Tales from the hardwood
Once we all got accustomed to the slam-dunk contest, the most exciting part of the annual NBA All-Star Game was the three-point shooting competition. Steve Kerr, my teammate and friend, participated in the shootout four years in a row, and finally won the event at the 1997 weekend in Cleveland.
When the All-Star Weekend started out, it had the three-point shootout, the slam-dunk contest and an old-timers game. The old-timers were replaced by a rookie versus sophomore (or second-year player) game, and the slam-dunk contest got to be such old hat that the league has trouble every year finding contestants. But the three-point contest is still the exact same competition it was at the start, and it remains the most entertaining part of the entire weekend, including the All-Star Game itself.
The Bulls had a significant history in the three-point shootout. Craig Hodges, a backup shooting guard with the first three championship teams, won the event in 1990, 1991, and 1992, and in 1991, hit 19 shots in a row. Steve Kerr was the next Bull to get involved, and he eventually succeeded.
Like everything else in his basketball life, Steve took the shootout seriously, although it was hard for us to find time to get him the practice he needed. We tried, though.
Once it got close to the All-Star Weekend in February, a bunch of us—Jud, Luc and myself mainly—would set up the balls and the racks to help him get ready. The shootout required five racks and 25 balls, and we didn’t have that many of either at the Berto Center, so we really had to hustle to simulate the event for Steve’s benefit. We were running around, collecting balls, setting up racks, and trying to stay out of Steve’s way, all in the minute alloted.
Steve wanted to win, and he got more involved every year that he did not win. I’m glad he got the victory in 1997, because he deserved it. When he left the Bulls, he was still the league’s all-time leader in three-point shooting.AND THEN THERE WAS MICHAEL
After recreating the slam-dunk competition in his own image, winning the event in 1987 and 1988, Michael Jordan got bored with the contest. But the league wanted his name attached to the All-Star Game Saturday activities, so it talked Michael into participating in the three-point shootout in 1990. Michael didn’t have the best percentage in the league going in, but he did hit his fair share of three-pointers, and he was a competitor. It figured having him in the contest would make things interesting.
But Michael suffered one of his greatest embarrassments in NBA history when he finished last in the eight-man contest. He just wasn’t hitting that day, and it happened to be with everyone watching.
I know this sounds mean, but I wish I was there for that.
I’m sure Michael took his fair share of ribbing for that performance, and the one thing I can say about Michael is that he was able to take that kind of abuse from friends and teammates if it was warranted.
And there was no escaping that one.
In 1992, the Bulls moved into the Sheri L. Berto Center in the northern suburb of Deerfield, Illinois. At the time, it was the premier training facility for any team in the league, and it remains one of the best buildings dedicated to one franchise.
Life at the Berto Center was pretty nice, although we didn’t use it the way it might have been used by a team with younger players. Most of us had established home lives that we were quick to return to on practice days, so we didn’t do as much hanging around as we might have in our younger days.
Most guys would come in and get their work done, then leave. It was a workplace, and loitering wasn’t a team-endorsed activity.
But it was our locker room, our weightlifting room, our pool. When we were there, we all seemed to relate to each other well. There was always a lot of noise, a lot of talking going on.
The gathering place was the training room, where we got wrapped or treated for our various physical ailments. The training room, where Chip Schaefer did his work, was the equivalent of a kitchen in the house, where we would all congregate to discuss the day’s events.
There were times when other teams from the NBA, or college teams, or club teams, would use our facility for training, and they could not believe how nice we had it. I know that a couple of training facilities have been built in the last few years that had the Berto Center in mind, with the same general scheme.
We had our players entrance to the Berto Center, but the more public face of the building was the front entrance. After the first door brought you into a small lobby, there was a second door that led to the basketball area.
A third door actually opened into a small hallway, with the basketball floor to the left and the weight room and locker rooms to the right. On the wall facing the door was a blown-up photograph from the 1991-92 season, the year the Bulls were chasing their second title. It covered the entire wall.
The picture was taken of several hundred fans standing and cheering the team on in a playoff game that took place at the Chicago Stadium, the former home of the Bulls. Among the many faces (faces we have all memorized over time), there was a woman holding a sign that read “We will defend what is ours.”
While the picture has taken its share of criticism, simply because it is so big and the faces are so large and the expressions are so wild, we always took the message in that woman’s sign seriously.
