The 1995–96 season began with Second City media suggesting a 70-win season. They started 23-2. Then they lost a game. Then they won their next 18: 41-3. It was now obvious: They were all part of an unfolding piece of athletic history.
“You had a bunch of guys who had been on horrible teams,” Buechler says. “Now? When it was all coming together, I’m sitting in Cleveland next to Steve and Wennington. We’re going, ‘Are you kidding me? How incredible is this?’ I mean, it’s one of the most amazing things... you could just feel it. We were in the moment, and enjoying it.
“But really, that season? It was all because of the practices. When it was the first unit against the second, the second bonded, and we’d push those guys. But then, when he split up, and it was Michael on one team and Scottie on the other? Those were way more intense than the games. And that was all Phil: to put the two of them together. You create that environment in practice, then you go to a game, it’s way less intense than practices. And remember: You practice a lot more than you play. I mean, it was nasty.”
On the court, the wins were like practices—with Jackson now toning down the volume, as he’d promised himself he would; if he settled down more on the sideline, maybe Rodman would pick up on the vibe out on the court. As the victories piled up, he had the luxury of coaching the way he’d always wanted to: by letting the tribe find its own collective way. To the fans, watching a lead turn from 19 to 9 in a minute, it’s a no-brainer:
Stanch the bleeping bleeding, Phil! But he wouldn’t call the T. Jimmy Rodgers remembers a classic example: “Worry wart Tex is by his side, going ‘Time-out, time-out, time-out!’ So Phil crosses his legs, pulls out his fingernail clipper, starts clipping his fingernails.
“The players knew what they were doing wrong. He didn’t have to tell them.” As in: You’re organisms that can self-correct, because you’re men. Tonight me and Tex and Johnny and Jimmy, we’re just over here pretending to influence your game.
The season had become an endless series of spars with different tomato cans every few nights. But the playoffs were going to be heavyweight matches against teams with seven games to figure out where to exploit their weaknesses. Any smart fighter can pull off an upset with enough time to study his opponent.
On top of which, they were going to face Shaq again. Phil wanted one more big guy—and not just a body. A mind. What had the Buddha said about the unceasing change of the wheel of life? Five years earlier, in the Pistons’ 4–3 playoff victory, John Salley had shot 53 percent from the field and scored 9 a game. Two years later, in the heartbreaking seventh-game rout in Detroit, Phil had watched Spider come off the bench to score 14, gather 3 rebounds and block five shots—in thirty-two minutes.
Salley started the season in the league, if the Toronto Raptors counted as part of the league, but he already had his eye on Hollywood, media, other horizons. The biteless Raptors were 6-19 when John got his lawyer to get him out of the contract, forfeiting three quarters of a million dollars. A month later, he was in a meeting with a Sony Pictures exec, discussing plans for a late-night show. His pager went off: “Jerry Krause of the Bulls: Call me immediately.”
Salley stepped into the hall. “Long-tall,” said Krause, “you want to play with us?”
His agent came out: “Good news: We’ve got him on the hook.” “Um... I just joined the Bulls,” Salley said.
Why would Salley pass up a hosting gig for a few months back in the league with a bad knee? Well, start with the days when Salley was four, and his cousin was Jackson’s housekeeper in Brooklyn, and would brag about the books he’d give her and the religious talks they’d have. Like Jackson, he was into all things spiritual.
Why would Phil want him? Possibly, he surmises now, because he’d stuck around to shake the Bulls’ hands five years earlier.
And now found himself in heaven. “Massage tables. A pool, with Jordan running in the water. Him and Scottie doing ninety-five-pound dumbbells. No way. Then they got me doing it too.
“A track. Billiards. Everything you could possibly do to take care of a human being’s body and mind. Any other team, you’re hurting, the trainer says, ‘Put some spit on it. I’m watching the soap opera.’ But Phil Jackson treats you like a fine-tuned race car... Formula 1, and you’re on the Ferrari team out of fuckin’ Italy. He doesn’t treat you like a NASCAR Busch race car owned by twelve guys who put up enough money to own a team. That’s not what he does. That’s how he prepares you. Phil taught us.
“You know how you go to a Broadway show, and it’s dark, then a light comes up, and someone sings, and you listen, you can’t help but listen? That was Phil, when he’d say something. I’d pay attention to every word. It was the best experience of all time. How can you play with the best player of all time and not have it be great? Jordan? I played golf with Jordan.” (What was that like? “He’s a psycho!”)
