If you are enjoying The Last Dance on ESPN, it was an incredible experience. I had the good fortune to share coverage of that 1998 Chicago Bulls season with my colleagues at SRN. I was able to see nineteen regular season contests and at least one game in each round of the playoffs in person.
Chicago Bulls 1997-98 schedule and results from Basketball Reference.
The season following their fifth title got off to a bad start with GM Jerry Krause announcing that Scottie Pippen would have surgery. Pippen had aggravated the foot injury in the previous year’s Eastern Conference Finals. Krause said the injury “didn’t react to conservative treatment.” Krause said that Pippen is expected out for three months. Krause had hoped his younger acquisitions, namely Scott Burrell and Keith Booth, would step up to fill that large void.
Following the Bulls in 1997-98 was what I would have imagined it would be like covering The Beatles on tour. As seen on The Last Dance, it was crazy. Fans and media were everywhere, There was a horde of media. Michael Jordan never emerged for the post game press interviews unless he was showered and dressed in a coat and tie. There were two waves of interviews. The television and radio reporters would go first, getting the sound bites for the late news. Next it would be the beat reporters doing more meaty interviews.
Chicago did well to fill his absence going 24-10 before Pippen rejoined the team on January 10th against Golden State. His return, however, proved just how good the three-headed monster was. The Bulls went on to finish the season tied for the best record in the league with Utah at 62-20. Jordan finished the season averaging 28.7 points a game, won his fifth league MVP, his tenth scoring title, and Dennis Rodman averaged an even fifteen boards a game. A thirteen-game win streak in March and April solidified the Bulls as the team to beat once again in the Eastern Conference. Jordan had numerous thank yous to announce at his MVP Award presentation.
Chicago entered the postseason in familiar territory possessing the number one seed and homecourt advantage. They faced an opponent in the New Jersey Nets that they hadn’t seen in the postseason and made quick work of them sweeping them in three games. Six Bulls scored in double digits in game three and Rodman finished with 11 points and 17 rebounds. Jordan averaged just over 36 points a game.
The Charlotte Hornets was next on the Bulls road to the championship. They fared a little better, but not much, winning one game 78-76 and holding Jordan to 22 points. The Bulls took the loss to heart and went on the win the next three in convincing fashion.
Reggie Miller and the Indiana Pacers took the Knicks out in five games to set up a Pacers-Bulls Eastern Conference Finals matchup. A sloppy game one saw the Bulls shoot less than 36% from the field and commit 19 turnovers. Luc Longley had 12 points and 8 rebounds while Rodman recorded a double double with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Game two was a little closer to what Bulls basketball was all about. The Pacers were forced into 19 turnovers of their own and Michael Jordan scored 41 points to lead the Bulls to a 104-98 win. Indiana got the best of the Bulls in game three with Reggie Miller putting up 28 points and hitting clutch shot after clutch shot. Michael Jordan missed two free throws late and the Pacers won 107-105. Reggie Miller used a blatant push-off on Jordan to get open and put the Pacers up late to defeat the Bulls in game four and knot the series up at two. Aside from a convincing game five win in which the Bulls were up by 33 at one point, Michael Jordan scored his 35,000th career point (regular and postseason combined). Facing elimination, Rik Smits and Dale Davis were too much for the Bulls in game six, and the Pacers tied the series at three. Thus, game seven was set in the United Center and the Bulls gave the hometown fans just what they wanted-a shot at their second threepeat of the decade. The Bulls won 88-83 behind Toni Kukoc’s 14-point third quarter. Jordan said afterward, “We had to fight for everything we got.”
Homecourt advantage truly played a role as the Jazz took game one over the defending champs 88-85 in overtime. John Stockton scored seven of the Jazz’s nine points in the extra frame and Luc Longley committed a late turnover that was instrumental in the game one loss for Chicago. “Fatigue was a factor at the end of the game,” coach Jackson said of the defeat. Game two was a must-win for Chicago and they didn’t disappoint. Michael Jordan scored 37 and Steve Kerr added 15 off the bench to give the Bulls the victory and tie the series at one before heading back to Chicago. Game three wasn’t much of a game. The 96-54 score should speak for itself. Michael Jordan sat the entire fourth quarter and every Bull in uniform scored at least a point. Jerry Sloan said afterward, “It seemed like they scored 196.” It was ultimately Scottie Pippen’s defense that won the game for Chicago. He drew two early charges on Karl Malone and disrupted the Utah offense all night, causing the usually sure-handed John Stockton to commit five turnovers. “It’s a luxury for us to have a defender like Scottie. He’s able to hang tight with whoever he’s playing. His defense is what really blew the game open,” Phil Jackson said. With the embarrassment of game three fresh on their minds, Utah needed to win this one, but they couldn’t. It was Scottie Pippen once again shining and this time it was on offense. He scored 28 points, grabbed nine rebounds, and dealt five assists. Jordan added 34 of his own points in the 86-82 Bulls victory.
The Bulls were one win away from sealing the deal and doing it on their home court. With their backs against the walls, Utah squeaked out a two point victory and would send the series back to Salt Lake City. Karl Malone put up 39 points to lead the Jazz. Game six will go down in history as one of the greatest Finals games ever. With the Bulls trailing by one in the final minute of what would have forced game seven, it happened. By it, I’m referring to what is known in Chicago as “The Shot.” It started off with a strip of Malone by Jordan and Steve Kerr bringing the ball upcourt. Kerr then made the biggest pass of his career to Jordan, who was guarded by Bryon Russell. Jordan broke Russell’s ankles with a crossover dribble, elevated, released, and drained a jumper putting the Bulls up by one. Jordan said, “I never doubted myself. I never doubted the whole game.” Jackson said, “I think it was the best performance I’ve seen in a critical situation and critical game in a series.” Kerr summed up not only the night, but perhaps the last three seasons best afterward.
Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, and Jackson all left Chicago the way they should have-on top. Jordan would leave the game for two years only to return with the Washington Wizards. Pippen expressed his desire to be traded during the season. He was granted that request and traded to the Houston Rockets following the Finals. Dennis Rodman went on to sign with the Los Angeles Lakers as a free agent. Phil Jackson wasn’t far behind Rodman as he agreed to coach the Los Angeles Lakers as well. The Bulls team underwent a re-building period and missed the playoffs every year until 2005. Chicago may never see another group as talented and dominant as they did for these three seasons.