October 6, 1993: Moving on
My mom told us while we were getting dressed for school.
It must have been something for her, hearing the news and knowing she had the responsibility to tell my brother and me. I can imagine her downstairs, getting ready for her day in the classroom, making our sandwiches and listening to the radio as she would on any other morning, and then comes the report, and her own personal reaction, and the sudden decision that had to be made of how to tell us. This wasn’t a death; a family member, or even a pet, passing away. This wasn’t a building bombed or a country going to war; it wasn’t a house burning down or a near-fatal car accident. This was just a man deciding he no longer wished to play basketball. That’s all it was. Yet she knew it was more than that, we all knew, the city knew, and so she walked up the stairs and stepped into our room and gave us one final moment of innocence before telling us what we never thought possible.
“Boys, I’ve got some bad news.” We stood and looked at her. “Michael Jordan retired.”
At first I thought she was kidding, because any news as drastic as that must surely be a joke. But the look in her eye told me she was serious, and I didn’t know what to say. Athletes had retired before, guys we wished would play forever, but not guys like this. Not guys who were not only at the top of their game, but also at the top of everyone else’s. Not guys who had won seven straight scoring titles. Not guys who had gone to nine straight All-Star games. Not guys who had won three straight championships. Not guys in the prime of a Hall of Fame career and only 30, a month away from what would surely be another glorious season. Not guys who were the biggest star in the game, in the city, in the world. Not Michael Jordan.
When I arrived at school that day, I found that most of my classmates were experiencing it all as well. Kids walked the hallways, stunned. Teachers did their best to keep us on the ball, but even they knew this was no ordinary day. Two of my friends made a sign that read “Say it ain’t so, Michael!” and carried it from class to class. Everywhere you turned you saw JORDAN 23 on somebody’s back, as kids had undoubtedly heard the news that morning and changed clothes in order to…to what? Support him? Mourn him? Celebrate him? We weren’t sure.
There are some events that have an immediate impact, even while we attempt to sort the meaning and make sense of our emotions. This wasn’t like Jordan’s second retirement in January of 1999; that was expected. He was 35 by then, the NBA was in the midst of its lockout, and everyone had a pretty good feeling that 1998 would be his final year. No, this retirement was a shock. It was a blindside tackle. It was your girlfriend dumping you on Valentine’s Day, or going in for a promotion and getting fired instead. A month before the season, the Bulls looking stronger than ever, fans wondering if we would become the first “Four-Peat” since the Celtics finished off their run of eight straight in 1966, and the greatest player the city has ever seen walks away.
When something like this happens, it makes you question everything; your universe is fundamentally changed. It’d be like waking up one morning and finding gravity obsolete. Michael Jordan’s first retirement felt like an alteration of our basic, Earthly laws. Life would continue, the world would go on, and basketball would still be played, but in Chicago we wondered what the three would be without Michael Jordan. What did it mean? Is nothing guaranteed? With this in the books, what other mind-blowing events would take place? Perhaps we’d go to the ballgame one day and find the Cubs now playing at ’69 Mets Field, or Comiskey Park II. In a world where Michael Jordan plays for the Chicago Bulls, that could never happen. In a world where Michael Jordan retires one month before the season starts despite the fact that he’s only 30 and is still quite clearly the best player in the L, the impossible is possible and reality is faulty and everything we know as sports fans, and dare I say, human beings, is suspect.
But if the retirement threatened to end us, the timing was our savior. Instead of having a whole summer for everyone to sit around and think about it, the team and the fans had but one month before the season started. The 1993-94 season promised to be an interesting one, with lots of questions to be answered. Could the Bulls win four in a row? Would MJ be the same after a difficult 1993 postseason in which the press came down hard on him for gambling, and after the horrible murder of his father? Would the team be burned out in another bid for a title? How would the “Croatian Sensation” Toni Kukoc fit in with Jordan, Pippen, Grant, and the rest of the team?
All of those questions and more, however, were replaced on October 6, 1993, with the biggest question of all: how would the Bulls fare without The Greatest Of All-Time?
