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Jordan Rulesby Sam Smith
Chapter One: Spring 1990
Michael Jordan surveyed his crew and got that sinking feeling.
It was just before 11:00 A.M. on May 24, 1990, two days after the Bulls had fallen behind the Detroit Pistons two games to none in the Eastern Conference finals. The city of was awash in spring — all two hours of it, as the old-time residents like to say — but Jordan wasn't feeling very sunny. He didn't even feel like playing golf, which friends would say meant he was near death.
The Bulls had gathered for practice at the Deerfield Multiplex, a tony health club about thirty-five miles north of Chicago, to try to get themselves back into the series. Jordan's back hurt, as did his hip, shoulder, wrist, and thigh, thanks to a two-on-one body slam in Game 1 courtesy of Dennis Rodman and John Salley. But his back didn't hurt nearly as much as his pride or his competitiveness, for the Bulls were being soundly whipped by the Pistons, and Jordan was growing desperately angry and frustrated.
"I looked over and saw Horace [Grant] and Scottie [Pippen] screwing around, joking and messing up," Jordan told an acquaintance later. "They've got the talent, but they don't take it seriously. And the rookies were together, as usual. They've got no idea what it's all about. The white guys [John Paxson and Ed Nealy], they work hard, but they don't have the talent. And the rest of them? Who knows what to expect? They're not good for much of anything."
It was a burden Michael Jordan felt he had to bear. The weight of the entire team was on his tired shoulders.
The Pistons had taken the first two games by 86-77 and 102-93, and Detroit's defense had put the Bulls' fast break in neutral: The Bulls had failed to shoot better than 41 percent in either game. Jordan himself had averaged only 27 points, stubbornly going 17 for 43. No team defensed Jordan better than the Pistons, yet he refused to admit that they gave him a hard time, so he played into their hands by attacking the basket right where their collapsing defensive schemes were expecting him. The coaches would look on in exasperation as Jordan drove toward the basket — "the citadel," assistant coach John Bach liked to call it — like a lone infantryman attacking a fortified bunker. Too often there was no escape.
Although Detroit's so-called Jordan rules of defense were effective, the Bulls coaches also believed the Pistons had succeeded in pulling a great psychological scam on the referees. It had been a two-part plan. The first step was a series of selectively edited tapes, sent to the league a few years earlier, which purported to show bad fouls being called on defenders despite little contact with Jordan. The Pistons said they weren't even being allowed to defense him. "Ever since then, the foul calls started decreasing," Jordan noted, "and not only those against Detroit."
Step two was the public campaign. The Pistons advertised their "Jordan rules" as some secret defense that only they could deploy to stop Jordan. These secrets were merely a series of funneling defenses that channeled Jordan toward the crowded middle, but Detroit players and coaches talked about them as if they had been devised by the Pentagon. "You hear about them often enough — and the referees bear it, too — and you start to think they have something different," said Bach. "It has an effect and suddenly people think they aren't fouling Michael even when they are."
It only added to Jordan's frustration with Detroit.
At halftime of Game 2, with the Bulls trailing 53-38, Jordan walked into the quiet locker room, kicked over a chair, and yelled, "We're playing like a bunch of pussies!" Afterward, he refused to speak to reporters, boarded the bus, and sat in stony silence all the way home. He continued his silence — other than a few sharp postgame statements — for the next week. He would not comment on his teammates. "I'll let them stand up and take responsibility for themselves," he told a friend.
Jordan had really believed that the Bulls could defeat Detroit this time. Of course, there was no evidence to suggest it could happen, since the Pistons had knocked the Bulls out of the playoffs the previous two seasons and had taken fourteen of the last seventeen regular-season games between them. But hadn't there been similar odds in 1989 when the Bulls had faced Cleveland in the playoffs? The Cavaliers had won fifty-seven games that season to the Bulls' forty-seven, and they were 6-0 against the Bulls, even winning the last game of the regular season despite resting their starters while the Bulls played theirs. The Bulls' chances were as bleak as Chicago in February.
Jordan promised that the Bulls would win the Cleveland series anyway.
Playing point guard, Jordan averaged 39.8 points, 8.2 assists, and 5.8 rebounds in the five games. And with time expiring in Game 5, he hit a hanging jumper to give the Bulls a 1-point victory. The moment became known in Chicago sports history as "the shot," ranking with Jordan's other "shot" in the 1982 NCAA tournament, a twenty-foot jumper that gave North Carolina a last-second victory over Georgetown. It also sent the Cavaliers plummeting; over the next two seasons, they would not defeat the Bulls once.
The playoffs had become Jordan's stage. He was Bob Hope and Michael Jackson, Mick Jagger and Frank Sinatra. His play transcended the game. It was a sweet melody received with a grand ovation. Others jumped as high and almost everyone slammed the ball, but Jordan did it with a style and a smile and a flash and a wink, and he did it best in the postseason.
"There's always been the feeling on this team," Bach had said after that Cavaliers series, "that if we got to the Finals, Michael would figure out some way to win it. He's the greatest competitor I've ever seen and then he goes to still another level in the big games."
It was true: Jordan's playoff performances had been Shakespearean sonnets, beautiful and timeless. And like Shakespeare, he was the best even though everyone said so. In just his second season in the league, after missing sixty-four games with a broken foot, Jordan demanded to return to the court despite warnings by doctors that he might exacerbate the injury to his foot. The Bulls, and even Jordan's advisers, said he should sit out the rest of the season. Jordan angrily accused the team of not wanting to make the playoffs so it could get a better draft pick. He was reluctantly allowed to return with only fifteen games remaining in the regular schedule. The Bulls made the playoffs, and in Game 2 against the Boston Celtics (who would go on to win the NBA title) Jordan scored 63 points. Larry Bird put it this way: "It must be God disguised as Michael Jordan."
In the 1988 playoffs against the Cavaliers, Jordan opened the series with 50- and 55-point games, the first time anyone had ever scored back-to-back 50s in the playoffs, to lead the team to victory and establish an all-time five-game-playoff-series scoring record of 45.2 points per game. Jordan had become perhaps the greatest scorer in the game's history. He would never equal Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game or his hundred-plus 50-point games, but by the end of 1990-91 season, Jordan had become the all-time NBA scoring average leader in the regular season, the playoffs, and the All-Star game. And he'd won his fifth straight scoring title, putting him behind only Chamberlain's seven.
And now, facing the Pistons in 1990, he was coming off a series against the 76ers in the second round of the playoffs that was unbelievable even by his own amazing standards. The Bulls won in five games as Jordan averaged 43 points, 7.4 assists, and 6.6 rebounds. He shot nearly 55 percent in 42.5 minutes per game. He drove and he dunked. He posted up and buried jumpers. He blocked shots and defended everyone from Charles Barkley to Johnny Dawkins.
"I never played four cons
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