Michael Jordan collapsed in the locker room and cried. In leading the Chicago Bulls to their fourth league championship in six years, his return to the NBA mountaintop was complete. He had regained his status as the sport's premier player.
But Chicago's six-game elimination of Seattle in the NBA Finals was more than a validation of Jordan's determination and skill. It was the fitting ending to an historic season. The Bulls, led by Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, set an NBA record by going 72-10 during the regular season. They blew past Miami, New York, Orlando and Seattle in the playoffs, losing just three games. Chicago's combined record of 87-13 cemeted its claims as one of the best teams ever to take the court.
"The historians will decide our place among the greatest teams," Jordan said. "But we certainly accomplished everything we set out to do."
The Bulls' fourth title came 15 months after Jordan put aside his flirtation with baseball and returned to basketball. After Chicago was eliminated by Orlando in the second round of the 1995 playoffs, Jordan dedicated himself to lifting his team back to championship status.
That goal -- and the memories of his deceased father, James -- dominated his thoughts after the Bulls won Game 6 on Father's Day to clinch the 1996 title against a SuperSonics team that came back from a 3-0 deficit to make it an interesting series.
"This is probably the hardest time for me to play the game of basketball," said Jordan, who averaged 27.3 points, 5.3 assists and 4.2 assists in the series and was named NBA Finals MVP for the fourth time. "I had a lot of things on my heart, on my mind. I had a lot to think about.
"I'm just the happy the team kind of pulled me through it."
The Sonics also knew what it was like to have a lot weighing on the mind. Seattle had been dismissed as a talented-yet-fragile bunch after being upset in the first round of the playoffs for two consecutive years.
Seattle responded in 1996 by beating Sacramento, defending champion Houston and Utah in the postseason. Sonics coach George Karl compared winning an NBA championship to climbing Mt. Everest and called his team's trip to the Finals the equivalent of being at the base camp.
The climb became tougher after Game 1. The Sonics challenged Chicago for most of the evening, but as the game wore on, the Bulls' defense wore Seattle out. Jordan scored 28 points, Pippen added 21 and Toni Kukoc had 18 off the bench as Chicago took a 107-90 victory.
The Sonics trailed by just two points entering the final period, but they went just 5-for-18 in the fourth and turned the ball over six times. The Bulls' relentless defense turned a two-point lead into a 15-point bulge by opening the quarter with a 22-9 run.
"The fourth quarter is about desire and putting on the defense," Jordan said. "The succumbed to the pressure tonight."
Kukoc didn't. The NBA's best sixth man of 1995-96 entered the Finals averaging 9.3 points in the playoffs and was a dismal 3-for-36 from three-point range. But he took over in the fourth quarter of Game 1, scoring nine consecutive points early in the period to give the Bulls a nine-point lead. He drilled consecutive three-pointers in the first three minutes of the quarter, was fouled by Shawn Kemp on the second and converted a rare four-point play.
Despite the defeat, the Sonics didn't lack for confidence. "We can play with this team," guard Gary Payton said. "We can beat this team. We just made stupid mistakes in the clutch."
Some of those same mistakes resurfaced in Game 2. Bulls coach Phil Jackson taught his players if they applied pressure for 48 minutes, at some point the opponent would crack. Seattle cracked at the end of the third quarter, and Chicago went on to win 92-88.
The decisive stretch came in the final 2:28 of the third period. Payton, who was much more aggressive offensively than he was in Game 1, hit a baseline jumper to cut the Bulls' lead to 66-64.
Enter Kukoc. The Chicago forward answered Payton's jumper with consecutive three-pointers, the second coming as he fell out of bounds. Pippen followed with a steal, then thundered in for a dunk. When Kukoc completed the surge with a dunk on the fast break, Chicago had finished the quarter with a 10-1 flourish to take a 76-65 lead into the final period.
"I thought we played a passive game in the third, especially Toni," said Jordan, who finished with 29 points, six points and eight assists. "I pulled him over to the side and told him if he was scared, to go sit down. If not, shoot the ball. Don't come out here and pass it. You've got to go out and be aggressive. He was."
