young players. We just couldn’t overcome Wilt and all those L.A. weapons.”
The Bulls entered their seventh year of existence in 1972-73, having made the playoffs in five—and being eliminated by the Lakers three times. The worst was yet to come.
The Bulls had another 50-plus win season (51-31) and, predictably, faced a 60-22 Lakers team in the Western Semifinals—again. Both teams held their home floor, so the series came down to Game 7 in Los Angeles. The Bulls were poised to topple Goliath, building a 90-83 lead with 2:58 left. “We battled the Lakers all game long, and I thought we had them beat,” Van Lier says. “The way we were playing, there’s no way you could tell me we were going to lose this game.”
But lose the Bulls did, freezing up in a series of turnovers, mental errors, and missed shots. Chicago failed to make a field goal the rest of the way, while the Lakers used a 10-2 run to lead, 93-92. The Bulls had one last shot, and it would go to Van Lier, the team’s leader with 28 points and 14 rebounds.
“We still felt we were going to win,” Van Lier says. “The play was designed to free me up for the last shot. I had the ball in the corner and let fly a 20-foot jumper. I thought, ‘That’s it. It’s over.’ Out of nowhere came Wilt Chamberlain, who blocked the shot—and I never even saw him.”
“We slowed the pace to a crawl,” Love remembers. “We held the ball until the last second of the shot clock. We’d miss or make a turnover, and they were off on a fast break. That loss was heartbreaking.” It was also Seventies Setback No. 2.
At the time, the Bulls regrouped by taking solace in their string of 50-win seasons and the realization that their five-player core matched up with anyone’s. But in reality, the club wasn’t getting any younger, hadn’t produced a measurably good draft choice beyond Clifford Ray in 1971, and had missed the golden opportunity of the Golden State Warriors knocking off the Bucks in the other semifinal, clearing the Bulls’ path to the 1973 NBA Finals.
“It was another situation where we hit a wall and couldn’t climb over it,” says Boerwinkle, who had torn a tendon in his knee and missed the bulk of the 1972-73 season. “But we came close.” Close was getting tedious. Seven seasons, six playoffs and three 50-win seasons in, the Bulls hadn’t won a playoff series.
That would change in 1973-74. The Bulls stormed to a franchise-best 13-2 start en route to a 54-28 record. By the 1974 playoffs, the Bulls were flying high, ready to erase the debacle of 1973. They won their first playoff series, in seven games versus the Detroit Pistons, despite a Sloan foot injury in Game 6 that would take him, and his 16.7 point and 10.3 rebound postseason averages, out of the rest of the playoffs.
Next was a banged-up Bucks team that finished “only” five games ahead of the Bulls after averaging 10 games ahead of Chicago in the previous three seasons. The Bulls may have smelled blood, but the Bucks were finally healthy after injuries to Robertson, Lucius Allen, and Dandridge during the season—and they had a return trip to the Finals in mind.
“The dominance of Kareem [who averaged 32.2 PPG and 15.8 RPG in the 1974 playoffs] was the difference,” Bucks guard Jon McGlocklin says. “As smart and as big and effective as the Bulls centers were, his height and effectiveness were too much in that series. Chicago had outstanding players, but we had two top-10, all-time players in Kareem and Oscar Robertson. In a series, that pays off.” The Bucks bulldozed the Bulls in four straight, by an average of 14 points a game.
The Lakers and Bucks fell from grace in 1974-75, but still the Bulls could not take advantage. That season ended mere seconds from the Finals, as Seventies Setback No. 3.
The Bulls were in a free-fall for the rest of the decade. The 1975-76 season was an unmitigated disaster: Walker’s contract holdout became a premature retirement, Sloan was injured and retired, the Nate Thurmond experiment ended 13 games in and Motta’s increasing disillusion with the team resulted in Chicago’s worst season ever (24-58).
Rival Milwaukee was enduring some lean seasons as the Bucks reloaded after trading franchise center Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers. L.A. struggled for a season to rebuild around Abdul-Jabbar. The Bulls made one mad dash into the playoffs in 1976-77, but otherwise stayed out of the postseason fray for a decade. The rivalries were gone from the floor forever.
