“If number 23 had been there, you know he would have gotten [the shot]. But we don’t have that crutch to lean on anymore. We had to stand on our own two feet.” –Horace Grant after a last second OT victory over Charlotte on November 5, 1993.
This year is the 20th anniversary of one of my favorite Bulls seasons. Michael Jordan had retired in October of 1993 and since many characterized the team as “Jordan and the Jordanaires,” predictions of Chicago’s inevitable demise followed, a notion that I publicly argued against but nonetheless feared. What unfolded over the next months was far different and though there was no “4-peat,” the Chicago Bulls, through trial and error, found an identity without Michael Jordan and put together one of the more successful and memorable seasons in franchise history.
The Bulls started slowly, losing six of their first ten games and early on fought not only Michael Jordan’s ghost but also injuries, which sidelined key players, including Scottie Pippen. However, new additions such as Bill Wennington, Luc Longley, Steve Kerr, and Pete Myers filled their roles well. Toni Kukoc, the draftee from Croatia, made his much-anticipated debut, an often overlooked storyline for that season. Despite the slow start, the Bulls weathered the early storm and surged into the All-Star break 34-13. They returned from the break and lost eight of their next eleven games but sprinted to the finish line and ended the season 55-27, two wins shy of the last championship team. Pippen was third in MVP voting and earned a place on the All NBA 1st team. Both he and Horace Grant earned positions on the All-Defensive teams, and B.J. Armstrong, Pippen, and Grant, represented the Eastern Conference at the All-Star game in Minneapolis.
As a young adolescent, the story of the season for me was the improbable success of the Bulls without Jordan, but with twenty years of hindsight, the major development all year, and probably the key to success, was this Bulls team finding an identity without Michael Jordan. Speculation over their future, endless questions, and the literal and figurative presence of Michael Jordan replaced the throngs of people waiting on them in hotels, restaurants, and arenas. The Bulls grew weary of this early on, expressed by Scottie Pippen after a loss to Miami: “Michael is gone, we’re done with Michael.” They had to move on and that process was probably the most interesting thing to look back on during that season. A banner cannot be hung in the rafters commemorating the team’s growth without Jordan, but it made for good drama and the Bulls found enough of themselves to be successful.
“All we know about ourselves is that we don’t know enough about ourselves yet,” . . . . “Everything is just so . . .different. We weren’t always crazy about being thought of as the Jordanaires, but at least we had an identity. Right now, we’re looking for a new one.” –B.J. Armstrong
The transition was hard with Phil Taylor of Sports Illustrated equating it to going from monarchy to democracy then longing for the king to return. There were stretches where the Bulls’ fragile chemistry cracked. There remained resentment between Pippen and Kukoc that loomed as a distraction every time the media or Pippen himself talked about upcoming contract negotiations. There was the unfortunate episode in which Pippen took personally the booing of the Chicago Stadium crowd and alluded to the fact that Chicago crowds did not boo white people, which many thought was a not so subtle reference to Kukoc. Then all the pressure built up that season seemed to explode in perhaps the worst incident involving Scottie Pippen. It came in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals when Pippen refused to re-enter the game on the last possession when the final play had been drawn for Kukoc. Kukoc hit the shot but the media hammered Pippen afterwards, accusing him of abandoning his team.
Despite occasional discord and difficulties, the Bulls entered the playoffs playing great basketball and swept the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round. This victory set the stage for the Eastern Conference Semi-finals and the fourth consecutive showdown with the New York Knicks. It was a classic Bulls/Knicks playoff series: great, physical basketball complete with trash talk, brawls, and plenty of hard fouls. Some of my memories from this series are both exhilarating and heartbreaking. In Game 3 there was the famous brawl right in front of Commissioner David Stern and Toni Kukoc’s buzzer-beating shot to win the game. In Game 5 the Bulls were seconds away from a win when Pippen fouled Hubert Davis on a three-point attempt. Then, in Game 6 the Bulls convincingly forced a Game 7 with a 93-79 victory and one of the greatest in-game dunks that I can remember.
May 22, 2014 will mark the 20th anniversary of the Game 7 defeat to the Knicks that ended that first full season without Michael Jordan and the first championship run. It was one of the most heartbreaking losses I can remember as a young Bulls fan and seared in my memory is the picture of Patrick Ewing banking in a three at the end of the shot clock in Game 7 to put the Knicks up by ten points. I remember thinking “its over, no 4-peat.” The 1993-’94 season was quickly forgotten as fans relished in Jordan’s return in 1995 and the subsequent record-breaking teams of the second 3-peat, but the first year without Jordan was just as memorable, not because it ended with a party in Grant Park but because it gave Bulls fans something to cheer when they needed it most.
Follow Lee Winningham on Twitter @jlw771