So was Rodman. The Bulls' power forward finished the evening with 20 rebounds -- he tied an NBA Finals record with 11 offensive boards -- including the most crucial rebound of the game in the closing seconds. Karl called him Chicago's most valuable player of the evening.
The Sonics, down 2-0 in the series, vowed the Finals would take on a different tone once they left Chicago for their Pacific Northwest home. It didn't happen in Game 3. The Bulls drilled the Sonics 108-86 at KeyArena to take a 3-0 series lead.
This one was over early. Jordan, relatively sedate in the first two games of the series, broke loose for 36 points. He was at his surrealistic best in the final four minutes of the second quarter, scorching the Sonics for 15 points to stake the Bulls to a 62-38 halftime lead.
"When he gets like that, I find myself running up and down the court with a smile on my face," Bulls center Luc Longley said. "You have to be careful. You want to watch him like a fan."
Longley scored a career playoff-high 19 points. Kukoc, starting in place of Ron Harper (sore knee), had 14 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Pippen had 12 points and eight rebounds.
The list goes on. Jackson called it a spectacular game, one of the best his team had played.
"The odds are against us," Karl said. "Everthing is against us."
The Sonics, still breathing, responded with a 107-86 victory in Game 4.
"We kept reminding our players during the two days off that the Sonics were no slouch, that they got here by playing hard," Jackson said. "Physically, we just didn't meet the intensity they brought to the court."
Kemp, who had a stellar series, posted 25 points and 11 rebounds and finally got some help from his teammates. Payton notched 21 points and 11 assists, Hersey Hawkins scored 18 points, Sam Perkins added 17 off the bench and Detlef Schrempf had 14. Nate McMillan, who hadn't played since the first half of Game 1 because of nerve damage in his lower back, contributed eight points in 14 minutes.
"I don't know if you want to call this vindication," Hawkins said, "but we played with a lot of heart, with a lot of desire. I think you finally saw the way the Sonics are capable of playing basketball."
Seattle stretched the series even longer with an 89-78 victory in Game 5. The Sonics fed off an aggressive defense, the brilliance of Kemp and Payton, and the emotion of a maniacal sellout crowd to earn a surprising trip back to Chicago.
"We feel great," said Payton, who had 23 points, nine rebounds and six assists in addition to a solid defensive effort on Jordan. "We knew we could play with this team. It just took too long. We should have come with this a little earlier."
After losing just one game all season by double digits, the Bulls lost consecutive games in Seattle by 21 and 11 points. Chicago shot just 37.7 percent from the field in Game 5 and was a paralyzing 3-for-36 from three-point range. Jordan scored just nine of his 26 points in the second half -- Seattle was more aggressive in double-teaming him -- and his teammates didn't pick up the offensive slack.
"Well, we've got a series now," Jackson said. "We're ready to go back to Chicago and take them on."
No one was more ready than Rodman. Jordan was MVP for the series, but he wasn't MVP for the final game. That distinction belonged to the Bulls' power forward.
Rodman was at his obnoxious best in Game 6, finishing with 19 rebounds (11 on offense), nine points and five assists. Rodman drew offensive fouls on Kemp and incited a crowd of 24,544 at United Center to its most deafening moments of the evening.
The final: Chicago 87, Seattle 75.
"As you evaluate the series, Dennis Rodman won two basketball games," Karl said. "We controlled Dennis Rodman for four gmaes. But Game 2 and tonight, he was the reason they were successful."
Rodman was the central figure in the burst that gave the Bulls control of the game. The Sonics trailed 52-45 with less than nine minutes left in the third quarter. Chicago went on a 12-2 run over the next two minutes to take a 64-47 lead with 6:41 remaining in the period. Rodman had five points in the run, capping the surge with a perfect backdoor pass to Jordan for a layup.
"It makes the game of basketball worthwhile for me," Rodman said of his impact on the series. "The last four years have pretty much been hell for me. It's been a transition. People have said I'm disruptive, I'm this, I'm that. I came back and proved everbody wrong."
The Bulls, meanwhile, proved they were one of the best teams of all time. "It's a new standard for NBA teams," Jackson said. "This team established a new level of play, and it's something all teams will have to chase."