Salley asked his new coach, “Why did it take you this long to get here?”
“Maverick,” Jackson answered.
Over breakfast, Salley asked me, “Have you read it?” “Three times, total,” I said.
“I guess I really gotta read that book.”
After a late March loss to Toronto, despite 17 for Kerr, Jackson told the team they were falling out of rhythm, no longer playing like the Dead, the band that could jam for four hours and never lose the beat. So the next day’s practice was going to be war. “Wrap the tape tightly,” he said: no time-outs for equipment repair. For anything.
“Going to be a scrimmage,” Salley remembers. “War. It was going to be physical. But first, it was upstairs to the film room for some breathing and meditation for forty-five minutes. Then Jackson walked in.”
It was time for the peaceful warriors to leave a little blood on the tracks.
“ ‘OK,’ Jackson said, ‘practice over. Go home.’
“We got dressed for war. To him it was always ‘This is war. You’re a warrior, you got to defend your property.’ That day? Peaceful war. End of practice. No workout. Pure Phil.”
The next game was against Lenny Wilkens’s Hawks, who would knock Larry Brown’s 52-30 Pacers out of the first round of the playoffs. Kukoč went 10 of 12 from the field; Harper, 6 of 11. Scottie’s line: 16-11-8. Jordan? He took all of 12 shots.
The Bulls won by 31. They were 61-8.
Three weeks later, they drove up to Milwaukee en route to the 70th victory. It wasn’t Route 2 in North Dakota. It was I-94, overpasses draped in banners, TV helicopters above them. And after the win, Salley and Jordan handing out cigars. Then cars following them home. Flashing lights and honking.
Back at the United Center, June Jackson said to her husband, “See you after the playoffs.”
They lost to the Pacers, then romped over Washington to finish at...
Now, though, it was back to square one: Alonzo Mourning in Miami. To prepare, Jackson spliced in a scene from Friday, a comedy starring Ice Cube and Chris Tucker as stoners trying to rip off a dealer and surviving a drive-by shooting. The scene? Tucker’s dad knocks out the huge bully, Deebo (Tom Lister, Jr.).
Next frame: Mourning. The message: Mourning’s a bully. Don’t be intimidated.
There was a subtext to this series. At the end of the previous season, in a spat that consumed the New York tabs, Riley had fled town to coach the Heat, claiming that Dave Checketts had reneged on a handshake deal for a contract extension. (Note: I interviewed both at length at the time, and I sensed that Riley, the pugilistic Schenectady street kid, was within his rights. I say so because I would never want to be on Pat Riley’s bad side.)
Jackson gave Ron Harper the starting point-guard slot, because of his physical style of defense. His offense waning with that bad knee, he’d perfected his defense. In a three-game sweep, the Bulls outscored the Heat by an average of 23 points.
Don Nelson had led the Knicks to a 35-27 record before being fired because his team had stopped playing for him. Of his short time in the Garden? “I liked everything about it but the team.” Seven-year assistant Jeff Van Gundy (five under Riley) lit a fire. Jackson, knowing that Van Gundy had talked to Riley, adjusted. Rodman replaced Kukoč in the starting lineup, anticipating some physicality.
In game one, six of ten starters earned four or more personal fouls. Jordan, ever the ego, hoping to reprise his 55-pointer in his first game against the Knicks a year earlier, took 35 shots. Fortunately, he made 17, to make up for Scottie’s 4 of 15. Kerr added 8 in 15 minutes. Chicago, 91–84.
Game two? Seven of ten starters earned four or more fouls. The difference? Harper’s 15 points and 9 rebounds, and Rodman’s 19 rebounds—14 off the defensive glass. A 91–80 victory.
In New York, Phil was unable to keep MJ and Pippen’s egos in check; their collective 27 of 64 resulted in a 3-point loss. But the next night, Rodman made sure that the superstar shots were going to go in: of his 19 rebounds, 14 were offensive, which meant fourteen second chances. Bulls, 93–91. Jordan made 7 of 24—the Garden always did that to him; he had to be the star—but the bench all contributed, including three key shots by Phil’s guy Buechler.
Up 3–1, back in Chicago, the Bulls’ defense smothered the Knicks. Jordan was on target, and the final was 91–84.
