“It was perfect. It was like a great novel.” —Ahmad Rashad
This is an oral history of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, a team led by Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and Dennis Rodman. A team that won a record 72 games in the regular season, finishing with a combined regular season and postseason record of 87-13.
Everyone quoted in this piece has been identified by the position they played or job they had during the 1995-96 season. All interviews below were conducted first-hand unless otherwise cited.
August 1, 1995
The Jordan Dome
In 1995, the Bulls led Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals against the Orlando Magic with under 20 seconds left when Jordan was stripped by Nick Anderson, leading to the game-winning basket. “Number 45 is not number 23,” Anderson said after the win. “I couldn’t have done that to number 23.”
In Game 2, Jordan switched back to the number 23 and scored a game-high 38 points in a win, but the Bulls were eventually eliminated on their home floor in Game 6.
Ron Harper (guard, Chicago Bulls): We were sitting in the locker room after and Michael goes, “We’re going to start working out.” I said, “When?” He said, “We start tomorrow. They want to see number 23? I’m going to give them number 23.”
Ahmad Rashad (reporter, NBC Sports): It was the most disappointed I’ve ever seen him, but the disappointment was wrapped in resolve.
Michael Jordan (guard, Chicago Bulls)(via): I told [my agent] David Falk there was no way I would do the movie Space Jam unless I was able to work out and play on the Warner Bros. lot.
Nathaniel Bellamy (basketball coordinator, Space Jam): At first, Warner Bros. was determining if there was a gym nearby. They settled on actually building a structure on their lot.
Joe Pytka (director, Space Jam): It was a permanent installation, one of those air inflated domes.
Nathaniel Bellamy: There was a full-length basketball court, an entertainment center with a big screen TV, a sound system, a locker room with showers, weight machines specifically for Michael, a card table, and a putting green. It cost about $10,000 a week to air condition the place. You needed special passes to get in.
Nigel Miguel (basketball coordinator, Space Jam): I met Michael when we played at the 1981 McDonald's All-American game. Nathaniel and I coordinated the games at the dome.
Tim Grover (Michael Jordan’s personal trainer)(via): A typical day for Michael would start with about 30 or 40 minutes of conditioning in the [dome]. This would include stretching, running, and various basketball stuff, nothing long distance, to get his wind up. Then he'd go to the movie set for some shooting. At lunch time, he'd work out with weights for about an hour and a half. Then he'd go back to the set from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. From 7:30 p.m. to about 10 p.m., he'd play basketball in the [dome].
Nathaniel Bellamy: There weren’t a lot of NBA players coming through in the beginning, so we had a lot of the UCLA guys who had just won the NCAA championship come through.
Kris Johnson (forward, UCLA Bruins): I first met Michael at the 1986 All-Star Weekend with my dad Marques. I went up to the dome with Charles O’Bannon on my first day. We were shooting around, and all of a sudden the door opens—and I’m not being dramatic—but there was a ray of light because it was sunny outside, and there he was, Michael Jordan. Charles and I had to compose ourselves.
Charles O’Bannon (forward, UCLA Bruins): We tried to act like we were supposed to be there, but we were college kids. In between games, we would be sitting around, hanging out, and guys would just stare at Michael. We would just watch him walk around and be like, “Oh my god, that’s just the way he walks on TV.”
Nathaniel Bellamy: After a while, Tim put out an open invitation to NBA players who were in town. Once word got out, guys started coming and it just got crazy.
Kris Johnson: The pros started filtering in. Tim starts making teams, and I don’t get picked. Michael says, “Hold on, hold on. Tim, I need Kris on my team everyday.” So Michael is the point guard and I’m at shooting guard. That was the set-up the entire summer.
Nathaniel Bellamy: Cedric Ceballos gets there on the first night and asked me why Kris was playing because he thought it was NBA players only. Michael didn’t understand why Cedric had a problem, so he told him, “Wait ‘til we get on this court, I’m going to dunk on you.”
