The 1995-96 Chicago Bulls are arguably the greatest NBA team of all time. They previously held the record for most wins in a regular season with 72 , and rode that momentum from the regular season all the way to an NBA Championship, beating the Seattle Supersonics in six games. It was one of the greatest feats in sports history and is a team that will be remembered forever.
Now you can take a deep dive into that journey by reading a cool new E-book that is out now called "How the GOAT was built : 6 Lessons from the 1996 Bulls". It is written by Jack M. Silverstein, a corporate journalist and a long-time Chicago Bulls fans. The design was made by Zachary Gibson and his design company called Bag Fry, I suggest you check out his artwork as well. We got the chance to ask Jack some questions about the book and about Bulls basketball in the 90's. You can check out the E-book right here. You can also check out his other interviews about the book here as well. Let's dive right into this interview.
What was your inspiration for writing this book?
My inspiration was my longstanding fascination with the 28-month period between the '93 Finals and the '95-'96 preseason when the Bulls replaced 10 players and became a totally different team, albeit with the same two best players and same coach. People always talked about the "Bulls dynasty" that "won six rings," and to me, it was always two teams that won three rings.
My original intention was to write an essay about that 28-month period. The project grew from there.
What was your favorite game from that ’96 season?
Soooooo many. The comebacks against Vancouver and Denver in the regular season standout. They won the first and lost the second but those were equally magical and meaningful.
As far as a game that encapsulated that team's power, that Pacers game where Jordan had 44 and Pippen had 40 -- that'd be it. Rodman had 23 boards too. We were operating on another plane.
My favorite playoff games were Games 1 and 3 against Orlando and then the Sonics, and for the same reason. The two Game 1s were the ultimate tone setters. The two Game 3s were the ultimate Deebo games -- "Go to sleep. Go to sleep!" A team thinks "Hey, we're at home! NOW we'll show 'em!." And instead, they get deconstructed. Even when Seattle got two games after that, you knew the series was a wrap.
You mentioned guys like Steve Kerr, Bill Wennington, and Luc Longley in the book. Guys who know their role on the team. Who was your favorite "role player" on the Bulls during that time?
I had two guys in the second three-peat: Dennis Rodman and Jud Buechler. I went all in on Rodman as soon as we made the trade. I bought a black replica Rodman jersey + shorts. I had (and have) the Rodman tattoo shirt that went off the market because the maker did not have permission. I had those bogus zipper shoes that didn't work. (Wore 'em proudly, though!)
And then Buechler felt like such a fun out-of-nowhere player. He had the cool backstory with volleyball. He barely played, which was how I envisioned my role whenever I had dreams that I was on the roster (which was frequent). But he also contributed when he did play. I tried to buy his jersey but they didn't sell it.
Out of all the teams, the Bulls faced in the NBA Playoffs/Finals in the 90’s, which team did you feel was the most challenging for Chicago?
The '93 Knicks, '97 Jazz, and '98 Pacers. Down 0-2 to New York was the biggest hole we were in, and Game 5 at MSG (the famed Charles Smith Game) is my favorite Bulls game ever. That was the epitome of "never count out a champion." No one was supposed to beat the Knicks in New York that year. Most epic rubber match ever and the one game I would show my grandchildren to explain the Bulls.
The Jazz played us so close in '97. That was 2-2, and then we squeezed out the Flu Game and the Steve Kerr winner (complete with MJ's super sly trip on Stockton that no one talks about). Great series.
And then the Pacers in '98, who gave the Bulls their only Game 7 in a championship year. The home team won all 7 games. Got to tip your cap to them.
You talked about the Bulls selecting Stacey King over Shawn Kemp in the NBA draft despite Phil Jackson wanting Kemp. Did you feel any deja vu when you read the reports about the same thing happening with the Marquis Teague-Draymond Green situation? How would have Kemp changed the dynamic of the Bulls?
I did not feel any deja vu, because at the time much less was at stake. It wasn't like how Aldridge for Tyrus made me feel a little queasy, like the faintest realization of sea sickness to come. For one thing, I was still in shock from Derrick's injury. I wasn't much focused on the draft.
Two, we'd been the East's top seed for two years. You pay less attention to the draft when you're at the bottom of it and/or your team has no obvious needs.