The Lakers stymied the Bulls once more—off the floor. On the coin flip for the No. 1 pick in the 1979 NBA Draft, the Bulls called “heads”… and lost the opportunity to snag Earvin “Magic” Johnson. It would be 10 years before the Bulls exacted their revenge, defeating the Lakers for Chicago’s first NBA title in 1991.
For those early 1970s Bulls, however, a ring was forever out of reach. Was it Motta’s stingy playoff rotations—shortened sometimes to six or seven players—that did the team in? Was it a lack of clutch play from normally reliable players? Perhaps it’s as simple as Van Lier says: “Point blank, better teams beat us. We had our opportunities.”
Despite having the fourth-most wins (260) in the first half of the 1970s, the Bulls fell short. Thankfully, time has mellowed the memories of the men who suffered.
“It was such a privilege to play with Norm, Jerry, Chet, and Bob,” Boerwinkle says today. “We were truly excellent as a unit. We had competitive teams that were a thrill to be a part of.”
“I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything,” Love adds. “It was just disappointing not to bring a championship to the city of Chicago.”
Something in the Way
The Chicago Bulls averaged 52 wins per season from 1970-71 to 1974-75 but never reached the NBA Finals, thanks to the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks. They were two teams the Bulls could neither beat consistently in the regular season (18-31 in the 1970s vs. L.A., 20-36 vs. Milwaukee) nor in the playoffs. In a tragic twist, the one season when both the Lakers and Bucks were cleared out of the Bulls’ postseason push (1974-75), the Golden State Warriors broke Chicago’s hearts.
|Season||Regular Season Wins||Result|
|1970-71||Bulls 51, Lakers 48||Lost to Lakers, 4-3 in WC Semifinals|
|1971-72||Lakers 69, Bulls 57||Lost to Lakers, 4-0 in WC Semifinals|
|1972-73||Lakers 60, Bulls 51||Lost to Lakers, 4-3 in WC Semifinals|
|1973-74||Bulls 54, Detroit Pistons 52, Bucks 59||Beat Pistons, 4-3 in WC Semifinals, Lost to Bucks, 4-0 in WC Finals|
|1974-75||Bulls 47, KC-Omaha Kings 44, Warriors 48||Beat Kings, 4-2 in WC Semifinals, Lost to Warriors, 4-3 in WC Finals|
Clifford, Big Nate, and the End of an Era
In 1974-75, the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks fell far below the Bulls (to 30-52 and 38-44, respectively). But Chicago still could not take advantage and break through to a Finals berth. The Golden State Warriors were never a significant Bulls rival—until the 1975 playoffs. After being ousted by the Bucks in 1974, GM/coach Dick Motta decided he couldn’t compromise his core four by playing another season without a “franchise” center. Thus on September 3, 1974, Motta dealt fourth-year player Clifford Ray to Golden State for future Hall-of-Famer Nate Thurmond. The fact that Ray’s numbers per 48 minutes were comparable to Thurmond’s and that Motta would force the low-post Thurmond into a high-post passing role ultimately spelled the end of Chicago’s 1970s run.
“We believed we could get past [the Bucks and Lakers], but management didn’t,” Ray says. “They were always trying to find something better. I wish they would have stayed with me a year longer.”
While disappointed to be traded from his lifelong Warriors, Thurmond was intrigued by the possibilities ahead: “I couldn’t have picked a better team to be traded to,” he says. “Everybody knew how to play. I really liked the players.”
In a true stroke of irony, the Warriors faced off against the Bulls in the 1975 Western Conference Finals. The two teams split the first four games, but the Bulls stole the home court with an 89-79 Game 5 win, and looked to wrap things up on Mother’s Day in Chicago. In that Game 6, the Bulls were outscored 28-13 in the second quarter and lost, 86-72. By Game 7, the Bulls were playing not to lose, coughing away another double-digit lead in an 83-79 defeat.
It was bittersweet for the two centers who exchanged uniforms before the season. Says Ray: “No matter how close I got to guys in Golden State, my heart was always in Chicago.”
