An In-Depth Look at the Highs and Lows of the Chicago Bulls Franchise
By Steven Johnson
CHICAGO — The year is 1998.
The world of sports is set on a Chicago Fire.
Not on fire because the Chicago Cubs are competing for a playoff spot and an elusive World Series championship, where Sammy Sosa is also bringing fans back to the game of baseball as he and Mark McGwire homer their way towards history.
Not on fire because of Mike Tyson, the world’s most famous, or infamous, boxer on the planet… who just happens to be getting ready to bump heads with pro wrestling superstar Stone Cold Steve Austin.
The 1990s, up until this point, revolved around one league, one city, one team and the greatest athlete of all-time:
The NBA, the city of Chicago, the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan.
Before the arrival of Jordan, however, the Bulls were miles away from the cultural phenomenon they would end up becoming. The Bulls, at the time, were the definition of a middle of the pack franchise, which needed to grow organically and with time. Several prominent figures, such as Johnny “Red” Kerr, Guy Rodgers, Jerry Sloan and Bob Boozer, helped build the organization from the ground up.
Several NBA legends represented the Bulls franchise until 1984, where their luck changed and the rest was history. Chet Walker, Norm Van Lier, Bob Love, Tom Boerwinkle and head Coach, Dick Motta, were responsible for a lot of the team’s early success in the 1960s and 70s. Those successes included a conference finals berth in 1975 and several 50-win seasons. Interest around the city of Chicago grew for their basketball team, which saw the overall attendance figures increase along with the team’s winning ways.
However, none of these accolades resulted in the ultimate one: an NBA championship. With the team’s championship window closed, Motta was fired and the franchise was sold to The Wirtz Family, the longtime owners of the Bulls current arena-mates, the Chicago Blackhawks. The Wirtz Family, much like their ownership of the Blackhawks before a change in philosophy, put little time and investment into the Bulls franchise.
This era of Bulls basketball, however, saw the emergence of legends such as Artis Gilmore, Reggie Theus, Orlando Woolridge and David Greenwood. Even with the talent on the floor at the time, it did not successfully transfer on to the court. As a result, the Bulls were an afterthought to not only the NBA, but also to the city of Chicago as a whole when it came to its professional sports teams.
Bulls’ fans, players and their franchise were due for some much-needed luck. After all, this was a team who lost out on another “MJ.”
In 1979, Earvin “Magic” Johnson missed out on being a Chicago Bull due to the team losing a coin flip to the Los Angeles Lakers. With no improvement in sight and interest around the league and the city dwindling, The Wirtz Family went as far as looking to move the team from Chicago.
The temporary heartbreak in 1979, however, was worth the five-year wait – culminating in 1984.
The Arrival of Michael Jeffery Jordan
With the third overall pick in the 1984 NBA Draft, the Chicago Bulls selected Michael Jordan.
Jordan, the standout from North Carolina, was here… in Chicago. Jordan’s arrival in Chicago immediately altered the Bulls’ franchise. Playoff appearances, sold out arenas, buzz around the league – all directly as a result of Jordan’s athletic ability and Marketability.
During the late-1980s and into the 1990s, the NBA was all about physicality, rivalries and at least one superstar in every market. The NBA was drastically different from the watered-down version of the league that you see currently. Teams went after each other, night in and night out.
Jordan’s first three seasons with the Bulls were building block seasons. Even though they each resulted in postseason appearances, the Bulls were still mired in mediocrity.
However, during the 1986-87 NBA season, Jordan marveled NBA audiences with an awesome display of athletic ability and overall talent. In 82 games, Jordan averaged 37.1 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 4.6 APG and 2.9 SPG while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field.
The 1986-87 season was the first of eight consecutive seasons where Jordan would lead the NBA in scoring. In an NBA record that stands to this day, Jordan scored 63 points in a playoff game versus the Boston Celtics. Larry Bird, when asked to described the pending phenomenon that was Jordan, famously stated after that game that that was “God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
With Jordan’s talent and will evident, it was now on the Bulls to build properly around their franchise cornerstone.
Enter Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant, who would go on to play invaluable roles on the Bulls future championship teams. The Bulls took another step towards the NBA’s elite and won 50 games while advancing to the Eastern Conference semifinals in 1988. Jordan would go on to win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award, however, the Bulls lost to the Detroit Pistons in five games… setting the stage for one of the most prolific rivalries in NBA history.
