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The 90s Show: An Oral History of the Best Era in Pro Basketball

The 90s Show: An Oral History of the Best Era in Pro Basketball : Getty Images

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A little over 20 years ago, the NBA was in transition. The league was shifting gears, moving from the age of Magic Johnson’s Lakers vs. Larry Bird’s Celtics to today’s game. The Magic-Bird era made the NBA bigger and better than ever, but by the early 1990s it was over. Detroit’s “Bad Boy” Pistons were aging into bad old men. Who got next?

It’s easy to forget how different pro basketball was in the 1990s. Centers could still dominate. Guards could still hit half their jumpers. Defense was rougher, tougher and more honest, with less soccer-style flopping and moaning for a foul call. Rookies were seasoned by three or four seasons of college ball, not a one-and-done year that sent them to the pros before they’d finished growing. The annual Slam Dunk Contest still mattered.

In the 1990s you had Ace of Base on the radio, ER and Home Improvement on TV and O.J. Simpson making a 35-mile-an-hour getaway in his white Bronco. You had Warcraft: Orcs and Humans on your PC and the first Air Jordan Retros on your feet. Best of all you had hoops for the ages, including not one but two candidates for Best Team There Ever Was. It’s all replayed here in highlights vintage and new, starting with the 1991 press conference that changed everything.

MAGIC JOHNSON, Los Angeles Lakers point guard and Hall of Famer: [November 7, 1991] Because of the HIV virus I have attained, I will have to retire from the Lakers today. I will now become a spokesman for the HIV virus. Life goes on. Sometimes we think only gay people can get it, that it’s not going to happen to me. And here I am saying it can happen to anybody, even me, Magic Johnson.… I’m going to beat it, and I’m going to have fun.

We thought he was just being his usual self, good old upbeat Magic, suddenly facing a death sentence. In 1991, nobody beat HIV. Magic’s diagnosis was final, his prognosis seemingly terminal. The idea that he would help pioneer the combination of drugs that would help others survive HIV was as outlandish as the thought that Magic would go on to make millions as a businessman and co-owner of the L.A. Dodgers—as crazy as the thought of a league without him. “I mangled some of my statement,” he said later, “but you know what? I’m proud of that moment. My heart was in the right place.”

DOMINIQUE WILKINS, Atlanta Hawks small forward and Hall of Famer: When Magic left, he left something behind, kind of an empty space where he used to be. Larry Bird was about to retire. Who was going to be the face of basketball? Well, we all had a pretty good idea.

Three months after his press conference, Magic Johnson came out of retirement to score 25 points in the 1992 All-Star Game. In June, he joined Bird, Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and seven other future Hall of Famers at the summer Olympics in Barcelona, where the U.S. “Dream Team” avenged America’s third-place finish at Seoul in 1988. The Dream Teamers’ 117–85 crushing of Croatia in the gold-medal final was the closest game they played. Before that, Barkley had thrown an elbow that practically knocked an Angolan player off his feet, then barked at Sports Illustrated reporter Jack McCallum, “Hey, Jack, am I gonna be on the cover for this?” During a photo shoot of America’s team, Bird asked McCallum, “Hey, Jack, later on, you wanna blow us?” In his 2012 book Dream Team, McCallum calls them “the most fellated gang of warriors since the Spartan army.”

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The best team ever? Team USA dominated the 1992 summer Olympics in Barcelona.

JACK MCCALLUM, author of Seven Seconds or Less and Dream Team: Was the Dream Team the best basketball team ever? They’ll do for now. And they came together at a time when there was a changing of the guard, from the Magic-Bird era to the Age of Michael, who transcended even his hype. To me, that might be his greatest accomplishment as he took over the game in the 1990s—beating his hype. Because how could you be better than people said Michael Jordan was? But he was.

MICHAEL JORDAN, Chicago Bulls shooting guard and Hall of Famer: [In 1997] I got my first scoring title in 1987. That was special because it pertained to, you know, proving everybody wrong. Which is one of my strong points. I used to hear the line, “Who’s the only person to hold Michael Jordan under 20 points? [University of North Carolina coach] Dean Smith!” I said no. Wrong. I knew I could always score points. What Dean Smith taught me was the rest of the game, not just scoring but defense, passing, rebounds—aspects of the game I utilized in the pros.

