The odyssey began in October 1991, amid controversy over a perceived White House snub by Michael Jordan and contentiousness generated by a book that portrayed the Chicago Bulls as a less-than-harmonious chorus.
It ended in June 1992, with the Bulls atop the basketball world and the players atop the Chicago Stadium scorer's table. They were reveling in their second consecutive NBA championship and basking in the cheers of their fans following a remarkable 97-93 Game 6 comeback victory over the Portland Trail Blazers.
It wasn't easy, but they did it. Since way back in October, when training camps opened, the Bulls had been expected to win the 1992 NBA title.
They were the defending NBA champions with 11 of 12 team members back for more. They had the game's best player (Jordan) in his prime and a supporting cast that included two blossoming stars (Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant) as well as several solid role players. And they had a coach (Phil Jackson) who may not yet have had the big reputation, but who somehow always seemed to push the right buttons and had the courage to throw the book out the window when his insticts told him to do so.
The view from inside was different. It may have looked easy to outsiders, but not to those wearing the red and black.
Said Jordan, the first man ever to be named NBA Finals MVP in consecutive years: "This season was unbelievable for me and for us as a team. We went through a lot of adversities. It might not have all been pretty, but today we stand tall. Last year was more for the city and the organization and the fans. This year, it's a little more selfish. This one is for my teammates and me."
Pippen buried once and for all a reputation for taking nights off by coming up big with a combined 50 points in Games 5 and 6 as the Bulls buried the Blazers. "I personally got a lot of criticism," he said, "but as a team we stayed together. I have to thank them for stepping forward and helping me out. This was very sweet."
Jordan was brilliant all year long, winning his sixth consecutive scoring title during the regular season by averaging 30.1 points and leading the Bulls to a 67-15 record, then the fourth best in NBA history. In the playoffs he stepped up his scoring to 34.5 points per game. His 35.8 points per game in the Finals was the highest Finals average ever posted by a player on a winning team. And as the Bulls wrapped up the title by rallying from a 15-point deficit in the final period of Game 6, Jordan netted a dozen of his game-high 33 points in the final 6:01.
The Bulls went into the 1992 NBA Finals with tremendous confidence, despite having been stretched to the limit by the New York Knicks in the second round of the playoffs, and to six games by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals. In fact, a pre-Finals scouting report on the Blazers reportedly included the biting comment, "They will self-destruct if we show them how."
Actually, prior to Game 6, it was not Portland but Chicago that showed self-destructive tendencies in the Finals, blowing leads in Games 2 and 4 to prolong a series that might well have been a sweep. Chicago squandered a 10-point lead with 4:36 to go in Game 2 and led all the way until the final 3:35 of Game 4, but couldn't put the Blazers away. So instead, all the first four games did was reduce the best-of-seven series to best-of-three.
Jordan buried the Blazers in Game 1 with a barrage of three-pointers, a record six in the first half, as the Bulls pulled away from a 45-44 edge midway through the second quarter to a 104-68 runaway after three periods and a 122-89 final that was just two points shy of matching the most lopsided Finals game ever.
Jordan set another NBA Finals record with 35 points in the first half, beating the mark of 33 set by Elgin Baylor in 1962, and he tied a Finals record with 14 first-half baskets. He finished with 39 points, including 6-for-10 shooting from three-point range, tying the record for three-pointers made in a game and setting the mark for attempts.
"They dared me early," Jordan said of his long-distance efforts. "Most teams will give me that. I wasn't looking for it, but when you feel the rhythm, you have to take it." Jordan was, as the saying goes, "in the zone."
"The first one felt so good, I had to take more," he said. "I couldn't miss. The threes were like free throws -- they just kept dropping. I didn't know what was happening. I was in a zone. What can I say? I don't know how to explain it. You know it's got to end, it has to, but when? It's like it doesn't matter what they do."
Despite his success, Michael remained the reluctant rifleman.
"I don't want to live with this 'three' image too long because it takes away from some parts of my game," he said. "I start thinking on the break of going to the line and pulling up, instead of going to the basket. I like going to the hole. I like that creativity part of my game so much that if I worked on the three-pointer, it would take away from my style and my definition of my game."
Jordan didn't have a single three in Game 2, yet the Bulls still appeared to be in control, leading 92-82 with 4:36 to go on the strength of a 32-16 third quarter. The Blazers were staring squarely at a two-games-to-none series deficit, especially since Clyde Drexler had just fouled out as Chicago took its 10-point lead.
Eleven seconds later, Jordan was called for a foul while hand-checking Terry Porter. When he complained, he was hit with a technical by referee Jess Kersey. Porter sank all three free throws to cut the gap to seven, and the Blazers seemed to have gained new life.
Starting with Porter's three free throws, the Blazers outscored the Bulls 15-5 to send the game into overtime. Veteran Danny Ainge, winner of two championship rings with the Celtics, stepped in for Drexler and played brilliantly, setting up Jerome Kersey for the game-tying basket with 45.5 seconds to play.
