Winners make history, right? And thanks to the hunger for everything that looks like new sports equipment, we’ve seen a classic example in the past five weeks: ESPN’s 10-part documentary about the Chicago Bulls dynasty from the 90s, mainly seen through the eyes of Michael Jordan and with his approval.
But what about the players and coaches who had to pick up the pieces after the big top came down and the headliners dispersed?
The Bulls of 1998-99 had what turned out to be an impossible task, made more complicated by the fact that an exclusion from financial difficulties did not even allow them to assemble as a unit until January 1999.
Those Bulls – the Slap-a-Bulls? The Crush-a-Bulls? You give the description – were 13-37 in a shortened season, with new coach Tim Floyd trying to guide a rebuild and general manager Jerry Krause got a lot of anti-aircraft fire for not allowing the holdovers to come back and pursue a seventh title to hunt. (Whether that was a difficult and quick decision in the end was one of the many questions asked by “The Last Dance,” and Krause, who died in 2017, is not there to give his side.)
The ’98 -99 roster had some well-known names: Ron Harper (pre-Lakers), Brent Barry (post-Clippers), Toni Kukoc, and Bill Wennington (post-trio). There were also Dickey Simpkins, a roster filler in those champion teams; Mark Bryant, a big man who was already a 10-year NBA veteran; and Corey Benjamin, the first round of the Bulls in the 1998 draft from Oregon State).
But this was a real rebuild, with Krause determined to use lottery picks and free agents to get back to the top. As has often been seen – as we are so familiar with the Lakers from the 2010s – it is much easier said than done. In this case, the free agents weren’t lured to Chicago, and the only lottery pick that actually became a star did as a Clipper, Elton Brand (No. 1 in 1999 in total, traded for Tyson Chandler a year later).
In the 22 seasons since that last championship, Chicago has missed the playoffs 10 times (and probably this season if and when it resumes), passed the first round four times, and went through nine coaches.
The Bulls’ 1999 talent shortage was evident, and that season came to light night after night.
“We would play in almost every game at half-time,” recalls Jim Wooldridge, now the outgoing athletic director at Riverside City College, but one of Floyd’s assistants at the time. “We’d be there. And we’d be in the third quarter and everything rocks along, pretty good shape. And then that fourth quarter hit, and boom! The other team kicked into gear and please. And we played on our highest level.
Tim had them play hard and collectively and all that. But we just didn’t have the talent. ”
Wooldridge was then a 48-year-old who had spent 13 seasons as the university’s head coach, the previous four at Louisiana Tech, where both he and Floyd had played. Floyd, then in the state of Iowa (and later with USC and Texas-El Paso), was the obvious coach-in-waiting in Chicago when Jackson’s tenure played and when Krause made it official, Floyd asked his longtime teammate and friend to come along for the ride.
The coaching staff also included three acquisitions of the staff from Jackson – Bill Cartwright, Frank Hamblen and most notably Tex Winter, the guru of the triangle attack. Krause believed in the triangle almost as much as Winter did, and Wooldridge’s assignment was to take as much knowledge as possible from Winter to where he could learn it himself.
Wooldridge eventually did this when he left the Bulls to become Kansas State head coach in 2000, saying he used it for five of his six seasons there. And to show that this really is a small world, Winter – who had coached Kansas State himself – occasionally paid a visit to Manhattan, Kan., For makeshift clinics.
“I used to – I know I probably still have them here – had volumes of notebooks,” said Wooldridge.
He recalled that the coaching staff, Krause and some of the team’s scouts visited a number of NAIA programs for one-week clinics in the summer of 1998 to avoid the offense. familiarize yourself with teaching while the little college players learned it.
That was probably just as good because there were no NBA players available to teach for months. The league closed on July 1 in a dispute over salary limit adjustments and a proposed cap on player salaries. The lockout lasted 204 days and nearly ended the season before Commissioner David Stern and Players Association director Billy Hunter reached an agreement in early January.
Working with Winter “was an absolute pleasure,” said Wooldridge. “There has never been a coach so dedicated to the game of basketball. He liked basketball. He had an incredible vision of how to play the game, and it was a craft that suited him perfectly. He was a scientist. He was an engineer. He was a thinker, a philosopher. I mean, he had all these things in his head and it made his way into the basketball game.
“That triangle attack, he preceded everything with 10 fundamentals of a noise violation. He started that. And then everything else, you know, came from there … Tex used to say this: everyone has two beats. And if that ball doesn’t move on two counts, you’ve ruined the rhythm of that offense. It is very different from what you see in NBA games nowadays. ”
There were, of course, exceptions. If the Bulls were full, in the final seconds of a tight game, Jordan would tend to take all three sides of the triangle. (In later years, when Tex and Phil joined forces on the Lakers, the same principle applied to Kobe Bryant.)
But Winter sincerely believed that an offense could overcome anything.
“I entered his office one day and this is after the team is assembled and we play again,” said Wooldridge. “And we had a couple of guys who, you know, weren’t Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. We start over and I said,” Coach, man, it looks like we’re going to be in trouble here this year. ”
“And he said,” No Jim, we’ll make it. That violation will cause it. “He really believed that the offense was the center of success.”
Long story short, talent is important. Kukoc (18.8 points), Harper (11.2) and Barry (11.1) were the only double-digit players. Those Bulls were 29th in scoring, 26th in rebounding, 29th in field goal percentage, 27th in three point percentage, averaging 81.9 points per game, scoring only 49 points in a loss to Miami in April. That’s still an NBA record for the fewest points scored in the shot clock era.
But there was this: as horrible as that season and the next couple would be – six consecutive non-playoff seasons – the Bulls led the NBA in presence in ’99 and ’99 -2000 and were top five in three of the next four seasons, A series of sold-out sales that started in 1987 didn’t end until November 2000. Some of those seats were probably filled by fans who weren’t able to get to the United Center during the Jordan years, but it was also a recognition that it the public understood the situation.
“We just didn’t have enough,” said Wooldridge. “That was the transition, and everyone knew it.”
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