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JACKSON: I did a Monday night radio show at that time, and I remember getting a number of callers who said, “This isn’t going to work” and “Michael doesn’t look like he has the opportunity to score. How are you going to make this work?” I said, “In time, we’re going to figure this out. It’ll come along.”
SAM SMITH (Bulls beat reporter, Chicago Tribune): Phil was a student from the Knicks school of things, when it was five scorers and the floor was balanced and you could go to any of the guys. He believed in that concept that you only win with a balanced team and teamwork.
CARTWRIGHT: The truth is that it took probably half a season before everybody embraced it, and I can remember the game [when] it happened. It happened in Denver on a road trip, and we carved them up pretty good. After that game, I think everybody pretty much felt like, This is a really good offense, and we’re going to do really well with it if we can just stay with it and execute it and have everybody on the same page.
JACKSON: There were a lot of naysayers in the basketball world and the local Chicago world about running this offense, that it was archaic or it was college or whatever. But one of the things with MJ was that he took coaching. The first year he wasn’t happy, but he started to live with it.
KING: The main thing that really turned that team around was when our superstar player bought into it. When Michael Jordan finally conformed and said, “You know what? I’m not going to be able to beat the Pistons by myself. I’m not going to be able to win a championship by myself. I’ve got to have [my teammates] with me.”
WILL PERDUE (reserve center): We were still pretty fortunate to have one of the best bailout men ever in Michael Jordan. [Winter] may disagree, but I’m now convinced that you do have to have that kind of player for that system to be 100 percent effective, and I think you’ve seen that with Michael in Chicago and now Kobe [Bryant] in L.A., [where both teams] run the triangle offense.
JORDAN: In the beginning, I fought the triangle. But Phil never backed off. He and [Winter] forced the offense on us until we finally started to develop a rhythm.
SMITH: So then they go out west. They win a few games. They’re kind of playing .500 ball into December. They’re a good team, winning their home games mostly. Then, right before Christmas, they go into Detroit and just get blown out. Dominated the way Detroit had dominated them in the past. I remember Phil talking after the game that this is a sort of crucible for this team, and maybe we need to blow it up—not trade Jordan, but maybe make some big changes. That maybe this team isn’t up to it.
PAXSON: You have to remember how we always walked out of that building. It was never with any success. I take myself back to that Game 7 [in the previous year’s Eastern Conference finals], where we lost. That was as loud a building as I’ve ever heard. It was deafening.
CARTWRIGHT: There was still so much doubt about our team because we hadn’t won. We hadn’t beaten Detroit. They had beaten the tar out of us.
SMITH: But they came out of that. I think they played the Lakers at home, and Detroit also, like a week later, around Christmas. I remember Detroit was upset at having to play on Christmas. They were the defending champions and playing on Christmas. The notion was, the league hated Detroit because the bad-boy thing was catching up to them. The league had sort of pushed [that reputation], but now it had kind of gotten out of control, and they were trying to reel them back in. I remember a number of the players refused to come on the team plane to Chicago on Christmas Eve, and several of them came on their own Christmas morning.
PAXSON: And we beat them. And I can remember thinking: You know what? I’m not sure they have that [fire to win] right now after having won two [championships]. Because if you’re thinking about winning that third one, you’re going with your team. You’re fighting that whole battle. When I saw that, I kind of felt good about where we were headed.
SMITH: The last game before the All-Star break, [the Bulls] were [back] in Detroit. It was a close game, and B. J. Armstrong makes a few big shots down the stretch, and then Jordan closes it and they win. They kind of viewed that as a breakthrough—the kind of game they always lose, but they won.
PERDUE: It’s just one game, yeah, but it’s the confidence you build from that little part of you that now knows that, hey, we can beat this team.
PIPPEN: It was an obstacle that we had gotten over. We knew it wasn’t going to be like [that] come playoff time, but from a confidence standpoint, I think that we knew that we had pretty much been able to break through what we needed to break through. And that was to be able to measure up to the Pistons.
SMITH: After the All-Star break, they were phenomenal, ripping off long win streaks and just dominating teams. Clearly they were the best team in the league from the All-Star Game out.
PERDUE: [Still,] we didn’t necessarily have that team unity that you would think a championship team would have.
KING: It was a soap opera. As a young player, you just do what you’re told. You try to follow along with everybody. But there was a lot of undertone, a lot of stuff going on outside of basketball.
PAXSON: We always had some dynamics of Scottie trying to find his way a little bit with Michael being there, and Horace [starting forward Horace Grant] wanting to do his thing a little bit, too.