Three-time NBA champion Jud Buechler was recently a guest on The HoopsHype Podcast. He talked about playing alongside Michael Jordan, being part of the Chicago Bulls’ three-peat, “The Last Dance” documentary, the Bulls’ internal battle (Phil Jackson and the players vs. Jerry Krause and management), becoming a coach for the New York Knicks and more. You can listen to the conversation or above or read a transcribed version below.
You were interviewed for “The Last Dance.” Are you enjoying the documentary so far?
Jud Buechler: Oh, I’m loving it. It’s been so great for myself and my family. I’m at home in San Diego with my family and my dad; every Sunday night, we can’t wait for 6:00 out here on the West Coast. It’s just been such a great walk down memory lane for me. I mean, it was 22 years ago and that was such a huge part of my life. It changed my life, really. It’s just so enjoyable for me.
When Adam Silver pitched this idea to Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson back then, he told them, “You’ll have the greatest set of home movies for your kids ever created.” How cool is it to have that terrific run immortalized in this documentary?
JB: It’s just incredible because, for one thing, I have two daughters and they were both born during the four years that I was in Chicago. So, they were born in Chicago and obviously they were babies, but for them to get to see this is amazing. If you would have told me 22 years ago, “Hey, we’re gonna document all these incredible things – this incredible time in our lives – and then play it on ESPN 22 years later,” I would have been like, “Well, that’s gonna be super cool!” It’s just been a great experience. And, like I said, I really am enjoying it; I look forward to every episode.
During that 1997-98 season, NBA Entertainment had a camera crew embedded with the team and they shot over 500 hours of footage. What was it like having cameras around on a daily basis?
JB: Well, I think we were just used to having so much attention. With Michael and Scottie [Pippen] and Dennis [Rodman] and Phil, they were kind of bigger than basketball (and still are). They weren’t just All-Stars, they were superstars and just so well-known. So, leading up to that final year, we’d all been around cameras and crowds, so we were kind of used to it. And we were very comfortable with Andy Thompson, who was the guy that was in charge and kind of the main guy. They just became part of the traveling party. They were with us all the time – in the locker rooms, on the planes, doing interviews with guys in hotel rooms. Like I said, they just became kind of part of the traveling party and we just became super good friends with them.
You joined the Bulls in 1994-95 after Chicago’s first three-peat. Michael Jordan had left to play baseball that season and then announced his return in March of 1995. How did you react when you learned that Jordan was returning to your Bulls?
JB: Well, that was an incredible moment for all of us. Most of the guys on that team, we weren’t around [for the first three-peat]. There weren’t too many holdovers from the first three championships in the early ‘90s, so all of us had been in the league for a while and played against him and seen his greatness. On one hand, it was so exhilarating to know that we get to play with the greatest basketball player in the world. And, on the other hand, it took some time to kind of adjust to playing with him because I think we all just kind of stood around the first week of practice when he came back and just watched him. (laughs) We just gave him the ball and watched him, so it took some [time for] cohesiveness and team jelling and to figure it out. Phil always said, “Don’t stand around and watch him. Play!” It took us a while to make that adjustment. (laughs)
You played with Jordan for four seasons. What was it like witnessing his greatness night after night?
JB: I know the guys who were part of that second group that won those three championships in the late ‘90s, we all really appreciated it. I had been in the league for four years and I had been on some really bad teams that hadn’t won a lot of games. We were winning and witnessing Jordan’s greatness along with Scottie’s and Dennis’ and being coached by Phil, and I think we all appreciated it. No one took it for granted. We were like, “This is incredible!” All of us just felt so lucky to be there. And I think with this documentary right now, it’s just a reminder to me; I mean, I just feel so fortunate that I was there during that run, for sure.
I’ve talked to players about how intimidating Jordan was in his prime. One player referred to him as “the boogeyman that everyone feared.” He would play mind games with his opponent and get in their head.