No rivalry served as an example of this more than the Bulls-Pistons rivalry. Starting in 1988, Jordan torched the Pistons several times. Standing out were 59-point and 61-point performances, both resulting in Bulls’ victories versus the Pistons. The Pistons head coach, Chuck Daly, vowed that Jordan would never dominate his team like that again.
The “Bad Boys” implemented a physical style of play when it came to stopping Jordan. Famously called “The Jordan Rules,”which consisted of double-teaming, and sometimes triple-teaming him every time he touched the basketball.
Daly stated, “If Michael was at the point, we forced him left and doubled him. If he was on the left wing, we went immediately to a double team from the top. If he was on the right wing, we went to a slow double team. He could hurt you equally from either wing—hell, he could hurt you from the hot-dog stand—but we just wanted to vary the look. And if he was on the box, we doubled with a big guy.”
“The other rule was, any time he went by you, you had to nail him. If he was coming off a screen, nail him. We didn’t want to be dirty—I know some people thought we were—but we had to make contact and be very physical.”
The initial implementation of the strategy worked. The Pistons eliminated the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals for three consecutive seasons. To the Bulls and Jordan’s credit, the team came together to leave no doubt that the Bulls were the better team and would get over the Detroit roadblock.
Jordan went as far as developing a specialized strength and conditioning program with well-renowned trainer, Tim Grover. The program would transform Jordan’s body to better absorb the physical and mental punishment thrown at him by not only the Pistons, but by the rest of the league. During the 1990-91 season, Jordan and the Bulls were finally able to overcome the Pistons – resulting in a four-game sweep in the Eastern Conference Finals.
“Bad Boys” to the very end, the Pistons walked off the court after losing to the Bulls, refusing to shake hands or congratulate the new kings of the Eastern Conference. With no time to celebrate, it was on to the NBA Finals, where the Bulls – and Jordan, would be competing for their first NBA Championship.
It was Chicago versus Los Angeles in a star-studded NBA Finals matchup. Jordan, Pippen and the Bulls took on Magic Johnson, James Worthy and the Lakers. The Bulls first NBA Finals appearance came full-circle as they squared off with the player they missed out on due to a coin toss. In his first NBA Finals appearance, Jordan averaged 31.2 PPG on 56% shooting, 11.4 APG, 6.6 RPG, 2.8 SPG and 1.4 BPG.
Jordan also won his first NBA Finals MVP Award, and in an iconic image, cried while holding his and the Bulls’ first NBA championship trophy.
The first title began one of, if not the most, dominant runs in professional sports. Jordan and the Bulls would go on to win two more consecutive titles, resulting in the team’s first “three-peat.”
Jordan’s individual dominance also continued, as he became the first player in NBA history to win three straight Finals MVP awards. With the third championship in the books, Jordan’s seven-year run included seven scoring titles and three championships.
Dan Vega, the Bulls producer for NBC Sports Chicago, remembers the time he had being a young fan of the Bulls dynasty.
“To quote the great Bill Walton ‘What a time to be alive!’” he said.
“I was 14 years old when the Bulls won their first title in 1991 and it was like something I’ve never experienced before, because at the time I had never really been a part of championship season. The Bears won in ‘85 when I was just 8 years old so I had very distant memories of that.”
“But the Bulls of the 90s were their own animal. At the time everyone knew they were great and Michael was obviously the greatest and most popular person on the planet, but I don’t think we knew at the time the cultural significance that team would still have on us today. I don’t think we fully grasped how great Jordan really was and basically still is.”
“As a Chicago teenager in the 90s, the Bulls were must see television. You scheduled your days around the playoffs, and as a teenager that’s a lot to ask, but we did. We held backyard cook outs during the games, with everybody wearing their Jordan gear and dragged heavy tube TVs outside so we could watch the games. For roughly 10 years of my life, the beginning of my summer revolved around Bulls playoff basketball.”
With the Bulls being the most popular professional sports team in all of sports, business was booming. The NBA was setting ratings records, and globally their impact was equally impressive.