Jordan had arrived on the national stage with a corner jumper that won the 1982 NCAA finals for North Carolina. He was a 19-year-old freshman.

JORDAN: I never saw the ball go in. The defense was coming; I was fading away, blocked out. But I knew from the noise. That was the real beginning of my career. After that, the toughest was living up to expectations.

Detroit’s Bad Boys, back-to-back champs in 1989 and 1990, were almost done. Jordan’s Chicago Bulls swept them in the 1991 Eastern Conference finals on the way to the title—a series that saw the Pistons surrender. They left the court as the last seconds ticked away, refusing to shake the Bulls’ hands. Jordan reportedly said he was “shocked” that Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas “didn’t play as hard” as he could have. Thomas would be left off the 1992 Olympic Dream Team, a snub that irked him ever after. By 1994, when the once-proud Pistons finished 20–64, Chuck Daly’s once-feared Bad Boys were just plain bad.

SEKOU SMITH, NBA.com correspondent: The league was evolving from that Bad Boys black-and-blue period, with the Pistons delivering the lumps, to a more free-flowing game. I grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the heart of Bad Boys country, but I was a Lakers fan because of Magic and the wizardry he displayed running that Showtime attack. The shift from there into the 1990s was fascinating to watch.

WILKINS: The 1990s weren’t as physical as the 1980s, which were just ridiculous, but they were a lot more physical than today.

SMITH: It was still the league’s WWE era. And not just the Bad Boys in Detroit—teams like the Knicks and the Heat wrestled as much as they played basketball.

WILKINS: I loved the contact. We did a lot of hand-checking, and you could reach out your elbow to slow people down. No zones allowed. You couldn’t get across the lane without getting checked, getting screened—paying your dues. Another huge difference is that we finished our college careers, so we were more polished when we arrived. I came out of what was probably the best high school class ever. There was me, James Worthy, Isiah Thomas, Ralph Sampson, Byron Scott, and not one of us went straight to the NBA. I averaged 28 points and 19 rebounds my senior year in high school and didn’t even think of going pro.

That era had some of the greatest players of all time. Great characters, even great nicknames.

Allen Iverson, a Philadelphia 76ers rookie with the world’s quickest crossover dribble—a “Money Bagz” tattoo on the back of his left hand crossing over his right with its tat of a stack of money—was the Answer. Seattle’s Gary Payton was the Glove because he covered you like one. Utah’s Karl Malone was the Mailman because he delivered. The Portland Trail Blazers’ Clyde Drexler was Clyde the Glide because he flied. Navy grad David Robinson, the Admiral, torpedoed San Antonio’s foes. The 1990s roll call featured Mookie Blaylock and Moochie Norris, Reign Man Shawn Kemp and Thunder Dan Majerle, Penny Hardaway, the Round Mound of Rebound, Dennis “the Worm” Rodman, the Dream, the Big Dog, Pooh Richardson, Bimbo Coles and Tractor Traylor.

WILKINS: And I was the Human Highlight Film. I didn’t like that name so much. Sure, I dunked, but it’s not like I got all my 26,000 points on dunks. I had a midrange game. I’d get to the line nine or 10 times a game, get the tough bucket in the last minute. That’s the role of a team’s number one player. Going to the basket to create contact, then you focus on hitting the shot for a three-point play.

Michael was great at that. He was the number one guy, top of the list. But let’s not forget the most athletic of them all, the guy who came before us, Julius Erving. Dr. J was a son of a bitch—the son of a bitch who really created the modern era.

SMITH: Legions of hoops-heads became Jordan worshippers in the 1990s.

WILKINS: Remember how Magic and Isiah used to kiss before the tip? That wasn’t Michael. He was more like Bird and me. When fans ask about highlights, they think of special plays, but we’d think games. Going up against Bird or Jordan or Magic and winning the game for your team, that’s a highlight. I had 54 one night against Boston and 57 against Chicago. Do you think they said, “Nice game,” afterward? Did we hang out on the floor and talk like we’re friends, like they do now? No. You get a stony look as Jordan or Bird goes by. It’s like, You kicked my butt today, but we’re gonna meet again.

SMITH: Who thought of Chicago as a big NBA town? Fans had grown accustomed to the domination of the Lakers, Celtics and Pistons, only to have Jordan’s Bulls take over a decade.

