“Last Dance” Week: In 1998, The Bulls Dance Once More, Prove Teams Win Championships

WARR staff @RegalRadio1

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.

“Organizations win championships.”

A mis-quote? A paraphrasing? Famous last words, nonetheless. The words that haunt Chicago Bulls fans to this day as they represented an ill-formed way of thinking that actively undermined the Bulls through the second 3-peat and made sure the Bulls dominant run would end by the spring of 1998.

During this period of great prosperity Bulls general manager Jerry Krause was only really emboldened by the team’s owner, Jerry Reinsdorf, who hired Krause in 1985 when he acquired the team. The Reinsdorf-Krause management structure built a winner around the greatest asset in modern sports and Krause deserved more credit at the time than the public gave him, but he lacked the professional savvy and personal restraint to get over the many (and unfortunately there were many) personal slights he received from the Bulls players and coach Phil Jackson.

By the ’97 off-season the success of back-to-back titles and winning five of the last seven titles didn’t measure up to the toxicity that permeated all through the Berto Center and the United Center.

Krause, with Reinsdorf’s backing, declared that Phil Jackson wasn’t going to have his contract extended beyond 1998. Jordan was already being paid year to year, finally at a rate that he deserved (approximately $30 million a year) but with no long-term plan with the team setup. In fact the team came dangerously close to losing Jordan to the Knicks (the KNICKS!!!) in ’96 because of Krause waffling with Jackson’s fate.

And likely the most disrespected member of the team was Scottie Pippen, who was subject to trade rumors just about every year since Jordan’s retirement (the closest call coming at the ’97 draft with Tracy McGrady the possible dynasty-busting prize) despite his work to make the team a welcoming place for Jordan to return to and his ever-invaluable work as Robin as Batman got his cape back in the wind in ’96 and ’97.

More spiritual separation from the team happened for Pip while he sat out the first 35 games of the ’97-98 season after late off-season surgery on an injured toe, he even called for his own trade by November. The Bulls motored on with an ultra-motivated Jordan able to hold things down on his own and with him and Jackson both emboldened with the idea to not only end their alliance on top but to stick it to both Krause and Reinsdorf and give them one more reminder of what they were purposely looking to rid themselves of, something that everyone from Utah to New York would have love to had during the eight years prior but in Chicago got taken for granted.

MFP (Most Favorite Player): Pippen’s injury, on top of the “Last Dance” story-line becoming written into stone, would have ruined lesser teams over the course of such a season. Look at the way the Lakers dealt with their dysfunction in 2004 after a 3-peat and the Heat, with way less beef, got worked by San Antonio in 2014 and ran LeBron James back to Cleveland.

But where those teams failed, the Bulls succeeded. You can mostly say it was due to Jordan’s mastery of the game by the age of 35, but the team went 24-11 in the games without Pippen and went on to win another 62 games and soldier through one more postseason because of its well-defined role players, Toni Kukoc and Ron Harper in particular.

Harper, at the age of 34, played in 82 games for only the fourth time in his career, which started in 1986. Harper started all those games as well and had his best average line (9.3 points-3.5 rebounds-2.9 assists) while playing with Jordan. Of course, his perimeter defense was his most important value, adding to the kind of team that could hold an opponent to a record-low 54 points in a Finals game.

Guess it wasn’t so laughable when Kenan and Kel thought they ruined the Bulls season by injuring Harper with orange soda.

Kukoc was pretty much entering his prime during the second 3-peat, but he had to push off to the side and start only a combined 35 games in the first two full years Jordan played after returning. Things changed in the Last Dance year and the Croatian Sensation started 52 games, the most he had since starting 55 in his second year (’94-95).

This Time, Kukoc — Not Pippen — Is Jordan’s Right Hand (Chicago Tribune)

By the Finals, Kukoc’s table-setting plays and defense-extending shooting were vital and he essentially took Rodman’s place in the starting line-up. This led Kukoc to his best pro season in the lockout-shortened ’99 season, where he led the completely depleted Bulls in points rebounds and assists per game. By 2000, Kukoc was traded to Philadelphia as the “everything must go” unloading of the dynasty era was reaching its end.

Most Memorable Game: Dec 17, 1997. Los Angeles Lakers vs Chicago Bulls! Bulls win 129-123 in OT, were down as much as 22 in the game, down 14 in the fourth. Classic Bulls game with a young Kobe Bryant. Oh yeah, I was at that game! It should be remembered that even before their return to championship level play in 2000, the Lakers had a squad in ’97-98, winning 61 games and ending up in the Western Conference Finals before being swept out by the Jazz.

