Sam Smith's book gives the backstory on the Bulls' first championship.
It’s hard to remember now, but Michael Jordan was not always a six-time champion with an impeccable resume on his way to this weekend’s Hall of Fame induction.
In fact, he and the Chicago Bulls did not break through and win a championship until his seventh season.
Their major barrier: the Detroit Pistons. Masterfully coached by the late Chuck Daly, the “Bad Boys” from the Motor City defeated Jordan’s squad three consecutive years from 1988 to 1990.
Daly devised a special defensive strategy, called “The Jordan Rules.” The goal was to ensure that Jordan did not beat the Pistons by frequently double teaming him and thereby getting the ball out of his hands and by wearing him down physically.
For a time, it worked.
In 1991, though, Jordan had a vastly improved team featuring an emerging Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, center Bill Cartwright and the steady John Paxson in the backcourt.
This squad swept the Pistons and went on to beat Magic Johnson’s Lakers in five games in the finals.
The victory led to the iconic image of Jordan holding the trophy in tears as his father James lovingly massaged his neck and shoulders.
Chicago Tribune sportswriter Sam Smith chronicled the first championship season, as well as many before and after, and gives a behind-the-scenes look at the action in The Jordan Rules.
Smith’s title has a double meaning.
In addition to the defense that Daly devised and his team implemented, it refers to the two sets of rules for Bulls during Phil Jackson’s tenure: one for Michael, and one for everyone else.
Smith’s book has a gossipy and prescient feel, as Jordan’s supernatural talent is depicted in descriptions and anecdotes guaranteed to bring a knowing smile to the face of Bulls’ fans.
One such nugget has Jordan dunking on the far smaller John Stockton of the Utah Jazz, prompting a fan to yell at him to pick on someone his own size.
The next trip downcourt, Jordan flushed the ball over the 6’11”, 270-pound Mel Turpin.
On the way back on defense, he turned to the fan and asked, “Is he big enough?”
The book also has a gossipy and prescient feel, as Smith shows Jordan already being somewhat of a prisoner of his immense fame and often treating teammates unkindly.
Some of the less appealing moments come when he flashes a bunch of tickets in the faces of teammates who are unable to get any. He psychologically destroys Brad Sellers, whom he deems unfit to play in the NBA. His cruelty toward General Manager Jerry Krause, who contributes to his own humiliation by not understanding the boundaries between players and front office workers, comes through, too.
The Jordan Rules is not pure snark, though.
Smith shows Jackson trying to expand his team’s horizons by talking about the first Gulf War-one that the former Craig Hodges opposes.
The book is also the story of team coming together and accepting their coach’s triangle offense and underlying message that they must trust each other in order to reach their ultimate goal.
One of the book’s most memorable scenes comes during a timeout in the final game of the championship series.
Jackson repeatedly asking Jordan, each time with increasing force and volume, who is open.
“Pax,” Jordan finally answers.
“Then get him the fucking ball,” Jackson replies.
Jordan does. Paxson knocks down four jumpers down the stretch. The Bulls become champions.
The Jordan Rules is neither great literature nor even particularly high quality sportswriting. Still, for fans preparing for this weekend’s induction and hungering for some memory of the days when the dynasty began, it may be just what they need.