For me, the answer was simple: the championship Bulls were more than just one man, and the 1993-94 team would prove that. I was in the minority, though. Many were writing these Bulls off, most notably the Chicago media. The Tribune’s “experts” were seemingly all picking the Bulls to free fall. I remember one of the previews very specifically. I don’t remember who wrote it—Melissa Isaacson stands out for some reason, but I could very well be wrong—but I do remember the words, very clearly, something to the effect of: “Record: 41-41. Reason: The Los Angeles Clippers were 41-41 last year, and the Bulls without Jordan are the Los Angeles Clippers.”
Did that writer honestly believe that? Did he (or she) think that you could simply add MJ to the ’92-’93 Clippers and make a champion? The brilliance of the Bulls was not just that they had the league’s best player, but also its best coach, second man, bench, GM, coaching staff. Michael was among the best in the biz, certainly, but so were Scottie, Phil, Krause, and Tex. The Bulls would not be a championship runaway, but they would still be contenders. Just you wait. Just you wait…
…and indeed, I was proven right, though not at first. Twas a tricky start, with Pippen now The Man and Kukoc trying to mesh with the Americans. A year earlier, the Bulls were 8-2 after ten games; in 1994, they started 4-6. The critics hounded, but by the forty-game mark the Pippen-led Bulls of ’94 were actually a game better than were the Jordan-led Bulls of ’93.
And the surprises kept coming.
For the tenth straight year, a Bulls guard was voted a starter on the Eastern Conference All-Star team, but this time it was B.J. Armstrong. The Kid joined Scottie in the East’s starting lineup, and Horace Grant joined B.J. as first-time Chicago All-Stars. Scottie scored a game-high 29 to capture the game’s MVP while leading the East to a 127-118 victory.
This was the story of the season: Scottie emerging from the shadows of Number 23 as a legit MVP while Michael’s famous “supporting cast” demonstrated just how vital they’d always been. This was, in a way, The Godfather Part II making due without Brando. Scottie put together his best all around season: career highs in points (22.0), assists (8.7), and steals (2.9). He was named All-NBA First Team for the first time in his career, and was named to the Defensive First Team for the third straight season.
But the most important statistic for Scottie Pippen in 1994, the hands-down, balls-out, far and away most important stat, was the Bulls’ record. Led by Michael Jordan, the 1992-93 Bulls won 57 games…and led by Scottie Pippen, the 1993-94 Bulls won 55 games. That was good for the East’s third seed, only two games behind both New York and the surprising Atlanta Hawks.
Two wins. The Bulls lost the best player in the league, and were able to reproduce all but two wins. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Clippers went 27-55, last in their division.
In the playoffs’ first round, the Bulls met a familiar foe. The Cleveland Cavaliers—the bizarro Team of the ’90s—were on their last legs, 1993-94 serving as a last stand for much of their longtime group, including Price, Daugherty, Hot Rod, and Larry Nance. The classic patsies Lenny Wilkens and Craig Ehlo had both scattered to the Hawks, and now the Cavs were heading to Chicago for yet another showdown with the (now-Jordanless) Bulls.
This would finally be the year, the year that Cleveland would overcome Chicago, the team that had dominated and toyed with them and made their basketball lives miserable lo those many seasons. Finally, Cleveland, finally this would be the year…
Bulls sweep easily, winning Games 1 and 2 by a combined eighteen points before finishing the Cavs off in Cleveland 95-92. Meanwhile, the Knickerbockers were squaring off with their tri-state rivals, those pesky New Jersey Nets, a team that they would dispose of in a tightly contested four game series.
Now was the time. Bulls vs. Knicks. Fourth consecutive postseason meeting, fifth since 1989. True, there was little pressure on YOUR World Champion Chicago Bulls…they were the lower seed, facing off against arguably the league’s best, and doing so without Michael Jordan. They had already accomplished more than nearly anyone thought they would. And yet, there they were ready for more…with a chip, as always.
In 1991, it was Detroit, pure and simple. In 1992, it was the desire to go back-to-back. In 1993, it was the audacity of critics and fans considering them underdogs to both New York and Phoenix. And now, in this glorious 1993-94 season of NBA basketball, it was the desire to prove themselves as successful basketball players without the services of arguably the greatest player in the history.
The Chicago Bulls. The New York Knicks. The basketball that was played over the next two weeks would be among my favorite hoops of all-time.