Warriors star Rick Barry—who led the Game 6 upset with 36 points, eight rebounds, and seven steals—was pained to see his longtime teammate Thurmond denied just as Golden State’s “team of destiny” took flight.
“I can imagine how the Bulls felt not having won a championship, particularly Nate, who lost his chance at a ring after so many years in Golden State,” says Barry, whose only NBA title came in 1975. “He got so close to the championship, and then his old team knocked him off.”
Perhaps the Bulls sensed that their time had passed, like Thurmond’s. The scene after Game 7 was ugly. Jerry Sloan had lost 20 pounds in the grueling series. Motta called out stars Norm Van Lier and Bob Love, claiming they lost the series for the Bulls by holding out at the start of the season—handing over home-court advantage to Golden State—and earned only a partial playoff share.
It was a bitter ending to a great, and ultimately unsung, team.
In the aftermath of Chicago’s utter failures of the later 1970s, the 1980s started by largely continuing that string of ineptitude—and ended nearer to the NBA Finals than ever before.
The disappointment and frustration of the early 1970s playoff runs had largely faded by the dawn of the new decade, when the Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers would take center stage as the new dastardly duo attempting to keep the Bulls from the ultimate prize. The former matchup revived hatreds from the early 1970s, while the other was completely new. One got all the press, yet the other spawned the most replayed moment in NBA playoff history. One left the Bulls bruised and battered by defeat, the other made for some of the franchise’s greatest triumphs. And by the end of the decade, one rival was poised to topple while the other was left gasping in the dust.
Actually, the 1980s opened with real promise. The 1980-81 season began with longtime Bulls great Jerry Sloan as the team’s head coach, and not one, but two starters named to the Eastern Conference All-Star squad—Reggie Theus and [Artis Gilmore]]. That team started slow but caught fire in March, winning 13 of 15 down the stretch and sneaking into second place in the Central Division on the last day of the season, with a record of 45-37.
Better yet, the Bulls stayed hot, upsetting the heavily favored New York Knicks (50-32) in their first round miniseries, 2-0. However, even after dropping four straight to the eventual NBA Champion Boston Celtics in the second round (the Bulls would go on to lose 10 straight playoff games vs. Boston that decade), the trio of Theus, Gilmore, and Sloan looked to be a good bet to annually push Chicago deep into postseason play.
Unfortunately, it didn’t quite work out that way. None of the three ever reached the playoffs again for the Bulls, and within three years the franchise had dumped superstars Gilmore and Theus and fired Sloan.
The ensuing disarray—four coaches hired and replaced in less than four years—resulted in the Bulls’ most pathetic purge from the postseason: Two brief appearances (nine playoff games total) in the nine seasons between 1975-76 and 1983-84.
The first half of the 1970s had proved to be the glory years for the Bulls, who came within a ball bounce or two of making the 1975 NBA Finals. Nearly a decade later, in the second half of the 1980s, the club finally began to right its course. And the captain of that ship was one Michael Jeffrey Jordan, first fighting off the talent-rich Cleveland Cavaliers, and, later, a band of Bad Boys from Motown—the Detroit Pistons.
Contrary to popular belief, the Bulls dominated the Cavaliers throughout most of the 1980s. In the same way that Chicago had played second fiddle to Los Angeles and Milwaukee in the ‘70s, the Bulls had Cleveland’s number in the next decade, going 32-24 against them as both franchises retooled.
The magnification of Chicago’s 101-100 come from behind stunner in Game 5 at Richfield Coliseum on May 7, 1989—the second straight first-round playoff triumph for the Bulls vs. Cleveland—adds to the perception that Chicago was the perpetual underdog. But while the Cavs had a solid team of lesser-known stars such as Mark Price, Ron Harper, Larry Nance, and Brad Daugherty, and was led by a Hall of Fame coach in Lenny Wilkens, it lacked a true supernova like Jordan, who could dominate seemingly at will to close out games.
“It seemed like every year we would have a good team, put together a great season, but go against the Bulls and lose,” says Cavaliers guard Craig Ehlo, who often matched up one-on-one against Jordan in those hard-fought playoffs. “A lot of people would point fingers at us because we could never get past Chicago. But a lot of other teams couldn’t, either.”
