The NBA I Grew Up Watching: Chicago’s Invinci-Bulls and the Second Three-Peat

The 1995-98 Chicago Bulls projected Invinci-Bull-ity to me growing up.

As their great collection of talent produced championship after championship, my 7- to 10-year-old-self believed my heroes were Unbeata-Bull. Their success somehow became my success, quickly fostering my love for basketball and the NBA.

The Bulls’ sheer dominance was just a matter of fact. NBA players, sports broadcasters and opposing fans knew it. Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the league’s best supporting cast routinely crushed opponents’ feeble dreams while rewriting the record books.

That they had already done this once during the first three-peat era (1990-1993) lent yet another air of historic inevitability. Chicagoans, Bulls Nation, hoop heads and probably even their grandmas in the ‘90s know this because they lived it. The Bulls were everywhere then.

But allow me to give those youngsters who (unfortunately) missed this Golden Age the down low on why I loved those teams, what contributions unsung heroes made and how they shaped my love for the game. (If you’re old enough to remember, I already know you don’t mind traveling down this road yet again.)

Planting the Seeds

I remember sitting down much too close to the TV, flipping on every available game. WGN Chicago’s “Only the Bulls” or NBC’s “Roundball Rock” never failed to hype me and my brothers up.

I eagerly booed the away team until The Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius” instrumental blared through the House That Jordan Built, a mere 30 miles northeast from childhood home. The late Ray Clay, then in his iconic voice, introduced the UnstoppaBulls before they inevitably stampeded their way to victory.

Perhaps no team in sports history has had such a resounding introduction routine. It still seems to resonate with and influence all our basketball intros more than a generation later.

The Bulls represented a well-oiled machine of charismatic athletes who were seemingly all about teamwork. (Well, my favorite player Dennis Rodman served a few suspensions along the way, but he always made up for it by going all out once back on the court.)

But the Bulls also transcended off the court.

I played Super Nintendo’s NBA Live or Sega Genesis’ NBA Jam with my brothers, Lou and Dan, as well as my cousins, Chris and Michael. Everyone wanted to be the Bulls (even though its players were from the first three-peat and there was no MJ), and sometimes both of us donned the red and white to avoid a fight.

We all then shot hoops outside for hours on end, emulating the stars and even the bench guys’ shooting styles, envisioning one day starring for the Bulls in their perpetual dynasty. I owned a Bulls cap and championship shirt, trading cards, a 72-10 framed poster and Michael Jordan Space Jam figures.

I couldn’t get enough.

My school, gymnastics peers and even Sunday school classmates abruptly changed topics to ‘Did you see Jordan torch those dirty New York Knicks last night,’ or ‘Rodman fought Shaq and kicked his butt!’ (It probably mortified the good Chicago priests that my CCD classmates knew all the Bulls’ players stats but struggled to learn their prayers!)

Lou and I morphed into old heads listening to blacked out games on a beaten-up transistor radio. Fuzzy reception didn’t prevent us from hanging on Neil Funk and Derrek Dickey’s every word. My mom, Cathy, remained dismayed as we listened to late West Coast games that didn’t finish until midnight.

But mom also followed the Bulls as a way of connecting with her sons. She remembers watching NBA greats Larry Bird, Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, but instinctually knew Michael Jordan topped them all.

“I was excited to see the team do well,” she told me. “The one game that sticks out was that playoff game where MJ was extremely ill (Game 5 of the 1997 Finals) and he fought through it.”

My buddy, Rick Kambic is one of the biggest Bulls fans I know. He remembers watching the games with his late father, Walt.

“After beating the Seattle Supersonics and setting the wins record, my dad said everyone was out to get us,” Rick recalled. “Opponents won’t rest or take sick days, and they’ll play dirty to exact revenge. And then the Bulls won anyway.”

Walt loved the NBA and felt a little guilty the Bulls robbed greats like Gary Payton, Shawn Kemp, Reggie Miller, Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Karl Malone and so many others at their chance of championships (much less, even one).

