Learning the Hard Way: Jordan’s Bulls vs. the Bad Boy Pistons
My parents became friends in 1972. For eight years they lived on the East Coast, dating on and off until they decided to get married in 1980. I was born a year later while we were living in Brooklyn, MJ two years after that in Connecticut, and in 1984 we moved back home to Chicago in an Evanston apartment as my folks had always planned.
As a three-year-old with Chicago fandom rich in the blood, I really could not have asked for a better time to move back. While doomed as apocalyptic by the great Orwell, 1984 was the beginning of a golden era in Chicago sports. The Cubs won the division that summer, going to the postseason for the first time since 1945. The Bears, buoyed by an incredible 1983 draft, dominated in the fall and went back to the NFC Title game, and though they lost to the Niners the seeds were planted for their incredible 1985 run.
But the city’s most significant move came in the middle of the year, when the Bulls used the number 3 pick in the draft to select Michael Jordan, a junior guard from North Carolina. This was the landscape of Chicago sports when I was growing up, and from 1984-1998, I saw some pretty incredible feats:
1. I saw three Cubs teams go to the playoffs, (I’ve since seen a fourth), and despite the fact that they are thirty years older than me, my parents have also seen the same four Cubs teams go to the playoffs. I also saw three MVPs (Sandberg ’84, Dawson ’87, Sosa ’98), two Cy Young winners (Sutcliffe ’84, Maddux ’92), and two rookies of the year (Walton ’89, Wood ’98).
2. I saw Northwestern’s moribund football program have arguably the greatest “Cinderella season” in any sport at any level with their 10-1 1995 season that ended with a Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl.
3. I saw the GREATEST TEAM EVER, the 1985 Chicago Bears, dominate their sport and their city like no team in any sport anywhere ever has.
4. Most of all, I got to watch arguably the greatest basketball player of all-time lead my Chicago Bulls to six titles in eight years during the 1990s.
Throw in the White Sox 1993 division title and the Blackhawks 1992 trip to the Stanley Cup Finals, and it’s beyond obvious that I have been blessed with great teams to watch and great players to cheer for, clubs that brought pride and respect to my home town. I really, truly believe that if you watch your teams for long enough and stay loyal to them, you will know the joys of victory. But it is not the postseason berths and championships and MVPs that define my childhood fandom. Those are simply the high points, the rewards that eventually come when you faithfully root for your teams regardless of rank or record.
What stands out most is the losing.
I didn’t know it at the time, but the Bulls of the ’90s were a blessing bestowed upon this city by the sports gods themselves. Like most great teams in our history, the non-Bulls squads listed above did not sustain. Even the ’85 Bears could not escape the city’s bad karma, mocking Chicagoans with dreams of a dynasty before becoming the greatest one-and-done in the history. The Bulls were different. For ten years, no matter what else was happening on the Chicago sports scene, we were able to carry with us the knowledge that we rooted for the best basketball team in the world.
But to fully appreciate the Bulls of the ’90s, you had to have made it through the ’80s. Jordan quickly turned the Bulls into a playoff team, but turning them into a championship contender was much more difficult, because in order to win a title we had to defeat the Eastern Conference’s roughest, toughest, and best team: the Detroit Pistons.
Led by Chicago-native Isiah Thomas, the “Bad Boys” bullied their way to three NBA Finals appearances and back-to-back titles from 1988-1990. The Bulls were a young team then: Pippen and Grant were rookies during the ’88 playoffs, while Jordan was a fourth-year guard who “will never lead a team to a title.” Detroit, on the other hand, had been battling their way up the ladder for five years. Along with Isiah, one of the game’s all-time greatest point guards, the Pistons had a Hall of Fame coach in Chuck Daly, two other future Hall of Famers in Joe Dumars and Adrian Dantley, one should-be Hall of Famer in Dennis Rodman, and a bunch of great role players in Bill Laimbeer, John Salley, Vinnie Johnson, James Edwards, and Rick Mahorn. They held their own in epic postseason battles with Bird’s Celtics and Magic’s Lakers, and while Jordan was named the NBA’s MVP in 1988, the Pistons clearly had his and the Bulls’ number.
Three straight years the Bulls battled the Pistons in the playoffs, and three straight years we left bruised and beaten. In 1990, it was a second straight Eastern Conference Final. We took them all the way to a seventh game. But Game 7 turned into another awful Chicago sports meltdown as Scottie Pippen suffered from his imfamous migraine, and the Bulls watched the Finals from home.