Not to say that the games between the two weren’t close; their 10 playoff contests in 1988 and 1989 were decided by an average of six points.
The circumstances with Detroit were decidedly different. Despite ushering in the 1980s with a horrible 16-66 record, the Pistons became one of the NBA’s most feared squads by the middle of the decade. Veteran of the 1970s Bulls Norm Van Lier recalls the rivalry with Detroit back when he played as one of “pure hate” and the resumption of the rivalry a decade later would prove to be even uglier. Beginning in 1988, four straight NBA Finalists—and three World Champions—ran through the Detroit-Chicago series.
While a finesse team like Cleveland had little to offer when it came to stopping Jordan, Detroit applied brute force to get the job done. The Pistons largely neutralized Jordan with coach Chuck Daly’s “Jordan Rules” (essentially, don’t let Jordan enter the paint without putting him on the floor), and the remaining Bulls—young stars Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, in particular—were rendered ineffective by a flurry of Bill Laimbeer elbows, Rick Mahorn forearm shivers, and Dennis Rodman shoves from behind.
While Jordan was the ultimate puzzle piece, the Bulls had found themselves again suffering at the very top as the team tried to battle through Cleveland and Detroit. While the Sloan to Rod Thorn to Paul Westhead to Kevin Loughery to Stan Albeck cavalcade of coaches provided zero continuity for the early-1980s Bulls, 1985-88 coach Doug Collins provided, in contrast, a little too much coaching, constantly changing and adding plays with red-faced zeal. GM Jerry Krause’s decision to fire Collins and elevate assistant Phil Jackson to head coach in 1988, on the heels of the Bulls first conference finals berth in 14 years, will forever be one of the gutsiest moves in basketball history.
“Phil is a pure intellectual, and you don’t find many of those in the NBA,” says Jim Cleamons, who served under Jackson in Chicago for five Bulls titles and is now a member of the New Orleans Hornets’ coaching staff. “He doesn’t allow the game to consume him. He has extraordinary mental strength. And, looking back, that’s just what the Bulls needed at the time.”
As heroic as Jordan’s play and tough attitude were in the face of the aggressive Pistons—from starting at point guard and upsetting Detroit at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Game 1 of the 1988 playoffs to playing in the wrestling ring the Pistons turned the lane into every postseason—play after play, the team hungered for the stability and confidence Jackson quickly provided.
If Jackson best represented Chicago’s transition from conference bridesmaid to NBA World Champion on the sidelines, one Bull best represented it on the floor: Bill Cartwright. Chicago had engaged in a long love affair with Cartwright, and if a proposed trade of Gilmore to the Portland Trail Blazers in 1979 had been consummated, the Bulls would have grabbed the San Francisco grad with the No. 2 overall pick that year. Instead, “Mr. Bill” was acquired under much controversy in 1988, when GM Jerry Krause sent popular bruiser Charles Oakley to New York for Cartwright and a No. 1 pick (Will Perdue).
While the Bulls seemingly had lost what muscle they had to fight off the Bad Boys, Cartwright was a true center (the first of the Jordan era), whom Assistant Coach Jackson had long lobbied Krause to acquire. Cartwright brought a coach’s demeanor to the floor, strength, leadership—and a willingness to throw more than a few elbows, if needed.
“There was never a time Bill was in a game where he wasn’t working hard,” says former Bulls center Tom Boerwinkle. “His approach rubbed off on the other guys, and he was more than willing to stand up for himself and his teammates. He was an outstanding addition, one that ultimately turned the Bulls into a champion.”
“The Pistons were almost exclusively focused on attacking us, physically going after us,” says Cartwright, who later coached the Bulls and is now a New Jersey Nets assistant. “They were almost too focused. We discovered that if I was able to slow down their aggression, it threw them off. They wouldn’t go back to being so aggressive or dirty.”