“Covering the champion Bulls was a privilege and a challenge at the same time,” said Mark Schanowski, currently the Bulls’ Pre and Postgame Show Host for NBC Sports Chicago.
“I had a court side view of some of the best basketball in the history of the NBA, led by arguably the greatest player of all time in Michael Jordan. You never knew when you would see something spectacular from MJ. I remember one time I was assigned to cover a meaningless Saturday night game against the Nets and Jordan made one of the most spectacular double pump, twisting reverse lay-up I had ever seen.”
“Being the youngest guy on the sports staff at Channel 7, I was in the studio while Tim Weigel and Jim Rose covered the championship runs, but I did get to go to Phoenix for Game 6 in 1993 when John Paxson’s 3-pointer gave the Bulls their third title. One of the interviews I did after the game was with Michael Jordan’s dad, James, who was tragically murdered weeks later in North Carolina.”
A Break from the Dominance – “I’m Back”
As Schanowski mentioned, Jordan’s father was tragically murdered weeks after the first “three-peat.” The murder took a tremendous toll on Jordan, who had already began to tire from the fame and notoriety brought on by his athletic gifts and the Bulls’ dominance.
On October 6, 1993 – Michael Jordan announced his intention to retire from the game of basketball. While mentioning that he did not have the desire to continue playing the game that he loved and mastered, he ultimately admitted that his father’s death helped make the decision. Jordan’s father was a big fan of the game of baseball, which helped influence Jordan’s next career path.
The following February, in 1994, Jordan signed a minor league contract to play baseball for the Chicago White Sox. What made the transition smoother was the fact that Jerry Reinsdorf, the current owner of the Bulls, also owned the White Sox.
Despite Jordan’s fame and stature, he insisted on earning his spot in baseball – paying his dues in the minor league system. In November 1994, the Bulls retired Jordan’s famed number 23 jerseys – and erected a statue of his likeness outside of the United Center, more popularly known as “The Spirit.”
While the Bulls were a respectable team in Jordan’s absence, going 55-27 for the 1993-94 season, the allure and aura of the Jordan-led teams was just not there. In 1995, with the Bulls hovering around the .500 mark, Jordan announced his intentions to return to the NBA through a two-word press release: “I’m Back.”
Jordan would don the Bulls uniform again, wearing number 45, the very next night and scored 19 points in his official NBA return. According to the Journal Labor of Economics, the game had the highest Nielsen rating ofa regular season NBA game since 1975 – further solidifying Jordan and the Bulls’ global impact on the game of basketball.
Although Jordan took an extended break from the game, flashes of his dominance were still present upon his return.
The “Double Nickel” game, where he scored 55 points against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, is a famous example. However, with the Bulls securing a spot in the postseason thanks to Jordan’s return, an upstart Orlando Magic team that included Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway eliminated them in the 1995 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Jordan, for his part, averaged 31 points per game in the series. A fierce competitor on and off the court, Jordan trained relentlessly to be prepared for next season – which was bad news for every team in the league.
“Jordan’s competitiveness made him stand out from just about every other professional athlete I covered,” Schanowski continues.
“He wanted to win at EVERYTHING, whether it was a free throw contest after practice, cards, golf, ping pong, Jordan just HAD to win. Plus, he never cheated the game. He played in almost every regular season and pre-season game, knowing for some fans it would be their only chance to see him play in person.”
“And, once the Bulls got to the playoffs, he simply refused to let his team lose, as evidenced by his perfect 6-0 record in the Finals.”
The Second “Three-Peat”
Jordan, motivated by the Bulls’ postseason shortcomings, arrived for the 1995-96 season ready to dominate. The Bulls also beefed up the defense and personality of the team when they signed long-time rival and future Hall of Famer, Dennis Rodman. The “big three” of Jordan, Pippen and Rodman continue to be regarded as one of the most formidable trios in NBA history.
The Bulls, energized by a focused Jordan, went on to complete the season with a then record breaking 72-10 mark. This record stood until the 2015-16 season when the Golden State Warriors, coached by Steve Kerr ironically, finished the season with a 73-9 record.
Jordan, again, finished as the NBA’s top scorer that season – averaging 30.4 PPG and taking home the regular season and All-Star Game Most Valuable Player awards. Jordan, the centerpiece of the Bulls first three championships, was back – and in prime form.
