Bulls

Kobe Bryant idolized Michael Jordan, and thus always respected the Bulls

Kobe Bryant idolized Michael Jordan, and thus always respected the Bulls

Kobe Bryant had two dalliances with the Bulls.

In July 2004, a Lakers’ three-peat ran its course with back-to-back playoff exits, including a 2004 Finals loss. Phil Jackson left as coach. The Bryant-Shaquille O’Neal relationship no longer functioned on or off the court.

One year after succeeding Jerry Krause as the Bulls’ top basketball executive, John Paxson flew to Newport Beach, Calif., with Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf to pitch Bryant in free agency. Bryant liked what he heard.

In the pre-social media age, Bryant liked even more that the Bulls kept their pursuit quiet. A full week passed before any media outlet reported the meeting.

“We were looking at houses, we were looking at schools,” Bryant told the Chicago Tribune in December 2004. “We already were talking about a sign-and-trade.”

Even if O’Neal hadn’t requested a trade that landed him with the Heat, there’s no guarantee the Bulls would’ve acquired Bryant. The Clippers pursued him as well.

As it was, Bryant re-signed with the Lakers and eventually won two more championships. But those came after Bryant made noise about wanting a trade during the 2007 offseason and again expressed interest in the Bulls’ nucleus.

Reports of the Bulls refusing to part with Luol Deng were greatly exaggerated. For starters, Bryant wanted to end up with the Bulls only if Deng played for them. Furthermore, the Lakers engaged in non-serious trade talks mainly to appease Bryant, who eventually calmed.

Both those scenarios came to mind with Sunday’s heartbreaking news that Bryant, 41, died in a helicopter accident near Los Angeles. One of his four daughters was killed as well.

“The Chicago Bulls organization is terribly saddened about the sudden passing of Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna, and the other passengers in today’s horrific helicopter crash in California,” Paxson said in a statement. “While he leaves us far too soon, his legacy and persona will forever be remembered. One of the best to have ever played the game of basketball, we extend our deepest sympathies to the Bryant family and the other families affected.”

The Bulls never acquired Bryant, but the mutual respect between them always stood out. Beyond Bryant’s appreciation for Paxson and Reinsdorf’s 2004 pitch, this was guaranteed because the Bulls once employed Michael Jordan.

Bryant never hid his desire to 'Be Like Mike.' He walked like him, talked like him, won one fewer championship than him and relished having his cutthroat competitiveness compared to his idol’s.

That’s why, on his final visit to the United Center, Bryant spoke so eloquently about the influence Jordan had on him. And why, if he had ever become a Bull, the honor would have been his.

“No words can really do it justice,” Bryant said on Feb. 21, 2016. “As a kid growing up in Italy, all I had was video. And so I studied everything. I studied every player. And then once I came back to the States and I realized I wasn’t going to be 6-9, I started studying Michael exclusively. And then when I came into the league and matched up against him, I found that he was extremely open to having a relationship, a mentoring relationship. He gave me a great amount of advice in an amazing amount of detail — strategies, workout regimens, things like that.

“Seriously, I don’t think people really understand the amount of impact he has had on me as a player and as a leader. So if I was fortunate to come here, if that trade had happened, it’s not a pressure situation to live up to what he has done. It’s more can I carry on the man’s legacy? Can I do it justice? Can I represent Chicago the way it should be represented in his honor?”

Attention Dish and Sling customers! You have lost your Bulls games on NBC Sports Chicago. To switch providers, visit mysportschicago.com.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.

Bulls observations: How the Bulls' defense corralled Shaq and broke the Magic

Bulls observations: How the Bulls' defense corralled Shaq and broke the Magic

My word, the Magic are toast. The Bulls went up 3-0 in the 1996 Eastern Conference Finals with a smothering 86-67 win in Orlando. Observations:

Some wonky free throw shooting

Considering the Bulls’ status as perhaps the greatest team of all time, and the Orlando Magic’s reputation as supremely talented and formidable in their own right, the putrid free throw shooting in this one was a bit difficult to wrap one’s head around.

The Bulls finished the night 18-for-31 from the charity stripe, the Magic 10-for-24 (though most of that can be chalked up to Shaquille O’Neal’s 1-for-9 outing). And on technical free throws, the two teams combined to go 0-for-5. 

 

At one point, Michael Jordan was captured on the Bulls’ bench attributing a missed technical to sweat in his eyes (come on, now). NBC color commentator Matt Goukas offered the arduous brand of defense played by both sides to their dead legs at the line.

Whatever the case, it was weird. Even Jordan wasn’t immune; he started the night 2-for-6 on free throws and finished 6-for-11. 