Most famously, Cartwright threw an elbow in an April 1989 contest that drew retaliatory punches from guard Isiah Thomas. Thomas was not only suspended by the league for throw the punches, he also broke his hand in the melee. Such outbursts, common as they were in the midst of Detroit’s back-to-back title runs, actually foreshadowed the end of the Bad Boys era.
Cartwright’s willingness to stand up, as well as his ability to shift between composure and aggression, ultimately would propel the Bulls past the Pistons. But in the 1980s, the Pistons literally had their way with Chicago, going 40-19 in the decade and winning three straight playoff series.
However the Bulls were able to take some satisfaction in the last two series defeats. In the 1989 Eastern Conference Finals, they dealt the Pistons their only two losses in the entire postseason. And in 1990 an ankle sprain (to John Paxson) and migraine headache (Pippen) prevented the Bulls from reaching the NBA Finals, a series lost in a listless 93-74 Game 7 in Detroit.
An interesting postscript to the rivalry arrived at the start of the 1990s. In 1990-91 , the Bulls ascended to the elite of the Eastern Conference, finishing the season with a 61-21 record. Determined to never again be shoved around by an aging Pistons crew, Chicago blew past Detroit in four straight games, scoring almost 107 ppg to punctuate the process.
Particularly memorable was the insult that Thomas instigated to end that series—and, though no one knew it then, extinguishing the rivalry between the teams. In the waning seconds of Chicago’s 4-0 sweep, a 115-94 throttling on Detroit’s home hardwood, the Pistons starters, led by Thomas, stalked off the floor, directly in front of Chicago’s bench, refusing to shake hands and accept defeat with dignity and class. That rash decision cost the Pistons crucial currency in the history books, which now over-accentuates the Bad Boys (nee “bad sports”) element of Detroit’s back-to-back champs as well as Chicago’s white-knights role throughout the 1990s.
“I would hope that at the end of the day, history will bear us out in terms of what was reality and what the perception was,” Thomas says today of the rivalry’s end. “Sometimes your emotions get the best of you, and you react with no thought. In your mind, you look back and wonder, ‘What was I thinking?’ But when your emotions get the best of you, you lose all rationality.”
For the Bulls, the single-mindedness of Jordan, Cartwright, and Jackson would catapult them way beyond Detroit and into a record-breaking decade to come.
It seemed that no club could do much to stop Michael Jordan. But the team that experienced his wrath more than any other had to be the Cleveland Cavaliers. In 1988, Jordan started the playoffs with a 50-point game vs. the Cavs and Craig Ehlo; in Game 2 he went for 55 vs. Ron Harper. Jordan later notched his top-scoring game of 69 points against Cleveland in 1990. He ended a series in a sweep in 1993, on a fadeaway game-winner vs. the so-called “Jordan Stopper,” Gerald Wilkins.
But, most significantly, in 1989 Jordan hit “The Shot” vs. the Cavaliers—perhaps the greatest postseason hoop in basketball history. Ehlo was the unfortunate defender who became a permanent staple in American homes not because of his worthy accomplishments on the court, but because he was the last player to be beaten (All-Star Larry Nance was juked earlier in the inbounds play) on “The Shot,” to be forever replayed as a “greatest hit.”
Ehlo actually went from hero to goat in this slugfest, scoring an open layup on a superb inbounds play with three seconds remaining. However …“We knew that there was too much time, that they were going to get a good shot off,” Ehlo says. “And we knew the ball was going to go to Michael.”
There had been six lead changes in the final three minutes of the game, and with the Cavs up 100-99 Brad Sellers inbounded to Jordan, who quickly shed Nance, dribbled left, and elevated. Ehlo jumped with Jordan, who hung in the air and pumped as gravity took a hold of Ehlo, who returned to earth. With one tick left on the clock, Jordan released, and … swish.
“When the ball left Michael’s hands, the noise was deafening,” recalls longtime Bulls TV announcer Johnny “Red” Kerr. “When it went in, the [Richfield Coliseum] was like a wax museum.”
A stunned Cavaliers crew would never overcome the shock of that single basket. “That was the beginning of Chicago’s ascension to greatness,” says Cleveland point guard Mark Price.
