We all love heated sports debates. We especially love those heated sports debates that involve our close friends, since they can oftentimes lead to stimulating conversation, manifestation of the ego, and sometimes even resurface underlying issues that you never knew still existed.
Case in Point: I recently participated in a discussion with one of my buddies that started off as a Chris Paul vs. Deron Williams debate, but 4 hours and 10 beers later, degenerated into a contentious argument about how I never did the dishes back in 2003 when we were both roommates.
I’m telling you, it just happens.
But have you ever been embroiled in one of those long, drawn-out, passionate, sports debates in which you know, you ABSOLUTELY know, that you are in the right, but are simply missing that last ingredient to chalk up a win? You know which ones I’m talking about – those sports debates where you look you buddy in the eye, the one who you have known for the past 15 years, and start questioning whether or not you are willing to cross the line, leap over the poker table, and start swinging for the fences?
I’ve often thought that the only thing arguably better than watching your team win a championship, is winning one of those long, arduous, drawn-out sports debates with your buddies. Fortunately in 1991, I got to experience both.
This past season, the Chicago Bulls honored the players and coaches from their 1991 Championship team that delivered the city it’s first title, and served as the catalyst for what would become the most popular dynasty in NBA History. As a Bulls fan growing up in Southern California, this one meant more to me than any of the others, and not just because it was the first, nor because it officially ended the runs of two championship teams, but because it put an end to the ongoing Magic vs. Jordan debate that had begun with my buddies around 1988.
Throughout the 1980s, the Los Angeles Lakers were basketball royalty, winning 5 NBA Championships, making 8 NBA Finals appearances, and unleashing a “Showtime” offense that has yet to be rivaled. By 1987, the Laker’s floor general, Magic Johnson, had officially taken over as Alpha Dog from Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and was widely regarded as the best player in the game. For the next 4 years, Magic would demonstrate his brilliance by winning 3 MVPs, 2 NBA Championships, and leading his team’s to 4 NBA Finals appearances.
For those of you who never got a chance to see Magic play on a daily basis, he was a sight to see, simply magnificent. As a 6’9 point guard, he wielded the speed of a guard, size of a power forward, and the playmaking skills of an alien – the guy was a physical freak. He was a surgeon, who could pick a defense apart in a multitude of ways, and undoubtedly the most phenomenal passer the game has ever seen. Most importantly, he was the absolute best at making his teammates better – and if you have any doubts, look no further than A.C. Green’s All-Star berth in 1990.
I’ve always thought that we may see another Michael Jordan in our lifetime – Kobe, Lebron, and Wade may not be as talented, nor as skilled, nor possess the same will to win, but each emulate parts of Jordan’s game that foreshadow the fact that at some point in the future, we may see MJ 2.0. But not Magic Johnson. I doubt that we will ever see another like him, and there has never been anything close to indicate otherwise. An athletic 6’9 big man? Yes. An athletic 6’9 big man with passing skills? Sure. But an athletic 6’9 big man, with the same level of clutchness, court vision, passing skills, and feel for the game like Magic Johnson? No way.
Magic was simply phenomenal, and as a lone Bulls fan in Los Angeles, I would hear it from my buddies daily:
“Magic is better than Jordan”
“Magic has more MVPs than Jordan”
“Magic makes his teammates better”
And of course …
“Magic has more Championships than Jordan”
Now, before I continue, please allow me to address the fallacies of “ring counting”, since it seems to be the ongoing phenomenon when comparing players, and is just about the most ignorant, inaccurate, and illogical way of measuring a player’s legacy. I understand the desire to equate greatness to winning, and the great ones find ways to win by either influencing, carrying a team, or making their teammates better. I get this, and refer to it as the “winability” factor. I also understand that championships represent the ultimate in winning, the highest level of accomplishment in team sports. And I get this as well. However, what has always baffled me, is the way that fans, experts, and players alike associate winability with winning championships, when the fact of the matter is:
a.) A superstar alone, cannot win a championship
b.) A superstar definitely cannot win a championship unless he is surrounded by a sufficiently talented supporting cast.
c.) Having a sufficiently talented supporting cast is entirely dependent upon the ability and competency of a player’s management.
