The First Ride
The Chicago Bulls’ run of dominance began with the ’91 NBA title.
In the first round, Chicago swept the Knicks, then laughed off Barkley and the Sixers in the quarterfinals—setting the stage for the most pivotal series in the careers of every player and coach for that Bulls squad.
PERDUE: The biggest thing I remember was the physicality of how they played the game and how you just…you weren’t afraid of it, but you knew by the time the game was over—regardless of how many minutes you played—you were going to be spent, possibly bruised. They had this way with the rules. It’s like the speed limit. Even if the speed limit is 55, you still go 65 and the thinking is, “Well, if I don’t get caught, is it really illegal?” The Pistons really pushed the envelope.
SCOOP: This was a big series for Michael, but it might have been bigger for Scottie. He had to get past the Pistons. That haunted him. Detroit picked on him, thought that he was the mentally weak link. It wasn’t just the Jordan Rules, know what I’m sayin’?! More importantly, it was the Pippen Rules! Get inside his head, because he doesn’t have the pedigree of these other guys—that’s how they went at it.
PIPPEN: Yeah, there was some pressure. I had the migraine thing in Game 7. I probably let people down and people were disappointed. It was going to take some time to erase those scars. Getting past the Pistons was going to help turn that corner.
The Bulls took the first two games in Chicago and headed to Detroit up 2-0.
TELANDER: I think Jordan realized, “They don’t have anybody anywhere remotely like me.” And then the rest of the team finally realized, “We just have to play our positions and play really hard and then this crazy motherfucker will lead us to the Promise Land.”
FALK: There was no wall you could erect or Jordan Rules you could implement to keep him from winning that ring. The Pistons were finding that out.
After the Bulls take Game 3 in Detroit (on their way to a sweep), MJ called the Pistons dirty and unsportsmanlike. The Pistons responded by walking off the court before the final buzzer of Game 4.
HODGES: We realized that the reason they had to rough us up is because they couldn’t get over our athleticism. Michael, Scottie, Horace running all over the court—that scared them, so they tried to bully us. But all that was over. Everybody got tougher. Detroit had been thugging us out. We had to say, “Fuck that! Let’s go. Let’s keep jumping over these muthafuckas.” And when we got in there, they knew what time it was. That’s why, after we swept them, they walked off. They knew the team they’d been punking had just punked them, and they couldn’t handle it.
SCOOP: Once we got through the Pistons, in our minds, the Finals was easy. We didn’t look at anyone else as a challenge, especially because of the way we beat Detroit. A sweep? On their floor? Man, you could have thrown the Western Conference All-Stars at us and we’d have thought the title was ours.
TELANDER: When people think back on that year, a lot of folks remember them getting over the Pistons Hump, but that Finals was a big deal, too. Magic was The Man, but he had a funky game. He ran with his ass sticking out, had a weird set shot. The League and the world were ready for a change. If Jordan were to beat Magic, you knew it would signal a huge switch and change in the culture of basketball.
Although all the build-up concerned the two MJs, the key move—the X-factor—was Phil and assistant coach Johnny Bach’s decision to put Pippen on Magic. After the Lakers stole home court advantage in Game 1, Pippen put Magic in the trick bag, and, ultimately, the Bulls had their first title.
PIPPEN: I knew that all the hoopla was built around Magic and Michael, but the reality was that Magic was not the match-up for Michael. That’s how the fans and media wanted it, but we knew it wouldn’t be beneficial for Michael to spend his time on Magic. I wanted that challenge, so I took it.
HODGES: Before the Finals started, Scottie said, “I might not score a bucket, but I guarantee you that Magic’s gonna be tired as hell by the time I get through hounding his ass.” You know, that move Michael made when he switched to the left hand for the layup—that was the highlight. But, man, Scottie had Magic spinning like a top.
HODGES: That previous summer, we said that we weren’t gonna feel like that as a unit again, so everybody went home and got in their thing. When we came back, anybody could have coached us. We used to have to cut practices short—they were so intense. I challenge any team to beat that ’91 crew.
SCOTT WILLIAMS (‘90 First-round pick, MJ’s fellow Tar Heel): That was the start of something special. Now, we weren’t only the team with the biggest star in the world, we were the champs, too. It snowballed from there. From that point on, we were like the Stones or U2 or The Jackson 5. It’d be like 2 a.m. on a snowy night in Cleveland and people would be waiting for us to get off the bus so they could get our autographs…well, they were waiting for Michael and Scottie—but you get the point.
SCOOP: I was in The Chi for the ’91 run. Let me tell you something: The. City. Lost. Its. Mind! People spilling into the streets, yelling out windows, waving flags, honking horns. Mayhem. I remember this one girl was riding passenger side in a car, basically sitting all the way outside the vehicle on the door. The car was going maybe 20 mph or so. Anyway, something happened and the girl fell off the car, on her face! I mean, she cracked her skull. The girl got right back up, blood streaming all down her face and everything and got right back to celebrating. We were like, “What are you doing?! You cracked your face open!” She was like, “I don’t care! We the champs!” It was bugged out. But that’s how it was for almost the next 10 years with the Bulls. Euphoria.