By Ted Cox
Stately, plump Jerry Krause, well, who knew or cared how he spent the morning of Bloomsday, Father’s Day, June 16? His work was long since done. He had put together a team of 11 players to fit defined roles around Michael Jordan–13 actually, counting Dickey Simpkins and Jason Caffey, 14 if one granted the wide-ranging role of pacifier, cheerleader, and good-luck charm to Jack Haley–and they proved to be the greatest basketball team of all time.
Yet it was coach Phil Jackson, not general manager Krause, who made it all work, who fused these personalities into an entity, a team that came to epitomize almost everything he wrote about in his book Sacred Hoops, released oh so long ago, at the beginning of the season last fall. Many general managers in many sports have put together teams that looked dominant on paper; but because the general manager–or, more accurately, the coach the general manager put in charge of the team–had no feel for the way colossal egos needed to be fused for a group to function as one, these teams usually did not work. There are two teams to every team–the team that could be and the team that is–just as there are two people to every person: the potential and the actuality. This potential was the mystical element to the Bulls’ season, and it more than fulfilled the greatest expectations: a 72-10 regular-season record and a 15-3 playoff mark in seizing the championship. What was most stunning about the 1995-’96 Bulls, however, was the way this team projected mutual respect, compassion, and, yes, that word known to all men.
The most curious thing about Sacred Hoops was the difficulty a reader had in recognizing any of the Bulls’ three championship teams in its pages. “Compassion is where Zen and Christianity intersect,” Jackson wrote, then quoted B.J. Armstrong’s line that the untold story of those teams was “the respect each individual has for everybody else.” He also discussed how the team had to learn to control its anger and its hatred of the Detroit Pistons before it could defeat them. Yet the Bulls’ first three championship teams were hardly collections of pacifists brandishing love as their mighty sword. It’s true, the team in general and Michael Jordan in particular had to learn trust, and this trust made everything possible. But what the Bulls learned best from the Pistons was a ruthless attitude that set out to destroy an opponent not only physically but mentally. There was not much compassion to Jackson and the Bulls before the 1992 NBA finals, when they leaked their scouting report saying the Portland Trail Blazers would choke, just as there was little respect granted the New York Knicks in any of their playoff meetings with the Bulls. Those three championship teams were mentally cruel to the verge of sadism; they recalled the Bobby Fischer line, “I like to see ’em squirm.” What was most amazing about the 1995-’96 Bulls was the way they really did come to embody Jackson’s avowed philosophy of love and compassion.
These are flowery concepts for sports to project, so perhaps it’s best to fall back on the words of one Leopold Bloom: “Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life. Love. I mean the opposite of hatred.”
Led by a Jordan who had been humbled in his 18-month sojourn through the wilderness of baseball, and who had rededicated himself to the preparation it took off the court to play well on it, the Bulls showed a newfound respect both for one another and for their opponents. It was Jordan who displayed the team’s fierce will to win, night in and night out. He carried the team almost single-handedly to an early-season win in Vancouver that was meaningless in a practical sense but critical to the pursuit of 70 victories, and later, with a little help from Toni Kukoc, through Dennis Rodman’s six-game suspension. While Jordan continued to talk trash here and there on the court, off the court he was diplomatic at all times. Jackson showed a similar restraint. Rodman played mind games through the first three games of the finals, but Jackson showed none of the old media gamesmanship; the worst it got was when he complained about the Sonics’ “zone” defense before the first game of the series.
When asked who was the most valuable player of the finals, Jackson responded, “Michael Jordan was the MVP of this final,” and the Sonics’ Shawn Kemp, who made his own bid for that honor, echoed, “No doubt, number 23.” Yet it’s worth noting that the team had to carry Jordan both in the 70th win, in Milwaukee, and in the clinching sixth game against the Sonics, when he made only 5 of 19 shots from the floor and admitted to feeling somewhat paralyzed about playing on Father’s Day, with thoughts of his murdered father on his mind.
Later, holding the NBA championship trophy in his hands, Jordan was asked what he saw in its reflection. Looking directly into his face, he said he saw his sons and his father, and then he kissed it. “I had a lot of things on my heart and on my mind,” he said in the media interview session, after breaking down in the locker room immediately after the game. “I had the good fortune to be on a team that came in and played extremely well….I’m just happy that the team kind of pulled me through it, ’cause it was a tough time.”
There were many elements to the team victory. The last game saw the outside shooting of Steve Kerr and Toni Kukoc, both of whom emerged from slumps to hit key three-pointers, the gritty play of Scottie Pippen, who shook off ankle injuries to drive to the hoop for the game’s first basket, which gave him space later on to hit shots from outside, the return of Ron Harper, whom we’ll get to later, and the inside play of center Luc Longley, who scored in double figures in five of the six games. There was the quiet efficiency off the bench of Bill Wennington, Jud Buechler, and Randy Brown, all of whom won games at various times of the year, and the service of former Pistons James Edwards and John Salley. But the person who really carried the Bulls whenever they weren’t playing well was Dennis Rodman.
“He won two games,” Seattle coach George Karl said when the series was over, referring to the second and sixth, both of which saw Rodman tie the finals record for offensive rebounds in a single game with 11. He won considerably more games than that during the season, and he was also the one who off the court embodied the full range of what the Bulls were trying to accomplish. Looking back at our copy of Sacred Hoops, we noticed that on first reading it last fall we’d underlined that Armstrong line about respect and had then written at the bottom of the page, “Dennis Rodman?” The Bulls and their fans proved themselves ready to grant Rodman respect as a rebounder and defender, a heady player and a specialist willing to accept his role (in that, he was emblematic of the entire team). What caught everyone by surprise was what Jackson called the “heart space” Rodman was granted, by both his teammates and the fans.
