Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Bulls and Bar Mitzvah Year

     In my last post I brought up the subject of favorite seasons of all time. I wrote about my favorite Chicago Bears season. I still have to write about my favorite Blackhawks, and San Francisco Giants seasons. Here is my 2nd installment. The Chicago Bulls and the 1991-92 season. Stats below represent my lifetime (33 years).

Chicago Bulls
Playoff Appearances - 22 (81,85-98,05,06,07,09,10,11,12)
Eastern Conference Finals - 6-3 (89-93,96-98,11)
NBA Finals - 6-0 (91-93,96-98)

     The Chicago Bulls have won 6 NBA titles. All of them have been won with Michael Jordan. Coincidentally as I write this, it is his 50th birthday. There are so many great seasons to choose from. The 95-96 team is the best of all time. No team in history has ever been better than the 72-10 record put up that year. That was one of the all time "I'll show you" seasons. MJ was in his first full year back after hitting baseballs, and the front office traded for a rebounder named Dennis Rodman. It was a circus, but it was always the best in town. The 95-96 Bulls are up there with the 85 Bears as greatest team Chicago has ever seen.

     That's not the season that was my favorite. Nor was the 90-91 team that won the first title Chicago had ever seen in Basketball. Yes it was great to get over the Pistons hump. To humiliate them like that was quite a bonus. After losing to Magic and the Lakers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals the Bulls rolled off 4 straight victories. The capper was John Paxon repeatedly getting open for jumpers to seal it in Game 5 out in LA. But the first title is always so shocking. Yes it was fun to watch, but so unexpected. The expectations going in to the next season as defending champs with the greatest player on the planet, now that's different. 

     The 1991-1992 Chicago Bulls were coming off their first title. Michael finally had a championship to cement his legacy, and Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant had matured in to the right complimentary players. Scottie was exceptional as a defensive player as well, and was a great swing man. He could pull up and drain an 18 foot jumper, or drive to the hoop with either hand. There was Bill Cartwright and his gangly arms, and BJ Armstrong looking like he was ready for his first day of high school.  John Paxon was the sharp shooting clean cut white kid, and Will Perdue was big, clumsy, and lovable. The bench had depth and it was so much fun to watch Scott Williams in there pumping the crowd up and playing his guts out.

     The season started out with a the first ring ceremony and banner raising the Bulls ever had. I distinctly remember the night because my friends and I got sick. I was 12 years old, and had a pack of cigarettes. My parents went somewhere for the night so we all decided to have one and celebrate. All 3 of us got green in the face and shared our dinner with the porcelain god. It wasn't pretty, and I will never forget it. Sadly, I still smoke, but back to the Bulls.

     After a blowout win opening night the Bulls stumbled and lost 2 straight. Then they reeled off 14 straight wins. A 15-2 record to start the season and the Bulls were a worthy defender to the title. I was at that age where playing basketball competitively was coming to an end. There was no way I would make a HS team, and the youth leagues ran out after 8th grade. So instead there was a lot of driveway basketball pretending to be these Bulls. My guy was Scottie Pippen. I loved how versatile he was. My buddy Scott was a Jordan fan, and my buddy Brad liked Horace Grant. We would spend countless hours on my driveway pretending to be our basketball heroes. And we all had the jersey to prove it.

     By the middle of the season the Bulls were pretty much on cruise control. One night in early February sticks out though. It was a Monday night and the Bulls were in Utah to take on the Jazz. Now Utah was a good team that year, they won their division, but they weren't the great team from the mid to late 90's. The game started at like 9:30 Central time so it was already late. The Bulls went back in forth with Stockton, Malone, and yes Mark Eaton, through 4 quarters. Then they played one OT, and another, then finally a 3rd. The Bulls were gassed by the end and lost 126-123. I was still awake, at 2am, on a school night. I had a science fair presentation the next day and I remember yawning my way through it. A friend's mom even called me on the Bulls game being the reason I was so tired. But I didn't mind, and I don't now. That was a great memory in that season.