The Bulls finished their 1995-96 postseason run with a 15-3 record, culminating with their defeat of the Seattle Supersonics. Jordan and the Bulls brought the city of Chicago its fourth NBA championship, while Jordan won his record-setting fourth NBA Finals MVP award.
While he surpassed Magic Johnson’s three Finals MVP awards, he also achieved only the second sweep of the MVP Awards in the All-Star Game, regular season and NBA Finals, with Willis Reed being the one who achieved the first, during the 1969-70 NBA season.
The icing on the cake, however, was the fact that Jordan and the Bulls won their fourth NBA championship on Father’s Day. Being his first NBA championship without his father there to witness it, Jordan broke down and reacted emotionally to his title win.
Jordan and the Bulls had officially come full circle. The team and franchise were back to where they belonged – on top of the NBA and around the world.
Adam Howes, an NBA historian and fan hailing from Australia, touched on the global impact that Jordan and the Bulls had.
“Once upon a time, NBA coverage and access was quite limited here. There was no cable television, the print media gave the sport nothing and if you were extremely lucky, you might get a tape delayed game once a week (think Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics),” Howes said.
“Then Michael Jordan came along (and eventually so did cable). Coverage was still somewhat limited, but with his star rising at a rapid rate and his great feats on the court being more readily available, it helped bring change on that front.”
“The trickle down effect was the sport was also growing at a grass roots level here, as well as Australia’s own professional league the NBL began to flourish. If you were a Bulls fan here in Australia in the early ’90s, it was solely because of MJ. Anyone who says otherwise is telling lies.”
Jordan and the Bulls were back to being that local and global juggernaut. In 1996, Jordan, alongside Bugs Bunny, starred in the animated, family-friendly classic: Space Jam, which continued to expose Jordan and the NBA to generations of fans both young and old.
During the 1996-97 season, Jordan and the Bulls also continued their dominance on the court, finishing with a 69-13 record – narrowly missing out on their second consecutive 70-win season. Jordan, however, individually lost out on the Most Valuable Player award to Karl Malone of the Utah Jazz. The Bulls would eventually face Malone and the Jazz in the 1997 NBA Finals. The series is notable for being the catalyst to two of the most memorable moments of Jordan’s career.
In Game 1 of the series, Jordan and the Bulls knocked off the Jazz thanks to another game-winning, buzzer beating jump shot by Jordan. In Game 5, with the series tied 2-2, Jordan would give perhaps the most famous performance of his career.
“The Flu Game,” depending on whom you ask or wish to believe, saw Jordan – while battling an illness, score 38 points and hit the game winning 3-pointer to give the Bulls a pivotal Game 5 win. Jordan and the Bulls would go on to win their fifth NBA championship, with Jordan winning the Finals MVP award for an unprecedented fifth time. With another ring and Finals MVP award, Jordan continued to make his case as the greatest player who ever lived.
The Last Dance
Speculation ran rampant about the future of the team after the 1997-98 season. The Bulls, who had won five championships in as many appearances in the Finals under head coach Phil Jackson, now faced a cloud of uncertainty.
With tensions between the front office and the players and coaches rising, Jackson famously coined the 97-98 season as “The Last Dance.”
Jordan and the Bulls, while aging, were still the most formidable team in the NBA. As evidenced by their 62-20 record for the 1997-98 season, all roads still went through Chicago if your team hoped to win an NBA championship. Jordan, whose own basketball future was also up in the air, went out of his way to make sure the Bulls went a perfect six for six when it came to NBA Finals appearances.
The Bulls, while still dominant, showed cracks in the shield during the final postseason run of the dynasty. First, they survived the Reggie Miller-led Indiana Pacers, dispatching the team in seven games to win another Eastern Conference championship. Awaiting the Bulls was a rematch with Malone and the Jazz, where Jordan saved his best performance for last.
The Bulls, up 3-2 in the NBA Finals, looked to close out the Jazz on their home court in Game 6. Trailing 86-83 with only 40+ seconds left in the game, Jordan demonstrated why he is indeed considered the greatest basketball player of all-time. First, Jordan turned the tide of the game with his defense – stealing the ball from Malone who was trying to post up Rodman.