Chicago’s NBA franchise didn’t win a championship until 1991: Jordan’s first finals and Magic’s last. A year later the playoffs opened with Sports Illustrated hyping Portland’s Drexler as Michael’s “number one rival,” the first so-called next Jordan. Coach Phil Jackson’s Bulls took the series in six. Jordan won the MVP award to go with his sixth straight scoring title.

By 1993 Chicago was shooting for a three-peat—a term coined by the Lakers’ Byron Scott and officially trademarked by Lakers coach Pat Riley during the 1989 season, when two-time champ L.A. failed to do what the Bulls later hoped to. After sweeping Atlanta and Cleveland, Chicago fell behind the New York Knicks two games to none in the Eastern final, only to sweep the last four from Riley, Patrick Ewing and, on the sidelines, director Spike Lee. Next came Bulls-Suns in the NBA finals, with Phoenix a slight favorite. The Suns were led by Charles Barkley, whose regular-season MVP award kept Jordan from three-peating in that department.

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Michael Jordan gets the MVP award from NBA commissioner David Stern in 1991.

CHARLES BARKLEY, Phoenix Suns power forward and Hall of Famer: [To McCallum in 2013] Chuck Daly had told me [at the Olympics] that I was the second-best player in the world. “Who’s better than me?” I said. I knew the answer. But I really believed, at that time, I was better than Michael. That changed during this series.

PAUL WESTPHAL, Phoenix Suns coach: [To McCallum in 2013] Next to Shaq, Charles may have been the worst player in history at defending the pick-and-roll. We’re playing Utah early in the season, and Charles is in the wrong place again. I say, “Charles, just tell me what you want to do.” He says, “I’ll let the guy come through, then clothesline him. That’s what I really want to do.”

At America West Arena in Phoenix, with the series at stake, Barkley was on Scottie Pippen. Barkley tried for a steal. Pippen found Horace Grant under the basket for a game-tying layup. Except that Grant chickened out. Instead of dropping the ball in the basket, he flipped it outside to guard John Paxson.

JOHN PAXSON, Chicago Bulls point guard: [To McCallum in 2013] The key was when Charles gambled. The play was supposed to go to Scottie and Michael, but now it turned into something else.…

A do-or-die three-pointer. Paxson squared up and launched a rainbow that took 1.3 seconds to reach the hoop. Swish. The Bulls won 99–98. Three-peat complete. Paxson and Jackson exulted while Barkley sulked. Jordan copped his third straight finals MVP trophy as the curtain fell on the first act of 1990s basketball.

Four months later, Jordan held a press conference.

JORDAN: [Announcing his retirement, October 6, 1993] I’ve always stressed to people who have known me, when I lose the sense of motivation to prove something as a basketball player, it’s time for me to move away from the game. I have reached the pinnacle of my career.

He was 30 years old. The world asked why. Jordan mentioned his father—murdered by a pair of joyriding teenagers on the side of a highway that summer. Even to the fiercest competitor alive, the game seemed less important.

JORDAN: It was just a matter of waiting until this time, when basketball was near, to see if my heart would tick for it. The desire was not there.

It turned out he wasn’t quitting sports, just basketball. Soon the world’s greatest athlete was riding buses around the South, playing minor league baseball, chasing a dream of his father’s, who had always hoped Michael might become a big-league ballplayer.

JORDAN: [In 1997] The culture was different. I tried chewing tobacco and got dizzy. That didn’t last long. And then there’s how you dress. In a basketball locker room, you’re putting a suit on. Maybe we’re more fashion-conscious because we have to wear shorts on the court. In baseball, they wear jeans—at least in the minor leagues. And the players hang out more. They were inquisitive about my basketball life, my mental approach to the game. Their value to me was just the opposite: “Tell me what you think this pitcher will throw on a particular count. How do you pick up the spin on a screwball or a curve?”

I felt old. Things they were going through—I’d experienced the same things in my younger days in basketball. Kidding around, practical jokes, arguments about TV shows. And they could drink beer like water. They could stay up late and go three-for-four the next day. That’s youth.

As an outfielder for the minor league Birmingham Barons, Jordan batted .202 with three home runs, 51 RBIs and 30 stolen bases—not awful for a prospect but not enough to get a 31-year-old slap hitter promoted to the majors.

