Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Superman, Batman, and Rodman

This month marks the 15th anniversary of the first perfect month in Bulls history (14 games, 14 wins). The Bulls were winning at an unprecedented rate, and newly acquired Dennis Rodman, former arch-enemy as a member of the Detroit Pistons’ infamous “Bad Boys,” was winning over his previously skeptical teammates.
     Dennis Rodman was just beginning to adapt to the Bulls, and they to him, when a calf injury sidelined him three games into the 1995-96 season. Even without him, the Bulls won six of seven on a road trip through the West, while exhibiting the ferocious defense that would be their trademark all year.
     When Rodman returned after a month on the shelf, the Bulls' record stood at 13-2. In his first four games back, he showed why general manager Jerry Krause had taken a chance on him despite his checkered history. Rodman pulled down 20, 21, 21, and 19 rebounds, respectively, as the Bulls defeated New York, San Antonio, Milwaukee, and Orlando.
     The winning streak reached 13. “From the media’s standpoint, it looks like we’re toying with people,” Michael Jordan said. “But for us it’s just a matter of making adjustments. We may take teams for granted a little bit early in games, but then we figure them out and apply our defense where necessary in the second half.” Indeed, most games were decided shortly after intermission by a Bulls blitzkrieg that rendered the fourth quarter moot.
     The combination of Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Rodman—now nicknamed “Superman, Batman, and Rodman”—was proving unstoppable. Rodman flourished under Phil Jackson’s laid-back coaching style and won over Chicago fans by flinging his jersey into the crowd after each home game. His on-court antics occasionally got him ejected, fined, and/or suspended, and his off-court publicity stunts grew increasingly bizarre. But he showed up on time for practice, played hard in games, and generally got along with his teammates—none of which he’d done consistently in the past.
     While the Bulls’ lesser lights didn’t attract nearly as much attention, they too made key contributions. Guard Ron Harper became the perfect complement to Jordan (whom he’d been asked to replace during Michael's brief baseball career); his stellar defensive work created myriad fast-break opportunities for Jordan. Center Luc Longley used his height and heft to disrupt opponents’ drives down the lane. Toni Kukoc and Bill Wennington provided scoring punch off the bench. Steve Kerr was a devastating long-range bomber. Randy Brown was a fleet-footed defender who could stick with the league’s quickest point guards. Jud Buechler supplied Jackson’s favorite ingredient, “good energy.” The Bulls were hitting on all cylinders.

     The Bulls lost at Indiana the day after Christmas. Three days later, they avenged the loss with a 120-93 rout of the Pacers in Chicago. Five weeks would go by before they tasted defeat again.
     On January 3, the Bulls held the defending world champion Houston Rockets to one-of-15 shooting in the second quarter and cruised to an easy 100-86 win behind Jordan’s 38 points. A week later, in a game with postseason implications, the Bulls humiliated the Seattle SuperSonics 113-87 as Jordan grabbed 14 rebounds to go with his 35 points. On January 13, the Bulls visited the Philadelphia 76ers, whose rookie guard Jerry Stackhouse had recently announced, “Nobody can stop me in this league—not even Michael Jordan.” Jordan scored 48 points and held Stackhouse to nine as the Bulls won 120-93. At New York on January 23, the Bulls bombed the Knicks 99-79. And so it went.
     The month ended as it had begun, with a victory over the Rockets, this time in Houston (it was the Bulls’ first win there in eight years). Pippen, who had emerged as a legitimate MVP candidate, topped the Bulls with 28 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists. “He’s the leader of this team,” Jordan said, exaggerating less than many people supposed.
     January 1996 was the first perfect month in Bulls’ history—14 games, 14 wins. By the time the winning streak reached 18 in early February, the Bulls had won 31 of their last 32. Their record stood at a stupendous 41-3. It was clear that they were taking aim at the single-season record of 69 wins in 82 games, set by the Los Angeles Lakers in 1971-72.

Excerpted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009 by Chiristopher Tabbert

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