The 12 Days of Bullsmas. Day 6: A Basketball Love Story

Posted: December 18, 2011 by Mauricio Rubio Jr. in Basketball, NBA
Tags: , , , , ,

Moe Rubio is going through the gauntlet and will post a Bulls related post every day for 12 days.

Prologue

I would love to meet John Tesh one day and thank him for shaping my early childhood. We all have different responses to songs, and the same song can mean two completely different things to two very different people. Growing up in the 90’s meant that whenever I heard John Tesh’s most critically acclaimed piece of work I was about to experience something that should really only come around once in a lifetime. It would always start the same too, with a rather comical graphic of a peacock animation before Tesh’s Magnum Opus would play.

Yes, I did play this song on repeat while writing this.

That 2 minute 41 second piece of sports music history meant one thing to a young Chicago kid: the Bulls were about to kick some ass. It was such a forgone conclusion in my mind at the time that I think all twenty-somethings need to pull back and remember what really happened during the golden era of Chicago sports.

I. The Forgotten Legend of EmJeff.

It was never a sure thing that Michael Jordan would ever win a championship. Questions about his brand of basketball were plentiful at the time when a gold chain wearing country boy from North Carolina flew into the basketball consciousness of America. Oh sure, he was born in Brooklyn NY, but he was always a down home kind of kid. To see Jordan in replays of classic games is almost comical. The difference between him and the average NBA player is so vast, it almost compares to the chasm that existed between Babe Ruth and his contemporaries.

Doesn’t exactly scream sublime athlete, does it?

Michael came into the NBA post Bird/Magic. The basketball community had finally gotten over the me first style of play that rose to popularity when the ABA and NBA merged. Complaints that the league was too black were commonplace as the NCAA grew in popularity. Bird and Magic were team players of the highest order, they entered the NBA ready to win right away. There was never really a question with those two about if they would win a ring. The debate was always about who was better, who would win in a head to head match up, who improved his team more and things of that nature.

So, it was a bit of a shock to the system to see a high flying guard absolutely score at will with little regard to human life. Michael looks like a cartoon character. His style of play in those early years was so raw and unrefined, it’s difficult to associate it with the Michael we all know today. He played angry all the time. That would carry over for the rest of his career. Jordan always had a chip on his shoulder, whether it stemmed from being picked after Sam Bowie, getting black balled in the 1985 All Star game or any other slight that he used as pure motivation to completely annihilate his opponent.

I mean come on, it’s like he was using cheat codes in a video game, just wasn’t right.

But the questions constantly surrounded him, does he make his teammates better? Can a player like Michael ever win a championship? Is he too much of a ballhog? His performance against the Boston Celtics in 1986 was simply absurd. Jordan scored 63 pts. against the premier defense in the NBA at the time and made it look easy. The Bulls were still swept in that series though, and the questions would hound MJ and the Bulls all the way through the Detriot Pistons rivalry.

Absolute badass.

The Bulls most underrated star arrived with the team in 1987 as a part of a trade with the Seattle Supersonics. Scottie Pippen was regarded as a project player, a big 3 with good athleticism but questionable offensive game. What is really telling about Scottie is that he willingly played Michael Jordan in one on one pick up games  to get better. Dedication to the craft is one thing, but taking up the challenge of facing the best player on the planet to refine your game is indicative of the competitive fire that Pippen had. The two would be forever linked in history as they forged perhaps the best tandem in all of sports, but more on that later.

The Detroit Pistons proved to be too tall a road block for Chicago as the Jordan led Bulls struggled against the dirty defense that Detroit was employing. The infamous Jordan rules held the Bulls down in check for quite some time, and even with Jordan emerging as a superstar, even with the game winning shots, his everlasting legacy was still in doubt. People could not see a scorer as anything else besides that. Critics did not see Jordan as anything but a spectacle.

Poor Ehlo, he was actually a solid player in Cleveland, but he’ll always be remembered as Jordan’s punk. Like a lot of guys.

A change was coming though, Phil Jackson was in the ear of Jordan, Tex Winter was about to revolutionize the basketball world, and a truly magnificent dynasty was about to be born.

II. You Never Forget Your First.

I don’t remember exactly what it was like when the Bulls finally beat the Pistons. I can tell you that I did get to watch Game 4 and I was very happy to see the guys with the Bulls uniforms on jump around in celebration. In hindsight I can also say that I witnessed basketball history in that moment. The legend of Jordan would take an odd turn here, as something was about to happen that most NBA fans didn’t really expect.

The Detroit Pistons stood int he way of the Bulls as an immovable road block. Some saw this as proof that Jordan was not a team player, that he did not trust anyone but himself to hit the crucial jump shot. It was a validation of the idea that Magic and Bird would always be better than Jordan, and to even compare Jordan to the other two was a disservice. The debate was dead in the eyes of some.

And then, with the help of the Triangle Offense, Scottie, Horace, BJ, Bill and Mike beat the ever loving shit out of the Bad Boys. Suddenly the weight was lifted as the Piston thugs were forced to sneak out of the building and avoid the embarrassment of conceding defeat via a 4 game sweep to Michael.