JORDAN: It was fun, though. Playing cards, checkers and dominoes, doing crossword puzzles, passing the time during a rain delay. We’d spit sunflower seeds at a Gatorade cup—basketball with seeds. It took me a year or so to get great at that. Baseball has the greatest camaraderie.

While Jordan spat sunflower seeds and rode buses from Birmingham to Knoxville, Huntsville and Chattanooga, the NBA looked for new heroes.

MCCALLUM: There was talk of a four-peat. The Bulls still had Pippen, but who’s their second-best player now, Toni Kukoc?

RICK TELANDER, Chicago Sun-Times reporter: It was like all the air went out of Chicago. Three years of great joy, great success, abruptly gone. Nobody really thought Scottie Pippen could take MJ’s role as team leader. He was a number two, not a number one.

MCCALLUM: They still took the Knicks to a seventh game in the 1994 Eastern semis, but that was the end of the first Age of Michael. And without him, the trophy’s up for grabs. You’ve got a bunch of teams with a shot at a title. The Knicks, under Riley, with Ewing, John Starks and Charles Oakley. Hakeem Olajuwon and the Houston Rockets. The Utah Jazz with Malone and John Stockton, Seattle with Gary Payton. All of a sudden, with Michael playing baseball, you’ve got an open lane to the championship—if you can maximize right now. If you can step up and not just talk.

It was the golden age of trash talk. Bird and Jordan, two of the frostiest competitors the game ever saw, had set the standard. Bird once told the Seattle SuperSonics’ Xavier McDaniel, “I’m gonna take two dribbles to the left; I’m going to step back behind the three-point line and stick it,” and then did just that. Jordan would score and then taunt the man guarding him, “Want to see it again? This could go on and on.” After dunking on six-foot-one Stockton of the Utah Jazz and hearing the team’s owner yell, “Pick on somebody your own size,” Jordan dunked on six-foot-11 Melvin Turpin, then turned to the owner and asked, “Was he big enough?”

JORDAN: A lot of times it’s not even verbal. It’s actions and reactions, the banging that goes on.

Reggie Miller, another big talker, kept his mouth shut while guarding Jordan.

REGGIE MILLER, Indiana Pacers shooting guard and Hall of Famer: [To sportscaster Dan Patrick in June] He was a polarizing figure, a transcending type of athlete. He ushered in the swagger, the tongue out.

WILKINS: Michael never said anything to me. He didn’t have to. When you tangle with him you’re aware he may embarrass you. He might go for 40 or 60 points on you. I didn’t talk at him either. You don’t want to give him more incentive.

JORDAN: It got verbal with certain individuals. You dunk a ball and start getting into that person’s head. “How many you want me to score tonight?” Just a competitive conversation. With Charles Barkley, if you had success over him, you’d never have to listen to what he says.

Seattle’s Gary Payton, one of the few guards in Michael Jordan’s class as a defender and trash-talker, put the New Jersey Nets’ Jamie Feick in his place, saying, “Man, you won’t even be in the league next year.” But Denver bounced Payton’s top-seeded 1994 Sonics out of the playoffs in the first round, leaving the second-seeded Houston Rockets a lane to the finals.

Riley’s Knicks, coming off their victory over Pippen and the Bulls in the semifinals, were the class of the Eastern Conference. Ewing was their leading scorer, John Starks their leading mouth. In game five of the Eastern finals, the Knicks led the Pacers by 12 in the fourth quarter—Miller time.

MARV ALBERT, legendary play-by-play announcer: Here’s Miller…yesss! Seventeen points for Miller, and the Knicks now lead by nine.

MATT GUOKAS, color commentator: And Reggie’s starting to chirp with some people in the front row.

ALBERT: There’s Miller, swings away, it hits! Reggie Miller is on fire!… Miller open again! That’s a two-pointer, and Reggie Miller’s in an animated discussion with Spike Lee, who is an ardent Knicks fan and has a courtside seat. I think Spike has him revved up!

Lee, waving his arms at midcourt, barked at Miller, who returned an icy stare and raised both hands to his neck.

ALBERT: Miller giving the choke sign to Spike Lee!

The rest of the quarter was a blur, starting with a 27-foot bomb from Miller and another dirty look at Spike.