Kris Johnson: Michael is isolated against Cedric, he’s palming the ball and gives him a bunch of jab fakes. He’s telling him, “Why are you wearing that number? Why you wear my number, man? You make my number look bad. Take that off.” Then boom, he dunks on him and says, “Take my number off. Don’t ever wear my number again.”
Nathaniel Bellamy: Next play, Cedric came right back at Michael and scored.
Cedric Ceballos (forward, Los Angeles Lakers): I had a lot of respect for Michael and I felt he was looking for a challenge. I wasn’t a guy who really backed down.
Nathaniel Bellamy: The player who had the best run at the dome was Charles Oakley. His team won every game.
Charles Oakley (forward, New York Knicks): I had a cameo in the movie, so I was there for a few days. Our team ruled the court. We didn’t have the best players on the court, but in a pickup game, I got a great chance of winning.
Nathaniel Bellamy: Charles played like there was money on the line. He was giving hard fouls, he was hitting people. There was one particular day when he gave Juwan Howard an education.
Charles Oakley: In pickup, you let them know.
“I told [my agent] there was no way I would do the movie Space Jam unless I was able to work out and play on the Warner Bros. lot.”
Kris Johnson: The most amazing thing about it outside of the basketball was the level of celebrity that was walking through the doors.
Nathaniel Bellamy: We had George Clooney, Halle Berry, Angela Bassett, Eriq La Salle, Kurt Russell, Steven Seagal. And my man Luke Skywalker! Mark Hamill was there all the time.
Kris Johnson: Will Smith, Jada Pinkett, Bill Murray.
Nigel Miguel: Clint Eastwood, Kevin Costner, Damon Wayans, L.L. Cool J, Queen Latifah.
Marques Johnson (broadcaster, Seattle Supersonics): Angela Bassett was so beautiful. I couldn’t stop looking at her.
Nathaniel Bellamy: We’re sitting in Michael’s trailer one time—it’s me, Michael, Patrick Ewing, and Charles Barkley. Michael says to Patrick, “Man, Pat, I been busting your ass since college.” Patrick says, “Yeah, but you didn’t know what you were doing in the beginning.” Michael says, “Yeah, but I know what I’ve been doing since.” Charles starts laughing. Michael shoots him a look and says, “What you laughing at? I been busting your ass too.” You would think those two would go back at Michael. Instead, Charles and Patrick start going back and forth arguing about whose ass Michael’s busted the most. Michael just looks at me and starts laughing.
Tim Grover: A lot of people may have worked out longer and harder than Michael, but Michael worked out smarter. Michael worked out with a purpose, he did everything with a purpose.
Nathaniel Bellamy: I realized how dedicated Michael was to the game of basketball. I could see why he was such a rare breed.
Michael Jordan (via): I couldn’t wait for the 1995-96 season to start. I knew my game had come back with all the work I put in over the summer. I felt like a kid coming out of college with something to prove.
Marques Johnson: The level of quality of that run was the greatest I’ve ever been around. I’ve never seen anything like it, and probably never will again.
Nathaniel Bellamy: After the shoot was done, they tore the dome down.
April 16, 1996
“It was the ride of my life”
Over a stretch that spanned four different months during the 1995-96 season, the Bulls won 31 out of 32 games, beating opponents by an average margin of 14.5 points. The Bulls were 42-5 at the All-Star break, and lost back-to-back games just once during the regular season. On April 16, 1996, the 69-9 Bulls traveled to Milwaukee to play the Bucks with a chance to break the regular season wins record held by the 1971-72 Lakers.
Phil Taylor (writer, Sports Illustrated): This is how little fanfare there was around them [at the start of the season]. I remember a preseason game in Peoria, Ill., I went out there to do a story, and before the game, I was able to walk up to Michael. He was just sitting there in front of his locker with no one around him.
Jim Cleamons (assistant coach, Chicago Bulls): And then, we started winning games.
Ron Harper: We didn’t care about the wins record. If it happened, it happened.
Jim Cleamons: The winning just became infectious. The guys realized they were having a phenomenal run and wanted to win as many games as they could. It wasn’t that any records were on our minds, it was just, “Let’s just go out and win games.”