To say that this was a hard-fought series is to say that Hunter S. Thompson probably did some drugs. The Bulls and Knicks were notorious for their physical, bang-bang postseason battles. The 1994 East semifinals would be no different. The Knicks took Games 1 and 2 at the Garden, winning by scores of 90-86 and 96-91. The Bulls played well…and yet it was clear that this was a different team than the ones that had won the past three NBA titles. Beyond the loss of Jordan, the ’94 Bulls also saw former starters Pax and Mr. Bill getting old. Meanwhile, the team was incorporating many new talents into their lineup, most notably Toni, Luc, Steve Kerr, Bill Wennington, and Pete Myers. These were men who had yet to truly experience the postseason, and Games 1 and 2 were their own personal basketball fire baptisms.
The Knicks were beyond physical in these two games, The Enemy John Starks even resorting to tripping Scottie after he beat him on a fast break. It was The Clothesline all over again, and just as they had the year before, the Bulls went back to the Stadium down 0-2.
This was where the series took form. This was where the series took life.
The final five games of this series would be defined by three plays, all of which would involve Scottie Pippen.
Play number one:
Game 3, Knicks up 2-0, score tied at 102, Bulls’ ball, 1.8 seconds remaining.
As far as his fiercist critics are concerned, Game 3 of the 1994 Eastern Conference Semifinals is the defining game of Scottie Pippen’s Hall of Fame career. The Bulls were fighting for their playoff lives, literally and figuratively, as Game 3 featured a classic hoops brawl when New York’s Derek Harper and the Bulls’ reserve guard Jo Jo English began a tangle that ended up with both teams entwined and spilling into the stands—right in front of the Commish David Stern, who was in attendance. Whoops!
The game went back and forth, and finally, with 1.8 seconds remaining and the game tied at 102, the Bulls went to the huddle to see the play that Phil had drawn up. Much to the surprise and dismay of Pippen, Phil wanted his MVP candidate to inbound the ball to Kukoc, the Rook from Europe. Scottie pouted, sat himself on the bench, and watched as Toni knocked down the jumper to win Game 3. The Bulls were victorious, back in the series, and the Pippen Detractors had their proof. On the bench after the game, a distraught and nearly tearful Cartwright chastised Pippen for his selfish play.
Play number two:
Game 5, series tied at 3, Bulls leading 86-85, Knicks’ ball, end of the fourth.
Ah, Hue Hollins, you unholy son of a bitch.
With the Bulls up one in the crucial Game 5, the Knicks’ Hubert Davis launched a desperate trey from the top of the key. Scottie defended beautifully, with a long arm and a hand in his face. The shot missed badly. The Bulls would close out in Chicago…
Hollins blew his whistle, signaling a foul on Pippen, sending Davis to the line, and effectively turning himself into one of the great outside villains of Chicago sports. Bill Laimbeer, John Starks, Charles Martin…say hello to Hue Hollins.
Davis knocked down both shots, the Bulls failed to score—though they did have a possession, and enough time…everyone forgets this—and the Knicks escaped with the win and a 3-2 series lead.
Play number three:
Game 6, Knicks up 3-2, Bulls up by fifteen, 6:01 to go in the third
Two downers…nothing bittersweet about ‘em.
The first, a selfish, frustrated moment.
The second, a theft. Pure and simple.
By Game 6 of this series, the Bulls had experienced two beat downs in New York, one agonizing win, one easy win, and one horribly agonizing loss. The Bulls knew what a crippling Game 5 loss could mean in a 2-2 series: their defeat of New York a year earlier—the Charles Smith Game—sucked the life out of Ewing and the Knicks…the Bulls winning easily in Game 6…Pippen’s pointer finger extending to the rafters, knowingly victorious…
This time around, it was the Bulls who were coming off of the Game 5 loss. In its own way, the Hue Hollins-Scottie Pippen-Hubert Davis Phantom Foul Call was as improbable and inexplicable and mind-bendingly awful as Charles Smith having four consecutive shots blocked cleanly under the basket…two of which, incidentally, were blocked by Pippen. Perhaps Hue Hollins’ foul call was simply retribution from the basketball gods. Perhaps.
Still, odd twists of (possible) fate aside, players still have to play. Bartman didn’t kill the Cubs; Alex Gonzalez did. Buckner didn’t kill the Mets; Game 7 did.
