Inside the Start of the Chicago Bulls’ Championship Run
BOUND FOR GLORY: An oral history of how Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson, and the rest of the 1991 NBA champs learned to play together and started the greatest pro sports dynasty the town has ever seen
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JACKSON: I thought the Lakers were great. They had a rookie center, Vlade Divac, but they had [Sam] Perkins, they had [James] Worthy, they had [Byron] Scott, they had Magic [Johnson]. And so four of their five guys were terrific all-star players, basically. We were pretty confident going in against them that we had some answers for them.
SMITH: The national view was the Bulls had no chance. Jordan was still viewed as a great scorer but not a winner. Not like Magic and not like [Larry] Bird or even Isiah, because he hadn’t won anything. I was one of the few to pick the Bulls—I picked them in five. Not that I’m any sort of genius, but I realized how good this team had become. I was much vilified for this. There was a [sports] paper called The National publishing then, and they had written a column lambasting me—you know, those [rubes] from the Midwest, how stupid we are.
DURHAM: I think a lot of people in the media always put a lot of high regard on experience, and the Lakers had championship experience. They had that championship pedigree. The Bulls hadn’t earned it yet.
PERDUE: They were the big bad Lakers, man. They’d been there, done that. Magic, Worthy, Byron Scott, and on and on and on. We began thinking: If we can just do something to knock a little doubt into the Lakers. What can we do? How can we do this?
KING: I guarantee you, 90 percent thought that we were going to lose to the Pistons, and 90 percent thought, OK, if they got by the Pistons, the Lakers are definitely going to beat them.
KRAUSE: We were feeling pretty good. But anything can happen.
SMITH: So now it’s Magic versus Jordan.
PAXSON: It’s easy to say we were confident going in, but it was unlike anything any of us had ever experienced before. In the old [Chicago] Stadium, we used to come from the basement and up the steps. When we came out for Game 1, it was surreal. There were so many people on the court. It was like there was a fog in the building. It was almost madness. It felt unlike a basketball game. I felt that from right when we ran out onto the court. And we played like it.
PIPPEN: It was nerve racking. There’s always that nervous energy. But you could never calm yourself down [to] where you could do anything at the right pace. Everything was moving a little bit too fast, or you were moving too fast. In the first game, we just broke down in all kinds of ways. Just not being ready and couldn’t calm down.
KING: We were kind of caught in the moment, like, Wow, we’re here. It was a jolt. And that’s exactly what we needed. If we had blown out the Lakers that first game, maybe our attitude and our approach would have been different [in the next game].
SMITH: And so the Lakers win. Sam Perkins hits this shot—he wasn’t even trying for a 3. He was supposed to shoot a 2 to tie it—steps back and makes a 3 to win it.
REINSDORF: I was very concerned. Because I really thought home court was an important thing.
PIPPEN: It put us all back on our heels a little bit. It was a reality check. But it was still a long series. We knew that that second game was the most important game for us to win. And that really reenergized us. The first game we sort of played a little nervous. The anticipation and everything got us off to a bad start. We were always known as a team that gets off to a good start, and they came in and pretty much controlled us.
SMITH: I was friendly with Phil’s then-wife, June, at the time, and I remember seeing her when I was walking out, and she was all upset about the loss, and Phil was really upbeat. Phil says, “What a great game this was,” and she says, “Phil, how can you say that? We lost!” Phil wasn’t in the clouds, but I think [the Bulls] felt even though they lost that game, they hadn’t lost their confidence that they could beat this team.
JACKSON: I thought we played OK. I mean, they had to make a really great shot to win the game. They did that. But we felt like we had a plan, and we made a change, and we put Pippen on Magic [in the second game].
PIPPEN: I just wanted to make Magic Johnson work, try to wear him down, utilize my size and my quickness, make it difficult for him.
PAXSON: A lot of people point to [that defensive switch as] one of the turning points of the series. Michael was guarding Magic during the early part of the series, and he picked up an early second foul in that [second] game, and so Scottie ended up switching and really did a terrific job of making Magic work with his dribble up and down the floor, pressuring him, making his passing angles tough.
DURHAM: That really set the defensive tone for the rest of that series. Scottie did a tremendous job on Magic Johnson.