On to the Magic, who’d won 60 behind Shaq, Penny Hardaway and Grant. This one would be won with defense. In the first game, Penny and Shaq combined for 65—and the other ten players for 18. (It didn’t hurt the Bulls that in game one, Grant collided with Shaq going for an offensive rebound and messed up his elbow. For the rest of the series, he would not be 100 percent.) The Bulls all scored at will, thanks to Rodman’s 21 rebounds. Kerr and Kukoč combined for 26 off the bench, and the final was a humiliating Magic loss: 121–83, an emphatic avenging of the previous year’s elimination.
Game two was closer: The Magic was up 53–38 at the half before a patented Jackson third-quarter clampdown held Orlando to 16. In the next game, in Orlando, the Magic were held to 10 in the fourth, and the Bulls coasted, 86–67; Pippen hit 11 of 13.
The next night, savoring the scent of a sweep, Michael decided to show Disney what he could do off the movie screen. He scored 45, and the Bulls won by 5. The Magic held a 75–73 lead in the third quarter, until Jordan took over, and Kerr hit a game-tying three. In the fourth, they held Shaq to... 1 shot. Pippen had 17... assists.
The final was 106–101. A team that scored 103 per game in the regular season averaged 84 facing Red Holzman’s—that is, Phil’s—defense.
“It’s sickening,” was Hardaway’s locker-room pronouncement.
Seattle’s coach was George Karl—the guy who’d won 50 of 56 in Albany a few years after Phil’s departure. After unsuccessful stints in Cleveland and Golden State, he’d turned the Sonics around. In the future, he would be dismissive of Jackson’s success because of the prevalence of superstar studs on Phil’s teams, but he had some talent too: Gary Payton, Kemp, Hersey Hawkins, Sam Perkins off the bench. They’d finished at a hardly shoddy 64-18. They’d gone 7-1 in their first two playoff rounds before the Jazz, second best in the West, took them to seven.
This time, facing the best team in NBA history, they managed to take the Bulls to six, if only because, up by three games after holding the Sonics to an average of 88 points in the first three games, Chicago got sloppy, and Kemp and Payton got professional. In game five, Pippen and Jordan went 10 for 36. Pippen was 5 for 20. They were poised to throw 72-10 away. (Phil always had trouble with his studs in the playoffs. “I remember one situation,” says radio color guy Harvey Catchings of that series. “Phil called a time-out, and he was mapping something out—‘Scottie, you go over here; Michael, you come off here...’ Then on the way out to the court, Michael pulled the guys together and said, ‘Just gimme the damn ball.’ ”)
But back in Chicago, with Harper starting again and Rodman wrestling for 19 rebounds and Jackson’s defense pressing, they held the Sonics to 75 points. They shot 42 percent while holding Kemp and Perkins to 11 for 31. The final was 83–75. The Jackson scorecard: seven years, four rings.
Jordan was named the series MVP, but it should have been Rodman. Sportswriters, about as tolerant of idiosyncrasy as the pope, tend to regard flamboyant hair color, piercings and tattoos as symptoms of the plague.
“Just five different human beings on a basketball floor, with five different views, but all on the same highway, all going down the same road,” Rodman said in the locker room, sucking on a tequila-flavored worm lollipop with his likeness on it.
They’d won 87 of 100. No team had ever lost so few games in a season and playoffs. “[It’s] a new level for teams to play toward, a new standard for teams to chase,” Jackson said.
In other words, he was now atop the heap of history in one stat. One more remained. It belonged to the Bad Red.
In the long run, how good was this team? As anyone who ever took Statistics 101 can tell you, there exists a statistical measure to prove any point. You just have to find the right test. So let’s veer away from pure numbers and turn to the expert, eternal NBA chronicler Bill Simmons. (On Simmons’s list of top teams of all time, Phil coached four. No other coach was named more than once.)
And he calls this one the best ever. OK, no, technically he doesn’t. Simmons, a man who bleeds the Charles River, questionably ranks K. C. Jones’s 67-15 Celtics of 1986 (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge) as the best team ever. They’d won the East by 10 games. But in the finals, that team, leading 3–1, failed to clinch after being routed by a Rocket team starting Ralph Sampson, Rodney McCray, Robert Reid, Lewis Lloyd and Hakeem Olajuwon.
So distilling out the muddy-water bias, yes, the 1996 Bulls were the best that ever was.
And Phil was at his best, because the truth is, he was coaching some very old guys. The average age of Rodman, Jordan, Pippen and Harper was thirty-two.