Jordan and the Bulls, now in possession of the basketball, were still down 86-85. Jordan, known for his assassin’s mentality and clutch genes, calmly walked down the court and set up his defender, Bryon Russell. With just 10 seconds left in the game, Jordan went right and then crossed over to his left, shaking free of Russell’s defense – whether he pushed off or not is still debated till this very day. And then, just like that, “The Shot” was completed.
Jordan’s final clutch moment in a Bulls uniform sealed their sixth and most recent NBA championship. The jump shot also clinched the second “three-peat” in Chicago Bulls history. Jordan, again, won NBA Finals MVP for the sixth time and averaged 33.5 PPG for the entire series. The six Finals MVPs won by Jordan remain a record – a true testament to just how dominant and how imposing his will was on other teams.
“The Last Dance” was complete, and Chicago once again faced an uncertain future when it came to its professional basketball team. However, it was an eight-year run that left a lasting impression on not only Chicago, but also the professional sports world as a whole – something that a casual or die-hard sports fan may never witness again.
Schanowski offered his thoughts on what covering the Bulls dynasty, specifically “The Last Dance,” meant to Chicago, the media and the fans.
“The challenge in covering the champion Bulls involved the players and coaches growing tired of all the media coverage the dynasty commanded,” he said.
“Getting anyone to agree to interviews after practices became more and more difficult, and the players and coaches rarely offered any meaningful insight into the historic run they were on. During the 2nd 3-peat, the Dennis Rodman circus became drudgery to cover on a daily basis, and the 1997-‘98 season known as the “last dance” was tinged with sadness knowing the team was going to be broken up no matter how the season ended.”
Will we ever see anything like the Bulls dynasty ever again?
“Maybe not 6 championships in 8 years,” Schanowski said. “But the Warriors are going for 4 in 5, with many of the same ego driven issues that I witnessed during the Bulls’ 2nd 3-peat. With Kevin Durant expected to leave in free agency after this season, it could be the “last dance” for the Warriors’ dynasty as well.”
Howes, speaking for fans from a global perspective, also went on to state that “after that first championship they were popular, when they went back to back their profile was higher, but when the Dream Team headed to Barcelona for the ’92 Olympics it only further grew their popularity and profiles, as it did for the other guys on that squad.”
“By the third title the NBA was at full peak here (in Australia). When Shaq came along he was also a really big deal here. Then MJ retired and things fell apart. The sport waned in popularity; the NBL struggled greatly and eventually almost folded. As a result, the media spotlight on the sport also greatly dipped.”
Back to the Drawing Board
With that, the destruction and eventual rebuilding of the Bulls began. Jackson was not retained as head coach. Pippen and Rodman, as well as several key role players, departed. The NBA was also in the midst of another costly lockout. Jordan, for his part, retired for a second time in 1999 – opting to not be a part of another rebuilding process, the same process he lifted the Bulls from upon his arrival in 1984.
The Bulls franchise had officially arrived back to hard times. Their general manager, Jerry Krause, felt the Bulls were aging and opted to rebuild through the NBA Draft, while purging the roster of his highest paid players – including Pippen, Luc Longley and Kerr. Krause also hired Tim Floyd, Iowa State’s then-head coach, to replace Jackson after a successful run at the collegiate level.
“The Bulls made a mistake by tearing down that 1997-98 team and starting a complete rebuild,”Schanowski said.
“Those early Tim Floyd teams were some of the worst in the history of the league, and going from unbeatable dynasty to laughingstock was a tough pill to swallow for loyal Bulls’ fans. Initially, several free agents the Bulls were interested in quickly rebuffed their recruiting efforts, not wanting to take on the pressure of following in Jordan’s footprints in Chicago.”
Led by Toni Kukoc, one of the few remaining remnants of the Bulls’ dynasty, the team won only 13 games during the lockout-shortened season in 1999. During the rebuild, the trend of the Bulls constantly missing on big-name free agents began to develop, with superstars such as Tim Duncan, Tracy McGrady and Grant Hill spurning their offers.
Several of the Bulls draft picks, such as Tyson Chandler, Ron Artestand Jamal Crawfordwould all go on to find success in the NBA after they had moved on from the Bulls. The rebuild of the Bulls continued for a five-year period, leading to Krause’s retirement in 2003.