Even as a youth, I knew what was happening. I felt the pain of those three seasons, the growing pains that come with watching a young team make mistakes, and the pain of watching that team get beat up year after year by the same group of guys. The Pistons were men. The Bulls were children. The Pistons were evil but strong. The Bulls were good but weak. Exaserbating the bitterness and making it all more overwhelming was our childhood friendship with Aaron Wightman, Pistons fan. (His family was from Michigan.) And even though he was an incredibly nice kid who never once rubbed it in our noses, we all knew he had something over us. My friends and I would come together to watch the Bulls and Pistons battle, and at the end of it all Aaron was smiling while we were silent. The rivalry dominated my childhood. Nothing else was close. Aaron wasn’t a bragger, but with us, he did not have to be. It was understood that no matter what happened with the Bears and Lions, Blackhawks and Red Wings, or Cubs, White Sox, and Tigers, and no matter what happened when we played our own games at the school yard or in our backyards, nothing else mattered but this: Aaron rooted for the Pistons, we rooted for the Bulls, the Pistons dominated the Bulls, and there was nothing we could do about it.
It got to a point where it wasn’t even about basketball anymore. The Bulls-Pistons rivalry obtained legendary status in all of our imaginations. In my mind, Bill Laimbeer was not a basketball player. He didn’t even seem human. He was a supervillain, the Devil himself, a life force of pure evil sent to this planet to destroy our heroes, the Chicago Bulls. There were two supervillains in my childhood (and I say this with zero hyperbole): one was Saddam Hussein, and the other was Bill Laimbeer.
(And frankly, I was much more terrified of Laimbeer. Two reasons. A. We had an entire army dedicated to stopping Saddam. Who was going to stop Laimbeer? Dave Corzine? Brad Sellers? A pre-goggles Horace Grant? And B. Saddam lived way off in Iraq. When you’re nine, who the hell knows where Iraq is? On the other hand, as far as I knew, Laimbeer could make the drive west on 94 at any moment and, in about four hours, be here in person to terrorize us.)
The Bulls were Batman and Superman, but unlike Lex Luthor or the Joker, Laimbeer and the Pistons held the upperhand against the forces of good. To put it another way: imagine if Rocky had fought Apollo in all five movies and lost every time. Slowly, the emotional triumph and moral victory of the first film would be sucked out of the series until all that was left was the Italian Stallion bloodied in his corner, alone, crying, and coming back for more. He may have Adrian’s love, he may have Mickey’s guidance, but he’ll never beat Apollo, his most hated enemy.
That’s how it was in Chicago during those years: regardless of what our other teams were doing, we knew we would never be nuhtin’ until we beat Detroit. I vividly remember the ’89 Cubs. They were fun. But they lost in the NLCS, flamed out in 1990, and by the time the Cubs went back to the playoffs in ’98 it was a totally different club. When people reminisce about the ’89 Cubs, they don’t talk much about losing to the Giants or the fact that they were a one-year wonder. They just remember the fun they had during one summer of baseball. The Bulls of the late ’80s? Not fun. Painful. Grueling. Those games took hold of our psyches…we HAVE to beat Detroit this year, we just HAVE to. I can’t take another year of this. The Pistons weren’t a team—they were a metaphor for all the pain the city had ever endured. We weren’t just playing a game of basketball; we were battling against all of life’s hardships. Every time the Pistons knocked Jordan or Pippen to the floor, every time they glared menacingly after a hard foul, every time they walked off the court victorious as we nursed our injuries and shook our heads, it felt like the whole city had taken an actual, physical beating, like we tried our best and our best wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t just one basketball team beating another; it was a vicious and calculated attack on our way of life.
After all, we are Chicago, the city that works, the city that (despite what our politics might tell you about us) believes success must be earned the right way. Meanwhile, there were the Pistons, so blurring the line between tough and dirty that the terms became impossible to distinguish. They pushed and pushed the limits, pulling back at the game’s most crucial juncture just as we lost our cool, like an older brother who knows exactly when Mom and Dad will be looking and mocks his younger brother up to that point, letting the younger brother hit back in his parents’ sight and then going to watch TV while his brother is berated. When we lost to Detroit, it wasn’t because they were more talented than we were. We could have accepted that. We lost to Detroit because they were tougher than we were, because they were smarter and more experienced. Mostly, though, we were frustrated because they bent the rules and got away with it.
Then came the 1990-91 season. It was Jordan’s seventh year with the team, Paxson’s sixth, the fourth for Pippen and Grant. Doug Collins had been fired after the ’89 playoffs and replaced with assistant coach Phil Jackson, but even under Jackson the result was the same: a loss in the Conference Finals to Detroit. Both the team and the fans knew what was at stake in the fall of 1990: the Bulls were at a breaking point. The team’s identity would be defined by their success or failure against Detroit, and another loss to the Pistons at the end of 1991 would be their fourth in a row.
