CHICAGO – This is the seventh installment from Hall of Fame writer Sam Smith’s new book “There Is No Next: NBA Legends on the Legacy of Michael Jordan.”
Though I occasionally get mentioned as such, I am not a Jordan biographer. My book, “The Jordan Rules,” at the time of publication in 1991 was viewed as negative toward Jordan, though I likened the reaction more like when I saw Willie Mays on the old “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson.
The sports story of the day was Jim Bouton’s book, “Ball Four,” the first sort of baseball insider tell-all book that was pretty mild, considering this era’s publications. For the time, though, it was surprising, if not shocking, as was The Jordan Rules. Mays was going on about how he hated Ball Four. Carson asked him which part, and Mays said he hadn’t read it — but knew from what he had heard he didn’t like it.
I always felt there was a strong element of that in the view of The Jordan Rules. Though many of the great biographers tend to fall in love, or at least like and respect, with their subjects, it’s understandable given the complexities of personality and life.
Jordan was initially advertised as all good and perfect. Then, he became much too imperfect with gambling and rough behavior on teammates and stealing Jerry Krause’s lunch money (or at least Jack Haley’s). But no one could live with the myth of who you were supposed to be, instead of who you actually were.
It was enjoyable to spend time with Jordan, though not always. It was a delight to watch him play, but hardly perfection. He was making history of a kind and it was being noticed.
Larry Bird: “I knew he was going to score, but defensively he was quick as a cat. That was the first thing I picked up when I played against him. I thought, ‘Oh, my God you’ve got to watch your passes against him.’ And he was up in you; he was strong as an ox, so we always tried to take everything away from him.
“If you ever watched us play, we would go to the other side to get away from him because he was disruptive. Then, when Scottie (Pippen) got up there he was the same way. They disrupted, got their hands on balls, denied you out on the wings.
“Michael could pick up full-court. They could do anything. That’s the thing I thought more than anything that surprised me about him was how quick he was. He was clever reading passes, passing lanes, and he was strong as hell.”
The Bulls were 5-4 heading out west during the 1988-89 season and lost four straight, though Jordan had his third 52-point game of the season already as the Bulls lost in Denver and fell to 6-6.
The Bulls were 13-12 after a home loss to Cleveland despite 43 points and 12 rebounds from Jordan. But he was getting worried. He told reporters he “wasn’t giving up on this team . . . yet. I know there’s life there.”
The Bulls then won three straight, lost two, and then ran off six consecutive wins with Jordan winning another classic shootout with Dominique Wilkins in Atlanta with 48 points and getting 42 at home to beat Boston.
See how routine these numbers become when they are so frequent?
But the cauldron was heating up, and Doug Collins seemed in it. Collins had come to the Bulls too soon in his coaching career, as he would later concede, not fully settled that his playing career had been stolen from him prematurely by injuries.
As much as Jordan would come back years later in Washington, Collins wished he could. There’s no question that Collins’ presence changed the franchise culture, as the current saying goes, with his facile mind and unbridled enthusiasm.
In subsequent years, he would become one of the top coaching minds in the game and a true turnaround expert. His analysis was so sagacious he would even win entry to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a broadcaster. But in his hurry to get there, his insecurities got in the way.
Perhaps he was prophetic. Or, perhaps it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. But when Phil Jackson was hired by Krause along with Tex Winter, Collins felt he kept having to look over his shoulder for traitors.
Jackson really was just thrilled to be in the NBA after effectively having given up a coaching dream and a lifestyle. Jackson, of course, became famous not only for the winning, but for the Eastern religions and Native American practices employed in his teaching and coaching.
He would be asked “why basketball?” and told that he could pursue greater endeavors of the mind, or join with his buddy Bill Bradley in trying to change the world.
Why keep talking to kids in underwear?
I had talked with him about that at times, and I remember him saying he was talking to his sister after one of the championships and she said it wasn’t a surprise, perhaps except for the level of success. “She said I was a basketball lifer,” Jackson related. “She’s right.”
Collins was starting to hold on a bit too tightly. And as Jackson had even noticed the previous season with the practice dispute with Jordan, Krause was falling out of love.
The turning point came with an innocuous road game in Milwaukee in December, with the Bulls trying to hang on around .500. Collins was ejected and Jackson took over to finish the game. Jackson opened the court more and ran fewer of the set plays Collins had been running. Krause was at the game, and came around afterward preening like a proud parent.
Again, Krause’s penchant for turnovers in articulation caused a storm. It was not unlike the famous media day to start the 1997-98 season when Krause said organizations win championships.
He was trying to spread credit around, and say all the staff members and behind the scenes workers who aid the players and coaching staff are vital in any successful organization.
It came out after Krause unfortunately had insisted on even a press release that no matter what Phil Jackson did, he wouldn’t return to the Bulls. Krause was long out of love with Phil and courting Tim Floyd by this time. Krause could be generous in supporting staff, but never quite got the words in the right order.
So this time, Krause shockingly offered that if Collins were to be hit by a bus, the Bulls would be fine given the staff they had with multiple potential head coaches. Krause was trying to give credit to the assistants: Jackson, Tex Winter, and Johnny Bach.
Instead, Collins was furious with Jackson again, accusing him of trying to get his job and saying the proof was Krause’s comments. Jackson, whose lack of confrontation is almost a religion for him in a sort of Jeffersonian way, was shocked. He and Collins would be on cool terms the rest of the season.
Of course, Collins turned out to be right in the result if not the method, as Jackson did get his job.
Jordan hated and basically couldn’t care about all that kind of stuff. He just wanted to play. After Collins was fired in June, the story became that Jordan was behind it. It wasn’t true.
Owner Jerry Reinsdorf had actually called Jordan before they had decided to fire Collins. He wanted to let Jordan know and not be ambushed again like Jordan was with the Charles Oakley trade; though it often has been depicted that Jordan and Reinsdorf were at odds, they actually got along well.
Occasionally, it would be to Jordan’s benefit to play the victim, as he would at times during the negotiations on his $30 million and $33 million contracts in 1996 and 1997. But Jordan admired Reinsdorf’s business acumen and would often consult Reinsdorf for investment advice.
During the labor negotiations in 2011, Jordan — by then an owner — was a strong Reinsdorf ally, even against commissioner David Stern. There was an occasion when Reinsdorf had proposed an amendment that Stern was against. When the vote went around to Jordan, he said he wasn’t sure of the effect, but if Jerry was for it he said he would vote with Jerry.
When Reinsdorf’s son, David, died suddenly in 2014, Jordan was one of the first to call to console the Bulls owner.
When the Bulls managing partner told Jordan he intended to replace the popular Collins after the team made the conference finals for the first time in 14 years, Jordan laughed. “You don’t have the balls,” he said and hung up.
He didn’t believe Reinsdorf was serious. When Reinsdorf did pull the plug, Jordan could only laugh to himself.
“What do you know? He did do it.”
Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”
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