Chicago Bulls, Utah Jazz, and Reliving the NBA's Golden 1990s
Two NBA legends, Scottie Pippen and Karl Malone, are on the verge of being inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
The induction ceremony will be aired on NBA TV at 6 p.m. ET on August 13th.
To celebrate Pippen's and Malone's accomplishments over their respective careers, NBA TV has been airing replays of some of the best games played by the two legends, such as the Chicago Bulls' victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game Six in the '92 Playoffs and the Utah Jazz's win over the Bulls in Game Five of the '98 NBA Finals.
Being able to relive some of the postseason games of the 1990s served as a true eye opener for me. Taking into consideration that such replayed games are some of the best and are not representative, by any means, of all NBA games played during that decade, the eye-opening experience still acted in the same manner.
Quite frankly, I was surprised.
I was surprised by the brand of NBA basketball played during the '90s.
I was surprised by the physicality of the game, a game without strict hand-checking regulations and varying levels and types of flagrant and technical foul calls, which were far less popular among NBA referees come game time.
Do you think there will ever be a better decade for the NBA than the '90s?
Especially during the playoffs, whistles were swallowed and rules were bent to allow for more physical, grueling play.
Do you find it hard to believe that a league now known and criticized for encouraging its referees to treat star—and superstar—level players preferentially was once much more tolerant of physical play, even when used against upper-echelon players?
If so, then look no further than the physical style of the New York Knicks during the 1990s to see how physical a team could be during that time.
Still not convinced?
If not, then study the chippy, relentless defense of the "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons earlier in the decade.
It is quite clear that '90s-era referees chose to treat elite players, like Michael Jordan, the same as everyone else. They were not placed on a pedestal simply because of their superstar status and marketability on the global stage.
Referees, and especially opposing players, failed to offer any additional assistance or leniency to the elite. In fact, the elite were often the targets of increased physical play, as Jordan learned early in his career.
This created a more honest league.
Entertainment played no role as soon as the players stepped on the floor and the game began. The game was played for the love of the game itself. Competitiveness and intensity were factors as well, of course.
Too often in today's NBA, as I explained in a previous article, the opportunity to be in front of the cameras in prime time and at the center of media attention, which affects players' marketability and global "brand," corrupts the NBA.
That flash and sizzle that most elite players feel they must possess or exhibit muddies the honesty and integrity of the league.
There were no provocative poses after made baskets during the '90s.
Muscles weren't being flexed and opposing players weren't being stood up.
Showboating was a rare occurrence and moral offense.
Pregame dance rituals led by the game's brightest stars and biggest names (yes, LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal) reign supreme, as do powder-throwing performances and chest-beating displays.
Was the time with simple, unspectacular fist pumps, teary celebrations, and heart-felt shows of happiness so long ago?
During the '90s, simple acts of celebration told the whole story.
In a home game against the Utah Jazz in the '98 NBA Finals, the Chicago Bulls' starting point guard, Ron Harper, drained a crucial three-pointer that took the momentum away from the visiting Jazz in the third quarter.
How did he celebrate?
Well, he did nothing spectacular.
Harper raised both fists in the air and smiled, while running back to play defense. He was embraced by a similarly-smiling Michael Jordan, grateful for his teammate's much-needed contribution on the offensive end.
The Bulls guard did not beat his chest or stick up three fingers to signal to the Chicago faithful what he had just done. He did not even taunt the opposing guard, Utah's John Stockton.
No selfish displays of delight were needed. The smile said it all.
Much to my surprise, selfishness, not only in the form of provocative celebrations and egoistic performances in front of the camera, but also in terms of ball movement and distribution on offense, was at a minimum.
Those Chicago Bulls teams of the '90s, not to mention the Pistons and Jazz of that same era, displayed pinpoint passing ability as a team, ultimate commitment to a team system, and a unique willingness to spread the wealth and involve all. Considering the amount of star-power on all of these squads, including Jordan, Pippen, Malone, Stockton, and Isiah Thomas, this is unheard of.
NBA basketball in the 1990s was the last without wide-spread isolation sets and plays centered around the talent of individuals. 1-on-1 offensive schemes, the same in which active players like Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, and Kobe Bryant thrive in, were not yet in effect.
In other words, the '90s was the NBA's rise before the fall.
It was the league's final display of true team basketball before the darkness, brought about by individual selfishness, ensued.
Why was it that Michael Jordan, hailed as the greatest player in the history of the NBA, deferred at times to Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, and Toni Kukoc at certain points of a playoff game?
Why was it that Isiah Thomas, arguably the greatest point guard in NBA history, went out of his way to set up lesser-known role players, like Vinnie Johnson or John Salley, in the Finals?
Why was it that the stars, and even superstars, of the 1990s found it necessary to move the ball around the perimeter or out of the post to keep the offense flowing?
Well, quite simply, they revoked selfishness.
They did not flex their muscles after a game-changing slam dunk or highlight-reel blocked shot. They instead involved lesser-known teammates who were still part of and crucial to the team's success.
They did not dominate the ball in 1-on-1 offensive sets. They chose to celebrate with emotion and fire, but also with respect and dignity.
The starring actors of the '90s chose to do all of these simple, yet surprisingly meaningful, things. Because of them, the movie was so great.
Because of them, the legend of the '90s lives on.
The legend is still alive.
Fortunately, it will never be more alive than at 6 p.m. ET on August 13th, when two of basketball's living legends, who were starring in that same spectacular movie, will join the NBA immortal at last.
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