The players today might not fully understand what those words represent, because they no longer have anything to defend. After 1998, the Bulls’ fortunes fell apart on the basketball floor, and some of the tradition fell apart as well.
But that picture, and the sign’s message, seems timeless. That picture could be placed anywhere, in any era, and it would mean something.
TAPING BEFORE GAMES
Almost everybody in the NBA had his ankles taped before a game. The job fell to the trainer or a trainer’s assistant to make our sometimes very ugly feet and ankles ready for the rigors of a 48-minute game of running and jumping.
When I was with the Bulls, there was no set order as to who would get taped first. But it was understood that if a veteran player was ready to get taped and a younger player was on the table waiting for attention, the older player got to be taped first and the young guy would have to wait for an opening.
With rookies, it’s amazing they ever got taped at all. Some rookies would have to get in extra early to get taped because otherwise they ran the risk of being bumped endlessly.
Things changed from the time I entered the league. There was so much more going on in the training room then just getting taped. Guys were undergoing other treatments, like ultra-sound, electro-stimulation, applied heat or applied ice. Again, those were treatments that required extra time, and anyone needing those treatments had to get to the game early.
On the road, it was fairly hectic, because we all got to the visiting stadium at the same time. Chip Schaefer and equipment manager John Ligmanowski had their hands full getting us ready on the road.
It’s a shame fans can’t see what it is like in the locker room after a regular season game. All anybody cared for was ice. It was for our knees.
The jumping and running we do in games, and the size of our bodies, caused particular damage to our knees. Everybody suffered from tendinitis, and the best treatment for tendinitis after a game was placing a plastic bag filled with ice on the knee. So all of us old guys would sit and ice our knees, talk about who got embarrassed, who made the best play. If it was after practice, we would discuss the rest of our day, whether we would get in a round of golf or see what our kids were up to.
But all we were really doing was trying to get our knees to stop burning.
GOING TO THE MOVIES
Oh my gosh, did we watch a lot of videotape. And when it came time for the playoffs, we watched even more.
It was boring and often repetitive, but Phil kept it lively by inserting occasional snippets from hit movies. Sometimes the film clips were meant for comic relief, and sometimes they were meant to send a message. Sometimes, we didn’t get the message, but that wasn’t Phil’s fault.
We saw Full Metal Jacket early on in my Bulls career. Johnny Bach, the longtime assistant coach with a military background, liked that movie.
One year, we saw the movie What about Bob? starring Richard Dreyfuss and Bill Murray. It took us a while to get the message there, although we realized it was all about taking baby steps on the way to your goal.
Another year, we saw the movie Friday starring Ice Cube. That one stumped us for a long time. Finally, we decided it was about being ourselves and doing what is right and getting through the hard times.
I never did fully understand why we saw Pulp Fiction. I think it was about how random events can affect your life, and trying to make meaning out of the randomness. Maybe it was about not eating too many quarter pounders, or trying not to say “What?”’ all the time.
By the time the playoffs were over each year, we would have seen the entire film that was selected for that year’s message.FREE THROWS
Anyone who has ever played basketball in a team situation knows how coaches feel about free throws. It’s the most important part of the game. For those teams that want to win, that’s what they will tell you.
I would be shooting free throws after practice and think, “I wonder how many free throws I have shot in my life?” In all of my years of basketball, I don’t know if I ever had a practice end with something other than shooting free throws.
On the championship Bulls, Steve Kerr was clearly the best free throw shooter. Michael got to be very good at them by the time he was done. We had a lot of guys who were hit and miss. Scottie, Luc, Ron, Toni, they were guys who should have been able to hit for a better percentage but just didn’t. Unless you had a rhythm and a pattern to your approach, free throws could be very hard to make on a consistent basis.
Dennis Rodman had a unique approach to free throws. He hated them. He would tell you he didn’t understand them. He didn’t want to be at the line. At the line, he couldn’t make a rebound, couldn’t make a key defensive stand. Free throws slowed the game down, and Dennis didn’t like that. So he would often just throw the ball up there, like you would throw a wadded up piece of paper at the waste paper basket.
But what was weird about Dennis was that he was really a good free throw shooter when he put his mind to it.
We would always end our practices with free throw shooting. Phil wanted us to make 10 in a row, which would signal the end of practice, and that put pressure on us to make one for the team.