Perhaps forgotten in Chicago’s dominance of Cleveland in the 1980s was the fact that in 1988-89 the Cavaliers swept the season series, 6-0. The Bulls—and Jordan—made sure no momentum was lost when it counted.
Says Ehlo: “As much as I wish we won, it was a great game to be a part of.”
For Jordan and the Bulls, that great game—and unforgettable shot—gave them the confidence to eventually topple Detroit, and do so much more.
For Bulls fans, the bridge between the 1980s and 1990s is the unforgettable 1991 NBA Finals, when, somewhere in the second half of Game 5 versus the Los Angeles Lakers, father turned to son, daughter to mother, and Bulls fan to Bulls fan, all asking, in genuine bewilderment: “Can this really be happening? Are we about to win an NBA title?”
Yes, they were. And in an extraordinary Christmas, birthday, and first day of summer all rolled into one, the Bulls would deliver five more titles before the decade was ended.
Such success, after the near-misses of the early-to-mid 1970s and the frustrating, two-steps-forward, one-step-back of the late 1980s, put an entirely different spin on Chicago’s rivalries for the 1990s. Particularly when it came to winning in the playoffs, the Bulls had a stretch of success not seen before or since.
Chicago’s primary Eastern Conference rivals, the New York Knicks and Indiana Pacers, simply didn’t match up. In the 1990s, the Bulls were 27-15 versus Indiana and 23-15 versus New York. In the playoffs, Chicago beat the two clubs in five of six series, for a combined 20-13 record. There would be no countering the weapons the Bulls placed on the floor, although it didn’t stop Indiana and New York from trying.
Arguably, New York proved to be the more worthy adversary. The decade began with a first-round, throwaway, 3-0 Bulls sweep versus a John McLeod Knicks club. But, from the time former Los Angeles Lakers Head Coach Pat Riley landed in the Big Apple in 1991, the Knicks asserted themselves as a true threat to Chicago’s highly anticipated championship run.
While Riley kept the slick hairstyle and Armani suits of his L.A. days, once in Gotham he changed his playing strategy to better contrast that of the Bulls. Gone were his run-and-gun Showtime Lakers, and in came the black-and-blue Knicks, the bruising spawn of the Detroit Piston Bad Boys of the late 1980s.
Riley’s resurfacing in New York, at a time when Chicago had just vanquished one rugby foe in the Pistons, certainly spiked the Bulls’ Advil consumption. While the road to future titles would always run through Chicago, it would be filled with plenty of potholes, courtesy of Riley lunchpailers like Charles Oakley, John Starks, and Anthony Mason.
“I wanted hungry guys who were willing to subvert their egos to win,” says Riley, now the president of the Miami Heat. “I needed them to trust me, and my promise was I would deliver them to prominence. We never quite made it as far as I wanted because of Chicago, but that was the deal I made with my guys, and it worked pretty well for several years.”
In fact, Riley’s motivational work was so effective that the underdog Knicks actually won the first playoff game between the two teams, 94-89, in the 1992 Eastern Conference Semifinals. The series was a back-and-forth affair, the first of three straight postseason matchups that would last at least six games.
“We didn’t really like them,” says Patrick Ewing, the star of those Knicks teams and now an assistant with the Houston Rockets. “They were in our way, and we wanted to get past them and win a championship. They had had enough success already, in our minds. People might not have liked it, but we were willing to do anything to get there.”
Unlike the Bad Boy Pistons, who did succeed to the tune of two championships, the Knicks failed to win a title in the 1990s, even in the two seasons the Bulls were Michael Jordanless. One key difference between Detroit and New York was that Detroit’s bruisers were able—if not willing—to play an uptempo game. Their backcourt of Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars, as well as super sixth man Vinnie Johnson, could set fire to the nets.
Riley actually further “perfected” Bad Boys play by grinding the game to a slower pace than ever. It may have been a precursor to the physical play that’s dominated the NBA for the last decade or so, but it made for painful games to watch—and play.
“Those weren’t the most fun games to play, no,” says former Bulls center Bill Cartwright, now an assistant with the New Jersey Nets. “We had just gotten done with all of Detroit’s physical play, and now here comes a team that wanted to claw and scratch at you even more.”
