For our Sports Issue, senior writer Bryan Smith put together a lengthy oral history of the 1991 Bulls. As Smith points out, the first team of the great dynasty wasn't a sure thing, losing their first three games of the season (not unlike this year's Heat, who struggled early and who are still not dominant):
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.
That last line is actually true. Back in February of 1989, Ted Cox wrote a cover story for Chicago about Jordan and the Bulls, which we've pulled from the archive for your reading pleasure, and that was his thesis:
He is the reigning Most Valuable Player of the National Basketball Association, winning the award last summer for a season in which he became the first person to lead the league in both steals and points scored. He stands out as the most arresting and, not coincidentally, the most marketable player in the sport. He outscores his closest competitor by more than five points a game–500 points over the course of a season. He is, by himself, a one-man team, clearly deserving of the MVP award; but in a league that is evolving toward deeper, more balanced play, he is something of an oddity–almost an albatross. How can a player so good treat others as equals? How can a player so accomplished be simply a member of a team?
It didn't work, not in the 1988-1989 season, even though Jordan was ridiculous, putting up ten triple-doubles in 11 games at one point (the Pistons beat them in the Eastern Conference finals and won the championship). It didn't work the next year (same deal), even though Pippen and Grant were established in the lineup and the former was an All-Star.
They made risky moves: promoting Phil Jackson and firing Doug Collins (who had made two straight Conference Finals), and trading tough rebounder and fan favorite Charles Oakley for the aging, often injured Bill Cartwright. And it's interesting how the Bulls quoted by Smith in his history explain how they solved the dilemma that Cox laid out in 1989:
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.
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.
It reminds me of the effect of Tom Thibodeau on this year's Bulls. It's hard to quantify what a coach does, but this post by Dan Feldman does a fine job, pointing out how the team's philosophy has shifted under their new coach.
Photograph: Chicago Tribune