We usually shot free throws in groups of three, with six baskets bordering the floor at the Berto Center. There would always be a competition between the three guys at each basket, with the winner being the first guy to make 10. Sometimes we played Bigs against Littles in free throw shooting. Even though we were closer to the basket, the little guys usually won that competition.DEFENSE
We had the most spectacular offensive player in the world in Michael Jordan. We had the best rebounder, perhaps ever, in Dennis Rodman. But I think our team defense was why we won games.
Our offense, the triangle, devised by assistant coach Tex Winter, received a lot of attention, because it was unusual, and it required so much study, and only the Bulls could run it with any efficiency and success. But all of the messages we received in practice, all of the attention given in team meetings, was about our defense.
We spent so much time on other teams’ offensive principles, how to cover pick and rolls, executing different traps. With Michael, Scottie and Dennis, we had three guys who could cover a lot of ground very quickly. They made up for a lot of mistakes that we made, and gave the rest of us the opportunity to overplay on defense, knowing that we were covered if something went wrong.
Another thing that helped was that, just like with our offense, we players bought into the defensive principle. We were willing to put out the effort necessary, and that is such a big part of defense, just being willing to put out the effort.
I don’t want to forget the contributions on defense from Ron Harper, who was a great fill-in for Michael on both ends of the floor. He used his long body very well. He knew how to play the angles to his benefit, and he had his reach and quickness to use to his advantage. He did a great job with that.
In the middle, I was certainly a different defensive presence than Luc Longley, who had that big body and took up a lot of space. I had to use my feet more and shift my body more than Luc did. I wasn’t going to be strong enough to hold guys like Shaquille O’Neal out of the middle, so I had to junk it up a little bit more. I was able to help out on the weak side a little bit better because I was quicker.
For the first three-peat, the Bulls had assistant coach Johnny Bach, who was considered the defensive genius of the team. I got to spend one year under Johnny’s tutelage, in 1993, before he left the team.
Johnny Bach prided himself on our defense, and that pride kind of caught on to everyone. We took our defense seriously. We would go into a game knowing what our opponent’s scoring average was, and if we could hold that team under its average, then we had done our job. That was one statistic that was in our heads for almost every game.
When Johnny Bach left, Jim Cleamons did a lot of our defensive instruction. Phil also prided himself on being a strong defensive coach.STUFF THAT COMES WITH WINNING
As you grow up, coaches will tell you that playing well is its own reward, and that winning is just a byproduct of that. But winning is a pretty good reward for hard work, too.
When you win an NBA championship, you get lots of attention. You also get stuff, things the team and the league give you to commemorate your achievement. Hats and T-shirts are issued immediately, and you always wonder how the league has those things printed up ahead of time, when the outcome of the series is still in doubt. I wonder if there are championship hats and T-shirts for the Seattle SuperSonics or Utah Jazz from those finals we were in.
One thing you definitely get when you win an NBA championship is a championship ring. These are usually diamond-laden pieces of furniture you are supposed to wear on your hand, assuming you are strong enough to do so.
My first ring, the one from 1996, is my favorite. It’s the most classic-looking ring of the bunch. It has a black face with 72 diamonds around it, signifying the fact we won a league-record 72 games that year. Inside the black are four NBA championship trophies, because it was the Bulls’ fourth championship in six seasons.
It says “World Champion’’ on it, and also your name. You could actually wear it around, if you wanted to really call attention to who you were.
We received the rings in our first home game the following season.
The other two championship rings were really big and really shiny. One has our Bulls head logo on the top of it. The other had a big trophy with five smaller trophies inside of it, signifying the six titles. The Bull head ring had diamonds for its nose and horns.
These were rings no one would actually wear. They are too gaudy, although I guess that is the idea.
I hear that the championship rings have gotten even more extensive since we stopped winning. I can’t imagine how much more flashy a ring could get.
Some people wear them a lot. I see some of the Bulls’ employees from that era wearing them to work. Everyone asks to see them if they come by the house. I never wear mine, but everywhere I go people want to know why I don’t.
I tell them they produce carpal-tunnel syndrome in the wrist from the great weight.
Do you remember when the Bulls won the titles in 1991, 1992, and 1993, each year there was a really cool Wheaties box produced to commemorate the titles? We didn’t get that.