Jordan put Chicago in front 14 seconds later, but Kevin Duckworth's 8-footer with 13.2 seconds left tied it again at 97-97. After a timeout, Jordan dribbled down the clock and then launched a 14-footer that bounced off the back iron as the buzzer sounded.
"Michael's cape fell off there somewhere down the stretch," observed Ainge, who did his own imitation of Superman in overtime. Ainge tied a Finals record by scoring nine points in the extra session as the Blazers outscored Chicago 18-7 to win going away, 115-104. Porter's three-pointer on a feed from Ainge with 1:31 left put Portland up 110-102. Then Ainge kept his team on top with a basket and four free throws in the final 1:03.
Drexler had 26 points before fouling out, Porter added 24 and Ainge finished with 17 in 23 minutes. Jordan was high man for Chicago with 39 points but missed half of his 32 shots. Pippen had 16 points but shot just 6-for-19 from the field.
"We didn't get the job done," said Scott Williams of the Bulls. "We had the game won and we let it slip away. Like they say on the playground, you can't give a sucker an even break. When you have him down, you have to put him out."
They didn't. The Blazers scored on 16 of their last 17 possessions and headed home to Portland with the series tied at a game apiece.
Two years earlier, the Blazers had gone home with the Finals tied at one-all following an overtime victory at Detroit -- and had gotten swept in the Coliseum by the Pistons. They remembered it well.
"The important thing is not to be lackadaisical, like we did against Detroit," said Porter. "That time we came home and said, 'This is gonna be easy,' and they took it to us in Game 3."
Echoed Blazers forward Buck Williams, who bounced back from a subpar opening game with 19 points and 14 rebounds in Game 2: "There's no question experience is the best teacher for us as far as Game 3 goes. We must make sure we don't allow Chicago to set the mood."
Chicago did just that with a stifling defense that limited Portland to .359 shooting as the Bulls posted a 94-84 victory. "The most important thing playing on the road is to control the tempo, and we were able to do that with our defense," said Pippen.
Portland's 84 points matched a franchise playoff-record low; its 39 second-half points set a team playoff mark; and its 28 made field goals also set a team playoff record for futility. "The defense is what did it," said Phil Jackson. "We came out with the mind-set to just play defense, and we didn't worry about the offense."
Jordan led the Bulls with 26 points, while Pippen and Grant tallied 18 apiece. Drexler led all scorers with 32, but no other Blazer had more than 12 and nobody else could shoot .500 from the field. Take away Drexler's 9-for-17 shooting and Portland's field-goal percentage sinks to .311.
It was Portland's first home loss of the 1992 NBA Playoffs but the ninth straight loss by a Western Conference team in a home Finals game, a streak that included the Blazers' three losses to Detroit in Portland in 1990. "I don't think that's a factor," contended Blazers coach Rick Adelman. "That's two years ago against a different team."
That streak came to an end in Game 4 as the Blazers used a small lineup effectively down the stretch and won 93-88. Adelman sat his two big men, Duckworth and Buck Williams, early in the fourth quarter and went with a guard trio of Drexler, Porter and Ainge plus small forward Jerome Kersey and reserve Cliff Robinson, who had done little in the first three games. Robinson responded with 17 points and six rebounds and gave Portland a much-needed spark as the Blazers erased a 77-70 deficit with 9:06 left. They outscored the Bulls 27-19 in the fourth quarter, including a 19-8 run in the final 7:43.
"The three-guard set really worked well for us," said Drexler, who made perhaps the biggest play of the game by stripping the ball from Jordan and driving for the basket that gave Portland its first lead at 83-82 with 3:34 to play. "Danny can guard a bigger guy and we're better offensively with that lineup."
"We have better spacing with the smaller lineup," noted Ainge. "We have five guys in positions where if they leave us, we can make them pay."
Game 5, the game Portland needed to win, was all Chicago. The Bulls rode a Finals career-high 46 points by Jordan, a near triple-double (24 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists) by Pippen, 55-percent shooting and a stifling defense that led to 28 points off turnovers to a lopsided 119-106 victory.
Chicago raced out of the gate to a 10-2 lead, was ahead by 13 points at the quarter, stretched the margin to 20 points in the third period, and was never seriously threatened. "They played a nearly flawless 48 minutes of basketball," Williams said.
One thing the Blazers were well aware of as the series shifted back to Chicago was that though five teams had come back from 3-2 Finals deficits to win, none had ever been able to do so by winning Games 6 and 7 on the road. And the Bulls weren't thinking in terms of a Game 7.
It took the Bulls more than three quarters to find themselves in Game 6, but they recovered just in time to delight the raucous throng in Chicago Stadium and set up one of the most delightful impromptu postgame celebrations ever. Two days later, at the Grant Park rally, some of the Bulls addressed the question of "three-peating."
"Last year, I talked about how nice it would be to be back here," said veteran guard John Paxson. "We got our first in '91, our second in '92 -- and maybe our third in '93."
Reserve center Will Perdue waxed poetic: "The first time was neat. The second time was quite a feat. The third time will be, oh, so sweet!"