JB: Yeah, well, the thing that I don’t think a lot of the younger-generation players (who didn’t have a chance to see him play) understand about Michael is that people feared him. There was fear. As great as the players are in today’s game, I don’t know if anyone’s really feared like Michael was. I mean, opponents really didn’t want to play against him. And then you add Scottie into the mix, and those guys were just relentless on defense. But especially MJ, he just had this aura about him. And he was mentally so tough and obviously such a gifted player and athlete that a lot of guys didn’t want any part of him, didn’t really want to step up to that challenge because he embarrassed a lot of guys. There was just this fear factor with him, unlike any other player I’ve ever seen.
Jordan was known for being very hard on his teammates and if you couldn’t take it, you were off the team. I recently talked to Scott Burrell on this podcast about how MJ pushed him really hard during that 1997-98 season. What was it like to play with someone so demanding?
JB: Well, I just call that leadership. I think we all understood that he was going to test all of us every single day in practice. I mean, you really couldn’t take a practice off, you couldn’t really relax, and that was great. That’s what a leader does, he pushes the team. He was always testing every guy to know if he could trust them down the stretch. I think Michael, by then, realized that while he could do a lot of stuff out there, he needed the other guys to help out. So, he was constantly pushing us in practice, testing us – especially Scotty Burrell that one season. And it made us all better players. I don’t think anybody had any problems with it at all, because we all wanted to be the best players we can be and we all wanted to make sure that he knew we were there when he needed us.
Could Jordan’s style of leadership work in today’s NBA? You’re now an assistant coach with the New York Knicks, so you work with today’s players. If MJ acted the same way in 2020 – with today’s players, with social media and everything – would that be accepted or effective?
JB: I think it would be, I really do. Man, the social media thing is a whole ‘nother animal, but I think inside the walls of a practice facility, it’s super important to have that type of leadership from your best player. He was one of the hardest working guys; he was one of the first guys there and the last to leave. And if the best player on your team is doing that – the best player in the world is doing that – it makes everybody else work that much harder, so I think he could definitely be super effective right now.
When Ethan Sherwood Strauss was on the podcast, we talked about how social media provided a unique challenge for the Golden State Warriors in recent years. These days, something as minor as a liked tweet or video of a player’s facial expression can become a story and start drama. Do you ever think about how different things would’ve been if social media was around during the Bulls’ dynasty?
JB: Well, the Dennis Rodman deal would’ve been crazy, that’s for sure. (laughs)
Dennis would’ve given us some amazing videos for Twitter and Instagram.
JB: I know! You know the deal with social media, the phones, the cameras… Now, I mean, everybody has a phone and everyone has a camera all the time. Even though those guys (MJ, Scottie, Dennis, Phil) were such mega-stars and our team was so popular, there was a chance to kind of get away from it a little bit because they didn’t have the phones that they have now, they didn’t have social media like they do now. Now, every single move by the stars in today’s game is getting judged and getting evaluated – every little thing. With Twitter and Instagram and everything, their lives are like an open book. There’s very little privacy for these guys. I can’t imagine it because our team was so popular and, especially when you have a guy like Dennis on social media, it would have just been crazy.
I’m sure you saw some crazy fan interactions in your four seasons traveling with Jordan. How did people respond when they’d meet Jordan or see you guys out in public?
JB: Well, there were always huge crowds, as you can see in the documentary. There were huge crowds all the time. I think because there wasn’t social media, when you had a chance to see Michael or the team, I mean, people went absolutely crazy. They went bananas! All of these stars in today’s world, they’re on your Instagram and you can see them every day on social media. But back then, you only had a few chances to see them when they came to your city or whatever, so people went nuts. As I said before, Michael wasn’t just an All-Star, he was an icon. I mean, he was the most popular person in the world during that time, so any kids or even parents who got a chance to even see him back then, they just went nuts. They just ate it up.
Based on tweets I’ve seen from young NBA players, it seems like some of them didn’t know the details of Jordan’s career until “The Last Dance,” which surprised me. When you interact with today’s players, how knowledgeable are they when it comes to Jordan and ‘90s basketball?