Paxson, a key figure for the Bulls during their first “three-peat,” took over for Krause as the general manager and began to leave his imprint on the proud franchise that became a laughingstock in the NBA since the final title in 1998.
The Baby Bulls Arrive
In 2003, with Paxson at the helm, the Bulls entered the 2003 Draft with the seventh overall pick. In a draft that featured future Hall of Famers, MVPs and champions, the Bulls – by the stroke of unfortunate luck and deja vu, missed out on LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh.
The Bulls, however, settled on Kirk Hinrich who would go on to be one of more productive players in Bulls franchise history. In 2004, the Bulls drafted Ben Gordon, Luol Deng and Chris Duhon. The three players were instrumental in ushering in the “Baby Bulls” era and with the addition of free agent, Andres Nocioni, the Bulls made the playoffs in 2005 for the first time since Jordan’s last season with the Bulls.
The postseason berth started a trend of three consecutive postseason appearances. However, during this stretch, Paxson and the franchise were criticized for not being able to land a big-name player of free agent to take the Bulls young core over the top. Most famously, the failed pursuit and trade of Lakers superstar and legend, Kobe Bryant, separated the Bulls from being just a perennial playoff contender and a title contender.
The Bulls pursued other star players, such as Kevin Garnett and Pau Gasol, to no avail. In fact, the one splash the Bulls made in free agency during that time was the signing of another Detroit rival – four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Ben Wallace. While successful in the short term – the Bulls went 49-33 in Wallace’s first full season with the team; doubt remained whether the Bulls could seriously contend for an NBA championship again.
Those doubts were confirmed when, during the following season, the Bulls traded Wallace to the Cavaliers and missed the playoffs for the 2007-08 season. The Bulls finished the season with a 33-49 record, with the few positives being the selection of Joakim Noah in the 2007 Draft, and in a rare stroke of luck, acquiring the number one overall pick for the 2008 NBA Draft.
Kiss From a Rose
In 2008, with a 1.7 percent chance of drafting first overall, the Bulls secured the number one pick. With that pick, the franchise selected Chicago’s very own – Derrick Rose.
Rose, a standout player from Simeon Career Academy, lead his high school to a 120-12 record whenever he was on the floor. Rose also led Simeon to two straight state championships, becoming the first Chicago Public League School to do so. Rose also led his alma mater, the University of Memphis, to an NCAA Championship game appearance.
The arrival of Rose breathed new air into a franchise and its fan base, which were mired in mediocrity since the departure of Jordan.
Rose would go on to become the third player in franchise history to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award, joining Jordan and Elton Brand. He also represented the Bulls well during the 2009 NBA All-Star Weekend, winning the NBA Skills Challenge.
Rose finished the 2008-09 campaign with averages of 16.8 PPG on 47.5 percent shooting, 6.3 APG – which led all rookies, and 3.9 RPG earning himself a spot on the NBA All-Rookie First Team.
More important than the individual accolades, Rose led the Bulls back to the playoffs for a first-round matchup against the then-NBA Champion Celtics – mirroring the same task Jordan was dealt with as a young Bull.
In Rose’s first career NBA postseason game, he scored 36 points – tying Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’sNBA record for most points scored by a rookie in his debut playoff game. Rose also dished out 11 assists that game and became the second player in NBA history to record 35 points and 10 assists in his playoff debut, after Chris Paul. Most importantly, the Bulls took the Game 1 victory, 105-103, in overtime.
The Bulls would eventually fall to the Celtics in seven games, but not before Rose had left his mark on the series and the NBA. Led by Rose, the Bulls were in the midst of resurgence, not seen since the glory days of Jordan and the six NBA championships. The eyes of the basketball world were again on Chicago, and led by the flash of Rose, the grittiness of Noah and the fundamentals of Deng — the Bulls were once again a desired spot to chase NBA greatness.
Ed Johnson, a South Side Chicago resident, said that “watching and rooting for Derrick Rose as a Bulls fan meant a great deal to me. Not only was he a humble kid but a humble kid who grew up on the Southside of Chicago, right down the street from where I grew up.”