We cam pretty close to a potential passing-of-the-torch series and Kobe and Shaq arriving as a duo with Nick Van Exel, Eddie Jones and Co. two years ahead of schedule. (Demonze Spruiel)

Favorite Stat of the Season: The league-leading attendance — 983,444 people came out to see the greatest team in NBA history! (D)

Bulls vs. Hawks Breaks NBA Single-Game Attendance Record (SI)

Most Hated Opponent: Pacers. Although I thought the Hawks were a tough opponent with Mutombo. I didn’t hate them like that though, the finger wag was raw. (CP)

— The Pacers were indeed the toughest opponent for the Bulls in ’98, got the second-best record in the East and set themselves up for the classic seven-game series they had to determine the East’s champion that year. They were the only tormented team from the East left to try to finally humble Mike and crew and they were mostly up for the challenge.

Reggie Miller’s ability to rip out hearts was at its peak then and the team re-stocked itself with young talent (Travis Best, Jalen Rose) to go with their battle-tested stars including Miller, Rik Smits and the Davis “brothers,” Dale and Antonio.

To think about it, the late ’90s Pacers’ best shot at a title may had been this year, even better than the 2000 team that won the East, but they simply didn’t have Jordan. Indiana didn’t even have a player who averaged more than 18 points a game in the series. Jordan averaged nearly 32 and proved once again while he hated Game 7s, there was hardly anyone alive that you’d bet against him with when it came to that. (KM)

— Utah Jazz. They had to show up to the Finals again just to get beat, AGAIN! (D)

Favorite Personal Moment: The Bulls lost Game 1 of the Finals 88-85 the same night I graduated from 8th grade. Why pick this game? Well, I didn’t see the game for one and I felt grateful that the Bulls choose to lose on a night where I was so busy celebrating otherwise — I spent the time after the graduation cruising Navy Pier with a group of my best guys dating back to kindergarten.

Getting the update of the loss while enjoying a semi-monitored night of early teenage fun stunted the disappointment from the loss. Plus there were a lot of reasons to acknowledge that the loss was inevitable, foremost being that the Bulls were just coming out of a rugged seven-game series while Utah was chilling after having swept the Lakers.

Plus, having come of age during the dynasty run I could finally take for granted a Bulls Finals loss. Me and my boys knew that nothing was over until Mike and them said it was over and that would be the case in ’98. They were good lessons to learn at 14 — you can only control what you can and also, things change. The Bulls changed over time and still remained champions — they could keep changing and make things alright. Right? (KM)

— Running to my back yard, shooting on my basketball rim right after the won the championship. (D)

— Winning the damn title. (CP)

Bulls Pop Culture Moment: A definite time capsule interview with Mike on Keenan Ivory Wayans’ short-lived talk show (the ’97 tag on YouTube is wrong, it happened early in 1998 actually).

Early on, Jordan emphatically names Charles Barkley as his best friend in the NBA. Oh, how things change. Also, a lot of talk about Michael Jordan Cologne, which was an embarrassingly big deal when it came out. (KM)

— In our post on ’97 we went into Dennis Rodman beginning his foray into professional wrestling. As the NWO’s “Rodzilla,” Rodman wasn’t the next Sting or Bret Hart, but he drew attention and ratings wherever he went and in their intractable “Monday Night War” with the then-WWF, the WCW was pulling out all the stops.

Whether it was his intention or not, Rodman worked a “work” into a “shoot” (or vice versa, maybe?) when he started getting under Karl Malone’s skin in the ’97 Finals. A return match in ’98 made it impossible for WCW to not instigate bringing the on-court battle to their ring, which it was able to do throughout the Summer of ’98 in large part because of Malone’s life-long wrasslin’ fandom.

Remembering When the Rodman-Malone NBA Finals Feud in 1998 Led to a WCW Match (Bleacher Report)

Paired up with Diamond Dallas Page, Malone and DDP battled with Rodman and “Hollywood” Hulk Hogan and Malone ultimately got some revenge on Rodman, but he and the cheating NWO got the actual win. Rodman certainly reveled in being a heel and being able to kick and throw people around without David Stern getting in his pockets afterward.

This “program” would eventually bring the likes of Jay Leno into it as well and it just became non-sensible and unwieldy, much like the final years of both WCW and Rodman’s NBA career. (KM)

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2 responses to ““Last Dance” Week: In 1998, The Bulls Dance Once More, Prove Teams Win Championships

  1. Pingback: Bears: Final Mock Draft Leads With Two Potential Starters From Nearby Schools | WARR - We Are Regal Radio·

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