The NBA universe had shifted, and no one really knew what it meant. The Bulls would face the LA Lakers and Magic in the 1991 NBA Finals and the question about Michael Jordan was about to be answered. The Lakers were the final test by which 23 could prove himself. Beat Magic and the Lakers and the legend moniker would not be too far behind.

CSN recently replayed game 5 of this series. I was having a conversation with my guy, Tony Leva about this game and where I was for it. I was 4, but I remember the win, and then I remember having to go get my father after the game. The streets of Chicago were rioting to celebrate the coronation of our king. Chicago once more had a reason to celebrate it’s supremacy, the Bulls completely blitzed the Lakers. The team speed was too much, and something happened in this series that would be indicative of the decade to come.

There was a play heading down the stretch, right before Paxson would get white hot and close the series out, where Jordan forced up a bad shot. During a time out Phil Jackson simply said to Jordan, “Who was open on that play?” Jordan replied, “Paxson.” Phil just nodded and drew up the next play.

Jordan started to trust his teammates. Some of the moments that are etched into our basketball memories are kick outs to a perimeter shooter, usually either Paxson or Kerr. The first ring was all important, the narrative of Jordan’s basketball career and the course of NBA history had dramatically changed. Showtime was stopped and a new legend had risen to the occasion and was ready to strangle the NBA in a completely different way.

III. Love is a Three-peat.

The next year was all about Jordan refining his game and defining his legend. The story of Mike revolves around his evolution. The real grit behind the flashy dunks was his willingness to compete night after night and his desire to become the best basketball player that ever lived. Critics would say he was selfish so he started a string of triple doubles en route to becoming the Bulls all time assist leader. They said he couldn’t hit the three, and then the shrug game happened where he absolutely lit up the Trailblazers from beyond the arc. They said he’d never be a champion so he became the most recognizable champion in sports history.

When you get right down to it, Jordan is known as a winner. His story is that of the struggle to overcome and the will to dominate. He is part of the rare breed that is known for both his ability and his will to dominate. In the ring of legends, he is perhaps the brightest star, his celebrity reaching across the globe and inspiring countless people. It was the Portland win over Drexler and the boys that cemented his legend. The way to stop Jordan was to force him to shot from the outside. The hopes and dreams of a few would-be NBA legends died when Jordan hit that 6th three in the first half against Portland. All of a sudden, there was absolutely no way to keep Jordan from scoring.

Every one not on the Bulls is screwed.

Now the selfish player who was never going to win was a back to back champion, and his ascendancy to the throne of the G.O.A.T. was in sight. It was during this time that he earned the reputation as a great competitor instead of just being called an asshole who hated his teammates. The Bulls were dominant in those first two years, but they were about to be tested in 1993 as the court jester rose up to challenge the King.

The 1993 playoffs are probably my favorite as a collective. It was the most exciting basketball I witnessed until this past years playoffs, and even then for the pure history I think the 93 playoffs deserve the top spot. I’ll save the full blown analysis for another day, but there were some pretty awesome buzzer beaters by NBA legends.

The 93 Bulls were running on fumes. I didn’t know it at the time but those legs were tired. Pax was on his way out, the Bulls were using a weird 4 man frontcourt rotation of Cartwright, Grant, Stacey King and Scott Williams, with a little Perdue thrown in there on certain nights. Jordan was at the absolute height of his powers. This MJ was the best MJ as he combined his athleticism with his basketball IQ and was a big reason why the Bulls made it to the Finals that year.

The Phoenix Suns were a better team, they showed it during the regular season, they showed it during the series which was perfectly in reach for them. The Bulls held a 3-2 series advantage and were on the road against them, struggling to avoid a game 7 that I believe they would have lost. The Suns played a smart game in game 6, they chipped away at a Bulls lead and got one of their own late in the 4th quarter. The Bulls went ice cold as no one could hit a shot.

The thing with basketball is that if you have a talent that is willing, you can win a few games you don’t deserve to. Mike saved the Bulls in that game, scoring all of their points int he 4th leading up to a final play. When Jordan is on the other team, the defense will always naturally game plan to deny him the ball. Considering that no one else had hit a shot in the 4th, this was a sound strategy. But trailing 98-96 with 3.9 seconds on the clock and the series hanging in the balance Paxson hit the shot that would secure him a spot in Bulls lore, an open 3 that perfectly defined what the Bulls had become over the past 3 years, a team.

It wasn’t really fair to ask Kevin Johnson to shoot after this. It was so over at that point.

The three for the three-peat. I would spend the next few years constantly trying to replicate this shot in my backyard and with a nerf hoop and the oven timer. I’d put 14 seconds on the clock, dribble out, reciting the call word for word and hit the shot over and over again. Such was the fate of a kid growing up in the Jordan Era. They had no business winning this game, but that’s what happens when you have the Greatest Of All Time. He became a legend in those first three championship years and his legacy of a winner was cemented.

IV. Don’t Quit Your Day Job, Jordan’s Second Act.

I could go into the whole Jordan plays baseball thing here, but that time period was so absurd it takes away from one of the truly touching moments in sports history. Just know that the Bulls obviously struggled without him, even though Scottie was a great player they didn’t have that killer at the end of games to close it all out.

