When you think of the 1990s Bulls, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson are the first names that come to mind. Those three were larger-than-life figures in Chicago, with Jordan and Jackson arguably the best at their respective jobs in NBA history.
But as great as that trio was, it's tough to win a title, let alone six in eight years, without a strong supporting cast. The '90s Bulls had just that. More accurately, they had two "just thats."
To begin this story, we must travel back to 1985, when a young point guard named John Paxson signed with the Bulls after two forgettable years with the San Antonio Spurs to start his NBA career. Paxson was the No. 19 pick in the 1983 draft, but he saw limited minutes in San Antonio and bolted for Chicago for a better opportunity.
It took a few more years before Bulls general manager Jerry Krause put together the rest of the pieces that would form the first three-peat squad. The 1987 draft was obviously key, with the Bulls acquiring Pippen in a draft-day trade and then selecting Clemson forward Horace Grant with the No. 10 pick.
The selection of Grant made big man Charles Oakley expendable, paving the way for the trade of Oakley to the New York Knicks for Bill Cartwright. Jordan, who was good friends with Oakley, steadfastly opposed the deal, and the two actually found out about it on television while they were on the way to Las Vegas for a Mike Tyson fight. But the Bulls needed a defensive-minded center, and Cartwright wound up being a major factor in getting past the Knicks in the playoffs because of his play against Patrick Ewing.
The Bulls used the draft to round out a good chunk of the rest of the first title-winning roster. From 1988-90, the Bulls selected Will Perdue, B.J. Armstrong, Stacey King and Scott Williams. In addition to them, Chicago signed veterans Craig Hodges and Cliff Levingston while also trading for Dennis Hopson. Hopson only spent one-plus season in Chicago before being dealt to the Sacramento Kings for Bob Hansen at the beginning of the 1991-92 season.
When the 1990-91 season rolled around, the Bulls had spent the last three seasons losing in the postseason to their bitter rival, the Detroit Pistons. The two prior years ended in the Eastern Conference Finals, with the 1990 series going seven games. Chicago finally got over the Detroit hump in the 1991 East Finals, sweeping away the Pistons and finally staking their claim as kings of the East.
After losing Game 1 of the 1991 NBA Finals at home to the Los Angeles Lakers, the Bulls went on to win the next four to earn the franchise's first championship. In the clinching Game 5 at the Great Western Forum, Jordan and Pippen led the way with a combined 62 points, but Paxson was the unsung hero. With the Bulls trailing in the fourth quarter, Paxson sparked a big run, scoring 10 points down the stretch to secure the first title. As dramatically recounted by Sam Smith's landmark The Jordan Rules, Phil Jackson implored Jordan to look for Paxson because Magic Johnson was helping off him. Jordan did and Paxson led the Bulls to victory.
The personnel didn't really change much for the second title, with the main exception being Hansen. Although Hansen didn't play that much during the year, he found himself in a pressure situation in Game 6 of the 1992 NBA Finals against the Portland Trail Blazers. The Bulls were looking to clinch the series at home, but they found themselves down 15 points heading to the fourth quarter. Jackson, looking for a spark, replaced Jordan with Hansen. The veteran guard rewarded Jackson's decision, nailing a three-pointer and nabbing a steal that led to a Pippen layup to cut the deficit to 10. During a Portland timeout, Hansen asked Jordan if he wanted back in, only Jordan declined. With Jordan on the bench, Chicago went on a 14-2 run before the best player in the world came back to seal the deal.
The 1992-93 team did see some new faces, but it was some familiar ones that were involved with two of the more infamous plays of the postseason. In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Knicks, the Bulls led by one in the closing seconds. And then this happened:
And then, in Game 6 of the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns, there was this:
Paxson's game-winning three were the only points scored by a non-Jordan Bull in the entire fourth quarter of that game.
Following Jordan's first retirement, the overhaul of the supporting cast began. Players like Grant, Armstrong, Paxson and Cartwright were still around, but the 1993-94 season also saw the additions of Toni Kukoc, Steve Kerr, Luc Longley and Bill Wennington. All four of those players would perform key roles in the second three-peat.
Kukoc's backstory is well known. The Bulls drafted Kukoc in the second round of the 1990 draft, and during initial negotiations to try and bring him stateside, Krause declined to give Pippen, a budding superstar, a larger contract because he wanted to use the money under the salary cap to sign Kukoc. After it was apparent Kukoc was staying in Europe for a while, Pippen did get more money, but the resentment remained.
In the 1992 Olympics, The Dream Team faced off against Kukoc's Croatian squad. Pippen and Jordan made it their mission to shut down Kukoc in order to get back at Krause, and their mission was an immense success. Kukoc was harassed into a 2-of-11 shooting night as the U.S. easily won 103-70, and The Dream Team would go on to beat Croatia again in the gold-medal game.
Kukoc was initially disappointed at missing the opportunity to play with Jordan, but he would get his chance when Jordan returned to the NBA in 1995. When Jordan did make his return, the supporting cast looked nearly entirely different from the first three-peat. Paxson retired, while both Grant and Cartwright left in free agency. Besides Pippen, the only other holdovers were Armstrong and Perdue, and both of them would be gone before the record-breaking 1995-96 season.
The 1994-95 team did have some key additions in Ron Harper and Jud Buechler, two men who played on all three Bulls teams during the second three-peat. Dickey Simpkins was also drafted in 1994, and although Simpkins played sparingly and was even traded in 1997 to the Golden State Warriors for Scott Burrell, he did return during the 1997-98 season to earn a third ring.
Dennis Rodman, of course, was the major addition. Formerly of the Bad Boy Pistons that gave the Bulls so much trouble in the 80s, Rodman was acquired from the San Antonio Spurs in 1995, and the cagy veteran went on to play three wild seasons in Chicago. When he wasn't grabbing rebounds or getting under the skin of opponents like Karl Malone, he was head-butting officials, kicking camera men in the groin and participating in wrestling matches with Hulk Hogan, among other odd things (the wedding thing, anybody?).
There were other players who would find their names on the championship banners hanging in the rafters at the United Center following the second three-peat, like Randy Brown, Jason Caffey and the late Bison Dele (then Brian Williams). But outside of Jordan, Pippen and Rodman, Kukoc and Kerr were the two most notable. Kukoc won the Sixth Man of the Year award in 1996 and was the Bulls' third-leading scorer during the title years. Kerr was a sharp shooter off the bench who hit the title-clinching shot in the 1997 NBA Finals against the Utah Jazz:
At the ensuing championship rally at Grant Park in Chicago, Kerr delivered his version of how the shot came to be to the delight of the throngs of fans:
While most of the names changed between the three-peats, the fact remains the same: The Bulls likely don't win six titles in eight years without the immense contributions of the superb supporting cast that lived in the shadows of the team's stars. The Paxsons and Kerrs of the world don't usually get all the headlines, but they deserve all the credit in the world for helping make a dynasty a reality in Chicago.