John Salley (forward/center, Chicago Bulls): It was the ride of my life. It was like we couldn’t lose. When we lost, it didn’t feel real. When you walked out on the court with Michael Jordan on your team, you already won the game.
Ahmad Rashad: The great things that you saw Michael do in games, there was way more of that in practice. Watching him practice was like sneaking into a dress rehearsal of a great musician.
John Salley: We were scrimmaging one time, and he gets a steal at midcourt. I’m lagging back, I turn around, and this motherfucker was already airborne, tongue down to his knees going, “Block this, bitch.” He floated by me and dunked that shit. I go back home, which at the time was the hotel across the street from our practice facility, and called my mom. She goes, “How was your day?” I said, “Ma, I think I just saw the greatest player of all-time.” She goes, “It took you until today??”
“It was like we couldn’t lose. When we lost, it didn’t feel real. When you walked out on the court with Michael Jordan on your team, you already won the game.”
Phil Taylor: Around the league, there was a growing sense during that season that no one was beating Michael that year. It was almost a resignation.
Phil Jackson (head coach, Chicago Bulls) (via): The day of the big game—against the Bucks—TV helicopters shadowed our team bus all the way to Milwaukee, with crowds massed at the overpasses on the interstate holding up signs of support.
Butch Carter (assistant coach, Milwaukee Bucks): We were hoping and praying someone would beat them before they came to our place.
Terry Cummings (forward, Milwaukee Bucks): I just told all the guys, “This is about pride. They’re going to make history but let them make it with somebody else but not with us.”
Vin Baker (forward/center, Milwaukee Bucks): We weren’t a playoff bound team, so that was our championship game to hopefully stop history.
Butch Carter: The six years I spent there, that night was the livest the building ever was.
Vin Baker: There were a lot of Bulls fans. That was always the case when I was there. The Bulls were so successful, so seeing all their jerseys in the Bradley Center, that was something we were accustomed to.
Ahmad Rashad: Their season was like a tour. Every night it was the biggest game in town. Every single game there were people that surrounded the hotel, there’s nothing quite like that probably before or since.
Butch Carter: We played as well as we could for three quarters. [note: The Bucks led 68-62 after three quarters, but were held to 12 points in the fourth. The Bulls came back and won 86-80, setting the wins record. Baker finished with a game-high 28 points.]
Shawn Respert (guard, Milwaukee Bucks): When the Bulls took over, you would just hold your breath. You knew something was coming, you knew there was a storm front, but you just didn’t know when it was going to hit. No matter how much of a punch you gave them, they just didn’t stagger. They just had a self confidence about them.
Vin Baker: For me, being on the other end of history, I was really dejected and hurt. I cried in the locker room because it reminded me of being at University of Hartford and always having be second to the University of Connecticut. I just couldn’t get over this hump of being this second team in the area.
John Salley: I got Michael’s sneakers autographed from that game. He usually gives them to the ball boy, but I stepped in that night and was like, “Young fella, I’m sorry, but I need these sneakers.” I don’t even know where my birth certificate is, but I know where those sneakers are right now.
Ron Harper: Before the playoffs, Scottie and I went to eat, and we were just throwing out ideas, 72-10 this, 72-10 that. I said to Scottie, “I got one. 72-10 don’t mean a thing without the ring.” He’s like, “That’s kinda hot.” We were just playing around when we said it, but Scottie had a good friend who made t-shirts. So we called him up, and told him our t-shirt idea. We wore them all throughout the playoffs.
June 16, 1996
The Bulls lost one game in the Eastern Conference playoffs, sweeping the Miami Heat, eliminating the New York Knicks in five games, and beating the Magic four straight times, including a 38-point win in Game 1. A year after the “45 isn’t 23” remark, Jordan scored 45 points in the Game 4 clincher. “Sometimes,” Jordan said after the win, “it’s very ironic the way things happen.”
Dennis Scott (guard/forward, Orlando Magic): We knew they were gunning for us.
