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
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.
SMITH: Pippen was always complaining about his contract. And now they’re recruiting Kukoc. [Negotiations to bring the European player Toni Kukoc to the team that year ultimately fell through, to the delight of Pippen and Jordan and the consternation of Krause. Kukoc would not join the team until 1993.] Because the fans were so locked into Jordan and Pippen and the team and so negative toward Jerry Krause, [the wooing of Kukoc] was looked at as some kind of betrayal. It was ludicrous. [Management was] trying to improve the team—trying to get the best player in Europe basically for free.
KRAUSE: Toni was an unusual situation. He was the Jordan of Europe. He was a god. He could not walk down the street without getting mobbed. Phil and I are sitting there watching him play, [thinking that] we got stupid lucky [by drafting him in 1990]. He’s better than I ever thought.
JACKSON: Yeah, you know, the players got wind of it a little bit—they knew that we were enamored with Toni. But we knew he’d taken the contract with [the] Benetton [team] in Italy and he was getting paid really well with them.
SMITH: [Phil Jackson] did take advantage a little bit of Krause. He fed the Kukoc thing a little bit in his own sly way—with a comment here or there in a way that might provoke the players. The Bulls guys didn’t hate one another. They sort of hated all the outside forces. Jordan didn’t hate Pippen. Grant and Jordan didn’t get along particularly, but they didn’t hate each other. They hated Krause and they hated [Pippen’s] contract. They hated Kukoc.
JERRY REINSDORF (chairman): But these off-the-court things, they weren’t that important. You go back to the Oakland Athletics of the early seventies. When they won five divisions and three World Series in a row, these guys used to fight in the clubhouse. They didn’t like each other. The important thing is what do you do when you’re out on the field, out on the court? And there was certainly a unity among the [Bulls] players.
PERDUE: There were fights and fracases, but that happens anywhere. I think the one thing that team proved is that you don’t necessarily have to like the people you play with, but you’ve got to respect the people you play with. I can’t sit here and say this person hated that person. It’s really hard to say who disliked whom. But the one thing we did do, when you looked up and that clock hit and you crossed the white line, we played as a team.
SMITH: They blow through the playoffs. They knock off the Knicks. They destroy them. They go to Philly and basically overwhelm them. They lose one game, but they’re down 20-something points and lose by 2. So now it’s all what the season is about: This whole season has been played for right now. Game 1, our court, against Detroit.
REINSDORF: [The Pistons] had Rodman and they had Isiah [Thomas]. These are tough players, and they’re good players, and they weren’t going to go down easily. And when you get to the conference finals, the games tend to be close because now you’ve got the best teams playing.
PAXSON: We had a real quiet confidence about ourselves. We knew that those first two home games were the absolutely two most important games for us—because we worked all year to get home-court advantage. We had to hold serve those first two games.
JIM DURHAM (Bulls radio play-by-play announcer): The one thing that was different was the home-court advantage. They hadn’t had that in those other years with the Pistons. I think that gave them confidence.
PAXSON: Like I said, they had such control of us in a lot of ways mentally. Honestly, for years we thought we had to fight back. Because Mike would go up for a shot and would land, and they would give him an extra shot, or he comes in traffic, the whistle blows, and, boom, they’re getting him. They’d do it to all of us. For years, we felt we had to play the same way and stand up and be a man to them. [But] in that series, we didn’t feel we had to do that. We felt we could accept those things.
JACKSON: My issue with the team was that they felt they had to compete physically with Detroit, and physically they were going to get out-strong-armed by Detroit. [The Pistons] had Laimbeer, they had Rodman. They had big bodies. We were long and rangy and more greyhound, and my thing was, “We’ve got to beat them with speed. We’ve got to beat them with speed and quickness.” We started using what we call automatics. We’d pull [the Pistons] out away from the basket when they’d come up and try to attack us, and then [we’d] step into the vacuums that were provided by them extending their defense and try to use our speed to break by them.
CARTWRIGHT: Phil had the mindset for us that we were going to play how we played. [Detroit] wanted to pound everything, they wanted to play a slow-tempo game. And we didn’t want to do that. We’re a fluid team; we wanted to push the ball up and down the floor.
KRAUSE: I know going into the series with Detroit, the Bulls were a pumped club.
DURHAM: The Bulls were just getting great confidence with each game. The series moved on—the Bulls winning the first two in Chicago and playing better in Game 2 than in Game 1.
PERDUE: [But] you can’t sit there and say, “Man, we just whipped their ass,” because every game was a dogfight. I mean, you could tell after the game guys were mentally and physically drained. And yet there was that sense of euphoria knowing that, hey, we just beat those guys, and we can do it again for Game 3.
KING: We go [to Detroit] and win the third game. In our eyes, it’s over. But we still know they’re going to come out and give their best effort. Let me tell you how cocky they were: We had morning shootaround, and there’s a time limit with the shoot-around—you have to be off the floor within an hour. So our shootaround had about 15 minutes to go. Phil was going over the game plan. And we were talking about what we were going to do that night. So [the Pistons] were in the hallway, and they’re disrupting practice—whistling and yelling. I remember Bill Laimbeer was like, “Get the hell off our court, time’s up.” [But] Scottie was cocky, too. I remember [him] doing a dance, like with a broom. Somebody goes, “Scottie, what you doin’?” “I’m sweeping up the trash—just like we’re gonna do tonight.” They really couldn’t say anything. We were cracking up.
SMITH: Toward the end [of the fourth game], Rodman threw Pippen into the stands. Pippen got a cut on his chin, six stitches or something. And didn’t retaliate, didn’t lose it. Just came back on the court and made his free throws. That sort of symbolized [the Bulls’ attitude]: “We’re past this now, those who are resorting to this. We don’t have to. We’re just better.”
REINSDORF: [The Pistons] acted like spoiled children in the fourth game, and they walked off the court. It didn’t bother me that they didn’t shake hands, but the idea that they walked off the court before the game was over, walked right by our bench—that certainly was a low-class thing. But in a way, I was glad. They had the dirtiest player who ever played in the NBA on their side—Laimbeer. He was just terrible. I despised that entire team, as I think all Bulls fans did. Not only did we beat them but we frustrated them.
PAXSON: It was incredibly satisfying, the fact that they had to walk by our bench. You could still see Isiah was kind of ducking down, shoulders kind of slouched, trying not to be seen. The disappointing thing about that is they had a similar circumstance with Boston where [the Pistons] had to overcome [the Celtics]. When they did, when they finally beat Boston to get to the finals three years before, [Celtics forward Kevin] McHale and all those guys went right to them and were like, “Congratulations, you’ve earned it.” We obviously didn’t get the same thing. But it did kind of validate what we believed in—that we played the right way. They were really good, but their time had come and gone, and it was our turn now.
JORDAN: When that happened, when we broke through and swept them four straight, the leaders of the [Pistons] showed their true colors. They lost a lot of respect by walking off the floor and not shaking our hands.
KRAUSE: [After] the fourth game in Detroit, I was dancing in the aisles on the plane. We were having a helluva ride back to Chicago. Players are all laughing like hell because I’m dancing in the aisles. We beat those sons of bitches.
JACKSON: There’s a video that the players made of [Krause] dancing. I don’t know if it’s available for the public, [but] it was a high moment in his life, and he recognizes that to this day. He knows I give him credit—even if our relationship was broken apart by the end. I have great respect for Jerry and the job he did.
SMITH: I remember Jordan talking about it at that point—you know, “We’ve come this far, we might as well win it.” The Lakers had upset Portland, and now the Bulls had home-court advantage [for the finals].
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.