Am I missing something?
Jerry West spent the bulk of his prime losing to the Boston Celtics before the Lakers were able to add help and acquired Wilt Chamberlain in 1969 to go over the hump in 1972. Are we really saying that West suddenly became a better player and demonstrated more “winability” in 1972, and at the age of 33, then he did when he was 25, in his prime, but had no Wilt?
Kevin Garnett toiled away in Minnesota for 12 seasons before being traded to the Boston Celtics in 2008. Is it any coincidence that he won a championship, once he was paired with future hall of famers such as Paul Pierce and Ray Allen? Are you really trying to tell me that Kevin Garnett’s winability suddenly increased in 2008, and he became a better player than in 2007? Of course not - now, he got to play with Ray Allen, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo instead of Ricky Davis, Mark Blount, and Trenton Hassell.
Championship rings do not measure how great, talented, or skilled a superstar player is, but how lucky they are to be surrounded by a championship caliber supporting cast. Winning rings comes down to opportunities, and if management does not provide a superstar player with opportunities, they will not win rings – plan and simple.
A player’s greatness can only be judged according to the talent they are given. This is why I have always been an advocate of measuring a superstar player’s greatness by what they have accomplished given the talent afforded to them, not merely by championship rings. In other words, a player who wins 3 championships with 4 “championship caliber” teams, or has 4 opportunities to succeed, has demonstrated more greatness to me than the one who wins 5 championships with 10 championship caliber teams. Similarly, a player who drags an underdog garbage supporting cast through 3 rounds of the playoffs and wills his team to win games that they have no business winning otherwise, has demonstrated more greatness to me than the one who wins multiple championships with 2 other Hall of Fame teammates. If you can convince me as to why I should think otherwise, I’m all ears.
This is why I knew, I just knew, that Michael Jordan was best player in the game. Not to take away anything from Magic Johnson, but had Jordan not been saddled with such a horrendous supporting cast during the first part of his career, he would have had more opportunities to win, and likely had more than 6 championship rings.
To further illustrate, from 1985 to 1988 Michael Jordan’s starting lineup consisted of the who’s who of D-League basketball:
Astonishing that he never won a ring, isn’t it?
By 1989, Jordan finally began to receive some help, albeit inexperienced, in the form of second year players Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, and the Bulls began to make some noise. After winning 47 games during the regular season, they shocked the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round in what is still considered to be one of the greatest upsets in NBA History (the most symbolic moment of course being Jordan’s game winning buzzer beating shot in the deciding Game 5), and then beat another overwhelming favorite, the New York Knicks, during in second round, advancing to play the eventual NBA Champion Detroit Pistons. The Bulls would go up 2-1 to the Pistons before their lack of skill and experience caught up to them, losing 4-2.
In 1990 the Bulls demonstrated even more progress, winning 55 games during the regular season and capturing the #3 seed in the East. Though Horace Grant was still slow to develop, Scottie Pippen became an All-Star in only his 3rd year, and began to provide the Bulls with that second weapon that Jordan sorely needed. However, Pippen was still raw, and much of the Bulls supporting cast still was developing. As a result, the Bulls were bounced by the Detroit Pistons in 7 games in the Eastern Conference Finals, and that meant that I would have to endure yet another long summer of loud decries regarding the Jordan ring-less legacy.