JB: You know what, that’s a great question. That’s another reason why I think this documentary is so impactful. This younger generation – the 19-year-old, 20-year-old, 21-year-old kids – I think their heroes are usually Kobe Bryant and LeBron James. I think they really looked up to those two and can relate to those guys, right? When I’ve talked to young players and I’ve asked them, “Who do you think is the greatest basketball player of all-time?” I get one of those two – Kobe or LeBron – and Michael’s name isn’t really ever mentioned. I’m so happy that they can witness in this documentary just the total domination, physically and mentally, and what he did during his career.
I think it’s also super important for them to see that he never missed any games. A lot of guys miss games now for little injuries or whatever and sit games out, but Michael never missed a game. He had that one foot injury during his career where he missed a certain number of games, but over his career, he always played. He always got out there, regardless of what the situation was – even if we were playing against a poor team. The games meant something to him. He always tried to go out there and put on a show, and I think it’s great for these young guys to kind of see his greatness.
During that 1997-98 season, there was this internal battle of Jerry Krause and management vs. Phil Jackson and the players. The documentary does a good job of depicting that, but how tense were things behind the scenes and what was it like to be in the middle of that?
JB: Yeah, it was super tough. I mean, we all knew from the start of the year that this was going to be it. I mean, they had kind of managed to [end] all the contracts; everyone – basically the entire team – was going to be a free agent because their contract was up and they did it that way. There were only a couple of guys that had one or two more years on their deal – I think Bill Wennington, Toni [Kukoc], maybe Randy Brown – but everybody else was done. So, from the start of that season, it was made perfectly clear that this is “the last dance,” that this is going to be it. It was hard. We kind of kept our head down and just focused on the basketball, but you could feel the tension between management and some of the players and obviously Phil and Jerry Krause. That part was just unfortunate, but it did fire us up to make sure that we finished it off the right way, which obviously we did.
I’ve talked to many players on this podcast about how frustrating it is when management breaks up a championship team and the players feel like they could’ve continued their run. Was it frustrating to be part of this dynasty and then have it come to a premature end thanks to the front office?
JB: Sure. I think being on [championship] teams, especially on that team, if you’re a champion, you kind of feel like you’ve earned the right to come back and try to win another one. Until someone knocks you off the top, you try and keep going and win more. There was a shortened season the next year [due to the lockout] and I don’t know… We don’t know what would have happened, but looking back, it’s kind of disappointing that we didn’t get to keep going until someone knocked us off the top.
I think you guys would’ve won it all in 1998-99, but it was obviously an amazing run while it lasted. What was it like playing for Phil Jackson? And how did your experience with Phil help you when you eventually made the transition to coaching?
JB: Phil basically saved my career. I was in a tricky spot. I had been in Golden State for three years and I was kind of almost out of the league. When I got there, the triangle offense and the way Phil coached was just so different than any other coach that I’d ever played for. He just really knew how to manage people. He knew how to handle and manage superstars as well, but I just really loved his style. He cared about you as a person a lot. He was very interested in your life and your off-court stuff, not just the basketball part. Seeing how Phil kind of handled that stuff, when I got back into coaching, I tried to carry some of that with me. He was just so calm and he was so great at just managing people, and I’ve tried to use that in my coaching.
Dennis Rodman is a very interesting guy, and I loved the Rodman episode of the documentary. How was Rodman as a teammate?
JB: He was an incredible teammate. When the lights came on, he went crazy, he went nuts; he was a showman and very flamboyant and everything. But I think the one misconception about him is that [he’s always like that], but behind the scenes, he was actually quiet. He was super nice and he was super generous with all of us, just a great teammate. In practice, he just worked as hard as anybody. But he was actually borderline shy; like, he wouldn’t even talk that much. I don’t think the rest of the world would ever think that because of how he acted when the lights came on during our games and stuff, but he was one of my most favorite teammates. When he got inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, Steve Kerr and I went, and I was really happy to be in the crowd and see him there and to be there for that moment, for him. So, he’s one of my favorite teammates. I played 12 years in the NBA and I would say he’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever played with.
There’s this debate about how Jordan would fare in today’s NBA. Since you played with Jordan and you’ve coached in this era, how do you think MJ would fare if he played in the league right now?
