The 1993 Bulls and LeBron James: a look back, and a look ahead

The 1993 Bulls and LeBron James: a look back, and a look ahead

Originally posted June 20, 2013

Michael Jordan scored the first nine points of the 4th quarter of Game 6 of the 1993 Finals -- Pax scored the last three.

Michael Jordan scored the first nine points of the 4th quarter of Game 6 of the 1993 Finals — Pax scored the last three.

If I could watch only one Bulls Finals game for the rest of my life, it would be Game 6, June 20, 1993: Bulls 99, Suns 98. The night the Bulls secured their legacy as one of the premier teams in league history. The night “Paxson for three!” became every young Chicago hooper’s on-court self-exclamation.

There are a few reasons this game gets the nod for me. One, of course, is the remarkable final 45 seconds:

  • Jordan’s madcap seven-second dash where he rebounded a missed Suns shot, drove the court, and rocked the Jumpman pose on an arm-extended layup to cut the Phoenix lead to two.
  • The team’s lock down defense that forced Phoenix into a baseline airball with just over 14 seconds left.
  • A final possession where all five players touched the ball: Jordan inbounding to Armstrong, Armstrong flipping back to Jordan, Jordan whipping a pass across midcourt to Pippen, Pippen’s defense-breaking drive toward the rim, Pip’s rifle pass to Grant under the basket, and Grant’s flip and fire to a wide-open John Paxson, who buried the game-winning three.
  • Grant’s blocked shot on Kevin Johnson to seal the win.

Nothing ever topped that sequence. In fact, the end of Game 6 of the ’98 Finals was like the less frantic, more Jordan-centric version of those four events: Jordan layup cuts Utah lead to one… Bulls defensive possession ends with Jordan steal on Malone… Jordan dribbles length of the court, Bulls clear out, Jordan milks the clock before draining a that-shot-surprised-no-one game-winner… Stockton misses a desperate three…

But the biggest reason that ’93 Game 6 remains my favorite is simple: for the first time since 1990, the Bulls were underdogs. The national consensus was that they would not beat the Knicks, let alone the Suns.

Even after whipping the Suns in Phoenix in Games 1 and 2 and winning Game 4 at the Stadium behind Jordan’s 55-point masterwork, the Bulls were still allegedly “in trouble” returning to Phoenix for Game 6 and possibly Game 7. It didn’t make sense to me why a publication like Sports Illustrated – or anyone else – would pick against the Bulls. I didn’t get it then and I only kind of get it now.

Well, okay, here’s part of it: no team had three-peated since Russell’s Celtics finished their eight-peat in 1966. And the Bulls had indeed won ten fewer games in ’93 than they did in ’92.

But so the hell what? These guys had ripped through Isiah, Magic, Ewing, and Drexler in two years – that’s not enough to declare them favorites?

It felt as if the powers-that-be were placing a cap on the Bulls’ run – as if some malevolent basketball force had decreed their two titles sufficient and potentially excessive. Barkley even won what should have been Jordan’s third straight MVP.

That’s what made the 1993 playoffs special: it was the Bulls saying, “No one can take what we refuse to relinquish.”

It was Jordan announcing, “People said a scoring champ can’t lead his team to a championship — how about three championships?”

And for Bulls fans, it was a return to the gritty, us-against-the-world outlook that all fans relish. A chance to prove your loyalty. To prove your faith. To be wowed all over again.

They didn’t disappoint. I was 11-years-old on June 20, 1993. We watched the game at my grandparents’ house. I remember how every driver on the highway during the car ride home was honking the horn. I remember rolling down my window and shouting “GO BULLS!” at no one. I remember feeling like we’d just beat the Pistons again.

And I remember Jordan to Armstrong to Jordan to Pippen to Grant to Paxson for three. Ain’t nothing better.

***

Now this next part may surprise you, but here goes: I’m rooting for LeBron. Not to win a ring necessarily, but to be AMAZING. I wanted him to average a 40-10-10 this series. I wanted him to drop 50 just cuz. I wanted him to become the first player to grab 20 rebounds and dish 20 assists in the same Finals. I wanted him to produce unquestionably the finest series of his career.

That’s why his offensive tentativeness bothers me. It doesn’t matter that LeBron is at his best when he is facilitating and filling his team’s gaps. There are times when LeBron needs to remember that he is the most unstoppable offensive talent on the court, and then act accordingly. When he began bum-rushing the rim in the fourth quarter of Game 6, I wondered why he hadn’t played that way the whole game. You’re the best player in the world!, I kept thinking. Attack! ATTACK!!!

As a Bulls fan, being a LeBron-supporter puts me in the minority. Reasons Bulls fans dislike LeBron James include:

  • They don’t like the guy who has eliminated us three of the past four years
  • They don’t like that he didn’t sign with the Bulls
  • They don’t like his personality
  • They don’t like anyone challenging the greatness of Michael Jordan, or being considered the heir to Michael Jordan

In Chicago, that last one probably carries the most weight. I know it influences my LeBron perspective. But in my case, it’s because I am a Bulls fan who lived through the Jordan era that I want LeBron to succeed.

“Success” for LeBron doesn’t mean being more successful than Jordan, or even more successful than Magic, Bird, Duncan, Kobe, Shaq, or Hakeem. It simply means maxing his talents. I want LeBron to chase his zenith so that we gain an even better perspective on the degree of Jordan’s dominance. I want people to see how difficult it is to three-peat, or to win multiple MVPs.

I also want LeBron to be great because watching Jordan was exhilarating, and I want basketball fans who missed out to have their own Jordanesque experience.

I want them to continually wonder: how can he get any better?

Can LeBron win three straight titles? Can he win four straight? Can he win five rings? Six rings? Seven rings?

I want him to start winning assist titles. I want him to win more scoring titles. I want him to continue his MVP streak. To win Defensive Player of the Year. To win his third Olympic gold medal.

I want him to become the first man in both the 30,000 points club (Kareem, Malone, Jordan, Kobe, Wilt, Dr. J.) and the 7,000 rebounds & 7,000 assists club (Big O and Jason Kidd). I want him to be the third player since Bill Russell was drafted to lead his team in a Finals in points, rebounds, and assists (Duncan ’03, Magic ’87), and to be the first to do it twice (2012, 2013).

I don’t think LeBron can top Jordan. I just want to see him try. I want to see him capture that ’93 Bulls spirit. I want to see him embrace the Jordan challenge. I want to see him say, “No one can take what I refuse to relinquish.” I want to see him strive toward immortality. I want him to believe he can fly.

Jack M Silverstein covers sports in Chicago for RedEye. His work has also appeared in ChicagoSide, the Chicago Sun-Times, ChicagoNow, and Time Out Chicago. Say hey @readjack.

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