The fact however, was that Jordan had taken those teams has far as they could possibly go, and no player in the history of the NBA, other than perhaps Moses Malone, had done more with less. From 1985 to 1990, Jordan averaged 32.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists, 2.8 steals, 1.1 blocks, and shot 51.6% FG, while leading the Bulls to the playoffs every year, in a competitive Eastern Conference. His teams routinely overachieved as he single handedly carried them to 3 thrilling upsets (88 Cavs, 89 Cavs, 89 Knicks), and advanced deeper and deeper into the playoffs with each subsequent year once Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant were acquired. Despite this, most Jordan advocates always knew that Jordan’s status as the NBA’s best player would never be acknowledged until he won a championship. This is why 1991 became so important.
In 91, the Bulls finally had the talent, chemistry, and maturity to compete for a ring as both Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant entered the season with an improved game, renewed attitude, and mental fortitude that was absent in years past. Pippen developed more range on his jumper, while Grant focused on building stamina, low-post defense, and agility to help better solidify the paint. In addition, John Paxson became a deadly 3-point shooter, helping to spread the floor on offense, while Cartwright became more comfortable in his role as a defensive post presence. The stage was set, and Jordan finally had reason to trust his teammates.
By the middle of the 1991 season, the Bulls overtook the Pistons for first place and finished the season with a 61-21 record and top seed in the Eastern Conference. Prior to the playoffs starting, I remember thinking, “ this has to be our year” – the growth, maturity, toughness, and buy-in into the triangle offense were all essential toward taking that proverbial next step, and the Bulls were playing as well as anyone in the league. Once the playoffs began, they hit the ground running by steamrolling through the first 3 rounds, including a sweep of the defending champion Pistons. More impressively though, they didn’t just beat teams, they destroyed them, and did so with an astounding 13.3 point differential heading into the Finals.
The Western Conference Finals however, still remained in doubt. Magic Johnson was leading a Laker team that was slightly different from the ones in years past. The Lakers still had their core of Magic, Worthy, and Scott, and A.C. Green, all in their primes, and added the long-armed Sam Perkins who provided them with their best power forward since the beginning of the Showtime era. However, Mike Dunleavy had replaced Pat Riley, and in an effort to keep pace with league’s shift towards defense, instilled a system that compromised the Lakers’ offensive fast break game plan with more defensive traps, and a slower pace. Although the Lakers finished the season with fewer fast breaks, they still had their best defensive team during the Showtime era, finishing second behind the Detroit Pistons in points allowed. While, they initially struggled with the identity change, they soon hit their stride, and by season’s end blew through the first 2 rounds of the playoffs against Houston and Golden State before meeting with the #1 seed Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals.
Let me take a pause and tell you this – never in my life have I rooted harder for the Los Angeles Lakers than I did during the 1991 Western Conference Finals. Not only did I want the Bulls to face the Lakers, but desperately wanted Jordan to face Magic, and on the highest stage possible. My mission was not simply to prove that Jordan was the best player in the game, but to also to debunk the myth around Ring Counting since I knew it was Jordan, not Magic, who now had the better supporting cast; And when a player has a great supporting cast, they can win championships.
As it turns out, I got my wish. The Lakers would beat the 63-win Portland Trail Blazers in 6 games, setting the stage for the heavyweight bout that everyone had yearned for – Jordan vs. Magic.
In retrospect, I have never had more riding on the outcome of a sporting event than the 1991 NBA Finals. Everything was on the line – my pride, my ego, my emotions, everything. And anyone who has lost a sports argument to their buddies knows exactly how excruciating it can be. Your pride challenged, your credibility shot, you are reminded of the painful scars of defeat. I had spent the last 4 years defending what had been up to that point, MJ’s ring-less legacy, and now had what I wanted. And a Bulls loss would have been an absolute catastrophe in my testosterone filled sports bubble.
