Michael Jordan sat in the cramped visitors' locker room in the Great Western Forum, his wife Juanita to his left, his father James to his right, and chaos all around him. He clutched the Larry O'Brien Trophy, which had been presented to the NBA champion Chicago Bulls only moments earlier, as a mixture of sweat and champagne poured off his shaved head.
And he cried. Tears of joy, tears of satisfaction, tears of fulfillment.
"I'm numb," Jordan said between sobs. "I don't know what to do. I want to enjoy this, it's such a great feeling. I've never been this emotional in public. When I came into this situation, we started from scratch. We started at the bottom and made it to the top. It's been a long, long seven years. A lot of bad teams, a lot of improvement. Step by step, inch by inch. I never gave up hope. I always had faith.
"And now, well, there's a lot of emotion I've been holding back. I had to. I didn't want to show what I was feeling, because I didn't want to give anybody the wrong impression. But I told people, if we got to the Finals, we'd win. I really believed it. We shocked a lot of people, I know, but we earned it. We deserved it. We took it -- no one gave it to us. That's what I'm proudest about. We took it, and we took it as a team. Me and my teammates."
Indeed, Jordan and his teammates had grabbed the bull by the horns back in February and rode it all the way through June. The team that was 30-14 after bowing to the Lakers on Feb. 3 promptly won 11 in a row and 20 of its next 21 to leave the rest of the NBA in its dust.
There was the maturation of fourth-year pros Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant; the experience provided by sharpshooters John Paxson and Craig Hodges, veteran center Bill Cartwright and key reserve Cliff Levingston; and timely contributions from youngsters Will Perdue, Scott Williams and B.J. Armstrong. Together they became more than the Jordanaires. They became a championship team, the first in the 25-year history of the franchise.
Jordan, who won his fifth consecutive scoring title and was voted league MVP during the regular season, was at his best in the Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, averaging a series-high 31.2 points while shooting .558 from the field and .848 from the line. He also contributed 11.4 assists, 6.6 rebounds, 2.8 steals and 1.4 blocks per game to the Bulls' five-game series victory.
Jordan was the unanimous choice of the 11-member panel selecting the NBA Finals MVP, and he became only the second player in league history to win the scoring title plus regular-season and Finals MVP honors in the same season (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1971).
It was bittersweet for the Lakers, who may have overachieved by beating Portland in the Western Conference Finals to secure their ninth NBA Finals berth in 12 years. They fought valiantly despite injuries that had James Worthy and Byron Scott watching from the sideline in Game 5. Center Vlade Divac emerged as a prime-time star, averaging 18.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in the Finals. Magic Johnson tried to carry the team on his back, posting the 29th and 30th triple-doubles of his career, setting a five-game Finals record with 62 assists, and averaging 18.6 points, 12.4 assists and 8.0 rebounds.
The Lakers were outmanned, however, by the younger, more athletic Bulls. Wherever Johnson went, he was hounded by Jordan and Pippen, who combined to pressure his every step and harassed him into 22 turnovers. The Bulls set five-game Finals records by shooting .527 from the field and .826 from the line; accumulating 139 assists and 49 steals; and committing only 66 turnovers, while limiting Los Angeles to 458 points, a record low for a five-game Finals series.
The Bulls were 15-2 in the playoffs -- 8-1 at raucous Chicago Stadium and 7-1 on the road. After dropping the Finals opener 93-91, they evened the series at home and then swept the three games in Los Angeles, extending to eight games the East's streak of Finals wins on the West's floor.
Pippen scored a team-high 32 points in Game 5 and averaged 20.8 points, a team-high 9.4 rebounds and 6.6 assists in the Finals. Grant averaged 14.6 points and 7.8 rebounds while shooting .627 from the field, and Paxson averaged 13.4 points while shooting a sizzling .653, mostly on outside jumpers. It was Paxson who broke a 93-93 tie with 3:54 remaining in Game 5 and scored 10 points down the stretch to nail down the final victory.
Yet nobody enjoyed the victory more than Jordan, who controlled the Finals but finally lost control in the locker-room celebration.