In 2010, after the Bulls lost out on the services of James, Wade and Bosh once again after the trio decided to team up in Miami, the Bulls – led by Rose, pulled themselves together and set out to prove that they did not need any of the three stars.
“Why Can’t I Be MVP?”
Rose declared, which became the rallying cry for a gritty, defense-oriented 2010-11 Chicago Bulls team. Orchestrated by Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls went out and signed All-Stars Carlos Boozer and Kyle Korver and added role players such as C.J. Watson, Ronnie Brewer and Omer Asik.
Rose was a man on a mission. His progression was natural – winning the Rookie of the Year award and the Skills Challenge during his rookie season, and becoming an All-Star for the first time in his career during his sophomore season. Rose also won a gold medal during the FIBA World Cup in 2010, further developing his game against the best players the world had to offer.
Rose marveled and impressed various fans and players around the world on a nightly basis. Triple-doubles, 40-point efforts, beating the Miami Heat and the rest of the Eastern Conference contenders, as well as contenders from the Western Conference – Rose backed up his declaration asking why he could not be considered to win the Most Valuable Player Award.
In the end, Rose led the Bulls to a 62-20 record – the best record in the NBA that season. The Bulls 60+ wins were the Bulls’ first such season since the 1997-98 season and sixth 60+ win in franchise history. Rose did not stop there, becoming only the third player since the 1972-73 season to record 2,000 points and 600 assists in a single season. The other two players were Jordan and LeBron.
On May 3, 2011 – Rose’s declaration came full circle when he won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award.
In addition to the honor, he became the youngest player to win the MVP award since Wes Unseld during the 1968-69 season.
“As a 14 year old kid working my first job at Murray Park where Derrick would play as a kid, seeing him become the youngest MVP in NBA history was pretty cool,” Johnson said.
While the Bulls had surpassed the expectations of many during the 2010-11 season, Rose had the daunting task of leading his team against the super team of the Heat consisting of James, Wade and Bosh. The Bulls fell to the Heat 4-1 in the Eastern Conference Finals, the closest the Bulls have sniffed an NBA Finals appearance since Jordan’s final season with the team. A throwback to how Jordan had to fight and claw against the tough Celtics and Pistons teams in the beginning of his career, Rose seemed primed to lead the Bulls on a similar journey.
In 2012, after the signing of another All-Star and Detroit rival – Richard “Rip” Hamilton, the Bulls seemed primed to win their first NBA Championship since 1998. Rose, after making his third All-Star team and earning First Team all-NBA honors, was once again the driving force behind a 50-win Bulls team.
Rose had also signed a contract extension to remain in Chicago, extinguishing any fears that he would leave his hometown team to ring chase somewhere else. However, much like the lockout-shortened season that saw Jordan say goodbye to the Bulls, this lockout-shortened season saw the Bulls say goodbye to their championship window.
During Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Philadelphia 76ers, Rose tore his ACL. Just like that, the Bulls championship hopes were dashed and Rose would begin a long road to recovery – fearing he would never be the same player he once was.
The Rose injury and the timing of it could not be more unfortunate for the Bulls and its fan base. The hope that Rose brought, whether it was to the city as a whole, or to a kid from the South Side of Chicago with similar hoop dreams – was gone in a Chicago split second.
Christian Dorsey, a resident of the South Side of Chicago, spoke fondly of the memories and hope that Derrick gave the city.
“Derrick brought basketball for me back in general even before he hit the floor for the Bulls,” he said.
“I was always a basketball fan but didn’t have a team after MJ retired. It was December 10, 2005 and my college roommate who is also a huge basketball fan and I decided to go check out this D. Rose guy at North Park University against Von Steuben. From the layup line, he and I were in amazement and knew we were looking at something never seen before.”
When Rose went down with the ACL injury, Dorsey shared the same views that many Chicago basketball fans had.
“Those Bulls teams were the most relevant since MJ because they had the Bulls best player since MJ,”he said. “A superstar at 22 years old, going head to head with the titans LeBron and Wade. There was so much promise and that ACL injury just changed it all — but that was the most fun I’d ever have watching basketball.”
Derrick Young, another resident of the South Side of Chicago, echoed Dorsey’s sentiments.
