BEHIND THE INTERVIEWS: THE 1993 FINALSJune 5th, 2013
We love anniversaries in sports, and Sports Illustrated asked me to remember one in this week’s issue (no link yet available). Twenty years ago, the Chicago Bulls and the Phoenix Suns engaged in a Finals that was as entertaining as any I’ve covered.
It can be more simply—and simplistically–remembered as Michael vs. Charles.
SI’s basketball editor, Mark Bechtel, suggested it be presented as an oral history, which is a way of getting in a lot of different voices giving their own take on the same events.
The question: Which voices?
The answer: As many as possible.
One begins these assignments with a certain amount of dread—at least I do—since you instantly start calculating who you will possibly not be able to get a hold of, Prime Example No. 1 being Michael Jordan.
Perhaps many of you know the root of the ancient argument between Jordan and SI, which I present here in its briefest form. Former SI writer Steve Wulf wrote a story about Jordan when he was a minor league player with the Birmingham Barons in 1994. It was a nuanced story, halfway between positive and negative, and Jordan probably wouldn’t have thought much of it except for the cover billing added by managing editor Mark Mulvoy that read: BAG IT, MICHAEL!
Jordan was incensed, vowed never to talk to SI again and has kept that promise. (Perhaps you’ve heard how the man does not like to lose.) Myself and other SI types have talked to Michael informally on many occasions, and I interviewed him at length for DREAM TEAM because it had nothing to do with SI. But I am about 17 changes of cell phone behind Jordan’s current set of digits, and the request had the predictable response from his rep, Estee Portnoy: No.
Scottie Pippen proved elusive, no surprise there, and Bill Cartwright didn’t call back after ending a stint as a coach in Japan.
B.J. Armstrong did get back to me but with a surprising result: “I don’t talk about those days,” he said. “I like to stay out of the spotlight.” Of course there’s a back story. There always is. Though B.J. is in some respects as close to the Bulls as ever—he is Derrick Rose’s personal rep for Arm Tellem’s powerful Wasserman Media Group—he is alienated from the Chicago front office, where he became an odd man out when John Paxson became took over as GM in 2003. And speaking of which, getting to Paxson became difficult because he was in the middle of a hotly-contested series with the Heat not to mention prep for the NBA draft. Phil Jackson and I exchanged a few emails, but Phil was busy on a book tour—The Tonight Show, John Stewart, here, there, everywhere—and contact was dicey. And two of Phil’s assistants whom I loved dealing with in those days, John Bach and Tex Winter, are both ill and unavailable for interviews.
Hmm, from the Chicago perspective, this was not going well.
Meanwhile, the opposite was true for the Suns. Wait a minute, hadn’t they lost the series? I interviewed Celtics GM Danny Ainge at Madison Square where Boston was playing the Knicks in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Danny was guarding Paxson—well, not exactly—on the final play and, with Knicks-Celts tipoff looming, he acted out, in a hallway near the visiting locker room, that fateful moment in Suns history.
Paul Westphal, the Suns coach who was roundly praised by all the Suns for being a player’s coach, was forthcoming and funny in a phone interview. That’s a great combination for an interview subject. I flew to Atlanta to interview Barkley on the set of TNT’s “At The Half,” with the predictable result—it was enjoyable and fruitful. (He was forthcoming and funny, too.) And I got to spend some time with Shaquille O’Neal, Kenny Smith and Ernie Johnson to boot. Why take the time to see Charles in person? Because it just doesn’t work to get some subjects over the telephone. Charles is one of them. It’s always best to interview in person, but for this story I had to pick my spots and Charles was one of those spots.
With the help of the Suns’ intrepid public relations whiz, Julie Fie, I interviewed Dan Majerle on the phone, and, after some doing and help from Ailene Voisin of the Sacramento Bee, scheduled an interview with Kevin Johnson, the mayor of Sacramento, fresh off his triumph of keeping the Kings in town. Right on time, K.J. called, and, always Mr. Reliable, he couldn’t have been more accommodating and told me a great anecdote about his reaction when Westphal told him that he would be guarding Jordan. I also chatted with the always reachable Jerry Colangelo, the Suns owner who suffered as much as anyone since he so badly wanted to bring a championship to Phoenix.
A few things became clear as I talked to the Suns.
–The agony of defeat is as fresh in their minds today as it was 20 years ago.
–Agony usually makes for better quotes.
–That championship series was more memorable for the Phoenix players, who never won a title (excepting Ainge, who had already won two in Boston), than for the Chicago players, several of whom won six titles, this being their third.
Eventually—and blessedly—the Chicago side began to take shape. Phil Jackson got back to me in several emails. Horace Grant and I had a long phone conversation and followed up with a couple of emails. Ditto for Scott Williams, an important backup forward on that team and always a candid interview.
Pax finally freed himself and told me about the final shot—where he was, what he was thinking, how he felt afterward—and for good measure I also interviewed Bulls p.r. man Tim Hallam, former Bulls beat reporter and Hall of Fame basketball writer Sam Smith, and former Bulls general manager Jerry Krause, who is now a special scout with the Arizona Diamondbacks.
The core of the Bulls championship team—Jordan, Pippen and Grant and, later, Phil Jackson—famously had a difficult relationship with Krause, and I wasn’t sure he would want to talk about it, especially since he’s always been a secretive guy. But I reached Krause at his favorite place, on the road, scouting talent—he’s a baseball bird-dogger at heart—and we had a good discussion.
Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, Krause talked even more enthusiastically about the following season, when Jordan was off playing baseball and the Bulls did not win a championship.
“That was the most fun because we played better as a team than we ever did,” said Krause. “Phil did his best coaching job ever. I was so proud of a group of players that could lose the best player in the game and get as far as they did.” (The Bulls lost in seven games to the Knicks in the Eastern semis.) Krause later called to emphasize that his comment was not intended as a commentary on Jordan, who never hesitated to rag on him. Well, you be the judge.
There are several other interesting details in the piece, such as Grant’s admitted anger at Jackson’s giving Jordan and Pippen so much time off in the preseason; the degree to which the entire dynamic of the Suns changed when Barkley arrived; and everyone’s memories of Games 3 and 5, the only two the Suns won, in unlikely fashion, in the Windy City.
For me, though, the most interesting part is the discussion about the decisive Paxson jumper, how vividly everyone remembers it but deconstructs it a little differently. Ainge comes off as the goat for leaving Paxson, but let me emphasize a point that I didn’t have a chance to do in the oral history format:
I don’t think Ainge is at fault for the breakdown that left Paxson, one of the game’s most accurate three-point shooters, open.
As Ainge shades toward Paxson, Pippen breaks free from Barkley and is dribbling untouched down the middle of the court. It is not only human nature to help but probably the right play. And once Ainge makes that commitment, he is no man’s land and …
Well, you can read for yourself. Hope you enjoy it.