Hey kids, Uncky Joel here to tell a tale of yesteryear. Unlike many of you youngin’s with your beanie babies and Picachu for memories, I can recall the first Chicago Bulls Championship run. In fact, I was at a very important play-off game in 1991. The season was the first for the Orlando Magic and the Minnesota Timberwolves. (The Timberwolves franchise has since folded.) The Bulls celebrated their first 60 win season under second-year coach Phil Jackson, who had not yet won a title or banged a boss’s daughter. Chicago had been ousted by the Detroit Pistons the previous three seasons, but this year felt different. Was it the addition of Cliff Levingston? The maturation of BJ Armstrong and future “hot sauce” hawker Stacy King? A prescription change to night vision goggles for Horace Grant? MJ’s rage after dropping two commas at Circus Circus? Scottie Pippen becoming a father… for the fifth time? The answer to all of these questions can not be scientifically proven. What we do know is that the Bulls were more confident and synergistic. The Zen Master’s teachings had been actualized.
In early May of ’91, the Bulls were in round two, just like they are now. My buddy Steve Behl was a tall drink of water with a Hyundai Scoupe and money to burn. He and I were determined to be part of the original Madhouse on Madison. Back in those days, if you didn’t have tickets, you had to call a scalper. They were listed in the classified ads in the newspaper under “Shady Ass Dealings.” With the Bulls up 3-1 coming back from Philadelphia, we secured standing-room scalped tickets to watch MJ and the boyz finish off Charles Barkley and the 76′ers. The 6′ers were solid. Besides Sir Charles, Hersey Hawkins was a deft three-point shooter who beat us in game 3 with a late three. Ex-Bad Boy Rick Mahorn was an interior elbow-throwing presence. And Manute Bol was… hilarious. Exhibit A:
Behl and I got to Chicago Stadium early to settle into a spot that wasn’t obstructed. The old stadium had some terrible vantage points. Hell, I once went to a game where my mezzanine seats were under the first balcony. Every shot disappeared from view on the way up and reappeared on the way down. Standing-room spots were at the top of the second balcony. To get to the balconies, you could only enter at certain gates where you had no access to the lower level. It was the class separation stuff of old luxury liners. The unbearable walk up thousands of steep stairs to that balcony was a vision quest. I think a sherpa offered assistance for 40 rupees. Behl and I hauled ass when the gates opened to perch at an optimum area.
These days, you take intros of starting line-ups for granted. Fireworks, video montage and epic music are standard fare even for a Toledo Mudhens game. But the Bulls revolutionized the spectacle. Before the Jordan years, starting line-ups were straight forward. If you grew up at this time, you remember losing your shit when the house lights went out. Spotlights would whiz around the stadium as the music kicked in and the announcements began. “The Man in the Middle!” growled out by Ray Clay was always my favorite. By the time they got to Jordan, all you could hear in the stadium was, “From North Carolina…” and from there, your brain would rattle from the thunderous cheer.
The game itself was a great battle. The 6′ers were out-classed, but like the Pacers this season, they had an aggressive game plan. Mahorn and Armen Gilliam would foul Jordan hard, while Barkley rumbled to the hoop with determination that I hated to respect. Pippen had a coming out party. Up to this point, he had major mental issues in the play-offs. In this particular game, he scored 28 and unleashed an early second half tomahawk dunk that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
Behl and I set our most lathered up taunts on Barkley. We screamed at him from the furthest reaches of the Madhouse like we were just behind the Philly bench. Whenever he missed a shot or fouled someone, we let loose on the bald nemesis. I don’t remember exacts of the game, but it was back and forth. One thing I do remember is that it was shortly after the LA Riots. There was plenty of racial tension. Steve and I noted how the Bulls game was a place where none of that outside conflict existed. The second balcony was diverse and we were a unified voice. It made me feel that we would get past the current tension.
Late in the game, Jordan took over. He knifed through the Philly D and hit every important jumper and free throw. Hersey Hawkins fouled out, to which we serenaded him with “Hit the Road Jack”, as if Ray Charles was Hersey inquiring “whatchu say” to the officiating crew. As Jordan iced the game with late free throws, we had secured a spot in the Conference Finals to, yet again, play the Pistons. When the final horn sounded, Behl and I jumped up and down high fiving everyone in sight. A large black woman hugged us and said, “We’re winnin’ it this time sweetie”. And she was right. I was a sweetie… aaand the Bulls would win it this time.