Oh, how we remember so well.
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CHICAGO—20 years ago, I had a lot more hair, a lot less weight and the Chicago Bulls began a journey that would see them win six NBA championships in eight seasons during the decade of the 1990s.
When I walked into the aging and decrepit Chicago Stadium early in the 1990-91 season, the buzz was unmistakable: This was the start of something magical.
You could feel it in the way the fans cheered, the players reacted and the building rocked and rolled like a tidal wave was ready to engulf it.
I was working at USA Today as a sportswriter and kept receiving increasing assignments to cover the Bulls that season from the paper’s NBA editors and assignment desk—assignments that kept increasing in number as the Bulls’ success equally increased.
Who knew that 1990-91 season would be the precursor of things to come, as the Bulls would go on to win three straight NBA titles, fall back for two seasons when Michael Jordan decided to temporarily take leave, and then go on to another three-peat when MJ returned in all his glory?
While the old barn at 1800 West Madison Street shook for those first three title seasons, the aura and excitement grew exponentially when the “new” Chicago Stadium—which would quickly become known as United Center—opened across the street in 1994.
When MJ came back in 1995-96, the United Center became a world unto its own, displaying a bravado and magical feeling that the Bulls were not to be denied in their house—that winning was the norm, not the option.
Every time I sat at courtside, enwrapped in near-deafening cheers, rants at officials and opposing players and those incredible rallies that Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the rest of the band put together countless times, I knew I wasn’t just part of additional history in the making, I was part of something that myself and many others would likely never see again in their lifetime.
Given the outstanding way Derrick Rose has been playing this season, I’m beginning to wonder if maybe lightning may strike for a third time with the Bulls. Could this, the 20th anniversary of the Bulls’ first of six titles in the 1990s, be the start of yet another domination of the NBA?
Even MJ, when his Charlotte Bobcats were trounced 101-84 at home Wednesday by the Bulls, decried that Derrick Rose should be this season’s NBA MVP.
That’s right, Jordan says Rose is the league’s best player right now—not LeBron James, not Dwight Howard and not even Kobe Bryant.
And even though Rose and Jordan are two entirely different types of players—not to mention physical build, as well—MJ has also commented several times this season that he indeed sees a lot of his old self in the young Rose.
Bulls fans will get to see both the old and new this Saturday when United Center will honor and fondly remember the first championship-winning team with MJ, Pippen, John Paxson, Stacey King and several others slated to take part in what should be a very special half-time celebration and walk down memory lane.
“Of all my six championships, the first one is the one I treasure the most,” Pippen said last fall. “I look forward to getting together with former teammates on March 12 to relive those great moments.”
And what great moments those were, starting with an outstanding 61-21 regular season record, and ending with a five-game domination over the Lakers for the NBA championship. As Queen’s “We Are The Champions” screamed from every radio and TV station in town, the previously hapless—and oftentimes helpless—Bulls were now NBA royalty of the highest order.
Chicago erupted in a way that, believe it or not, was unquestionably bigger and better than when the Bears won the Super Bowl five years earlier. There was no comparison.
Mike Ditka, Jim McMahon, Fridge Perry and Walter Payton may have been the stars of “Da Bears,” but Michael and his so-called Jordanaires took the Windy City to new athletic heights never seen before.
The Cubs hadn’t won a World Series since 1908—in fact, they’re still waiting.
The White Sox hadn’t appeared in a Series since 1959, when the mayor both thrilled and scared the citizenry when he ordered the city’s air defense warning sirens to be sounded in celebration after the White Sox won the AL pennant.
The Blackhawks hadn’t won a Stanley Cup in 30 years at that point.
And then came the Bears of 1985 and Super Bowl XX domination over the New England Patriots.
But nothing compared to the Bulls—a comparison that would continue to grow with each subsequent season and successive NBA crown. They kept on doing what their fellow Windy City brethren in other pro sports couldn’t do by putting together championship runs back-to-back-to-back.
There was one three-peat followed by another three-peat, with a couple of so-so, Jordan-less years in-between. One can only wonder that if MJ had been around for those two seasons, whether the Bulls may have foregone two three-peats for an eight-peat.
Which brings us back to the present time. Saturday will be party time at the UC, with one of the Bulls’ chief foes during their championship years, the Utah Jazz, playing the foe role again.
Twenty years ago, Rose was barely out of diapers, while Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and others were in kindergarten or first grade or such. They grew up wanting to be NBA stars and the Bulls were their inspiration.
Saturday, Jordan and the rest of his cohorts will be on hand to watch Rose, Noah, Boozer (whose status is up in the air due to a ankle injury suffered Wednesday night at Charlotte) and the rest of the potential second coming of the championship Bulls continue their road to winning a seventh Larry O’Brien Trophy for the organization and fans.
I never thought I’d feel it or say it again in my lifetime, but I’m getting that same magical feeling I had in the 1990s.
And if MJ feels that way, too, who am I to argue?
Pick up Jerry Bonkowski’s latest book, “TRADING PAINT — 101 Great NASCAR Debates”, published by Wiley & Sons, at your local bookstore or online at Wiley.com.