Heading into the series, the 1991 NBA Finals were easily the most highly anticipated NBA Finals in the history of the game, even more so than the Lakers and Celtics in 1984 because of the increased popularity, population growth, big city representation, and marquee individual matchup. The Lakers came in as favorites despite not having home court advantage, largely because of their championship experience and winning pedigree. Most felt as if they would walk all over the Bulls, and the ongoing stigma that Jordan had faced as being a selfish player only proved to reinforce this notion. It’s hard to believe now, but at the time, most chose to bet against Jordan, and Vegas odds favored Magic’s Lakers. I still remember talking to all of my Laker buddies prior to the series, and all of them exuded a swagger that was no different than from any of their other previous championship runs. Any why not? They were the Lakers, they had been to Finals 9 times in 12 years, and despite Kareem’s retirement, had still won 63 games in 1990, and 58 in 1991. In fact, several of my same Laker buddies were adamant that the series would be a sweep. And if Game 1 was any indication, they would have proven to be right.
The Bulls started series both nervous and rusty, short-arming jumpers, and turning the ball over on several routine occasions. Jordan tried to compensate with a big first quarter, but was matched up defensively against Magic Johnson, and struggled to contain the bigger, stronger point guard. Magic refused to sit idly on the perimeter and instead went to the attack, backing Jordan into the post at every instance, and placed additional pressure to expend energy. Magic was like a surgeon – directing traffic, finding every cutter, making every precision passes, and in turn, picking apart the Bulls defense. By the 4th quarter, Jordan was exhausted and Magic had taken firm control of the game. Then, with less than 14 seconds and the Lakers down by 2, Magic Johnson would find Sam Perkins for what had to be the most improbable 3-point shot that might as well have been a sucker punch to my gut – I had absolutely no idea it was coming. That shot would put the Lakers up 92-91 with 14 seconds left in regulation and serve to shock the Bulls.
Sam Fucking Perkins.
The funny thing though, is that I really wasn’t panicked at this point. 14 seconds left, down by one? We’ve got Michael Jordan. Game in the bag, right?
After an errant pass from Pippen that went out of bounds and allowed the Bulls to retain possession with 9 seconds left, Jordan took the inbounds pass from Scottie Pippen in the left hand corner, crossed over Perkins, and raised up for a 17 footer that I could have sworn went in. Actually, it did go in. Yep, went in ….. and then rimmed out.
In, and then out.
In, and then out.
Easily the lowest point of my life. MJ missed a game winner, and I proceeded to look for a way to crawl back into my mother’s womb – I just needed to find a safe place to hide from the inevitable onslaught of “I told you so” comments arriving from all comers. The 2 days following Game 1 were unbearable. The premature celebrations of a Lakers sweep, and continual reminders of a franchise’s tradition – my Laker buddies were as confident as ever. Now, all of the pundits we speculating about how the Bulls had blown their load, lost home court advantage, and were too demoralized to compete. Even though the media sensationalism at the time was only 10% of you would find today on ESPN, it was still agonizing. I could hardly wait for Game 2 to start.
However, the problem with Game 2 is that it pretty much began the same way as Game 1. Although the Bulls made some adjustments and Jordan started the game by focusing more on setting up his teammates, the Lakers continued to keep the game close by breaking down the Bulls’ traps, and once again working through Magic in post just as they did in Game 1. Despite leading for most of the first quarter, the Lakers only trailed by 5 and you could sense the tempo still favoring them. Now, I began to worry. Despite coming out with an abundance of energy, and playing in front of their home crowd, the Bulls still couldn’t seem to shake the Lakers. Every action had a reaction, every move on the chess board was countered, and the Lakers remained unfazed. Maybe my buddies were right? Maybe the Lakers were simply too much to handle? Maybe Magic was better than Jordan? Maybe I was a complete slob and should have done the dishes in 1997? And maybe the Bulls would never win a championship?