And yet, merely the fact that the Bulls were defending champs by the time Riley’s crew came to prominence made a big difference. “With Detroit, they were the champs, they had the success, and you were never entirely sure that you had what it took to get past them,” says former Bulls guard, now Chicago GM, John Paxson. “With the Knicks, we had the upper hand. They had to knock us off. And we were confident, to a man, that no team like that was going to push us out of the way.”
Two of the five postseason series between New York and Chicago stand out prominently. The first was the Eastern Conference Finals in 1993, when New York held the home-court advantage and won the first two games in the series, threatening Chicago’s shot at a “threepeat.” In those first two games, Michael Jordan shot 22-of-59, and the media furor over a late-night gambling trip to Atlantic City before Game 2 would blow up enough to eventually drive him from the game for almost two seasons.
The Bulls bounced back to win the next two in Chicago: Game 4 featured a 54-point outburst from Jordan, and while he added a triple-double (29 points, 14 assists, and 10 rebounds) in Game 5, that contest was marked by Scottie Pippen’s four successive blocks of 6’10” Charles Smith’s layup attempts in the waning seconds. The Bulls would complete a “staggered sweep” at the United Center in Game 6.
The next year—without a then retired Jordan—marked the lowest point of the Bulls-Knicks rivalry, from Chicago’s standpoint. After an unbelievable 55-win season that saw Pippen’s all-around play and Phil Jackson’s mentoring step to the fore, the Bulls suffered two setbacks in one semifinal series. The first came at home in Game 3, with the Bulls already down two games to none.
In what would become the “1.8” game, Pippen famously and inexcusably opted out of the game and sat on the bench after Jackson designed a play for rookie Toni Kukoc to take the last shot—a three-pointer which he nailed for the buzzer-beating win. Pippen’s reputation was immeasurably damaged with both Bulls fans and teammates alike.
Nonetheless, the Bulls continued to fight through the series and found themselves leading near the end of Game 7 in New York when Pippen was whistled for a phantom foul by veteran referee Hue Hollins, giving Knicks guard Hubert Davis two free throws and reversing the course of the game. Although the call later was famously mocked by referee supervisor Darrell Garretson, Chicago’s shot at a fourth straight title was dashed.
In the later 1990s, the Knicks faded, losing one gritty, physical series in five games versus the Bulls in 1996. By then, Chicago’s most prominent rival was Indiana, who had slipped into the Central Division favorite’s role in the absence of Jordan.
In the regular season during the second Jordan era of 1995 to 1997-98 , Indiana played the Bulls a somewhat respectable 5-9 and finished second in the Central in two of the three full seasons. It also beat out the Bulls for the division by five games in Jordan’s return season of 1994-95 . But the two teams didn’t meet in the playoffs until 1998, the final season of Chicago’s NBA Finals runs.
The Pacers, chronically overlooked in comparison to the star-studded Bulls, had been swallowed up in the endless hoopla over the Bulls making their “Last Dance” together as a team. Reggie Miller went so far as to protest that the Bulls considered the Pacers a “speed bump” on their way to a sixth title.
Of course, Miller and the Pacers had let their golden opportunity slip away by failing to make the Finals in 1994, when Jordan was on a minor league baseball diamond, learning to hit curveballs. But the resilient squad, helmed by onetime Boston Celtics postseason ace Larry Bird, appeared to be every bit Chicago’s equal.
And that’s how the series played out. It was ugly, with a continuous stream of he-said, he-said poor mouthing over foul calls. But, discounting Chicago’s Game 5 blowout of Indiana (106-87 at the United Center), the series was decided by an average of four points per game.
Game 6 was particularly controversial. Jordan tripped with 2.6 seconds left, but no foul was called. And worse, Bulls nemesis Hollins whistled Pippen for an illegal defense with less than two minutes to go, an unheard of call even in the closing minutes of a regular season game.
“We were upset at the way the Bulls were treating us,” says current Nets guard Travis Best, whose four points in the last half-minute iced Game 6 for Indiana. “They had every call go their way for how many years, and suddenly they were complaining about a few calls that didn’t? It was easier for them to argue with the refs than it was to give us credit for playing them hard, and we didn’t appreciate that.”