"I'm still trying to let it sink in," he said. "I've got seven years of it to sink in. It can't sink in in just a few hours, it's going to take awhile. I don't know if I'm ever going to have this same feeling."
The Lakers only managed to score as many as 100 points once, tallying an average of 91.6 points per game in the Finals. Their 97-82 loss in Game 4 marked a franchise Finals scoring low since the advent of the shot clock in 1954-55, and the fewest points scored by any team in a Finals game in 10 years. For their 17 playoff games, the Bulls held their opponents under 100 points 14 times and allowed just 92.2 points per game, the fewest given up by an NBA champion since the shot clock was introduced.
"I learned one thing from Red Holzman," said Bulls coach Phil Jackson, who played under the Hall of Famer with the New York Knicks in their glory years of the early '70s. "The easiest way to get a team to play together is on the defensive end. You don't have to share a basketball there -- they can share a defensive philosophy. They can learn to help out each other."
The series was billed as Michael vs. Magic, a marquee matchup between the sport's two most glamorous players, the best M&M act since Maris and Mantle. The men behind the nicknames recognized their part in the much-ballyhooed event.
"There's a lot on our shoulders, more than just the game. We have a lot more pressure than anybody else," said Johnson. "But I'm not here to get into no confrontation with Michael, because he's going to win those. He's going to outscore me every time. What I have to do to help this team is set the tempo."
Incredibly, Game 1 in Chicago Stadium actually lived up to, and even surpassed, the hype preceding it. It was a thriller all the way, with Chicago nursing a two-point edge before Sam Perkins nailed a three-pointer with 14 seconds left to give the Lakers a 92-91 lead. Jordan missed a 17-footer with 2.7 seconds left, and after Scott made one of two free throws, Pippen's desperation 50-footer bounced off the back iron and the Lakers had a 93-91 win.
Jackson had Jordan guarding Johnson, with relief help from Pippen. Chicago also double-teamed Johnson whenever he held onto the ball for awhile. "It's tough to guard Magic and then go down and be expected to carry the load offensively," said Jordan. "It's a challenge, but I have to do it."
Jordan led all scorers with 36 points, but the only other Bull in double figures was Pippen, who had 19. Johnson posted 19 points, 11 assists and 10 rebounds, but the big story for the Lakers was the post-up success of their frontcourt. Los Angeles' starting trio of Perkins, Worthy and Divac outscored the Bulls' starting frontcourt trio 60-31.
"Our philosophy is to work inside-out," said Worthy, who matched Perkins's 22 points despite a sore ankle. Divac had 16 points and 14 rebounds.
After Perkins, who had signed with the Lakers as a veteran free agent the previous summer after six seasons as a Dallas Maverick, sank what he called "the No. 1 shot of my career," the Lakers still had to survive Jordan's final effort, which rattled the rim but rolled out. "It felt good," said Jordan, "but hey, they all feel good."
"Michael is the No. 1 scariest person in the NBA at that time. My breath almost stopped," Johnson said of Jordan's attempt.
"Even the greatest golfers in the world miss a putt now and then," said Jordan.
Jordan and the Bulls didn't miss much of anything in Game 2, shooting a Finals-record .617 from the field (50-for-81) and blowing out the Lakers 107-86. It was only 48-43 at halftime, but the Bulls gored the Lakers by going 17-for-20 in a 38-26 third quarter.
Jordan, who was outscored by the other four Bulls starters by only a 37-36 margin in Game 1, concentrated on setting up his teammates in Game 2. Although he once again led all scorers with 33 points, hitting 13 shots in a row in one stretch and 15-for-18 for the game, he was outscored 68-33 by the other four starters. Pippen and Grant scored 20 apiece, Paxson netted 16 (on 8-for-8 shooting) and Cartwright had 12.
The Bulls also discovered a defensive stopper in Pippen, who switched over onto Johnson after Jordan picked up his second personal foul in the first quarter and did an outstanding job on the Lakers' star, pestering him into 4-for-13 shooting.