What really matters here is Mike’s relationship with his father. James Jordan was murdered on July 23, 1993. Their relationship was a beautiful thing to watch, it’s not often that an athlete and his father are the primary storyline, it’s usually mom with athletes, but that was the case here. It was clear that Jordan loved his dad, and it was equally clear that it deeply affected Jordan, as we’d see in the come back from his stint in baseball.

There was no Sportscenter special. Jordan didn’t call a bunch of reporters and didn’t announce this via a TV special. He didn’t have a parade in Grant Park after this announcement. All he did was send a two word fax to the NBA; “I’m Back.”

Struggling with the memory of his father and playing with a different fire than he did Jordan and the Bulls went out and lit the world up in his first full season back as #23. 45 was forgettable, I forget who said it, but someone said of Jordan “23 would have blown by me and dunked. 45? Not so much,” or something along those lines, and that’s all it took for that number to change.

People kinda forget how the second 3-peat won, it was just assumed that they won primarily because the best offensive talent the game has ever seen returned to hit buckets. That was part of the reason, but the 72 wins were built off defense and smart play. Jordan added a new dimension to his game as he saw his natural talents were slowly eroding. The post up fade away has become the memory of the second three peat as it was the most unstoppable shot in the NBA at the time. There was nothing you could do about it. “You reach, I teach,” was Jordan’s motto down low.

The Bulls went 72-10 and I have a hard time seeing any NBA team replicating that feat. It wasn’t just the scoring or the defense or the x’s and o’s. That team was out to kill you night in and night out, it still had fresh legs and it was one of the tallest teams in NBA history. Not one starter was under 6’6. Harper, Jordan, Pippen, Rodman and Longley were all tall and all good and willing defenders. This is my favorite team of all time. This is the line up I hear in my head when the lights go dim and Eye in the Sky starts playing.

They also were the cause of my two favorite Youtube videos of all time:

Bob Costas made me want to kick some ass after this outstanding pregame.

and

Game 6 was my most vivid memory of a Bulls championship, the ones that came after were equally great, but this one stood out in my mind. I was becoming aware of storylines at the time, and Jordan’s shot to win the title on Father’s Day after the passing of his dad was, well touching.

Probably my favorite sports photo of all time.

The Sonics won 66 games that year, they had Kemp and Payton, but what I’ll always remember isn’t the opponent. No, it’s that moment when it was all over, when he had it all won and Jordan ran from the court into the locker room to be alone and thing about his dad. There’s a moment where you realize that it hit him, that when the champagne starts flowing his dad won’t be there to congratulate him. This is my favorite team and sports moment of all time.

V. The Legend Is Cemented, and The Mailman Doesn’t Deliver on Sundays.

I had a friend in high school who loved John Stockton and hated Jordan. This is understandable, if there’s anything we learned, Jordan stood in the way of a lot of legacies during his tenure in the NBA. He killed Ewing, denied Barkley, stuffed Stockton to Malone and didn’t let Reggie get his. I can understand the hate I guess, and it was ok, because at the end of the day, my guy came through where his didn’t.

These next two rings were a total grind, and in the aftermath of the Jordan Era, it will be forgotten how hard those teams had to work to get to the Finals, and then beat a great Jazz team. These two series are my favorite of the 6. You had the trash talk, the big shots (Kerr for three!) and you had the legends of the game going at it. Karl Malone was a badass, he’s going to be the second best PF of all time behind Tim Duncan. John Stockton was a dirty player, but one I respected back in the day. He was a tough little guy that wasn’t afraid of the moment.

The memories that we are left with from those games are many, the flu game, Malone bricking free throws on Sunday, Kerr’s shot, Jordan’s shot and what we should walk away with is the sense that the Bulls were truly special.

Damn I miss these guys.

They were a once in a lifetime dynasty, the likes of which I doubt we’ll see again. Think about the NBA legends I just described, and realize that the Bulls beat them all. Jordan never lost in the Finals, something Kobe and LeBron can never say. The Bulls slayed plenty of dragons in that time, even if they themselves were the dragon for most of it. When we think about the Jazz series we tend to remember The Shot and other big moments. This is the correct thing to do. We should also remember how the Bulls won those series. That the game was not built on flash, it was built on grit. The doberman defense was alive and well in this time, and the Bulls would absolutely choke the life out of you and grind the game out.

The fade away is a Jordan trademark now, but it was a necessity to survive in the NBA for him. Our memories will select certain moments to hang onto as we struggle to remember the whole picture. The whole picture is this, there were two Bulls teams that won championships in that era, one was flashier than the other, but both teams were great in their own respects. It’s something we won’t ever see again when you think about it. The way those teams were constructed combined with the celebrity of Jordan and his picture perfect rise to legendary status are something that will never happen that way again. We as Bulls fans had something special for 8 years. I don’t know if they would’ve won 8 had he never retired, that Houston team was no joke, but I don’t think I’d ever bet against a motivated Jordan with something to prove.

I’ll leave you with the inspiration for this blog post, I thought about leaving with The Shot, but we all know what it looks like. This does a good job of summing up the Bulls during that era.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s