Ron Harper: We wanted to beat the shit out of them so bad. We wanted it so bad because they talked all that trash the year before. We were hoping to get a rematch, and when we finally got it, we beat the mess out of them.
Ahmad Rashad: It was one of those things where the Bulls just said, “Next time we play you in the playoffs, there’s no chance of you winning. In fact, we’re not even going to give you a sneak peek at winning.”
Pat Williams (general manager, Orlando Magic): They got revenge. They came after us full bore and whipped us. They made mincemeat of us.
Tim Povtak (senior writer, Orlando Sentinel): The team was rising. Shaq and Penny were 24 [when the season ended]. Dennis was 27. Nick Anderson was 28. If they had won that series or even put up a respectable performance against the Bulls, Shaq would not have left [note: Shaq signed a seven-year, $120 million deal with the Lakers in the offseason]. That series changed the course of that franchise’s history.
Shaquille O’Neal (center, Orlando Magic) (via): I was a championship chaser, one. And two, I was an opportunity chaser. I was a little bit selfish, but I had to be, because I wanted to be one of the most dominant players ever.
Dennis Scott: If Shaq stays in Orlando, we win at least one, maybe two, maybe three. There’s no question about it. Imagine those seven years after he left us. And if we keep that team together, maybe Penny doesn’t get injured because he wouldn’t have to do as much.
Anfernee Hardaway (guard, Orlando Magic) (via): If I stayed healthy and Shaq had stayed there, there was no way anyone was going to stop us from winning a championship. We were just going to add different pieces around us and eventually get to the promised land and win a championship ring.
In the Finals, the Bulls faced a Seattle Supersonics team that won 64 games during the regular season. The Bulls won the first three games of the series. Down 3-0, the Sonics won the next two in Seattle to send the series back to Chicago. The Bulls won Game 6 by a score of 87-75. Almost three years after losing his dad, Jordan won his fourth championship on Father’s Day.
Hannah Storm (reporter, NBC Sports): The Sonics were a really confident team. They had a franchise-best record and split the season series against the Bulls, so I don’t think they were necessarily overwhelmed by going into the Finals.
Nate McMillan (guard, Seattle Supersonics): We were underdogs simply because those guys had won titles and were coming off one of the best seasons in the history of the game.
Shawn Kemp (forward, Seattle Supersonics): It was a relief to make the Finals, but you really don’t achieve anything unless you win the championship.
Nate McMillan: I worked my whole career to get to the Finals and win a championship. It was frustrating because a lot of people don’t even get that opportunity. That’s when you want to be healthy, and I couldn’t play. I was questioning God, asking why is this happening to me. [note: McMillan played six minutes in Game 1 and missed the next two games due to a lower back injury. Gary Payton, who was dealing with a calf injury, did not guard Jordan in the first three games.]
Detlef Schrempf (forward, Seattle Supersonics): Nate was a huge part of the team. He made all the right plays offensively and defensively.
Nate McMillan: They put Scottie on Gary, and trapped a little more than they normally did. They took the ball out of Gary’s hands and we didn’t have another point guard who could handle the ball. If I was healthy and we could have executed our game plan, we could have beaten the Bulls, or at least taken them to seven games.
Dwane Casey (assistant coach, Seattle Supersonics): Ifs and buts, you know. I don’t know if it would have made a difference. Michael was playing at such a high level.
“[Michael] said, ‘You’re done? Nah, this is my fourth championship ring. We have to win two more. I need to have one more ring than Magic.’”
Shawn Kemp: We made some mistakes at the start of the series. We put Detlef on Michael, which was not a good idea. I don’t know what we were thinking with that one. It’s Michael Jordan. Whoever you put on him, it better be the best defender you’ve got. Nothing against Detlef, because that’s a tough matchup for anybody.
Gary Payton (guard, Seattle Supersonics) (via): I wish I could have played [Michael] in the first three games, but I had torn a muscle in my calf and George had told me that he didn’t want to wear me out. I was telling George, “Please just let me play against him.” First game, he killed us. George didn’t really want me to do that. He said, “Well, we’ve got a long series, let’s just wait.”
