In 1997, the Chicago Bulls traveled to Paris to play in the McDonald’s Championship.
With five NBA championships in their rearview mirror, the most popular athlete in the world on their team in Michael Jordan and one more title run to make before the dynasty dismantled, the preseason games weren’t your typical international experience.
They were frenzied affairs.
NBC Sports Chicago interviewed several people associated with the trip for this oral history, several of whom also will be in Paris for Thursday’s regular-season game against the Detroit Pistons. In fact, executive vice president Artūras Karnišovas led his Olympiacos team with 18 points in the final that the Bulls won 104-78.
Like then, the Bulls remain a globally recognized brand. And Paris remains a crown jewel of a city.
Bill Wennington, reserve center on the 1997-98 Bulls and now the team’s radio analyst: It was in the Fall so the weather was beautiful. It was nice to walk around.
Steve Kerr, reserve guard on the 1997-98 Bulls and now the Golden State Warriors head coach: Everyone brought their wife or significant other. It was a pretty unique experience to be in Paris for five days during the Bulls’ heyday.
Chip Schaefer, head athletic trainer on the 1997-98 Bulls and now the team’s Director of Performance Health: Frankly, my most dominant memory is a really wonderful week with my wife.
Toni Kukoc, reserve forward on the 1997-98 Bulls and now a team ambassador: How many NBA players get to go to Paris? It’s one of the best cities in the world. And basketball is huge in Europe.
Wennington: I remember getting off the plane and going straight to practice. There were people outside waiting for us. It was like, ‘How did you know we were going to practice right away?’ And this was before Twitter and Instagram. It wasn’t like someone could put a Tweet out and there’d be a thousand people converging. They were just waiting.
Kukoc: The European crowds are always excited to see the NBA. But they were really, really excited.
Brian McIntyre, retired NBA senior vice president, basketball communications: By then, I’d been in a number of cities with the traveling Michael Jordan show. They came in like rock stars.
Wennington: We went to the Eiffel Tower to take a picture as a team. That was cool to have that. I had been to the Eiffel Tower before. But to have that snapshot with the team was special.
Kukoc: That picture was great.
McIntyre: We were there not long after Princess Di died. There was still a big buzz about that in Paris. There was a lot of security.
Wennington: Michael obviously couldn’t go anywhere because he would’ve been mobbed. I did some off-the-court stuff for WGN. I’d get recognized but it wasn’t anything too crazy. I remember going with (retired WGN sportscaster) Dan Roan to a couple different restaurants and living the Parisian life. I wore a red beret. We had baguettes and cheese and wine. We did touristy stuff like that. We had a lot of fun.
THE SEASON’S SIGNIFICANCE
McIntyre: I remember being at a meeting in a stairway of the hotel where we were staying. Phil Jackson, (executive producer) Andy Thompson, Gregg Winik from NBA Entertainment, (longtime Bulls media relations chief) Tim (Hallam) and myself. Those were the first kind of like seeds of “The Last Dance.” I remember the NBA Entertainment guys were like, ‘OK, here’s what we want to do. We want to film you guys throughout the year.’ That was the meeting with Phil to let him in on the idea and get some feedback and fill the Bulls in to what they were trying to do. It wasn’t resolved there or anything like that. As I recall, the wide parameters were, ‘We want to be there for everything. We’re not trying to embarrass you. We just want to document what could be a historic season.’ Phil saw enough in it where he saw the value. Some coaches wouldn’t have. But he did.
Schaefer: Scottie (Pippen) wasn’t there because of the foot (surgery). Dennis (Rodman) wasn’t there because of the contract. And the teams we were playing were already in pretty good shape. Michael had to be Michael both games for us to leave with wins.
Kerr: We were hit pretty hard with injuries. So it was Michael and a bunch of scrubs. (laughs)
Karnišovas: We played in the semifinals against the Argentine team and we barely beat them, 89-86. Then we played the Chicago Bulls.
Schaefer: We played the French team (PSG Racing) in the semifinals. I don’t remember the score [EDITOR’S NOTE: 89-82]. But I remember we had to work really hard to win the game. And Michael had to work a lot harder than he would’ve preferred to without having Dennis or Scottie to help him.
Kukoc: That whole tournament, I wasn’t playing so well. I had plantar fasciitis so bad. I was off any kind of running or dribbling for months.
Schaefer: Obviously, the biggest cheers were for Michael. But I remember Toni got huge ovations. The European fans were chanting for Toni. The chant went something like “Toni, Toni, Toni Kukoc!” (singing)
Kukoc: That’s the people from Benetton Treviso. Instead of like, “We Will Rock You,” they would go, “Toni, Toni, Kukoc, Kukoc.” It wasn’t “We Will, We Will, Rock You, Rock You.” It was “Toni, Toni, Kukoc, Kukoc.” (singing) I remember talking to Mr. and Mrs. Benetton because Benetton was playing in the tournament. We had a fun time reminiscing about my time playing with Benetton Treviso. I loved going back to Europe to play.
McIntyre: The McDonalds’ Championship was the premier preseason game.
Kerr: The final game was packed.
Karnišovas: Actually, before the game, they didn’t know if MJ was going to play or not because he had a toe problem.
Schaefer: Michael had an infection in his foot that required some management. We had our hands full.
Karnišovas: But he ended up playing and playing pretty well. (laughs)
Wennington: Artūras was probably the best player on their team. He played really well against us. I remember him scoring a lot. But I guarded (future Bull) Dragan Tarlac. And I know for me, there were rumors that (then-general manager Jerry Krause) wanted him in Chicago and was going to sign him. So I had to play well over there. It puts a little added pressure on for me. But it was fun.
Karnišovas: It wasn’t fun guarding MJ. (laughs) Everyone else guarded him but me. I was mainly on Toni. Everyone tried to get in a photo shot with MJ.
Schaefer: Michael kind of carried us.
Karnišovas: The game wasn’t very close. [104-78] We kind of hung in there first half and then it just got away from us. Obviously, they went on to win another championship that year. And you gotta realize at that time when you play the Chicago Bulls, they’re already five-time world champions going for the sixth. Obviously growing up, MJ being your favorite player and, you know, I played in the ‘92 Olympics against the Dream Team and now ‘97 against the Bulls, those are amazing experiences. Obviously going into the game, you want to win. That doesn’t work out very well. I was disappointed it wasn’t closer. I’m sure if MJ wouldn’t be playing that it would be a little bit closer. But it is what it is.