Hue Hollins was not going to kill the Bulls.
And once again, it was Pippen making the defiant statement. A year earlier, it was his #1 off the trey. This time, it was one of the great in-game dunks ever.
With the Bulls already up big midway through the third, B.J. pushed the ball on the break. The play developed quickly into a 3-on-3 situation, with B.J., Scottie, and Pete Myers on the attack against Ewing, Starks, and Derek Harper. With Myers streaking on the right, Armstrong grooved him a perfect bounce pass. Harper fell as the pass crossed him up, but Starks was able to get nice position in front of Myers. Myers, however, was a step ahead, and rather than trying to continue his offensive pursuit of the basket, he stopped short and swung around to his right to dart a chest pass to Pippen. This pass gave Ewing (who had been plodding slowly up the court) just enough time to get right under the basket in the middle of the floor, and as he filled the lane Pippen caught the pass.
Suddenly, Pip was in the air. Ewing’s jump was reactionary, and a moment late, and Scottie extended his picturesque basketball body, viciously engulfing the Knicks’ big man. Ewing raised his arms, and Pippen threw down the archetypal Tomahawk Jam, slicing his long arm between Ewing’s. Pippen’s legs came on either side of Ewing’s body, and as he slammed the ball down, an off-balance and totally overwhelmed Ewing fell backwards…but Pippen was still coming, and the Bulls’ MVP stepped right over Ewing, pushing him backwards further as he came down. Ewing swatted feebly at Pippen, like a frustrated younger brother does after his older brother has just given him three dead arms in a row.
That entire play, more than any other, symbolized the 1993-94 Chicago Bulls. A complete team effort with everyone contributing, and then Pippen, the forceful, final, punishing punctuation. That dunk made the possibility of losing Game 7 barable…
…and yet, we went into Game 7 with confidence. There was a feeling among Bulls fans that all was well; The Ewing Dunk was one of the great statement plays in my memory, right there with Elway’s Helecopter Leap, Torii Hunter’s smashing of Jamie Burke, Michael’s dunk on Ewing in the ’91 playoffs—the one when he maneuvered around and away from a baffled Stark and Oakley before attacking Ewing on the baseline—and, yes, Starks’ baseline jam over MJ and Horace. At the very least, we knew that there was no longer any doubt in the basketball world that the Bulls could not just hang with the best teams in the league; they were good enough to win a championship. And now that we were confident that everyone else now agreed with us, we felt good.
That was the feeling after Scottie’s dunk. We had three wins in the series, we had one loss heavily influenced (but not decided) by a horrible foul call, and we had taken care of business at home and sent the series back to New York. If the Knicks were going to win, it was going to be due in large part to their home court.
On the day of the game, James Park was in full gear. It was a Sunday, late May, and we were nearing the end of our regular season. I was playing for Maday Auto Body that season, as I had the year before, and though nearly every team played on Sundays, most of us were more focused on Game 7 than on our own games. I remember sitting on a set of bleachers, huddled with a large group, kids and parents alike. Somebody had brought a portable television. We sat, quietly, and watched our Bulls lose Game 7. The last time we had seen them eliminated in the postseason, it was another Game 7, Detroit in 1990. The famed Scottie Pippen Migraine Game, the start of the Pippen-bashing. Now here we were, four years later, where Pippen had become The Man. He had been the Bulls’ rock all year, Game 3 aside. He had seen a call go horribly wrong against him, and rather than crumbling, he rose above, making sure that a referee’s whistle would not define his season. He had brought us all with him—his teammates, his coaches, Bulls fans everywhere—and as the final ticks ticked off the Bulls’ 1993-94 season, Bulls fans applauded. We sat there, watching the end of the game, and were at peace with the outcome.
The game ended, the Bulls lost…and we smiled, and returned to our fields. It was such a cool feeling, because the situation was so different than the past three years, and yet in many ways it felt the same. It had been a great season, and a great team. Still to this day, one of the best I ever watched.
MAY 29, 2009 UPDATE!!!
J.A. Adande is my new savior! The ESPN columnist covered the call in a story today and included video footage. Here you go!!
FOR MORE from readjack on the Great Scottie Pippen, scroll down to November 8, 2005
MORE on the Bulls
And, because you deserve it…