The 1991 Chicago Bulls were a team of great expectations. The Bulls had been gradually growing in strength in the Michael Jordan era and the previous year they’d come within one game of the Finals before losing a road Game 7 to the Detroit Pistons, who were on their way to a second straight NBA title. Chicago’s time had to be coming.
Jordan averaged 31 points a game in 1991 would win the league MVP. Scottie Pippen was perfect in the supporting role, scoring 18 points, grabbing 7 rebounds and dishing 6 assists per game. Surrounding these two were a rookie point guard in B.J. Armstrong and a solid power forward in Horace Grant.
The 1991 Chicago Bulls started slowly, losing their first three games and sitting on 5-6 at Thanksgiving. There had been a coaching change in the offseason, as Doug Collins was replaced by assistant Phil Jackson, getting his first opportunity as an NBA coach. The Bulls also made a major offseason trade, dealing power forward Charles Oakley to New York in exchange for Bill Cartwright and a draft pick that would become center Will Perdue.
It took some time for Jackson to take the new pieces and mesh them in with returning veterans like two-guard John Paxson. But when the Bulls took off, there was no looking back. They won seven straight in late November and early December and were 20-9 when the calendar turned. Over February and March they ripped off a 20-1 streak that all but secured the top seed throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs and the Finals. Chicago’s final record was 61-21 and they entered the playoffs as the favorite to win the franchise’s first-ever NBA title.
New York awaited them in the first round, with Oakley and center Patrick Ewing. This was a rivalry that was just getting started, as the teams would battle in the playoffs for each of the next four years. As long as Jordan was playing, the Bulls had the edge and they won this series in three straight (the first round was still best-of-five at this time), with none of the games being particularly close.
Another star awaited them in the second round, as Charles Barkley’s Philadelphia 76ers were the opponent. The 76ers managed to eke out a two-point win Game 3 and keep a couple others close, but there was really no doubt about Chicago’s eventual 4-1 series win. It set up the long-awaited rematch with Detroit for the conference championship.
The Pistons still had all the key faces of the teams that had reached the conference finals four straight years, the NBA Finals three straight and won the last two championships. Isiah Thomas was running the show at the point, and Joe Dumars was a 20 ppg scorer at the two-guard spot. Vinnie Johnson was coming off the bench, nicknamed “The Microwave” because of how fast he could heat up, and the glass was ably patrolled by Bill Laimbeer and future Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman.
None of that mattered in May of 1991. In the NBA, it’s about whether your time has come or your time is up. Detroit’s time was up and Chicago’s had come. The anticipated series was a disappointment from the standpoint of an objective fan, but for Chicagoans the four-game sweep couldn’t have been sweeter.
Throughout NBA history there are examples of champions graciously handing over the mantle to a new team. This was not one of them. At the end of Game 4, Piston players walked off the court early rather than congratulate the Bulls, a display that makes Brett Favre’s handoff of the mantle to Aaron Rodgers look positively sportsmanlike by comparison.
Chicago would get another chance to effect a transition of power in the NBA Finals. The Los Angeles Lakers were the opponent. While this particular Finals run from LA was something of a surprise, given that Portland beat them out for the Pacific Division title and #1 seed in the West and head coach Pat Riley had been replaced by Mike Dunleavy Sr, it was still Magic Johnson nearing the end of his career, with Michael Jordan still in his prime. We knew at the time this was Jordan’s first appearance on the league’s biggest stage. We had no way of knowing it would also be Magic’s last, as it would be less than a year that he would retire after contracting the HIV virus.
It was also the transition of NBA TV coverage. CBS had long been the home of the NBA, but this was NBC’s first year in the spotlight and they had to be thrilled with their first Finals matchup. Not only were there two marquee stars in the #2 and #3 TV markets, but in strictly basketball terms this looked like a competitive series.
That seemed to be validated in Game 1 on a Sunday afternoon in Chicago. Jordan scored 36 points, but the biggest shot was hit by LA’s Sam Perkins, who buried a three-pointer late in the game to give his team a 92-91 lead. Jordan got a chance to win it, but his 17-footer rimmed out and the Lakers took the opener on the road.
Jordan started slow in Game 2, but Grant kept the Bulls afloat with 14 1st-half points. And the Chicago star inevitably heated up, canning 13 straight shots at one point and the Bulls pulled away with a 107-86 win. Now they needed to find a way to win at least one of the next three in Los Angeles and get the series back home for Games 6 & 7.
In fact, Chicago did much better than that. In Game 3 they rallied from a 67-54 third quarter deficit, forced overtime and then let Jordan take over in a 104-96 win. Game 4 turned into a rout in the middle quarters, when the Lakers hit only 12-of-41 from the field and then lost cornerstone players James Worthy and Byron Scott for the rest of the series. Los Angeles needed to win three straight, the last two of which would be on the road and do it without two key starters.
Magic did everything he could to extend the series in Game 5, dishing 20 assists and the Lakers led 93-90 in the fourth quarter. But Chicago got production from the supporting cast. Pippen had a huge night, with 32 points and 13 rebounds. Paxson kicked in 10 down the stretch. A 9-0 Chicago run sent the signal that a new era had arrived, as the team won 108-101.
It was more than just a new era for the Chicago Bulls, as they won the first of what would be six championships in the Jordan Era and might have been eight, had he not taken a hiatus in 1994-95 to try his hand at minor league baseball. It was a new era for the NBA as a whole and started Jordan on the path to what is today his consensus acknowledgement as the greatest basketball player of all time.