ALBERT: And he hits it!… Pacers lead 75–72.… Here’s Miller again! Miller for three. Yesss! And Pat Riley calls for time. Just an astounding shooting exhibition being put on by Reggie Miller.… Miller pops and hits again! Twenty-one of his 35 points have come here in the fourth quarter.

AHMAD RASHAD, sportscaster: [During postgame interview] Reggie, what about Spike Lee?

MILLER: Spike who?

New York edged Indiana in seven games—Miller air-balling a last-gasp jumper—and led the Houston Rockets in the finals, three games to two. Down by two points as the clock died, Starks fired a potentially game-winning, championship-winning three-pointer. Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon, switching off, got a piece of the ball…

ALBERT: Starks for three—came up short!

…sending the Knicks to hell, where they remain today.

WILKINS: Hakeem was a specimen, one of the great bigs. He never played basketball till he was a teenager. Growing up in Africa he was a soccer player, a goalkeeper, so he was light on his feet and he loved to block your shot. He got his title that year, him and that Rockets team. Could they have done it with Michael still playing? We’ll never know.

In a world without Twitter or texts, a fax rocked the world on March 18, 1995. That was the day news outlets nationwide received a fax from F.A.M.E., the agency run by David Falk, Jordan’s business manager. Two words: “I’m back.”

TELANDER: Pretty cool! For a year and a half the lingering question had been, What the hell is MJ doing? Is it because of gambling? He can’t really play baseball, can he? Are you really telling us he has no problem spending his time in Birmingham, Alabama with a bunch of minor leaguers, riding a bus with a bunch of yahoos? And so Bulls fans just waited. Everybody knew he had to come back. His father was dead, he’d tried his hand at something different, and now basketball loomed. The one thing he did better than anybody on the planet. It was a joyous day. Chicago was back!

Back but rusty. A week after quitting baseball’s minor league Birmingham Barons, Jordan went seven-for-28 in an overtime loss to Miller and the Pacers. He soon lit up the Knicks for 55 but looked mortal in the semis against Orlando and 23-year-old Shaquille O’Neal. That’s when Jordan tried to change his luck. He defied the league by switching numbers—from 45 back to his retired 23.

PHIL JACKSON, Chicago Bulls coach: [To reporters in 1995] Michael said he was hitting .202 with a 45 on his back in baseball. I said, “You’re shooting about the same percentage too. It’s time you get back to 23.”

Too late. The Bulls lost a playoff series for only the second time in the decade. They’d have to wait another year.

In game one of the 1995 Eastern semi-finals, the Knicks led Indiana 105–99 with 18.7 seconds left. Safe enough? Miller nailed a three-pointer, stole the ball, retreated to the three-point line and hit another. The usually reliable Starks clanked two free throws. Miller rebounded Starks’s second miss, got fouled and sank two of his own. He had just scored eight points in less than 12 seconds.

ANTHONY MASON, Knicks forward: [Years later] We were shell-shocked. We went numb after his second three. It was like a terrible nightmare that you couldn’t wake up from.

MILLER: [Postgame, explaining why he passed up a shorter shot for the second three] I wanted to drive a stake through their heart.

MCCALLUM: The Knicks had their chances. They were on the edge of that ultimate moment. Then they fell back, and where have they been since?

Indiana won that series, but for the second straight season, Houston won the war. Hakeem “the Dream” Olajuwon, joined by Clyde Drexler, his old teammate with the University of Houston Cougars, a.k.a. Phi Slama Jama, played underdog throughout the 1995 playoffs. First the sixth-seeded Rockets knocked off Malone, Stockton and the third-seeded Jazz, then Barkley and the second-seeded Suns, then the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs with Robinson, Sean Elliott and rebound machine Dennis Rodman, Madonna’s boyfriend at the time.

DENNIS RODMAN, Spurs power forward and Hall of Famer: [In 1997] I don’t score points. On offense, I don’t know what the fuck is going on. But rebounds? You earn that shit. I study my craft. I can visualize the court, the ball and the action on the rim all at once. I study the people who shoot the ball—the way they like to shoot, where the ball likes to come off when they miss. You get a feel for it. It’s like rolling dice. Sometimes you can feel a seven coming. The ball is funny like that. I’ll watch the ball, even on TV, and know if it’s going off to the right or to the left.

