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Players gather around Phil Jackson during a playoff time-out in 1991. By then, Michael Jordan and company had bought into Jackson’s philosophy. “One of the things with MJ was that he took coaching,” Jackson says. For more photos, launch the photo gallery »
Today, airbrushed by the red-and-black nostalgia of two decades, the work of art that was the Chicago Bulls’ first NBA championship seems something fated, a portrait of an inexorable stampede to a waiting promised land. The hated Detroit Pistons and their thuggishly contemptible Bad Boys—Bill Laimbeer, Rick Mahorn, Dennis Rodman—were exposed as toothless bullies. Brimming with ferocious young talent, including the best player in the world in Michael Jordan, the Bulls were ascendant, pawing and snorting before a path that would lead to the greatest run in Chicago sports history: six titles in eight years.
In the moment, however, such fortunes were far from certain. The Bulls were smarting from a third straight postseason loss to Detroit. The slightly oddball Zen ethos of the second-year coach Phil Jackson still seemed . . . weird. Jordan was locked in an ugly war of words with the general manager, Jerry Krause. And over all hung the dismissive charge that Jordan, while a great scorer and supreme talent, would never be a winner.
Doubt? “That’s all there was, was doubt,” Bill Cartwright, who was the team’s starting center, recalls.
In celebration of the 20th anniversary of that first Bulls championship, Chicago tracked down the players, announcers, and front-office honchos who lived it. We caught up with Phil Jackson at the Los Angeles Lakers’ practice facility after a workout, where he reminisced for more than an hour. We spent an afternoon with Jerry Krause at his winter home in Scottsdale, Arizona. We talked to Bill Cartwright, Scottie Pippen, John Paxson, and others. (Michael Jordan did not respond to several requests for an interview; in his case, we relied on his 2009 Hall of Fame induction speech and reflections from his book For the Love of the Game: My Story.)
What emerges is the tale of a roller-coaster ride filled with drama, an inside look at that glorious—and turbulent—1990–91 season. In the narrative that follows, told exclusively through the recollections of those who were there, the curtain rises not on an opening tip but a final buzzer—the end of the previous season’s Eastern Conference finals, when the Bulls once again found themselves seething in the losers’ locker room, wondering what they had to do to finally beat their perennial nemesis: the Detroit Pistons.
JOHN PAXSON (starting guard): It was a disappointing end to [the season in] 1990. [Detroit] had gotten to us physically and mentally and beat us up both ways [in the Eastern Conference finals]. In Game 6, Scottie [Pippen] had the migraine, and I had hurt my ankle and couldn’t play. So it was a very frustrating end. But for the first time in those years that we’d been beaten up by Detroit, I think we had the mindset we could beat them.
JERRY KRAUSE (general manager): [After we lost,] I went a little goofy that night in Detroit. I started screaming and yelling in the locker room. I screamed a lot. I said, “This will never happen again. We will not allow this to happen again. You guys should have won tonight. We can’t do this.” There are some people who said a door got messed up. We’ll leave it at that. I wasn’t proud of myself.
STACEY KING (reserve forward): I’ll never forget Michael Jordan standing up in the locker room and giving this emotional speech—basically saying what Jerry said. But it hit home because Jordan was our leader. He said, “This will be the last time this happens. We will never have this feeling again.” It was almost like a religious thing. He had a glow to him. It hit home like a freaking lightning bolt.
PHIL JACKSON (head coach): They punished us. We got blasted. But the Monday after that debacle on Sunday, the guys showed up for work.
KRAUSE: I went in the office, and on Monday morning, which was our supposed exit day, I looked at [head trainer] Al Vermeil’s training area. There were 11 players there at 7:30 in the morning, and they were sweating like pigs. I called [chairman Jerry] Reinsdorf about three hours later and said, “We’re going to win this year.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “If you just saw what I saw, they understand finally.” We had the best summer of workouts that we ever had.
MICHAEL JORDAN (starting guard): I knew I had to get stronger. If I was going to go into the post, then I was going to have to play like a big guy. I still had my quickness so I knew if I got stronger, I could turn the tables. Teams such as the Pistons and Knicks had figured the only way to throw me off my game was to throw me out of the air. I’d had enough. I wanted to start dishing out the punishment instead of taking it all the time.
PAXSON: It was odd how [that first championship] year started out. We lost our first three. This is where Phil deserves a lot of credit. He had a way of keeping us calm, keeping the big picture in mind. He knew we would hit our stride.
KRAUSE: Phil was great at that. He’s the best coach I’ve ever known at that. He never panicked.
KING: People have to remember, we had a young coach. We were learning a new system—we had put in [assistant coach] Tex Winter’s triangle [offense] that first year—and it was really going into our second full season of running that offense.
SCOTTIE PIPPEN (starting forward): I think it had a lot to do with the triangle. None of us were very comfortable with it. We just didn’t have the chemistry on the court, night in and night out.
BILL CARTWRIGHT (starting center): We were always somebody’s game of the week, game of the month. So we always felt like teams were thinking about us because we were such a big game.
Photography: Charles Cherney/Chicago Tribune