JB: Oh, he would completely dominate. (laughs) The rules have changed so much and the changes would probably even help him. I mean, in the game now, they don’t allow you to be as physical and that was one thing that was obviously documented in the [series] – how tough the Pistons were on him, the ‘Bad Boys.’ That type of physical play isn’t allowed as much; you can’t put your hands all over people and use that anymore. In his prime, if you put him in the NBA right now, he’d be the best player still. He could probably average way more points – he’d probably average about 45 points per game or whatever. In today’s game, I think he would really thrive, for sure.
I feel like the spacing in today’s NBA would really help him, if you put a few shooters around him. Also, I’ve seen people say his three-point shooting would be an issue. But knowing Jordan’s maniacal work ethic, I think he would improve his three-point shot. It just wasn’t as important in that era, so he didn’t prioritize it.
JB: Yeah, I think the rules, the spacing [would help him]. And Michael was a fantastic shooter and he always made adjustments as he got on in his career to become better and better. And like you said, in today’s game there are so many threes taken, but I think that would be a very easy adjustment for him. If he needed to become a better three-point shooter, that would be easy because he was a very good shooter. He was an incredible mid-range shooter, for sure, and he didn’t shoot a bunch of threes because no one really did back then. But that would be an easy adjustment for him. But you’re right, with the spacing and the rules, teams would have to double-team him every single time. You’d have to come over and help every single time and if you put three-point shooters around him, those guys would just be knocking down wide-open shots all the time.
I’ve seen some young people criticizing Jordan’s competition and saying he played against plumbers and mailmen, as if we’re talking about the ‘50s. I think it’s crazy, but what would you say to people who are downplaying the competition?
JB: Well, I don’t believe that at all. I mean, he just made them look really bad because he was so much better than everybody else. (laughs) I think when you’re watching all these highlights, you’re going, ”Man, it looks like he’s just doing whatever he wants.” He was! He was that much better than everybody else! He just was! It was super competitive back then and there were just as good athletes. Well, obviously, over the years, we see bigger, stronger, faster athletes. But I’m not buying that at all. There was super good competition, and he always took on the other team’s best defender, who was usually a pretty darn good defender. So, I’m not buying that.
What was it like making the transition to coaching?
JB: Well, I had taken some time off from basketball when I retired from playing and I just got to a point where I was missing it. I kind of wanted to give it a shot to see if I would enjoy it or not, and a lot of people were telling me that they thought I’d be good at it. I was very lucky; Luke Walton, who ended up playing for Phil and winning championships with him in Los Angeles, got the head coach job for the Lakers and he ended up hiring me. He brought me on as a behind-the-bench coach and I was so grateful for that. I got back in it and really loved being around the game again. The game had changed so much from when I had left it, so there was definitely an adjustment period. But I got back into it and I loved every second of it. I love working with these young guys and trying to share some of my experiences, what I went through as a player, with them.
“The Last Dance” looked at how Jordan was marketed and his success off the court. It’s one thing to be the best player in the NBA, but he also became a billionaire. What was it like to witness his success away from basketball, not only when you were playing with him but also in the years after?
JB: Well, the thing is that the Jordan shoe line has just become so popular. And that’s really popular with even the younger players today. But I don’t know, that’s a tough question. I mean, I think he was going to be successful in anything that he did. He was the best player in the world and arguably the best player ever to play the game. But it is nice to see that his Jordan Brand line is still so popular.
As we watch the rest of this documentary, are there any things that you hope to see?
JB: Not necessarily. I mean, I’ve enjoyed every second of it – all the backstory. They obviously went back to Michael’s childhood. I enjoyed the pieces on Scottie and Dennis. And it’s gonna be super fun when it gets to [more behind-the-scenes stuff] because there’s an incredible amount of really good behind-the-scenes footage. I feel like they tapped into that just a little bit so far, so I feel like the best of the footage is still to come.
Basketball, Interview, NBA, Podcast, Evergreen, Featured, Interview, Podcast, Top, Bill Wennington, Dennis Rodman, Jud Buechler, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson, Randy Brown, Scott Burrell, Scottie Pippen, Chicago Bulls, New York Knicks