The Spurs’ Rodman outrebounded Olajuwon in those playoffs, but the Dream dominated Robinson in the Western Conference finals and then O’Neal in the finals, where Olajuwon outscored Shaq in every game. The tone was set at the end of game one, when Orlando’s Nick Anderson missed four straight free throws. With one second left in overtime, the Rockets’ Drexler blew a layup—but Olajuwon tipped it in. Hakeem the Dream’s team swept the Magic to win a second straight crown.

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Shaquille O’Neal magically flies over Jordan during the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals in 1995.

MCCALLUM: Everything changed because Jordan went away. Reputations changed. None more than Hakeem, who’s remembered differently, I think, due to Michael’s absence. Hakeem was maybe the most versatile center ever, on offense and defense, and he gets spoken of in the same breath as the greats. But we wouldn’t look at him the same way without those back-to-back championships.

What if Jordan had never quit to play baseball? Would we be talking about Hakeem now? Obviously it’s a hypothetical, but in his prime Michael’s mental and physical mastery of the league was so unquestioned, there’s no reason his Bulls wouldn’t have won in those two years. What set them apart was their day-in, day-out will to win. And not just win—it’s a crappy night in Sacramento, and you could take a night off, but those Bulls teams don’t just want to beat the Kings. They want to kill them, humiliate them and infuriate their fans, and that came straight from Michael.

TELANDER: We media guys used to play a game: What NBA teams would win the championship if you put MJ on their team? We settled on eight—eight teams that would have won. That’s how dominant and crazy mean he was. Physically he was a panther. Mentally he was just relentless and cruel.

MCCALLUM: His absence gave everybody else a chance. The Knicks and Pacers, who got close. The Jazz, who would get another shot. Even Orlando with Shaq, a new kind of NBA character. Shaq wasn’t a cutthroat like Jordan and Bird. He was more like Magic, with a smile and a sense of humor, and he had some huge games.

JORDAN: The hardest thing is consistency. Everybody’s capable of having a good game, but on our level everybody is not capable of having a good game every game. That’s the challenge.

TELANDER: Other players got compared to MJ, and they all fell short. It was the start of a time when midsize non-centers could dominate because of their athleticism and new rules that helped inside-outside players, a situation that holds to this day.

A month before the 1995–1996 season the Bulls traded backup center Will Perdue to the Spurs for Rodman, the league’s leading rebounder four years in a row.

TELANDER: It was as if [Bulls general manager] Jerry Krause handed Jackson a Tasmanian devil and said, “Here you go, Phil. See if you can win with this thing.” It may have been the greatest organizational feat Jackson ever had: keeping the team together with a nutcase in the midst.

Rodman had once duked it out on court with Perdue. He had shoved Pippen off the court and even claimed he wasn’t in awe of Jordan.

RODMAN: I don’t give a fuck about anybody in the NBA. Hanging with Michael Jordan is supposed to be big news? Please.

But the Worm turned a corner in Chicago. He sweated to improve, spending extra hours in the gym rebounding for Jordan and Pippen, getting a feel for how their missed shots came off the iron, and was soon defending and rebounding better than ever.

In training camp, Jackson saw a difference in the 32-year-old Jordan. He thought playing minor league baseball had made Michael Jordan a better player, maybe even a better man. “Michael had rediscovered the joy of bonding with other men,” the Zen master noted in his book Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success. After years of “simply glaring at his teammates and expecting them to be just like him,” the superstar adapted.

JACKSON: [In Eleven Rings] Michael adopted a new way of leading. With some players, he decided, he would get physical, either by demonstrating with his body or, in Scottie’s case, simply by being present. “Scottie was one of those guys for whom I had to be there every single day,” says Michael. “If I took a day off, he would take a day off. But if I was there every single day, he would follow.” With other players, Michael would go emotional. “You couldn’t yell at Dennis,” he says. “You had to find a way to get into his world for a few quick seconds so that he could understand what you were saying.” With still others Michael would communicate on a verbal level. Example: Scott Burrell, a forward on the 1997–1998 Bulls. “I could yell at him and he would get it, but it didn’t hurt his confidence at all.”

