In 1991, the Chicago Bulls won their first-ever NBA championship. The team finished with the second best record in the league at 61-21 behind only the Portland Trail Blazers record of 63-19. Michael Jordan won his second regular season Most Valuable Player Award, and the Finals MVP as well. However, it was a very long and frustrating journey to the title, much like the 1988-89 Detroit Pistons path. From the time Jordan entered the NBA during the 1984-85 season, Chicago had been building toward a championship. They had to battle past both the Boston Celtics and the Detroit Pistons to finally break through. In 1991, the title had to go through Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers. The young and driven Bulls were just too much for the Lakers and after dropping game #1 in Chicago Stadium, the Bulls would sweep the next four games to bring the championship to Chicago. In October of 1991, the NBA landscape would change forever, however.
Fans everywhere had similar reactions of shock to Magic Johnson’s revelation that he had contracted HIV. Johnson announced that he would retire immediately from the league and “devote his time to educating the public about HIV and AIDS.” He would eventually attempt two comebacks but, in essence, his 12-year career was over. Magic won five championships (1980, 1982, 1985, 1987 and 1988) and three MVP awards (1987, 1989 and 1990). The 1991-92 season would also be the last for Larry Bird who later admitted that it just wasn’t the same without Magic. The two had driven each other to new heights that neither could have believed but now their lives were changed forever. Despite the competitiveness of both Magic and Larry, there was also a great mutual respect and caring for each other. The two stars had saved the NBA and would forever be linked to each other.
With Magic retired and Bird struggling in his final season playing with back pain, the NBA now belonged to Michael Jordan. He was the face of the league and his Chicago Bulls started the 1991-92 season like they ended the previous season. The Bulls showed even more determination to re-peat as champions by rolling to a 67-15 record. Jordan won his third MVP trophy and his sixth straight scoring title. More than ever, however, the Chicago Bulls were not just Michael Jordan. It was all about the team as Scottie Pippen averaged a career-high 21.0 points per game and Horace Grant stepped up to provide 14.2 points and 10 rebounds per contest. John Paxson and B.J. Armstrong split time at the point guard averaging around 17 points per game together. Bill Cartwight, Stacey King and Will Perdue gave the team a three-headed center that saw each of them step up at various times during the season.
The rest of the league saw some interesting teams stepping up. Cleveland, with all-stars Mark Price and Brad Daugherty, won 57 games to tie Portland for the league’s second-best record. The Cavaliers played well all season, but simply had no answer for Chicago. Chicago would defeat the Cavs in six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. Portland, who had been to the 1990 NBA Finals against Detroit, was very hungry to get back. It had been a very disappointing ending for the Blazers in the 1991 season, losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals despite having the league’s best record. 1992 would be different for Portland, however. The Blazers defeated the Magic-less Lakers and the Phoenix Suns in the first two rounds, and battled the tough Utah Jazz, with all-stars John Stockton and Karl Malone, to gain a Finals berth for the second time in the last three seasons.
The Finals saw a classic first half from Michael Jordan in game #1. Jordan would break the playoff scoring record for a half (33 points held previously by Elgin Baylor) when he scored 35 points including six three pointers. After the sixth three point make, Jordan would give the broadcast crew the famous “shrug” showing even he couldn’t believe what was going on in the moment. Game #1 would end up a blow-out win for Chicago, however, Portland would fight back to even the series going to Portland. The Bulls would take two of three games in the great Northwest and many expected an easy victory for the Bulls in game #6 in Chicago Stadium. However, after three quarters the Blazers led 79-64 and seemed ready to force a seventh and deciding game. Then, Scottie Pippen and a surprising cast of bench players in Scott Williams, B.J. Armstrong, Bobby Hansen and Stacey King led the charge back into the game outscoring Portland 14-2 to start the fourth frame. Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen took over from there scoring the last 19 points for Chicago to wrap up the Bulls re-peat championship.
“We needed a different matchup,” Bulls coach Phil Jackson said after game #6. “That’s what we got from those guys. They had fresh legs. It’s either daring or stupid, depending on which way it comes out.”
The 1992 Chicago Bulls were a perfect combination of talent and hard work. The team had largely been together since 1988-89 and had earned their stripes through all the battles with the hard-nosed Detroit Pistons. Michael Jordan was in the prime of his career and led his team with an iron fist where nothing but a championship would do. Beyond that, the league took notice because Chicago was still young and, with both Magic and Larry retired, primed to win many more championships.