The series shifted to Los Angeles for a pivotal Game 3, with Chicago eager to regain the home-court advantage it had surrendered in Game 1. For most of the game Jordan was less than spectacular, but when the Bulls needed him most he was at his best. Divac's three-point play with 10.9 seconds left had given the Lakers a 92-90 lead, but Jordan brought the ball upcourt and beat Scott off the dribble, then nailed a 14-foot jumper before Divac could come over and help out to tie the score and send the game into overtime. In the five-minute extra session, Jordan scored half of the Bulls' 12 points to lead Chicago to a 104-96 win.
Jordan played 52 of a possible 53 minutes, his only rest coming from 4:17 left to the 2:54 mark. "I was still tired," said Jordan, "but there were two minutes left in the ball game and I had to get back in."
"He has the energy a lot of guys don't have," said Paxson. "Games he should be dead, he always responds."
The Bulls showed tremendous poise in their first-ever Finals road game, withstanding an 18-2 Lakers run in the third quarter that put Chicago behind by 13 points. They bounced right back to tie the score with a 20-7 spurt and outfought the Lakers down the stretch. Two key advantages for Chicago came on the boards and off the bench. The Bulls outrebounded the Lakers 46-29 the latter tally an all-time Finals low, and enjoyed a 24-8 edge on the offensive glass. And with Levingston shooting 5-for-5, the Bulls reserves outscored the Lakers bench 18-6.
Grant, wearing a new set of prescription goggles he got for the Finals, shot 9-for-11 from the field and scored 22 points. "I don't think I'll ever take them off again," he said of his eyegear. "I'll sleep in them. I'll kiss them. I'll caress them."
The Bulls' finish overshadowed a fine performace by Divac, who scored 24 points on 11-for-15 shooting. One Lakers starter who didn't enjoy a fine performance was Scott, who was scoreless after going 0-for-8 from the field and 0-for-2 from the line.
The Lakers continued to fire blanks under pressure from the Bulls' tenacious defense in Game 4. Chicago held Los Angeles to .366 shooting from the field, including a dismal 1-for-15 performance from Perkins, in a 97-82 thrashing to take a commanding 3-1 series lead.
The Bulls broke the game open in the middle quarters, holding Los Angeles to 5-for-20 shooting in the second period and 7-for-21 in the third while outscoring the Lakers 47-30. While Divac added 27 points to his 11 rebounds, and Johnson chipped in 22 points and 11 assists, the other Lakers struggled, shooting a combined 12-for-46.
"It doesn't look good. We're not in a hole, we're in a ditch," said Lakers coach Mike Dunleavy. The ditch was made deeper by the fact that Worthy reinjured his ankle in Game 4, and Scott suffered a contusion of the right shoulder. Both would miss Game 5.
The Lakers did not go down in Game 5 without a fight. Rookie Elden Campbell came off the bench to score 13 of his 21 points in the first half -- one more than Jordan -- to lead all scorers at intermission and send the Lakers into the locker room with a 49-48 lead. And Johnson posted his 30th career playoff triple-double with 16 points, 20 assists and 11 rebounds.
But with the score tied at 93-93, Paxson took control and scored 10 of his 20 points in the final 3:54 to give Chicago the victory. Jordan had 30 points, 10 assists and five steals, while Pippen contributed 32 points, 13 rebounds and five steals.
"Maybe now people will stop referring to us as a one-man team, because we won this thing as a team," said Jordan. "I played my game, but with the efforts they gave us, we did it as a team."
"Michael humbled himself," said Grant. "He could see that we had a chance to win a championship this year, so if we were scoring early and he only had two points, he'll accept that as long as we're winning. Winning is the important thing to him."
Some portrayed the 1991 NBA Finals as a passing of the torch of NBA leadership from Magic and the Lakers, the team of the '80s, to Michael and the Bulls, perhaps the team of the '90s. Jordan, however, preferred to savor the moment and let the future take care of itself.
"I'm not even thinking about any other championships right now," he said during the victory celebration that swept Chicago off its feet. "I just want to enjoy this one for as long as I can."