SMITH: So [the Bulls] just blow them out in Game 2. Then they go to L.A., and they’re playing in this close game. Now they’ve got this last shot, and usually they take a time-out and go to half court. Phil decides to give Michael the ball to go full court and just size it up. And he comes down, and he shoots it and ties the game, and they win in overtime. Now they’ve turned it around. They’re up 2–1, in L.A. They’ve got the home court back.
REINSDORF: It was an exhausting game. I remember afterward our front-office staff was celebrating in the parking lot—we always brought all the front office out to the finals—the fact that we were going back to Chicago. I remember them dancing up and down, saying, “We’re going back to Chicago.” And then, lo and behold, we won the next game.
SMITH: The clincher, Game 5 [in Los Angeles], was sort of the bookend to Phil’s season. [The Bulls] are up [three games to one], but the Lakers are in it. The Forum’s going nuts, and [there’s] a time-out with six minutes to go. [The Lakers are] trapping Michael all over the court, and he’s in a fury trying to win this game by himself. And, like Detroit used to take advantage of him when he was like this, now the Lakers were doing it.
REINSDORF: The score, I believe, was 93–93, give or take a point. Phil calls a time-out, and he looks at Michael and he says, “Michael, who’s open?” Michael gives him a blank stare. He puts his hands on Michael’s shoulders and he says, “Michael, who’s open?” Michael says, “Paxson.” Phil says, “Get him the fucking ball.” Paxson scores 10 points after that, and we win going away.
SMITH: It was the lesson from when Phil took over—in effect, that you can’t win it by yourself. You’ve got to depend on the group. Now we’ve come full circle. Michael has bought in, and Phil’s theories have been proved: that if you trust the group, you’ll have greater success, and you’ll be viewed as greater. From that point, Michael was viewed as the greatest player in the league.
PERDUE: [When the game ended,] I just remember we’re jumping up and down, we’re running around the floor. You’re almost not sure what to do. I kept looking at the scoreboard and looking at the clock, and the one guy who’s kind of been my mentor was Bill Cartwright, and [I was] hugging him and hanging out with him and looking at the grin on his face, and [he was] telling me how lucky I was to win a championship at such a young age and halfheartedly giving me a hard time—“Count your blessings, young fella”—almost like trying to teach me a lesson, even though we had just won a championship.
JACKSON: [I remember] walking off the court and down to that locker room, which was a madhouse. But I can remember, too, going back to my room after a celebratory night and thinking, The biggest regret we had in the New York [Knicks] team [that won a championship in 1973] is that we didn’t repeat. So now that we had won one, we’ve got to repeat. And I’m going to get it through to this team, somehow or someway, that we’ve got to do this again, because this team is just too good not to do it.
KRAUSE: I remember [the Lakers] make a few shots. Holy shit, if we blow this thing. . . . I’m sweating. I thought, Oh, Jesus, we got to this point, don’t blow it now. Then Pax hits a couple of shots, and we win, and I jumped up. I hugged Jerry [Reinsdorf]. And I said, “This one is for you.” He hugged me back and said, “No, it’s for you.” And we were hugging each other, and we went in the locker room. I remember at the championship celebration I hugged [Jackson] and said, “You’re the best move I made.”
REINSDORF: I was numb. I wasn’t sure what it meant. It was almost surreal, like it didn’t happen.
SMITH: It was tremendous joy. That locker room was the most joyous it ever was in any of those championships, by far, because they’d finally achieved [a championship]. I remember covering the team in the late eighties where in the newspapers people were writing columns routinely that Jordan could never win. That you can’t win with Jordan.
JORDAN: You had all your media naysayers: “Scoring champion can’t win an NBA title.” “You’re not as good as Magic Johnson. Not as good as Larry Bird. You’re good, but you’re not as good as those guys.” I had to listen to this every day. That’s why our first championship was a little sweeter.
DURHAM: The one thing I’ll remember is the Bulls dancing off the floor and everybody else just sitting there watching it. And then that scene with Michael crying, with his dad and with his arms around him. Finally he had won, and he had won doing it his way.
CARTWRIGHT: For me, it was great because I’d spent nine years in New York, never gotten to an Eastern Conference finals game. The most interesting thing is that everybody has great memories of a championship team, and it was a special time in everybody’s life, and it was fun, it was great. But I tell you what—it sure as hell wasn’t easy.