Bob Costas (reporter, NBC Sports): I think after the Sonics won Games 4 and 5, I said something like, “What appeared to be a coronation has turned into a competition.” Did I think the Sonics had a chance? Yes. Did I think they had a good chance? No.
Hannah Storm: Once they got to the verge of bowing out of the series, the Sonics totally loosened up, but I don’t think they ever thought they would win out after dropping the first three.
Shawn Kemp: I told the guys, “Sometimes you only get one shot at this. Even if we’re down 3-0, I’m still going to put the steak knife in them.”
Hannah Storm: At that point, you’re heading back to Chicago, to Father’s Day, and what had happened to Michael’s father. It was one of those meant to be kind of days.
Phil Jackson (via): When the buzzer sounded [after Game 6], Michael gave Scottie and me a quick hug, darted to center court to grab the ball, then retreated to the locker room to get away from the TV cameras. When I got there, he was curled up on the floor hugging the ball to his chest, tears streaming down his face.
Ahmad Rashad: I understood everything that was involved in that moment. I understood the release, the pressure, the feeling, the loneliness of achieving something without your dad there.
Michael Jordan (via): I was so determined that day it was like sometimes you get so angry that you cry. That’s how determined I was to win that game. I was so angry and so happy at the same time. There was no way I could control my emotions. I was angry because I felt like I had to win another championship before anyone would give credence to my return, but I was happy that I proved my point. I had loved the game for so long and done so much in the game and yet I was still being criticized. Once I grabbed the ball and the game was over with it hit me as to what had just transpired. I had come all the way back.
Ron Harper: We were in the locker room after celebrating, and I told Michael, “Hey, that’s my first championship. I’m done.” He said, “You’re done? Nah, this is my fourth championship ring. We have to win two more. I need to have one more ring than Magic.”
20 Years Later
At 60-6, the Warriors need to finish 13-3 to break the Bulls’ record. It has reignited the “greatest team ever” debate.
Detlef Schrempf: It’s like comparing Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis.
Tim Legler (guard, Washington Bullets): The Bulls were the greatest defensive team I have ever played against. The amount of ground they could cover with their length and athletic ability was just different than every other team I played against.
Isiah Thomas (part owner and Executive Vice President, Toronto Raptors): Michael was light years ahead of everybody intellectually. People might have been just as physically gifted as he was, but he was the PhD in the class room. All across the board, the language we use to describe sports now has been diluted. In today’s language, when we call someone a great competitor, it doesn’t carry that weight that I’m trying to say it with. So when I say Michael was a great competitor, I say it with the utmost respect.
Ron Harper: I tell folks: Don’t ever compare us. They’re a great team, and for sure they remind me of our team. I got a lot of respect for them. But when it comes down to what we could do? [If we played], it wouldn’t have been good for them.
Phil Taylor: The Warriors are probably the most entertaining team I’ve ever watched. But in terms of overall coverage, storylines, drama and intrigue, the Bulls were a much richer story. As a fan, I’ll take the Warriors. As a reporter, I would take those Bulls over any team I’ve ever been around.
Bob Costas: It wasn’t just that the Bulls were a historic team. By then, they were already America’s team. The Warriors are pushing themselves further into the consciousness of American sports fans. You have to remember, by the time that 1995-96 team completed its run, that’s the fourth championship of that era and the beginning of a second three-peat. Michael Jordan wasn’t just the most famous athlete, he was one of the most famous people in the world.
John Salley: I ran into this kid the other day, and he asked if I was a basketball player. I said, “Yes I am.” He said, “Oh my god, you’re from NBA 2K.” Think about it, this kid was born in 2000, he never saw the Bulls, but he knows about us because we’re a playable team in a video game, and because he has Google and people are talking about us again because of the wins record. He asked me if I thought the Warriors would break the wins record. And then before he left, the kid says, “One more thing, I’m just going to let you know that Steph Curry is the best player I’ve ever seen in my lifetime.” You know what. He’s right. In his lifetime.