Walt also felt bad because he knew the Bulls would win forever! And he would’ve been right if “the Jerry’s” (owner Reinsdorf and GM Krause) didn’t satisfy their egos by breaking up the dynasty.

Unsung Heroes Lead the Way

History seems to believe the Bulls’ second three-peat came solely from Jordan and Pippen shouldering the load. But take the red pill and learn that’s patently false.

The Bulls possessed unsung heroes outside of MJ and Pippen that helped sustain the stampede.

We never seem to show Hall-of-Famer Dennis Rodman enough love, for one. The Worm won two Defensive Player of the Year Awards, earning two All-Star and Third Team NBA nods. He activated Stretch Armstrong Mode to secure any basketball anywhere on his way to seven straight rebounding titles.

Rick and I loved Rodman’s showmanship. The 6’8” power forward had tattoos, piercings, a different dye job every game and the same attitude every night. His mind infiltrated players’ heads and mucked up the game, propelling Chicago to grind-out wins on their rare off-shooting nights.

“I remember the huge hype with Rodman…his changing hair and giving away his jersey after every game,” Rick said. “So many sports reporters said (Phil) Jackson was holding a circus together, and how there sometimes is such a thing as having too many good players (ego).”

Perhaps they were just among the many in society clutching their pearls at a counterculture character like this, but those analysts couldn’t have been more wrong. Rodman (20.0 Win Shares and 3.7 Value Over Replacement Player during the run) was critical to everything Chicago did, and more than just as an elite rebounder.

Case in point: He irritated Shaquille O’Neal after Luc Longley and Bill Wennington ineffectively guarded him during Game 1 of the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals.

Rodman bodied the 7’1” 325-pound O’Neal multiple times despite giving up five inches and 100 pounds. His physicality and footwork moved Shaq away from his sweet spots to miss four of his eight shots, forcing two turnovers that resulted in four fastbreak points.

Rodman then clamped down Hall of Famer Karl Malone during both NBA Finals in 1997 and 1998, bodying and even tripping the Mailman to slow him down. (He had done the same thing against Seattle SuperSonics star Shawn Kemp in 1996 as well.) These antics likely fried Malone enough so Jordan could pick his pocket later during that deciding 1998 Finals game.

The NBA was filled with all-time-great centers and huge power forwards during the late 1990s. The Bulls were one of the rare teams that didn’t have either. But they did have Rodman, and he had the uncanny ability to neutralize those big opponents enough so that Jordan and Pippen could use their edge on offense and lock down the perimeter.

Except, they weren’t the only ones locking down that perimeter every night.

Ron Harper (18.9 WS, 6.6 VORP) had previously gotten plenty of buckets (seven seasons of more than 18.0 ppg) on also-ran teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers and Los Angeles Clippers before knee injuries sapped his athleticism. He signed with the Bulls to be a secondary ball-handler that could spell Jordan (he averaged a 14.7 percent usage rate) and provide plus defense.

Harper’s 6’6” frame and long arms helped him deflect passes. He nabbed a steal per game and produced in the clutch as a fourth offensive option. Harper was his era’s Andre Iguodala, doing a little bit of everything and always at the exact right moment. (He actually possesses higher WS and VORP than swiss army knife and Finals MVP Iguodala collected during the Golden State Warriors’ three titles (15.2 WS, 4.5 VORP).)

And every once in awhile, Harper could still dust off those scoring chops:

It’s true that no other NBA team possessed Jordan and Pippen. Yet, lots of them had luminary stars (sometimes even two). But few if any could boast two perfectly cast star role players like Harper and Rodman.

And they were just the beginning of the sneaky-good depth the Bulls could deploy in an era where quick league expansion had diluted league rosters and left most benches filled with stiffs, past-their-prime relics and miscast bit players.

Iguodala’s coach, Steve Kerr (19.6 WS, 6.0 VORP), proved to be such a valuable piece. The 6’3” guard nailed 289 treys in three years, long before chucking threes with abandon became in vogue. He provided a spark off the bench and opened the floor for Jordan and Pippen to drive.

Oh, and Kerr hit the biggest shot of the 1997 NBA Finals.

