The 1991 NBA Champs were in the house tonight – The House That Jordan Built. I couldn’t help but think how well most have aged, how much MJ looks like his father; and how some, namely Stacey King, have grown wider as well as older. But mostly, they’ve aged well in our memories as former announcer Jim “Book It” Durham MC’d the event that took me back to a special time and team. Whereas most Chicago teams like the 1985 Bears left you wanted more, the 1991 Bulls were just the beginning of the most glorious run in the history of Windy City Sports.
The 1990–91 season was where the original Baby Bulls grew up. Facing the Pistons in the playoffs for the fourth time in a row and the third consecutive time in the conference finals, the Bulls finally faced down their demons. A tremendous amount of mental strength is required to overcome an opponent after years of tough losses. And to say the Pistons were in the Bulls’ heads was an understatement. Detroit’s “Bad Boys” nickname was due to a reputation for pushing their opponents around, with the Bulls as no exception. But by then, the Bulls endured all the tough losses, the migraines, the physical as well as emotional beat downs to finally take those experiences to persevere while growing stronger as a unit. They were ready to take the next step and dominated the Pistons in a four-game sweep as the Pistons provided a lasting image of walking off early, past the Bulls bench as Jordan stared them down. With their final hurdle cleared, no team could stop the Bulls – certainly not an aging Lakers roster. The Bulls became only the third team in NBA history to win three straight NBA titles from 1991 through 1993. And after Jordan came back from an almost two-season sabbatical, they again won three straight from 1996–98.
The snapshot from the first title etched into the history of Chicago fans and the NBA was Jordan cradling the trophy in tears. In that picture we see illuminated the lost value in sport of delayed gratification. Jordan, unlike his contemporaries like Bird or Magic, waited for seven years while often enduring some inferior teams early in his career (see Walter Payton) before finally winning a professional championship. The struggle and all the perseverance came gushing out in his tears. This championship, as the Bears’ Super Bowl, took three years with the core of that team, three years of making strides before finally accomplishing the ultimate goal. We appreciate those championships as a fan because we grew and endured with those teams, hoping, dreaming, yet wondering along the way if they’d ever get there. Nowadays, the fans, media and sports organizations themselves want to win immediately and show no patience for the values of growing and coming together over time.
They became the only professional sports team in my lifetime to win six championships in eight years. And with the structure of sports in the modern era—team salary caps and free agency—we’re unlikely to ever see another championship run like the 1990s Bulls’ again. In thirteen seasons, Michael Jordan’s Bulls team never lost a playoff series they were supposed to win and won five as the underdog. In a city with so many prior sporting collapses and disappointments, this feat to me is the most understated. It’s a feat that no other athlete in my lifetime can lay claim to—not any of Jordan’s contemporaries like Bird or Magic or anybody from the current era such as Kobe or Lebron.
Looking back, most fans miss the old Chicago Stadium almost as much as the Bulls or Blackhawks teams from that period. The Stadium was considered the loudest indoor arena in North America. Built in 1929 and constructed with a close-quartered layout, the seats sat almost right on top of the playing surface. Building codes today prevent such a tight-knit construction. The Bulls were the first team that dimmed the house lights for a “spotlight” introduction. With The Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky” blaring over the loud speakers, the spotlight panned the crowd, capturing the championship banners as well as the individual players upon introduction. With a flashing Bulls logo displayed on the scoreboard, the crowd erupted as soon as the lights dimmed and grew steadily louder as Public Address announcer Ray Clay bellowed out “And now, the starting lineups for your World Champion Chicago Bulls!” By the time each of the four starters were introduced, he peaked with “From North Carolina …” and you couldn’t hear anything but the roar of the crowd as Michael Jordan was introduced as the fifth and final starter. The Stadium just added to the Bulls’ mystique in those days.
As tonight’s celebration concluded at the building across the street, I noticed how attentive the new Baby Bulls appeared in watching their legendary predecessors as they awaited the start of the second half. I have to think the thought crossed their collective minds as they listened to the roar for a team from two decades ago that they want that feeling as well – to come back in 20 years to be honored for their banner(s). And, if MJ’s predictions proves to be correct, that may just be the case.