SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — In the hours before his enshrinement here at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, a humbled Jerry Reinsdorf has the face of a reluctant inductee.
He believes that players and coaches belong in the Hall, not executives.
But that didn’t stop the letters from coming in — from Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson — urging the Hall of Fame to induct the owner who presided over six NBA championships in the 1990s.
“There’s still some people who think (Jordan and I) didn’t have a good relationship, so I think that puts that to rest,” Reinsdorf said of the Jordan letter. “Michael and I always got along.”
Friday, Reinsdorf will join Shaquille O’Neal, Yao Ming, Allen Iverson, Tom Izzo, Sheryl Swoopes and the late Zelmo Beaty and coach John McLendon in the Class of 2016.
“I've said many times, the only real skill I have is finding good people. I'm proud of that,” Reinsdorf said. "Otherwise, I'm not quite sure how to put it, but these are great players. I'm just a business guy. I still don't quite understand why I'm going in. I really don't. But since they want to do it, I'm very happy to accept."
Before winning those six titles, the Bulls had to find a way to get past the Detroit Pistons. But there was another team, arguably more talented, that provided a roadblock of their own: the Cleveland Cavaliers. Led by Mark Price, Brad Daugherty, Ron Harper and Larry Nance, the Cavs could have been a dynasty of their own. Just look at that 1988-89 regular season. They went 6-0 against the Bulls, including the final game in which the Cavs rested Price, Daugherty and Nance and they still beat the Bulls by six at Chicago Stadium just days before the two teams met in the first round of the playoffs.
But two weeks later, a possible Cavaliers dynasty burned to the ground at the old Richfield Coliseum thanks to Jordan’s legendary shot over Craig Ehlo that clinched the series.
It was also the moment when Reinsdorf believed that the Bulls were on the verge of greatness.
“That was the first time I really thought we had a chance to succeed. I remember when Michael made that shot, I was jumping up and down with Jerry Krause and Karen Stack and 18,000 people were in dead silence and all of a sudden I realized we were in the wrong place to be jumping up and down and we better get the bleep out of there. To me, that will always be the highlight. Even though it wasn’t the championship, that’s when it all started."
Ask Reinsdorf for his favorite Bulls team, and his answers will very likely surprise you because none of them have a ring. And none of them have Jordan.
“My favorite team of all the Bulls teams was 1993-94,” Reinsdorf said. “They come to camp and Michael is gone. (Toni) Kukoc has come over from Europe to play with Michael, and all of a sudden Michael is gone. They hung together and won 55 games. We should have gone another round, at least, but for that brutal (official’s) call against New York. My liking for a team isn’t based on just how good it was but how good was it in relation to how good it should have been. That team overachieved its talent level. That was a great team.”
When Jordan returned to the Bulls, they needed a rebounder to fill the void left by Horace Grant. The best candidate was former Bulls nemesis Dennis Rodman, who the San Antonio Spurs were willing to trade for Will Perdue.
What did Reinsdorf think when Krause, the former Bulls general manager, presented the idea to him?
“I think I said, ‘You want to bring Dennis Rodman here? Remember what he had done to Scottie in Detroit?’ But I remember Phil saying after we lost to Orlando (in the 1995 playoffs) we needed someone, in his words, ‘to fetch the ball.’ We spoke to Michael and Scottie, and they were all for it. We wouldn’t have done it if they were against it.”
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With the Worm aboard, the Bulls won three more NBA titles. Each of the six championships are like children to Reinsdorf. He can’t choose one over the other. They were all special in their own right.
The challenge during that time was to cherish them as they occurred because he didn't know if the team would ever win again.
“I kept trying to remind myself that it wasn’t going to last forever, so enjoy it,” Reinsdorf said. “Every year was different. People forget we were down 0-2 to the Knicks in the (1993) conference finals. The Knicks had a better record and we didn’t have home-court advantage in the conference finals and Finals, and I think Michael got burned out on that one. I remember leaving New York on the way to the airport (down 0-2) and talking to Phil and saying, ‘If we lose, we have to lose with dignity. Let’s not do it like the Pistons did.’ He assured me if we did in fact lose, it would be with class, but we never had to find out.”
At the induction ceremony on Friday, Reinsdorf will be presented on stage by Pippen and Jackson. Jordan is unable to attend because of a scheduling conflict.
“It would have been nice to have all three of them, but he just couldn’t be here.”
Most of all, Reinsdorf wishes his former general manager was inducted before him.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Jerry Krause. When I was told (of being inducted), my first reaction was I’d rather it be Krause. But it isn’t Krause, it’s me, and I didn’t turn it down,” he said laughing.
As for this upcoming season, the Bulls were on the verge of rebuilding. But all of that changed when Dwyane Wade decided to he wanted to come back to his hometown and play for the Bulls.
His signing shocked everybody — including Reinsdorf.
“I thought for sure (Wade) would go back to Miami,” Reinsdorf admitted. “It’s a tremendous addition not only as a player but the culture. Right off the bat he wanted to know what he could do in the community. He has his own plans, and so does Rajon (Rondo). I think these guys will be a real plus.
“Despite the fact that some of the (media) seem to think we got older, we have a pretty young team. So the older players are going to be great mentors for our seven guys with three years or less of service.
"I think we're going to be competitive. I'm not predicting anything. But remember, as bad as we were last year, we beat Cleveland three out of four and Toronto four out of four."
With the nucleus of Derrick Rose, Jimmy Butler, Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol, Reinsdorf believed they had a chance to add a seventh title to the Bulls' collection. But like the Cavs teams from the 1990s and countless others, it doesn’t always work out the way you plan it.
“I had high hopes for the last group,” Reinsdorf said. “I thought they could contend for titles, maybe win, but certainly contend. It was certainly disappointing, all those injuries to Derrick. It’s not easy to win. Doug Collins told me, ‘It’s not solitaire; other people are trying to beat you.'”
In those six magical seasons in the 90s, no one could beat the Chicago Bulls. Two decades later, we continue to celebrate them — and always will.
Friday, another piece from that era will be enshrined in Springfield. Reinsdorf might not have played the game, but he played a pivotal role in making the Bulls an NBA dynasty.
“I’m proud of the fact I was able to surround myself with great people who did great things and it resulted in the Bulls being a global brand and winning championships and a factor in the community,” Reinsdorf explained. “I’ve said many times, any real skill I have is finding great people, and I’m proud of that because those people have done great things.”