Corralling Shaq

The Bulls did an outrageous job on O’Neal tonight. In the first half, he logged just eight points on miserable 4-for-11 shooting. His line for the night: 17 points, 8-for-19 from the field and five turnovers.

The beauty is there isn’t one person to credit for the Bulls’ impressive handling of O’Neal — perhaps the single most physically imposing player in the league at the time. The rotating cast of bigs (Luc Longley and Dennis Rodman, specifically) were more than serviceable making him work in single coverage. And from a scheming perspective, the double-teams the Bulls did utilize were perfectly timed and deployed. They didn’t come every possession, and when they did, they didn’t always come from the same person, from the same direction or at the same time.

That was the beauty of this team: Virtually any player in the regular rotation — from Jordan to Pippen to Harper to Kukoc — could be trusted to time their attack deftly and bother O’Neal’s dribbling with active hands and physicality. The result was O’Neal frequently fumbling the rock while executing routine back-downs, bricking bunnies and generally appearing uncomfortable — at times, even frustrated.

When it was winning time, O’Neal and Penny Hardaway (who, it should be noted, has had some crazy smooth moments in this series) combined for five points. Greatest defense of all time. 

When the Bulls flip the switch…

In that vein… Man. When this Bulls team wants to break you, they break you.

The Magic hung around for a while in this one, and give them credit for that. In the third, they shaved a double-digit deficit to just three points, and appeared to be on pace to give the Bulls a real test in the first game of this series on Orlando’s home court. All amid pedestrian performances from their two stars — even through three, O’Neal and Hardaway had just 15 points each. 

Then, that fourth quarter happened. I mentioned O’Neal and Hardaway’s foibles in that period. As a team, the Magic mustered just 10 points in the final frame, 29 in the second half and 67 for the game. And even listing that 10-point fourth quarter belies the fact that five of those points came in the final two-and-a-half minutes of regulation, and they began the period shooting 1-for-13.

This Magic team had two of the most electrifying players in the league at the time and was fresh off a Finals berth. Yes, they were banged up (Horace Grant’s series ended in Game 1 and Nick Anderson limped off the floor in the fourth), but when the Bulls lock in, they just looked so helpless. Most teams did, I’m beginning to see.

This stat says it all:

 

The Magic entered the fourth trailing 63-57. They ended losers by a score of 86-67. 90s basketball, baby.

Some signature nights

Scottie Pippen’s night warrants extended mention and celebration. In the box score, he shot 11-for-14 (after starting 9-for-10) to lead the game in scoring with 27 points. He also — typically — added seven assists, six rebounds and two blocks for good measure.

One of those blocks came on a preposterous chasedown midway through the second quarter. Even more preposterous was Pippen, seemingly in one fluid motion, stripping the ball out of a Magic player’s arms as he descended from making the block in the first place. His jumper was on, his ballhandling and fastbreak work as fluid as ever. He’s awesome. 

And in addition to Rodman grinding down O’Neal, he had a signature night all-around, as well. He finished with nine points, 16 rebounds (moving his averages for the series to 12.3 points and 16.3 rebounds) and four fouls — one of them a technical in the first quarter and one a tone-setting personal on Shaq in the fourth.

These guys are beaten. The Bulls seal the sweep Monday at 7 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago. Jordan left this one early and banged up, but we have a feeling he’ll bounce back nicely.

Every other night through April 15, NBC Sports Chicago is airing the entirety of the Bulls' 1996 NBA championship run. Find the full schedule here.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.

Scottie Pippen explains why second half of Bulls' title run was more special

Scottie Pippen explains why second half of Bulls' title run was more special

ESPN’s “The Last Dance” documentary series is going to get plenty of attention with the rest of the sports world on hold.

The series will focus on the Bulls’ final title season, 1997-98, and was recently moved up to debut on April 19.

Scottie Pippen talked about those title years for the Bulls in a recent episode of his ESPN show, “The Jump.” He explained what it was like knowing the 1997-98 season would be the team’s last run together.

“For me, it was really everything coming to a head for us,” Pippen said. “A great run through the 90s. Dennis [Rodman] had came and joined us the second half of that run, and that part was really the more special part because we were the best team in basketball for a long time, and no one knocked us off. Knowing that that was the end of our run and that we had to end it that way, we made it very special, and we wanted to end it with a championship.”

It’s noteworthy that Pippen says the second three-peat felt more special than the first. It would make sense for the team’s first title to be special because it was the breakthrough, but Pippen likes the fact that the Bulls were able to maintain their throne for so long and never lose a playoff series with a full strength team.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.