When I started reading Sam Smith’s The Jordan Rules, which chronicled the Chicago Bulls’ first championship season in 1991, I knew the Pistons would loom large in the background, so I wanted to be vigilant about cool side-stories involving the Pistons I could excerpt and talk about in this post. Well, it turns out, I was putting a dog-ear in about every other page before realizing that the effort would be futile. The book is full of great anecdotes involving the Pistons-Bulls hatred. As a young fan growing up during the rivalry, I obviously digested it purely from a Piston perspective. The Bulls were soft, they were whiny, Jordan got kid-gloves treatment from the officials. More importantly, the Pistons were a team. The Bulls were a group of individuals.
Interestingly, that concept wasn’t lost on the Bulls. Although they certainly hated Detroit, several players throughout the book pointed out that very concept — Detroit won by supporting each other, by having its stars sacrifice numbers for wins. That was the gift the Pistons gave Chicago, teaching them after several disappointing (for Chicago) playoff losses what it actually took to break through and win a championship. It was interesting to relive that rivalry from the other side, to read the negative perceptions of Pistons players after growing up with the glowingly positive reviews of everyone on the Bad Boys that you get in home-state coverage of any team.
It’s hard to pick out just a few sections, but I’ll try below.
First, the title of the book comes from a term Chuck Daly used to describe how the team would defend Jordan:
Chuck Daly, a man who appreciated the arts, was not particularly enamored of Jordan’s work, and after the 1988 game the Pistons instituted ‘the Jordan rules’ and the campaign to allow what the Bulls believes was the legalized assault on Michael Jordan.
The Pistons had two of the league’s best man-to-man defenders, Joe Dumars and Dennis Rodman, to carry out those assignments. Jordan grudgingly accepted Dumars, with whom he’d become somewhat friendly at the 1990 All-Star game; Dumars was quiet and resolute, a gentlemanly professional. But Jordan didn’t care much for Rodman’s play. “He’s a flopper,” Jordan would say disdainfully. “He just falls down and tries to get calls. That’s not good defense.” Rodman once “flopped” so effectively back in the 1988-89 season that Jordan drew six fouls in the fourth quarter to foul out in the last minute of a close loss to the Pistons.
I remember when Rodman was traded to the Bulls before the 1996 season, thinking it was a big deal just because of the rivalry between teams, but this book really goes into detail in parts about how much Jordan actually hated playing against Rodman. It’s interesting, given Jordan’s well-known penchant for holding grudges, that he was cool with the team acquiring a player he hated so much. Actually, it speaks to how much Jordan evolved from a stats-chasing player obsessed with scoring titles to a complete player obsessed with winning.
But former Pistons were actually close to joining the Bulls when the Pistons-Bulls rivalry was still near its peak, way before Rodman had ended up in Chicago. Rick Mahorn, who went to Minnesota in the expansion draft, was a Bulls’ target until the team became concerned about his bad back and balked at giving up a first round pick for him. Another player who the Bulls kicked the tires on during that season was Adrian Dantley, who was then a free agent. Phil Jackson didn’t feel like Dantley’s ball-stopping ways would work in the triangle offense, so the team eventually passed on signing him. But there was one name that was far more surprising than the others. Smith doesn’t go into a lot of detail on this, but check out this passage:
Meanwhile, the Bulls also wanted to add a big guard. All of their guards other than Jordan were 6-2 or under — that’s why Chicago rejected the overtures of Detroit free agent Vinnie Johnson — and a big guard playing alongside Jordan would give Detroit matchup problems the way Milwaukee did with Jay Humphries, Alvin Robertson and Ricky Pierce.
The thought of a player as beloved and important as Johnson possibly leaving the Pistons for the Bulls is hard to fathom. It certainly would’ve weakened the Pistons and probably made that rivalry even more intense, even if the Pistons were at about the end of the line as a dominant team heading into the 90-91 season.
There are also some great background instances in the hatred between Jordan and Isiah Thomas. The All-Star freeze-out allegedly orchestrated by Thomas was obviously a big motivator in the feud for Jordan, but Smith points out that Thomas had jealousies of Jordan as a result of Jordan attaining superstardom in Isiah’s hometown of Chicago. When a desperately impatient Jordan was putting more and more pressure on the team to trade players, team owner Jerry Reinsdorf hit MJ with what, to Jordan, was about the worst insult possible in response to Jordan’s public complaints about the roster:
“Well,” Reinsdorf pointed out to Jordan, “you’re not helping any. We’re working on several deals, but every time you come out criticizing the general manager, it makes it look like Jerry (Krause) has to do something and that makes it harder on us. People start thinking we’re desperate and want to take advantage of us.”
(Jordan) wanted Horace Grant out, among others. He was going to start going public with his complaints. “Do you want people to start thinking about you like they do Isiah Thomas?” Reinsdorf said. It stopped Jordan in his tracks.
The Pistons-Bulls interactions were obviously the draw for me, but the book is a great behind-the-scenes look at the NBA in general — basically, all of the things executives and coaches have to worry about, how playing time/stats equate to money in the minds of players, how delicate it is to try and massage so many egos. Jordan’s verbal assaults on Jerry Krause (or, as Jordan called him in the book, ‘Crumbs’, because of all of the donut crumbs that were allegedly always on Krause’s lapel), the way Pippen perennially felt under-appreciated, what it took Grant to grow and become the tough force on the boards the Bulls needed him to be, the impact of veterans like Paxson, Cartwright and Craig Hodges, it’s all fascinating to anyone who was a NBA fan in that era and it’s a great way to learn about teams that helped lay the groundwork for what the league has evolved into today.
Next book club post will discuss Loose Balls, Terry Pluto’s history of the ABA.