And three, Draymond had a great college career but no one knew how his game would translate. This wasn't like passing on a can't-miss superstar. We weren't passing on DRAYMOND GREEN, FIRST-TEAM ALL-D NBA CHAMPION. We were passing on a 6'7 forward who played hard as hell and was appreciated in the midwest because of Michigan State, but who everyone figured would, with the right breaks, peak as a terrific player off the bench on a playoff team.
As for Kemp... my oh my. That is a dramatic "what if." Horace was a quality pro by his second season when Kemp entered the league, but by 1991 (Grant's 4th, Kemp's 2nd), Kemp was unquestionably superior. In '91 the Bulls tried to give Grant's starting job to King, so you KNOW they would have moved toward Kemp.
Grant was a better defender, Kemp a better rebounder and then obviously far surpassed Horace's offensive talents, so assuming the personalities/chemistry worked out, a Jordan-Pippen-Kemp lineup would have won 70 in 1992. Then you can trade Grant if you want, especially since he's leaving via free agency.
For the reasons I spell out in my book (specifically in the chapters on Jordan and Pippen), I think Jordan would still retire. There are two paths from here (and now we're really in Back to the Future land).
1. The Bulls of Pippen and Kemp beat the Knicks. Why not? I always figured the Bulls of Pippen and GRANT would have defeated Indiana had they beat New York (and now here come my Hue Hollins fever dreams) and competed against Houston. Swap Grant for Kemp and that's no question. What if the Bulls won the '94 title without Jordan? I am of the opinion that it's not unreasonable to wonder if Jerry Reinsdorf was partially motivated to turn the screws on the MLB players' union with hopes of coaxing Jordan back to basketball. MJ was supposedly on pace to be called up to the Sox by 1996, so with Pippen/Kemp/Kukoc/B.J. and the Horace Grant trade pieces winning games, might Reinsdorf encourage Mike to chase his dream for one or two more years?
2. The Bulls decide they still want to trade Pip in '94, but they can't trade him to Seattle for Kemp because Kemp's a Bulls. So maybe they offer him to another team for another star (pick one -- Barkley, Penny, Zo, LJ, Webber, whomever) and that team pulls the trigger, unlike Seattle with Kemp, who backed out. Does Jordan return to the Bulls? As he told J.A. Adande in 2010, "Probably not."
You can really spin yourself beyond the infinite with these exercises, so I'll just say: I'm fine with how things worked out.
What was your favorite Scottie Pippen trade rumor?
Definitely the Clippers deal in 1995 that could have yielded KG, Kobe, and T-Mac.
In February of '95, in exchange for Scottie Pippen, the Clippers offered their next two 1st round picks + the right to swap 1st rounders in the following two years. This was a month before Jordan returned from baseball. The Bulls basically signed off on the deal but Pippen refused to assure L.A. that he would report to the team and the deal fell through.
The Clippers picked 2nd in '95. They took Antonio McDyess. The next 3 picks were Stackhouse, Sheed, and KG. We know Krause was enamored with youth and athleticism, so let's say he picks Garnett #2. No longer one piece away from a ring AND now with their power forward of the future, they don't trade for Rodman.
Now, going back for a second, Jordan left baseball in the first week of March. If Pip were traded I think there's less a chance he would come back right then, but I think at some point he was coming back. And he said that he would be true to his contract, which ended in '95-'96, in part because he believed in that and in part because Phil Jackson's contract ended after '96 and I bet Jordan would want to work with and help Phil. Bulls lose to Orlando in the '96 East finals.
Clippers picked 7th in 1996, and with Pippen's 12-15 wins they would have picked 13th to 17th, which puts them right in the Kobe range. Krause, obsessed with building his own team and in love with the KG/Kobe combo, tells Phil and Mike he's taking Kobe and they can be in or out.
Let's assume they're in. 1997 Bulls are Harper, Jordan, Kukoc, KG, Longley, with Kobe off the bench. They could win the '97 title with that team. But even if they don't, they would be way better than whatever roster the Clippers would build around Pippen, so they swap picks again. What if the Clippers get into the top 10, into McGrady range?