In one of the most colorful seasons in NBA history—including Rodman’s vivid hair—the 1995–1996 Bulls outperformed everyone’s expectations but Jordan’s. They went 72–10, eclipsing the Jerry West–Wilt Chamberlain–Gail Goodrich 1971–1972 Lakers’ record of 69 wins in a season—a feat no other team has approached. Jordan averaged 30.4 points per game to claim his eighth scoring title. Rodman threw his body all over the floor while leading the league in rebounds. Kukoc was named Sixth Man of the Year, Jackson Coach of the Year and Jordan MVP of the regular season, the All-Star Game and the finals against Payton’s outclassed Sonics—though the Tasmanian Worm stood out in game six with nine points, five assists and 19 rebounds.

SMITH: There used to be more anticipation for the finals, but that was evaporating. I don’t know that I ever thought the Western Conference team facing them actually had a chance to knock the Bulls off, not once.

WILKINS: By then they were just about perfect, like a regular-season Dream Team. And it wasn’t just Jordan. They had the best role players—Rodman underneath, Kukoc off the bench. And look at Pippen. He and Michael really had the same game. Scottie was a great defender, passer and opportunity scorer. What a great complement to Michael he was after he accepted that role.

RODMAN: It worked out. It’s like Forrest Gump says: Life is like a box of chocolates; you never know what the fuck you’re gonna get.

TELANDER: I thought Rodman had real emotional problems, dating back to his troubled past. The guy was a nobody, a janitor at the Dallas–Fort Worth airport who got in trouble for stealing some watches. Not a malicious guy, just intense and different. Then, abruptly, he became a star with Detroit, and it seemed to unhinge him. He went to the Spurs and was a total dick and a distraction. He came to the Bulls and MJ kept him straight on the court—mostly—but his ego took over and he started acting out, being a clown, a buffoon, yet a madman on the court with that one thing he did better than anybody: rebound. There were games when he wouldn’t shoot at all. He’d get a rebound under the basket and throw it outside instead of shooting. It was weird. Phil called him “annoying” to the other team, and he was. Rodman had great skills to go with his great problems, but those Bulls were so good he could turn the whole thing into a circus and it didn’t matter. Deep inside, Phil knew that.

MCCALLUM: Other teams had their chances. The Jazz got two chances.

Utah featured power forward Karl “Mailman” Malone, who could always deliver, and point guard John “Too Vanilla for a Nickname” Stockton. Malone averaged 27.4 points, second in the league to Jordan, to go with 10 rebounds per game in 1996–1997. He shot .550 from the field. Stockton, with his blank expression and heart rate of 35 beats per minute—the pulse of a contract killer or a resting cow—was on his way to setting records that will never be broken: 15,806 assists (almost 4,000 more than Jason Kidd and 5,500 more than Steve Nash) and 3,265 steals (581 more than Kidd and 751 more than Jordan).

TELANDER: Michael was in the process of destroying several good franchises. The old Bad Boy Pistons, the Sonics, the Brad Daugherty–Mark Price Cavaliers. And then the Jazz, with Stockton and Malone in their prime, got their hearts cut out.

Late in game one of the 1997 finals on June 1, Pippen channeled Jordan. With the score 82–82, Rodman fouled Malone. The Mailman stepped to the line for two shots with 9.2 seconds left. Pippen sidled up to him and said, “Remember, the mailman doesn’t deliver on Sundays, Karl.” Malone missed both foul shots; Jordan dribbled out the clock before draining a game-winning jumper.

Rodman said he had trouble finding his rhythm during games three through five in Salt Lake City.

RODMAN: [Postgame] It’s difficult to get in sync because of all the fucking Mormons out here.

With the series tied at two, Jordan came down with a nasty flu. In the famous “flu game,” His (woozy) Airness scored 38, including a last-minute three-pointer. The Bulls repeated as NBA champions after winning 90–86 in game six.

WILKINS: When they beat Utah it was watching a legend happen before your eyes. You might be the number one player on your team, you might be an All-Star, but you’d look at Chicago and wonder if there was ever a team that could beat that team.

TELANDER: That October the Bulls went to Paris, and they were like the Beatles. It was nuts at all times: Scottie, Phil, the Worm and Air Jordan, like the last crazy sports rock band in a time before smartphones and the internet. Jordan and Rodman had bodyguards wherever they went, security guards and off-duty cops. What basketball team ever did that before?

MCCALLUM: And Michael being Michael, he finished it off right.