     The Bulls finished the 91-92 season with the best record in the NBA at 67-15. It is tied for the 6th best record in an 82 game season. They were 10 games better than either the Cavs or Trail Blazers. Both teams would have their shot in the coming playoffs. MJ finished averaging 30.1 points per game and won the MVP award.  Every Sunday it seemed like the Bulls were on NBC and showing everyone how great basketball was played. This was the age when I went to a lot of Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. I spent more than a few standing in the bar of a ballroom or hotel watching a Bulls game. Thankfully my Bar Mitzvah was May 2, and the Bulls had already swept the Heat in the first round. There was no conflict.

     The second round of the playoffs was not so easy that year. Sometimes there is that series during your team's conference playoffs, that you know if they get out alive, they will be champs.  That was this Knicks-Bulls series. New York had plenty of talented teams, but this one matched up so well with the Bulls. The Pistons were no longer a rival since Chicago had swept them the previous year. New York was now the main foil. It was a top billing match up with a great cast of characters. The Knicks of course had Ewing and were coached by Pat Riley. The there were the guys we loved to hate, Charles Oakley, Anthony Mason, and John Starks. To this day I hate Starks. He was such a pest. He would never go away. That stupid, dumb ass look on his face, and yet sometimes the Bulls couldn't stop him. The grocery bagger to NBA starter story that we all heard enough about. I just fucking hate John Starks, ok?

     In each game of the series the team that took the lead early played better defense and held the other one off. The signature of the Bulls under Phil Jackson was how well they played in the 3rd quarter. All my years as a Bulls fan I could count on a strong 3rd quarter being a deciding factor in most games.  After splitting both games in each city the Bulls hosted Game 5.  Michael had 37 points and Scottie was 2 assists short of a triple double. The D held Ewing to 14 points and 7 rebounds. The best players for the Knicks that night were Mark Jackson and Gerald Wilkins. In a key game in a 7 game series the Bulls showed why they were the best in the league that year. It didn't seem to matter that the Knicks won Game 6 back in New York. Game 7 was a forgone conclusion, and the Bulls proved that by blowing the Knicks out by 29 points.

     The Cavs were next in the East Finals. I have to be honest, I don't remember much about this series. The one before it was exciting and this one was not as much of a battle. The Bulls seemed to show up when they wanted, and ran Cleveland out of the building when they did. The Cavs were the second best team in the East, 10 games behind the Bulls, but they were not much of a match.

     The 1992 NBA Finals was so much fun. It was a match up of Jordan vs Drexler. The Trail Blazers had the best record in the West and beat the Jazz in the conference finals. MJ had vanquished Magic the year before, could he handle "The Glide"? So Michael decided to go out and show he was the best in basketball. In Game 1 he had a legendary first half. The three pointer was never a huge part of his game, he drained 6. There was nothing the Blazers could do but watch as he went off for 35 points in just the first 24 minutes of play. After hitting yet another long range shot MJ turned to announcers row and shrugged, as if to say "Even I don't know why everything is going in".    

     Game 3 was exciting in its own right, but I remember it more because we dragged a TV outside to watch it at someones graduation party. Again the Bulls stepped on the throat of their opponent in a Game 5 and beat Portland in The Rose Garden. Now they had the chance to come home and clinch a championship in Chicago for the first time. I went to some hamburger joint with my buddy Brad and his family. The adults had pitchers of beer and we had soda and all munched our way through Game 6. It was packed and exciting. In theatrical fashion the Bulls fell behind early and went in to halftime down 6. The usual 3rd quarter burst was not there and they were down 15 heading to the 4th. Scottie and the bench took over and the deficit was only 3 after 3 minutes of play. When MJ returned to the game the Bulls finished the Blazers off with a flourish. Defense ruled the rest of the way, Michael had 2 steals that turned in to scores and the Blazers only scored 6 points over the final 5 minutes. The Bulls won their second championship 97-93 and the party was on.

     Brad and I ran outside screaming, shouting, and just rejoicing. I can hear the car horns honking on the ride home from the restaurant. It was a summer night in mid June and we ran to my driveway to play basketball in the dark to relive what had just happened. What a great way to wrap up the season. The Bulls had many great years, but 1991-1992 will go down as this fan's favorite.

Eric Nathanson

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