There was one Wheaties box for our team, but there was never any real team picture on it. Michael didn’t want to do it, so we didn’t do it as a team. Steve and Luc looked into it, and I think it ended up having all of our team information on it with a picture of just Steve and Luc. It was a keeper.
We did receive a banner, the kind they hang from the street lights in the city of Chicago. They are big canvas banners, and I have three of those, one for each title. The one for 1995-96 was red, and it reads “Chicago Bulls, forever champions” on it, with all the players names listed.
For 1996-97, it lists all five championship teams. The last one, for 1997-98, reads “Incredi-Bull, Unbelieva-Bull, Unbeata-Bull, Unstoppa-Bull, Undenia-Bull, Unforgetta-Bull. 1997-98 Chicago Bulls, NBA World Champions.
Each year we got home and away game-worn jerseys, which have value for souvenir collectors.
After the 1998 season, the Bulls were broken up and scattered to the four winds. I remember Scottie got his ring while playing with the Houston Rockets, and Steve Kerr got his when he came back to Chicago as a member of the San Antonio Spurs. That was a sad time, actually.
KEEPING MICHAEL'S SECRET
In the spring of 1995, we all knew Michael Jordan was coming back to play after his first retirement. It was the big secret we all had to keep.
Early in 1995, Michael had come back and practiced with us a couple of times, but it was more like when a big star returns to the TV show where he got his start. It was something to write about, something to talk about, but it wasn’t about his comeback. It didn’t feel that way. It was just two days, two practices, and they were on consecutive days. There wasn’t any real indication that he was thinking about coming back.
About three weeks before his official announcement that he was coming back, he showed up at the Berto Center for practice. Only this time, he was in really good shape. And he was pushing himself.
The first day, we didn’t think anything about it. He had shown up before. The second day, we starting thinking something was up. He was playing really hard, and he was taking part in all of our drills. The first time he came back, all he did was scrimmage with us.
This time, he did all the layup drills, all the defensive drills. It was clearly different, but it still felt like a guy trying to recapture something he had lost from a year and a half off.
He missed a day or two, and we stopped thinking about his return again. Then he came back and he stayed, for two weeks.
You didn’t need to be a rocket scientist to see he was up to something. I think he was pushing himself to see what he could do, if his body was going to respond as he wanted it to. I guess he liked it, because he decided to make his return.
After one week of consistent practices, we kind of knew what was going on, but absolutely nobody asked him, “Are you coming back?” I don’t know if we were afraid to jinx it, or we didn’t want to fall into the trap Michael was setting for us.
The way he was working, we knew he was getting in shape for something, and we all started to believe that our dreams of playing with Michael Jordan were going to come true. Everybody’s imagination started to run away. We were thinking, “If he comes back, we can be really good again.” We were already one of the better teams in the East, and we were going to the playoffs, but this was a different possibility altogether.
There was no team meeting in which Michael told us he was coming back to the team. In fact, when it happened officially, there was no announcement made to the team. We just got to work.
I guess the team realized a big deal was going to be made of the decision, no matter what he did or we did to acknowledge it. So we just kept it under wraps as long as we could, and that was probably the least distractive way of doing it.
Do you remember how he told the world? He sent out faxes to the media, a simple piece of white paper that read “I’m back.” That’s how we all found out it was happening for real.
Michael returned to a team that was entirely different than the one he left. There was basically Scottie, and a bunch of guys he had never played with. Those of us who were new to the experience were aware that our dreams were coming true. It was the reason I joined the Bulls, the reason Steve was there, the reason Toni was with us. We were excited about the possibilities and I think we figured the sky is the limit. In hindsight, maybe we were a little overzealous that first spring, but we got our payoff the following three seasons.
Michael played 13 games at the end of the 1995 season, and there was an adjustment period. We did not play well in those 13 games, and we did not play well in the playoffs, getting eliminated in the Eastern Conference semifinals by the Orlando Magic. It turned out to be an embarrassing series for Michael, which may be why he came back with such a vengeance the next fall.
Bill Wennington played in the NBA for 13 years, including six seasons with the Bulls. Kent McDill has been a sportswriter since 1978, working in Chicago and Indianapolis for United Press International before joining the Daily Herald in Arlington Heights, Illinois, to work as the Chicago Bulls beat writer. From 1988 to 1999 he traveled with the Bulls on a daily basis and ended up being the only beat writer to cover all six Bulls championship teams
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