Then, 2 things would occur that would change the entire course of not only the 1991 NBA Finals, but of NBA History:
The first came with over 3 minutes remaining in the first quarter as Jordan picked up his second foul while guarding Magic Johnson. Rather than substituting for Jordan and risking a potential shift in momentum, Phil Jackson opted to leave the league MVP in the game, and instead assign Scottie Pippen defensive responsibilities on Magic Johnson. The logic was that a taller, longer, and more physical Scottie Pippen could take Magic out of his comfort zone and help protect Jordan from picking up his 3rd foul. The plan worked wonders. As Pippen began to harass Magic Johnson, he single handedly disrupted the flow of the Lakers offense. Magic was accustomed to seeing over the opposition and surveying the defense since he was typically matched up against smaller guards. However, Pippen was 6’8 and extremely athletic. He matched Magic physically, and continually forced him to his left hand. Magic was slow to adjust.
With Pippen guarding Magic, Jordan could focus on offense and proceeded to go bonkers. Jordan would go 15/18 with 33 points, 13 assists and 7 rebounds, at one point scoring 13 consecutive baskets, and capping his efforts with a gravity defying shot that would become his signature on the 1991 Finals. The Bulls now had a defensive scheme to contain the Lakers best player, and an injection of confidence that they could win.
And If Game 2 taught the Bulls that they could win the Lakers, Game 3 would teach them that they would win. In what would become a close, hard fought battle, Turning Point # 2 occurred with less 11 seconds left and the Lakers down by one point when Magic Johnson connected with Vlade Divac for a 3-point “and one” conversion that could only be described as perhaps the most metrosexual post-play celebration in NBA history.
With 8 seconds left and the Bulls down by two, fate offered Michael Jordan a second chance at redemption through which he would exercise the ghosts of Game 1. Jordan would take the ball full-court, drive down the right hand side, and rise up for a game tying 14 foot jumper with 3 seconds left that would completely demoralize the Lakers. The Bulls would dominate the overtime, and Jordan’s shot would become the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. They knew that destiny was within their reach and had taken the Lakers’ best shot and survived. Now, they were in the drivers seat, and I began to salivate.
Despite playing with a foot sprain in Game 4, Jordan and the Bulls would still dominate as a dispirited Laker team would come out flat in front of their home fans, only to be exacerbated by injuries to Byron Scott and James Worthy. Scott and Worthy would then miss Game 5, and the Bulls would put the finishing touches on the series with a complete team effort in which John Paxson, not Michael Jordan would take over in the 4th quarter, and bring home a championship.
The City of Chicago began to celebrate, and I was ecstatic! More importantly, I was vindicated. This WAS my Shaw Shank Redemption moment – minus the anal rape, money laundering, parole hearing rejections, suicides, illegal prison trafficking, months long isolations, and mystifying Cable TV Shelf Life – and till this day, I still have yet to let my Laker buddies off the hook. Of course, as expected, the excuses came pouring in: suddenly the Lakers were too old, missing Kareem, and Dunleavy, who started as a coach of the year candidate was no longer effective – funny how all that talk of “sweep” suddenly disappeared. But that’s what makes sports debates fun. You win some, and you lose some and when things don’t work out your way, you always have the opportunity to backtrack - Hey, I am just as guilty as anyone else.
The Bulls of course would go on to celebrate 5 more championships and partake in one of the most dominant runs in post-merger NBA History, winning an average of 65 games for each of their title seasons, producing a 9.3 point differential (the highest in for any NBA dynasty in the history of the NBA), and producing what most consider the be the greatest single season team in NBA history (1996).
After obtaining his long coveted ring, Michael Jordan would go on to win the 1991 NBA Finals MVP honors with one of the most dominant NBA Finals performances ever, shooting 56%FG, and averaging 31.2 points, 11.4 assists, 6.6 rebounds, 2.8 steals, and 1.4 blocks. Ironically, he would average more assists through the first 4 games of the series than Magic Johnson, and his performance would establish him as the undisputed “Best Player in the Game” until his retirement in 1998.
20 years later, the Lakers continue to be the class of the NBA ,while the young, upstart Bulls are steadily improving with a promising core led by Derrick Rose. As a result, there is a good chance that the Bulls and Lakers could meet once again in the NBA Finals.
Round 2 anyone?