That was but one of many daggers Kerr stabbed into an opponent’s momentum and/or hope, and he’d go on to serve a similar role with the San Antonio Spurs, picking up a couple more rings along the way.

And before Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Bosh and Kevin Love, there was Toni Kukoc. The 6’10” Croatian (24.0 WS, 9.9 VORP) served as a prototypical stretch four in the mold of then-Supersonic Detlef Schrempf, changing how coaches and players see the game.

You can’t tell me Dirk’s step back fadeaway didn’t totally come from Kukoc.

Kukoc became the Bulls’ third scoring option, logging more than 13 points a game and posting 20 or more points 30 times.

And while having a tall shooter off the bench was nice, having one who could act as a point-forward, putting the ball on the deck, running the offense and facilitating with the best of them was a luxury no other NBA team had.

Kukoc could have started for just about any other roster of that era, but he settled into his role and even forced the Jazz to quit in the 1997 Finals!

Other players like Longley (10.0 WS, 0.8 VORP), Wennington (5.6 WS, -1.1 VORP), Jud Buechler (5.4 WS, 1.6 VORP) and Randy Brown (5.6 WS, 0.9 VORP) produced solid contributions, often getting key stops or knocking down critical shots along the way. (Bison Dele, then-Brian Williams, gets a shoutout here too. Though he was only on the roster for the 1996-97 season, he provided plenty of athletic size on both sides of the floor.)

Unlike Harper, Rodman, Kukoc and Kerr, the aforementioned players (with the exception of Longley) likely wouldn’t have been starters anywhere else either. They certainly benefited from playing against defenses that were awfully busy against the Bulls’ stars.

But they also were targeted by offenses trying to stay away from the elite stopping power of the Jordan-Pippen-Harper-Rodman quartet. And yet, those role players held their own.

The Bulls always seemed to keep a few extra bigs on hand as well. Old Bad Boys like James Edwards and John Salley, along with the ageless Robert Parish, were end-of-bench options that provided savvy fouls and size when Longley or Wennington were overmatched or Rodman got into foul trouble. They were eventually superseded by Jason Caffey and Dickie Simpkins.

If you’ve been counting, that’s at least a legitimate 10-deep team in an era where even the best opposing rosters had about 7-8 reliable “every-night” options.

So, even if you played Jordan and Pippen to a relative draw (rare as that was), you typically expended so much energy and production on those matchups only to be swamped by Chicago’s depth parade.

No wonder they blitzed the league during that span, going 248-56 (.816) including playoff results!

why the Impression Still Lasts

The Bulls cemented my love for basketball, and time hasn’t changed that one bit even as it might change some of my perspectives.

Egos and draconian management prematurely dismantled a great team.

MJ proved vincible when he made his Washington Wizards turn. The stories of him bullying teammates, (with my buddy Rick never forgiving him for punching Kerr), and these aloof retirement years have worn away some of his personal luster.

Heroes like Rodman, Kukoc and Pippen became mere mortals after holding on in the league a little too long once the dynasty disbanded.

And, of course, owner Jerry Reinsdorf failed to recapture the magic. Injuries, lottery (and coaching) busts, along with an archaic organizational philosophy in scouting and analytics seem to have kept (and will keep?) the Bulls from ever reaching those amazing heights again.

I’m convinced the Basketball Gods chastise Reinsdorf and his underlings with a perpetual purgatory for destroying a once-legendary team.

Nonetheless, it was those Bulls that inspired me to pursue sports reporting. I remember eagerly reading the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times daily to find out columnists’ opinions on the previous game or news of when Rodman would return from a suspension. (The Sun-Times drew a Rodman head with a bullseye counting down the games).

While I’m not yet where I want to be reporting-wise, I’ve interviewed numerous professional athletes and coaches to provide my readers with a greater understanding of the games they love. I’m still working toward and aspiring to be like the luminaries I grew up reading who inspired me.

And those columnists and reporters were part of the Bulls’ orbit—the team that created my love for basketball.

One could say they left an IndeliBull mark.


NOTE: This article was originally published on March 19, 2020. Stats from cover the 1995-98 seasons.