How long could we do this? How long could we reach the same point, challenged by the same team, and fail? We are optimists in this city—you have to be, if you plan on having any sort of longevity as a fan—but we carry a heavy heart. I was only in third grade at the time, an age when Anything Is Possible because you’ve got All The Time In The World, and even I felt it strongly: if we couldn’t do it this year, we couldn’t do it at all.
The Bulls must have had the same sense of urgency. With a conference-high 61 wins, we finally had home-court advantage. We swept the Knicks in round one, beat the 76ers in five games in round two, and for the third straight year our reward for advancing to the conference finals was a date with Detroit.
With home court and the maturation of Jordan’s “supporting cast,” we were finally the favorites. Still, I have to admit, I was nervous. By 1991 I had experienced much hardship with this Bulls team. I also knew Chicago’s history. I knew about the ’69 Cubs and the Black Sox scandal and I had watched as the Bears of the ’80s fell to pieces. But then the series started, and everything changed. The Pistons tried all of their regular tricks, but nothing worked. They knocked us down, we got back up. In the past, their physical play wore us out, and every time we hit the ground we got weaker. This time, it was the opposite. They wore themselves out, because every time we hit the ground we grew stronger, and every time we came back at them they panicked.
You could feel the trends changing…as a fan, you could really feel it. We were confident going into the series, yet in the back of our minds we were still thinking: “Please don’t let them burn us again.” But they didn’t. The Bulls stayed tough, and after winning Games 1 and 2 at home, the series moved to Detroit, and that’s when we felt like it would happen. The momentum grew in school and in the city, our confidence building both in our teams and in ourselves. It really felt like we, not just as sports fans but as Chicagoans, were growing stronger, and when we beat Detroit in Game 3 at the Palace, we knew the series was ours. Like the older brother who suddenly realizes his younger brother has surpassed him and his tricks are no longer effective, the Pistons came apart like children, and the Bulls came together as all great teams do.
Every Bulls fan has a favorite game or moment, the one that stands out from all the others. Title clinching games, Pax’s three against Phoenix, Michael’s last shot against Utah, battling it out with the Knicks. These are all great. But for me—along with the Charles Smith game—the MJ and Pippen show doesn’t get any sweeter than Game 4 at the Palace, Memorial Day 1991. By the time that game rolled around, we knew it would be a sweep. It wasn’t just that we were going to finally beat Detroit—we were going to break them down and beat them up in a way they never imagined. At that point, letting them win even one game would have been a let-down.
We knew we were going to the Finals…there wasn’t a question about that. But our goal was never to go to the Finals. Nobody talked at school about who we wanted to play in the Finals or how bad we wanted to get there. We talked about Detroit. That was it. We were just as single-minded and focused as the team was. Our goal was to beat the Pistons, to make up for three years of pain and suffering at their hands. We had to show them how far we had come, so there was no doubt in their minds which team was better. They had to learn not just that we were more talented, but stronger, mentally and physically. They had to learn that they could not push us around any more, that no matter what they did or what they tried, they were not going to beat us because we would not let them.
I’ve never felt as connected to a community due to a sports team as I felt at the end of that game. I wasn’t just watching in front of my TV with my family and friends. I was watching with every other Bulls fan alive. As we watched Isiah and his teammates walk off the court with time remaining, I knew I was thinking and feeling exactly what every other Bulls fan was thinking and feeling: “WE did it. We finally did it.” When Detroit walked off the court early, it wasn’t simply a show of bad sportsmanship, nor was it—as they claim—a chance for them to go off as champions with their own fans applauding. It was simply the natural reaction of a team that was totally and utterly defeated. They couldn’t even bare to watch, because deep down they knew their time had passed. They could feel it. They saw then that what had separated our two teams in years past was not skill, but toughness, intelligence, experience, desire. Now that we could withstand and fight through whatever physical challenges they may have presented, we were on even ground, and once that happened they were no match.
I remember looking over at Aaron—we always watched these games together—and the look on his face exposed the sentiment of the Pistons and all of their fans: we will never beat the Bulls again.
Determined to win: The Tale of the 1993 Bulls
Moving On: The Tale of Scottie Pippen’s 1994 Bulls
May 4, 2005: The Jannero Pargo game
April 30, 2009: The Joakim Noah steal game
And, because you deserve it… (fast forward to 7:30 for the start)
“As they looked across at the Pistons, the Bulls knew that their moment of truth was at hand. They were about to confront not only Detroit, but also The Ghost of Pistons Past.”