Game six of the 1998 finals, a Bulls-Jazz rematch. Late in the fourth quarter, Bulls down by a point, Jordan slapped the ball from Malone’s hands. Ten seconds, nine, eight…he shoved defender Bryon Russell and knocked down a 20-foot jumper.

JORDAN: [Postgame] I never doubted myself. I never doubted the whole game.

TELANDER: What happened was, Malone had been named NBA MVP when Jordan was clearly better. That pissed him off. He just hated anybody who tried to take anything from him, and so of course he steals the ball from Malone and makes that classic shot.

The Bulls’ second three-peat made them the best team in modern history. But what did that mean? The Jackson-coached Shaquille O’Neal–Kobe Bryant Lakers would three-peat from 2000 to 2002. The Tim Duncan–Tony Parker–Manu Ginobili Spurs under Gregg Popovich would win three titles between 2003 and 2007. In 2015, the Miami Heat could win their third in four years. But none of those champions repeated a three-peat or ruled the game like Jordan’s Bulls in their heyday.

TELANDER: Hakeem’s Houston Rockets would not have won two crowns if Jordan hadn’t called time-out to play baseball. The Bulls would have won eight in a row.

MCCALLUM: An eight-peat? Yes, I think they would have won in those two years between three-peats if they had Michael, and then if everything else falls the same way you have Jordan and the Bulls winning eight in a row. From a marketing standpoint, I doubt the league was pleased by those years between three-peats. Sports leagues say they love parity, but greatness sells better, and there was nobody bigger than Jordan. Even today, it astounds me how he transcends. I teach a class in sports culture, and when I ask students who’s their favorite basketball player, about half say Michael Jordan, as many as LeBron James!

Toward the end of his time it looked like he might pass the torch. The Age of Michael, the best and most marketable athlete of our time, might become the Age of Shaq. Shaq was very marketable at a time when the league wanted a crossover star, “the next Michael.” There was Penny Hardaway too, and Grant Hill, but Shaq was the best candidate. He could have averaged 40 and 22 if he’d committed himself, but that’s not who he was. He didn’t always play as hard as he could. To be fair, he had a lot of nagging injuries. But he wasn’t like Mike. He wasn’t trying to be better than his hype.

Shaq had his moments: four rings, an MVP award and the title role in Kazaam, the poor man’s Space Jam. He grew up jumping off the family house, trying to prove he could fly. The seven-foot-one 325-pounder once broke a toilet with the sheer size of his deposit. He had a rap record, Shaq Diesel, that went platinum, and he was arguably the league’s biggest star after Jordan.

MCCALLUM: But Shaq wasn’t the next Michael. Even now there’s no crossover star remotely in his league. Kobe turns people off. So does LeBron, largely because of “the Decision.” And LeBron’s a very interesting case. He didn’t stay with one team like Michael and Magic, and it’s held against him that he had Dwyane Wade helping him, but there’s something more than that. I think it’s something that’s not racist, but racial. LeBron is in your face—in white people’s face—in a way that Michael and Magic never were. He comes across as too culturally street for a significant number of Americans.

Jordan retired in January 1999 but then unretired again to join the Washington Wizards in 2001. He averaged 22.9 and 20 in two seasons with them, but by then he was only excellent. Today Jordan, 51, is part-owner of the Charlotte Hornets. Last year, his “flu game” Air Jordans sold at auction for $104,765. His old teammate Rodman, 53, fresh off a stint as unofficial ambassador to North Korea, checked in to rehab. Their old Zen master Jackson, 69, is the new president of the New York Knicks.

SMITH: I don’t know if it’s a better or worse game today. It’s certainly different—a prettier game, much more fluid and free-flowing compared to those days.

The record book shows the Boston Celtics with the most NBA titles, 17, followed by the Minneapolis–Los Angeles Lakers with 16. Next come the Chicago Bulls with six, all in the eight-year span from 1991 to 1998, when they made six finals and never lost. No other team in the league’s 68-year history has won more than five times.

MCCALLUM: You want to know a strange thing about Michael? He’s not that charismatic off the court. LeBron has real off-court charisma. He’s a hundred times the actor Michael ever was. But who’s the most important player? I guess we’ve learned that there wasn’t going to be a next Michael. There was only one.

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