Originally published June 17, 1996.
The NBA championship trophy is back in Chicago.
The long, improbable journey back to basketball’s promised land — which began with Michael Jordan’s stunning comeback, was detoured by last season’s playoff failures, righted with a historic regular season and delayed a few days by a couple of last-second potholes — finally is complete.
And once more, the Bulls triumphantly raised the Larry O’Brien Trophy in celebration.
They secured their fourth NBA championship in six years Sunday night with an 87-75 victory against the Seattle SuperSonics in Game 6 of the NBA Finals at the United Center.
“I can’t even put it in words; it’s been a long road,” said Jordan, who was named the most valuable player of the Finals. “I had a lot of support from my teammates and my family. I’m happy for the city of Chicago. I’m sorry I was gone for 18 months, but I’m back now.”
And so was the emotion that Jordan displayed after the Bulls won their first title back in 1991.
As he ran onto the court with his teammates to celebrate after the final buzzer, Jordan grabbed the game ball and dropped to the court as the emotion of the moment overtook him.
A while later, he headed into the locker room by himself and again dropped to his knees, overcome with emotion. As he would say later, the emotion of the moment didn’t allow him to play his best, as he finished with 22 points on 5-for-19 shooting.
“This was probably the hardest time for me to play the game of basketball,” he said. “I had a lot of things on my mind. I had the good fortune of a team that came in and played extremely well.”
Perhaps it was fitting that the clincher came on Father’s Day. The sudden death of Jordan’s father, James Jordan, played a role in Jordan’s sudden retirement and is a reason he ranks this title as perhaps his biggest accomplishment.
“I just had a lot to think about and maybe my mind wasn’t geared the way it (should have been),” he said. “But deep down inside it was geared to what was most important to me: with my family and with my father not being here to see this.
“I’m just happy that the team kind of pulled me through it.”
Like so many of their victories along the way to a record 72 regular-season victories and 15 more in the playoffs, this was a team effort.
Dennis Rodman again was key, grabbing 19 rebounds and tying his own Finals record with 11 offensive rebounds (previously set in Game 2). He helped the Bulls to a 51-35 rebounding edge and chipped in nine points and five assists.
“Dennis Rodman won them two basketball games,” Sonics coach George Karl said. “We controlled him for four games, but he won Game 2 and tonight for them.”
There were other contributors, starting with Scottie Pippen, who rebounded from his struggles in Games 4 and 5 for 17 points, eight rebounds and four steals.
Center Luc Longley had 12 points and eight rebounds, and Toni Kukoc had 10 points, including two key three-pointers in the fourth quarter.
And perhaps the most vital contributions came from guard Ron Harper, who shrugged off the pain from a left knee injury to play 38 minutes. Harper had 10 points, but more importantly he was able to play strong defense and helped the Bulls force 20 turnovers.
“We were fortunate that Ron Harper, through all the mysterious ailments with his knee, was able to go,” Bulls coach Phil Jackson said. “I thought his defense was really a sparkplug and a key to the game.”
Said Harper: “When I told my boys I was playing, we knew it was over.”
Even though the Bulls had an opportunity to wrap up the series the last two games in Seattle, they really didn’t have a sense of desperation in either game. In the back of their minds, they knew they had the comfort of playing the last two games at home.
Spurred on by what clearly was the loudest crowd in the brief history of the United Center, the Bulls quickly jumped out and never relinquished control of the game.
They led 45-38 at halftime and stretched the advantage to 64-47 midway through the third quarter. The Sonics, behind Detlef Schrempf (game-high 23 points), Shawn Kemp (18 points and 14 points) and Gary Payton (19 points) rallied within 67-58 heading into the fourth.
They never were able to mount a significant rally and lost all hope when Kemp fouled out with four minutes to play.
“We take our hats off to the Bulls. They did a great job and I congratulate them on winning a championship,” Payton said.
“There’s always disappointment,” Kemp said. “There are no second-place winners in this world. We realize that.”
Most things throughout this magical season have come easy for the Bulls. They had lost back-to-back games only once before dropping Games 4 and 5 in Seattle.
But they maintained the poise of champions and simply came home and regrouped.
“The mood here has always been the same,” Rodman said. “Let’s go back and get the next one.
“We had two games here. If we would have lost tonight, we would have come back Wednesday to try and win it.”