“Last Dance” Week: In 1996, The Worm Turned and Dominance Returned to Chicago

With ESPN’s much-anticipated, 10-part documentary on Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls, “The Last Dance,” premiering this Sunday, we at WARR Media want to take you through each of the six championship seasons that made up that unprecedented (at least in Chicago) and still-unrivaled decade-long run.

Members of the WARR.com staff, The D & Davis Show and some of our close friends will touch on the six title runs with the specific talking points that you see below.

If ever there was a team on a mission it was the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.

Michael Jordan engaged in his own version of Homer’s Odyssey in the time spent between retiring in the Fall of 1993 and collecting his fourth NBA championship, his fourth Finals MVP and unloading his feelings with a silent call to his departed father on the floor of the Bulls’ locker room right after Game 6 of the ’96 Finals in June of that year.

A hero saw himself through a period of great disillusionment, sailed himself far away from what he knew and had success with, struggled mightily and eventually found his way back home amid a wide-open pursuit of what defined Jordan’s life pursuit (the Larry O’Brien trophy, not his wife, as it was in the epic poem).

Beyond the incredible determination of the Greatest of All Time, it took the gained perspective and skills of the team that tried to make due without him — Scottie Pippen learned a whole lot more about leading in Jordan’s absence as did Phil Jackson and their reliance on Jordan had to be more of a two-way street as Jordan learned too how good he had it when competing with those two flanking him.

With Jordan gone, new talents joined the team who would become important in the coming years — Toni Kukoc, Ron Harper, Steve Kerr, Bill Wennington, Luc Longley — and of course, another future Hall-of-Famer made his greatest stand as a personality while simultaneously pissing and pleasing everyone around him as only The Worm can.

Put all this together and you got a team that could really only lose when it wanted to. The 72 wins that would come in the ’95-96 season were a triumphant statement that at once validated Jordan’s obsessive streak, Jackson’s team-building mysticism and Pippen’s underrated workmanship.

No time since has making such an all-out effort been valued by the NBA — the only team since that’s come close to matching this team’s dominance ended up losing in the Finals. Earlier this year people argued against a team like Milwaukee making the effort to win 70 because of that.

But this was before anyone knew what the hell “load management” was. It was enough for the Bulls to manage all the personalities it had — taking as much as a second off on the court was not an option.

MFP (Most Favorite Player): Jordan set the tone for everything all year, but the overall success of the season depended on Dennis Rodman both buying into the Bulls’ culture and behaving himself enough to not mess everything up all to hell. It was a challenge — Rodman only played 64 games and started 57 in the season due to suspensions and questionable injuries.

Much of the established media didn’t know what to do with Rodman and didn’t care to put up with him. Sam Smith lit him up here and stated plainly that he shouldn’t be brought back for another season. What a shame that would have been if he wasn’t brought back.

But Rodman was clearly a stray who just needed to know that someone wouldn’t give up on him in spite of his self-destructive tendencies, which was mostly the case professionally since the Bad Boy Pistons broke up.

When the time came for the Finals, Rodman was a nightmare for Seattle’s front-court and provided an infectious energy on the boards and in the open court that powered Chicago through the first half of the series and in a tireless, 19-rebound performance in the series-clinching Game 6.

As the video above goes into with much detail, Rodman was no less than a clear X-factor in the ’96 Finals and arguably an even purer MVP candidate than eventual winner Jordan. (Kyle Means)

— A friend of mine remarked to me years back that he couldn’t imagine how many 30-year-old Chicagoans have game-worn Rodman jerseys from his ejections. (Chris Pennant)

Most Memorable Game: Game 3 of the Finals. It was special to see the Bulls win on the road and dominate in the fashion that they did. The 108-86 win was the second-biggest the Bulls had in a Finals game to that point, coming behind only the 122-89 blowout over Portland in Game 1 of the ’92 Finals.

The Bulls worked off an 18-point advantage in the first quarter and one as high as 24, which was the case at half-time. Jordan had his best performance in the series with a game-high 36, Pippen (12 points, 8 rebounds, 9 assists) and Toni Kukoc (14-7-7) each had near triple-doubles and Luc Longley had a showcase game with 19 points. (Joshua Hicks)

— Another, less meaningful game from this season has become worthy of attention only recently due to the magnificent storytelling of Kevin Garnett and JR Rider.

Told over the All-Star Weekend in Chicago this past February, KG told the All The Smoke podcast about a time when he was an overzealous rookie and got he, Rider and the young Minnesota Timberwolves in a whole lot of shit with His Airness after a competitive three quarters. The game occurred on Feburary 27th of ’96, boosting the Bulls’ record to 50-6.

An edit of KG telling the story with Rider giving his take in an earlier radio interview blazed through social media in the days after the All-Star game.

He didn’t live here long, but KG really should have known better even before entering the league. You don’t tug on Superman’s cape and you certainly don’t talk shit to him while you doing it. (KM)

Favorite Stat of the Season: The 136 combined regular season wins between the Bulls and the Sonics shattered the previous Finals record of 125, set in the epic 1985 series between the Los Angeles Lakers (62) and the Boston Celtics (63). (Ryan Bukowiecki)

Most Hated Opponent: The Orlando Magic had to feel the wrath most from the Bulls in this record season. Beating Jordan — as Shaq, Penny and the traitor Horace Grant did in 1995 — is the kind of offense that makes sure you’re going to get get-back from the most competitive man the NBA has ever seen.

Orlando was also one of the only teams to beat the Bulls in the ’95-96 regular season, their 60-win campaign helped force the issue and make sure the Bulls were going to win 70 to both prove a point and ensure themselves home court in their eventual postseason battle. With that advantage, among others, the Bulls ruthlessly swept out the young upstarts.

Jordan, Bulls motivated by Magic to go 72-10 (Orlando Sentinel)

The Magic had the advantage of youth on their sides, they could have continued to push the Bulls through the second 3-peat, they maybe could have even interrupted it, but the dumb decision to not simply give Shaq his money that summer broke up the most promising team not to win a title in the ’90s and another foe was forever vanquished by MJ and Co. (KM)

— The Pacers. Reggie had done that damn bow two years before and he was just so full of himself. Payton and the Sonics were tough, but the Pacers were right next door and I couldn’t stand Reggie Miller. (CP)

Favorite Personal Moment: Greatest season a basketball team has ever had. The pride in being able to say that elevates everyone who’s ever rooted for the Bulls. Even though the Warriors would go have a 73-win season, it don’t mean a thing if you don’t have that ring. The Bulls got that ring. (RB)

Bulls Pop Culture Moment: It sort of bridged the ’95-96 season and ’96-97, but the release of “Space Jam” in November of ’96 provided a decent coda on Jordan’s retirement and return saga, in many ways providing a “Looney Tune”-filled alternative history that saw Jordan learn his ultimate lessons in letting go of the past and trusting his teammates, no matter how “Daffy” or “Porky” they might have been.

Like in real life, the film ended with MJ back in action and making the United Center his own as Bill Murray and other Chicago luminaries watched. Everything was as it should be again, but the pressures of maintaining what was now arguably institutional success would soon rear their ugly heads. (KM)

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One response to ““Last Dance” Week: In 1996, The Worm Turned and Dominance Returned to Chicago

  1. Pingback: ICYMI: WARR Takes You Through The Bulls Dynasty Years | WARR - We Are Regal Radio·

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