Advertisement

Paul Sullivan: A long-overdue salute by the Bulls to the greatest NBA team of all time

CHICAGO — It was just another day in the life of the greatest team of all time.

The Chicago Bulls were en route to a 113-87 win over the Seattle SuperSonics on Jan. 11, 1996, when official Terry Durham sent Dennis Rodman to the locker room in the third quarter in what would be the first ejection of Rodman’s Bulls career.

“When is Rodman going to snap?” was a question that had been asked since opening night.

“Have you ever been to a race car event?” Michael Jordan told reporters that night. “Everybody is there to see the race yet they want to see a crash. It’s like everybody wants to see the Bulls, but they also want to see Dennis go crazy.”

The Bulls won 72 games that season and cruised to the NBA title. Rodman’s evolution from hated Bad Boy to Chicago legend was complete.

Time flies, and Friday night at the United Center, almost 28 years to the day of the “snap,” the Bulls feted Rodman, Jordan and the rest of the 1995-96 champions, along with several other former stars, coaches and management, in their newly created Ring of Honor.

It was appropriate that the Bulls picked a game against the Golden State Warriors, the team coached by former Bulls guard Steve Kerr that managed to erase them from the record book with 73 wins in 2015-16. Unfortunately for those Warriors, they lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in seven games in the NBA Finals, ending any debate about whether they were better than the 1995-96 Bulls.

Not everyone showed up for Friday’s party, including Jordan, Pippen and Rodman. That’s kind of like having a Beatles reunion in the late 1970s without Paul, John and George.

Rodman said he tried to make it before his flight was canceled by the foul weather.

“If I was Superman, I’d be there in about 10 minutes,” he said in a video the Bulls posted on social media.

Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf said Thursday that it was to be expected some players would be missing with such short notice and their busy schedules.

What he didn’t say was why the Bulls waited so long to start a Ring of Honor and when they did do it they announced their plans only six weeks before the event was to take place. Note to Bulls management: If you’re saluting greatness, make sure the greatest of all time can be there.

At least the Bulls were considerate enough to make sure Kerr, who was not only part of the ‘96 team but also hit the championship-clinching, game-winning jumper in Game 6 of the ‘97 Finals, was on hand.

Asked before Friday’s game about the similarities between the ‘96 Bulls and ‘16 Warriors, Kerr said the most notable thing he saw was the “incredible level of confidence going into every game we felt” during both seasons.

“Obviously you don’t win that many games without being that good, but there is a momentum that you capture that’s indescribable,” he said. “You just feel like you’re going to win every single night, and you’re just flying through the season. It doesn’t seem like you have the usual dog days or the inevitable bad games. I think each team might have suffered one or two bad losses, which is almost inconceivable.

“Both season felt like perfect storms, really.”

Phil Jackson, perhaps the best coach in NBA history, was present. While it’s easy to point to the departures of Jordan, Pippen and Rodman for the end of the championship era, the reason the team didn’t stick around for one more shot was general manager Jerry Krause’s insistence the 1997-98 season would be Jackson’s final year, thus the name of the documentary “The Last Dance.”

And that ESPN documentary set into motion the split between Jordan and Pippen, who later said he felt he was reduced to “nothing more than a prop” in the film.

So how did Jackson manage to keep such disparate personalities with big egos working together for so long?

“Same thing that Phil did every year,” Kerr said. “It didn’t mean the results were always the same, but everything lined up that year, personnel-wise, motivationally. ... Sometimes the pieces are lined up. Sometimes they’re not. But what Phil did year after year was set expectations, set a standard and then drove a culture of inclusivity, of inspiration, of beauty.

“It was a feeling that you just couldn’t wait to come to the gym every day. Because you knew you were part of something special, and that was Phil’s genius.”

During that near-perfect season, Pippen told Chicago Tribune reporter Terry Armour his fantasy was to set the all-time wins record early and then give Jackson and his staff, including John Paxson and Tex Winter, the night off. Let the players run the show.

“Maybe after we get 70 wins and have one left, Phil can take the night off,” Pippen said. “Then I would let Dennis be the coach. That will be the night when we let Michael go for 100 (points).”

They never fulfilled that fantasy, of course.

But the idea showed how much camaraderie existed between the three superstars back then, when they didn’t mind sharing the spotlight or glory.

It would be a shame if the three Hall of Famers never get a chance to reunite because of Pippen’s harsh criticisms of Jordan after “The Last Dance.” Asked if he could bring Jordan and Pippen together, Kerr said: “That’s Phil. If anybody can do it, it’s Phil.”

Jackson has worked some miracles in his life, though maybe that’s too much to ask.

Still, no one can take away the greatness of that team or those players. At least Chicago got a chance to say thanks Friday.

Better late than never.