- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 14, 2006

For the longest time, Michael Jordan sat on a stool in the Chicago Bulls’ locker room and sobbed uncontrollably as his wife, Juanita, and father, James, massaged his arms and shoulders.

Jordan had almost regained his composure when a friend arrived with Michael’s mother, Evelyn, in tow. Then he broke down again as his mom kissed him and patted his cheek.

The date was June 12, 1991, 15 years ago this week, and the world’s greatest basketball player had a right to let his emotions show and flow. For five of his seven seasons, he had led the NBA in scoring while averaging between 31.5 and 37.1 points a game, but critics said he took too many shots, didn’t care about his teammates and wasn’t a winner.

Now he and the Bulls had proved otherwise. With a 108-101 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., Chicago won its first NBA title, and the realization hit Jordan squarely in the tear ducts. He was, in effect, a 28-year-old baby — and totally unashamed of it.

“For seven years, we got closer and closer and closer, and now we did it,” Jordan said after recovering enough to meet the assembled media. “It’s going to take another seven years for this to sink in.”

Perhaps it never did completely, because winning titles would become routine for Jordan and the Bulls. By the time he retired for the second time in 1998, he had six championship rings — more than enough to warm his heart and soul when he returned for two unsatisfying and acrimonious final seasons with the Washington Wizards. Yet the first championship is almost always the best, especially when an athlete as great as Jordan is pestered by unwarranted attacks from every direction.

“After we won the NCAA championship my freshman season [1981-82] at North Carolina, I felt happy but not all that emotional,” Jordan told Sports Illustrated’s Jack McCallum. “This is supposed to happen, right? You come to college, and you win a championship.

“But in the pros, I’ve seen it from the opposite side — all the struggles, all the people saying, ‘He’s not gonna win,’ all the little doubts you have about yourself. You have to put them aside and think positive: ‘I am gonna win! I am a winner!’ And then when you do it, it’s just amazing.”

When the Bulls’ great triumph arrived, it was with surprising ease. They went 61-21 during the regular season and 15-2 in the playoffs. The finals were supposed to be a showdown between Jordan and Magic Johnson, but Chicago won three straight at the Forum to close out the Lakers in five games. That spring, at least, Showtime was strictly a No-Show.

In the finals, Jordan averaged 31.2 points, shooting .558 from the floor, along with 11.4 assists, 6.6 rebounds, 2.8 steals and 1.4 blocked shots. How dominant was he? When an NBA employee distributed Most Valuable Player ballots late in the final game, several reporters asked, “Are you serious?” Of course, Jordan won the award unanimously.

After Game 5 ended, Jordan and Johnson found each other on the crowded floor and hugged as only two great warriors and adversaries can. Even then, it seems, Jordan had surrendered himself to the moment.

“You could see the tears in his eyes,” Magic said. “So much had been put on him as an individual. But he’s proven everyone [i.e.: those nattering nitpickers] wrong.”

Somebody asked Johnson if he had reacted the same way after the Lakers beat Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals during Johnson’s rookie season of 1979-80.

“No, but there’s a good reason for the difference,” Johnson said. “I was so young [20], so unschooled in what it took to win an NBA championship. But I know exactly what Michael is feeling now because I felt that way later in my career, when it took so much more effort and sweat to win it.”

Considering all the loose talk that the Bulls were a one-man team, it was significant that Jordan got plenty of help in the decisive Game 5.

Scottie Pippen, always doomed to play in Michael’s enormous shadow during his own fine career, contributed 32 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists. And John Paxson, now the Bulls’ executive vice president for basketball operations, scored 10 of his 20 points in the last four minutes.

Paxson, who averaged just 8.7 points during the regular season, stuck his final dagger into the Lakers by hitting a jumper in the final minute that gave the Bulls a 105-101 lead. Moments later celebrations started on the Bulls’ bench, among their fans in attendance and throughout Chicago and environs.

A few days later, a man approached Michael in a restaurant and said, “Excuse me, Mr. Jordan. I don’t want to interrupt you or ask for your autograph. I just want to thank you for what you’ve done for the city.”

As Jordan wept in the locker room, hugging the championship trophy, his teammates went wild.

“I’ve sever seen a championship like this,” said coach Phil Jackson, savoring the first of his nine titles with the Bulls and Lakers. “I was with the Knicks when they won in ‘70 and ‘73, but it was nothing like this.”

No wonder. Michael Jordan was king of the NBA, and this was a most fitting if unduly delayed coronation.

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