“Personally, I think me and many others who grew up not only on the South Side of Chicago, but inner city Chicago — whether South, East, North, or West grew attached to Derrick so heavily because he was living out the dream of many of us,” he said.
“Imagine watching a kid from your city you have been watching play since 7-8th grade, get drafted by your hometown team and because a superstar by his third season and literally give the city hope they hadn’t had since Jordan.”
When Rose went down with the ACL injury, the Bulls most recent championship window was effectively shut. Rose, to his credit, tried to return from the injury two separate times – but his knees kept betraying him. The franchise star tore his meniscus twice and never regained his MVP form. A tragic tale for the city of Chicago, another instance of bad luck for the Bulls and an end to the love affair the city once had with Rose.
Since then, the point guard has become a polarizing topic for Bulls fans – although his die-hard supporters have not wavered.
“He was relatable and people gravitate to that,” said Dorsey. “He also has been so philanthropic giving back to the city even without the fanfare or publicity.”
“Even after the ACL Injury, he still gave the city hope,” said Young.
“Derrick’s time with the Bulls was some of the greatest moments we’ve had here in Chicago because he was one of us. His passion, toughness and determination was one that only those from Chicago could appreciate,” Johnson said.
“Although his rise was brief here, it will remain one of the greatest moments that I have ever been a part of in the rich history of Chicago sports.”
In Rose’s absence, Noah and Deng stepped up to become the faces of the franchise. Noah, to his credit, embodied the heart and soul of the Bulls. During the 2013-14 season, Noah would go on to earn another All-Star selection, in addition to making the NBA all-Defensive First Team. Noah also took home the Defensive Player of the Year award – the first Bull to do so since Jordan, and made the all-NBA First Team – the first to do so since Rose.
Most impressively, Noah finished third in voting for the Most Valuable Player Award. However, the Bulls never recaptured the form of the 62-win team when another championship seemed certain. The farthest the Bulls would advance in the playoffs post-Rose’s injury was the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Thibodeau was eventually dismissed in 2015, Rose was traded to the Knicks in 2016 and Noah also departed for the Knicks in free agency. Just like that, the Bulls were mired in mediocrity again.
Where Do They Go From Here?
After the demolition of the Rose era, the Bulls handed Jimmy Butler the keys to the kingdom. Butler, a multi-time All-Star and all-Defense Team member, was the young star the Bulls hoped to build around.
In addition to Butler, the Bulls added veteran, former All-Star and NBA Champion: Rajon Rondo, to replace Rose. However, the Bulls also attempted to replace the local presence of Rose – and signed hometown native, three-time NBA Champion and future Hall of Famer: Dwyane Wade.
In the latest attempt to stay relevant, the Bulls suffered from in fighting, mediocre play and waning interest – even with the additions of Wade and Rondo. The Bulls struggled to a 41-41 record, making the playoffs as an eighth seed. After taking a surprising 2-0 lead in a first round matchup versus the Celtics, a Rondo injury would be the deathblow to any miraculous postseason run the Bulls could make.
After one season, Butler was traded to the Timberwolves for Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn. Rondo was waived and Wade was bought out. Another rebuilding era was underway for the Bulls.
While the future is something to look forward to with the team, the Bulls fans deserve better. They deserve to be able to relive the glory days of Michael and Scottie. Chicago is a city that deserves it. Are John Paxson and Gar Forman the guys to get the job done? Will Markkanen and LaVine turn into star players? Can the Bulls finallyattract a big name free agent to join their core of young talent?
“Since Derrick was traded, has their been any hope that the bulls was going to win the championship?” Young asked fairly.
“They’re still a long way from thinking about hanging a seventh championship banner at the United Center, but at least there’s a degree of hope again,” Schanowski said.
“The Bulls have cap space to add a couple quality veterans to their bench unit, and should get another key contributor in the draft. But it will take a few successful seasons to completely win back a fan base that has grown increasingly apathetic in the wake of the Bulls’ struggles to stay relevant following Rose’s knee injuries.”
“And, speaking of Rose, don’t be shocked if he winds up coming back to represent the city he loves next season. Wouldn’t that be a story if Derrick comes back to Chicago and helps the Bulls rejoin the ranks of NBA championship contenders?”
Bulls fans – you (we) deserve better… and hopefully, you will be rewarded.