In Game 7, the Bulls came out nervous, belying the fact that, for all their postseason triumphs, they had faced only two prior elimination games in their championship era. Bulls fans and players alike were uncommonly quiet at the United Center, where there was apprehension in the air. The Pacers met that silence with aggression, springing to a 20-7 lead.
The game was tied at 79, with five minutes remaining, when Chicago surged forward for the win. By the end, the rival might have been new, but the result was typical for the Bulls: Jordan shot poorly but finished with 28 points, nine rebounds, eight assists, and two steals; Pippen added 17 points and 12 rebounds; and Kukoc was the unsung hero, scoring 21 on 7-of-11 shooting. The Bulls would go on to win in the Finals and complete their second “threepeat,” but only after their most difficult Conference Final yet.
The Bulls, a team born in 1966, came of age quickly. Their struggle to win the big games as they grew up was painful for both players and fans alike. But the same team that had been so vulnerable in its youth finally did break through to prominence, in a most dominating fashion. It was New York and Indiana’s sorry destiny as 1990s rivals to have to break through against that backdrop of utter dominance.
A Matter-of-Fact Back-to-Back
It would be remiss not to mention the Utah Jazz in any discussion of Chicago Bulls rivals of the 1990s, even if, as a Western Conference team, Utah wasn’t a “traditional” rival. The Jazz gave the Bulls arguably their two toughest NBA Finals series, and were the only duplicate Western Finalist in Chicago’s entire six-year run of Championships. The Bulls were 10-9 in the regular season versus Utah in the 1990s, and the two teams played a somewhat historic, if forgotten, regular season game on January 6, 1997. The contest, pitting the 28-4 Bulls versus the 23-8 Jazz, was second only to a Milwaukee Bucks versus Los Angeles Lakers game in 1972 for the highest combined winning percentage game in NBA regular season history. The Bulls won that one, 102-89 at the United Center, and would go on to finish 69-13 on the season.
In the back-to-back NBA Finals, four battles stand out. The first was Michael Jordan’s “flu game” in Utah in 1997. The Jazz were on the verge of completely turning the series in their favor by sweeping the middle three games at home, and had the added “advantage” of a gravely ill Jordan on the court. All Jordan contributed from the sick bay was a 38-point, 44-minute effort that defied even the loftiest expectations.
The clinching game came two days later at the United Center, extending the incredible emotion of Game 5 with a John Paxson-esque winning shot by Steve Kerr in the final minute. “In our last timeout, I was sitting down, watching Mike,” Kerr says. “He just sat there for awhile, and then he said to me, ‘Be ready. Stockton’s coming to me.’ I said, ‘OK, I’ll make it.’”
A year later, the NBA Finals casts were the same, but this time Utah held home-court advantage. On top of that, Utah had 10 days of rest before the series, while the Bulls barely paused for breath after their seven-game epic against the Indiana Pacers. Improbably, after five titles in seven years, the Bulls were underdogs.
After splitting two games in Salt Lake City, the Bulls returned home and dealt a defeat of historic proportions to the Jazz. The 96-54 thrashing set NBA records for biggest margin of victory in a playoff game, fewest points allowed in a playoff game … and fewest points allowed in an NBA game in the post-shot-clock era.
“I just couldn’t believe what I was seeing when I looked over the box score afterwards,” Utah coach Jerry Sloan says. “It was the most embarrassing game I’ve ever been involved in.”
After an uncharacteristic miss on a last-second attempt by Jordan ended Game 5 and all hopes of a title clinched at home, the stage was set for one of the best finishes to a Finals series ever.
Utah, the game seemingly in hand, leading by three with less than a minute left, surrendered a layup to Jordan after his full-court drive; on the next possession, Jordan stripped Karl Malone of the ball and without calling a timeout, walked the ball up court and swished the game-winner with 5.2 seconds remaining.
It may not have been a rival in the traditional sense, but Utah was a better foil for the 1990s Bulls than any other, more familiar, team.