1998 Bulls are still Harper, Jordan, Toni, KG, Luc, and now have Kobe and McGrady off the bench. If by some chance they didn't win the '97 title, they definitely win the '98 title. It doesn't matter where they finish compared to the Clippers because Rashard Lewis fell to the second round, so the Bulls take a shot on Lewis since they have Jordan + two new All-Stars in KG and Kobe. Let's say Phil delays his ride-off-into-the-sunset-on-my-motorcycle goodbye, and Krause delays his even-if-you-go-82-and-0-you're-out attitude toward Phil, and everyone comes back for '99 to bag an alternate universe "second three-peat."
Taking this one step further, let's say Jordan did not want to rebuild and went to New York, which he almost did anyway. Bulls work out a three-team deal sending Mike to the Knicks, multiple players and assets from New York to Boston, and Boston's two first-rounders in '97 (#3 and #6) to the Bulls, the picks they tried to get in '97 anyway to scratch Krause's McGrady itch. The Bulls take Billups at #3 and McGrady at #6.
Once again, you can go round and round on this stuff. I'll keep it as it happened.
I’m guessing you heard about the T-Mac for Scottie Pippen trade that was proposed on draft night but got axed by MJ. How would have you reacted if the trade went down?
At the time, I was pissed yet intrigued. It was hard not to be intrigued and consider scenarios like the above. But in the reality, I did not understand why we would continuously make public our second-best player and everyone's favorite teammate. I thought it was both disrespectful and short-sighted. The backhanded compliment that "We couldn't trade him -- they didn't offer enough" didn't sit well with me either.
Was there a particular player that you wanted the Bulls to sign/draft that you were thankful that they didn’t during the 90’s?
I wanted them to draft Michael Finley in 1995. They took Jason Caffey a spot ahead of him. The Bulls kept trying to draft a power forward to backup and/or replace Horace Grant and couldn't do it. King in 1989 instead of Kemp, Mark Randall in '91, Byron Houston in '92, Corie Blount in '93, Dickey Simpkins in '94, Caffey in '95. Obviously, if they'd known they were going to be able to pilfer Rodman from the Spurs four months later, maybe they'd gone for Finley. Too bad...
...but again, maybe Finley takes minutes from Harper, Kukoc or Kerr, which I wouldn't want to do for the specific dynamics of that team. So I'm cool.
Assuming the Bulls core group of guys + Jackson didn’t split after '98, how many years would they still have left in them to be a contender?
That team was being torn apart by so many forces, but from just a basketball standpoint, I think they could have defeated San Antonio in the '99 Finals. That would have been their hardest Finals, though. Imagine going from Ervin Johnson and Greg Ostertag at center over three Finals and then facing Tim Duncan and David Robinson in the same one. That would have been a system shock.
The weird thing though is that after '99, the league's best team was the Lakers, but they depended on Phil Jackson. I don't think the Lakers win in 2000 without Phil. So could the 2000 Bulls with 37-year-old Jordan, 34-year-old Pippen, 38-year-old Rodman, and 36-year-old Harper win a title? Still not sure. Almost definitely not. 2000 championship in that world goes to Indiana or New York.
The issue here is that Rodman was wearing very thin on the Bulls by '98, and showed himself unable to fit in with other teams, whether the Lakers in '99 or the Mavs in 2000. He had no trade value. The Bulls needed him, but they also couldn't get equal value for him because no other team could possibly corral him. That's where that Pippen-Celtics trade starts to look good.
But again, I'll leave it as is.
What was your favorite part about writing this book?
The research! Easy. Loved the research. Read a ton, learned a ton. Gotta gives a shoutout to Melissa Isaacson's "Transition Game." I read a lot of good books but that was the one that I did not even know existed until I started the project. So many gems in there, like Jordan's perspective on the Pippen-Kukoc dynamic in 1994. That book is a must for Bulls fans who are serious about the team's history.
"Michael Jordan The Life" by Roland Lazenby adds a great deal to the understanding of Jordan, which I thought was impossible. Sam Smith's Jordan oral history "There Is No Next" is super duper fun, and his "Second Coming" from 1995 is a great companion to "The Jordan Rules." I include a bibliography in the book and tons of links. There's a lot to explore.
Is there any life lesson that you go by or use in your life that isn’t in the book?
This is a first three-peat lesson, so it's cheating a bit, but it's true: never count out a champion.