Much has been written and said about the nature of Rodman’s appeal, and it’s been surprising how little of it has referred to the traditional Christian myths of the prodigal, the sinner repentant and redeemed. Sure, as a cross-dressing free spirit Rodman is a sports figure who engenders tolerance–think of what the response to his book-signing ensemble would have been 20 or even 10 years ago–but that doesn’t really capture what makes him unique. Rodman was one of the baddest of the Detroit Bad Boys, surpassed for evil only by Bill Laimbeer (and even that’s debatable). Yet he came to Chicago and people embraced him. Why? It wasn’t just that he made the Bulls champions again, although that certainly played a part in it. Rather, his popularity–especially with children–was almost certainly due to the example he provided as someone who had once been bad and was now out to atone for it. In the end, he apologized to Pippen for “what I did five years ago”–when he pushed Pippen into a battery of photographers and his chin was lacerated by a camera–in front of 250,000 people at the Grant Park championship rally and, of course, millions more on television. His presence on the team, with that of Edwards and Salley, was the single greatest symbol of the Bulls’ unity, of their ability to reconcile good and evil, competition and respect, victory and compassion. A quarter of the Bulls’ playoff roster consisted of former members of the hated Pistons. What better illustration of what Jackson called “the practice of acceptance” could there be?
Rodman, however, was not in himself the single largest difference between the Bulls’ three great championship teams and the 1995-’96 team that established itself, in our opinion, as the greatest of all time. Rodman is more of a role player, a specialist, than Horace Grant, but he is not a better player overall. Longley, while solid, is not the all-around player Bill Cartwright was. Kerr simply fills the role of John Paxson. And while Pippen and Jordan are both smarter than ever, and Jordan is now armed with a turnaround jump shot that makes him less defensible than ever, neither is as talented now as three years ago. No, this team won on its unity. If there was a single greatest difference between these Bulls and the rest it was Harper. It was instructive that the Bulls lost two of the three games in Seattle, where a knee injury held Harper to a total of 15 minutes on the court. Yes, the Bulls won without him in the third game, but that was while playing their best. The Bulls needed Harper–needed his defense–when they weren’t at their best, and in the end that defense was the difference between winning 67 games, as they did in 1991-’92, and a record 72.
Look at the 1996 Bulls and the other three champions and the two differences that jump out are Kukoc’s ability as an offensive force off the bench and Harper’s defense. Kukoc, however, was too erratic to explain a 70-win season in himself. But Harper’s defense was there every game, something amazing to Karl. “I think you should give Ron Harper his due,” he said, “because he’s a guy who came here and turned himself into a very good defensive player, when I don’t remember him being a defensive player at Los Angeles” with the Clippers.
When Jackson was asked if Harper was the single greatest difference between this team and the other champions, he said, “I think it’s the defensive aspect of this team and the size of the guards.” The series with the Sonics was proof. Harper not only played strong defense on Seattle point guard Gary Payton, he gave the Bulls the option to switch either Jordan or Pippen onto Payton without creating a mismatch elsewhere. At 6 feet 6 inches tall, Harper is big enough to guard a small forward, something that couldn’t be said of either Armstrong or Paxson, who had trouble enough with point guards. The defining aspect of the Bulls is that the league’s leading offensive team prided itself on its defense. As Jackson wrote of his coaching mentor, Red Holzman, “Red believed that hard-nosed defense not only won big games, but also, and more importantly, forced players to develop solidarity as a team.”
Shawn Kemp was noble in defeat, in the angular grace he projected and that distinctive backpedaling swagger he had following a basket. Sitting in the media interview room after the sixth game, he spoke as Jordan entered to low-grade hysteria behind the curtain set up as a background for the podium. “At this point,” Kemp said, “you realize it doesn’t come from your physical ability on the court. A lot of it’s mental, and as a young player I think that I’m going to take that home with me.” Then he went behind the curtain and gave Jordan a long hug before Jordan came out.
The Grant Park ceremony was a love fest, of course, but it was Jackson again who put the prevailing sentiment into words. This was a team, he said, that formed “a community of people who enjoyed and loved each other. The thing that was great about it is that Chicago loved them back.”
For the second time in five years, the Bulls won a championship at home. This one was a little less spontaneous–in ’92 the Bulls emerged suddenly from their basement locker room to dance atop the scorer’s table, whereas this time a platform was set up in front of the scorer’s table for the players to celebrate on–but it was also a little more delicious. Jordan’s 18-month retirement had changed everything. It granted perspective both to his achievements and to the team’s. He came off the floor near the end of the game and gave Jackson a tremendous hug. Then as time ran out he seized the ball from Kukoc’s hands and fell to the floor, where Rodman, of all people, fell on top of him. After a few overwrought minutes in the locker room, Jordan emerged to chants of “Michael! Michael! Michael!”
Who knew a year ago that he stood on the brink of his greatest championship, the one, not coincidentally, he would most share with his teammates? We were all of us older, wiser, more appreciative than we had been five years before. And all of us, on that platform and in the stands, at the United Center and at home, on the streets and in our cars, tried to savor and preserve it in the moment as best we could. Yes we said yes we will yes. Oh yes.