Michael Jordan needed seven years to lead the Chicago Bulls to their first NBA championship. Once they reached the top, however, they refused to be taken out. Jordan said the Bulls adopted this aura of invincibility from the Boston Celtics teams of the 1980s.
The Celtics of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale loved to talk trash because they understood the hold they had over opponents from a psychological standpoint in addition to dominance on the court. Jordan — quite the trash-talker himself — suggested the Bulls applied that mentality as they began their dynastic run.
Larry Bird and the Celtics dominated Michael Jordan and the Bulls for years
Michael Jordan entered the NBA in an era when Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics dominated the Eastern Conference. It took MJ years to help the Bulls get to that spot.
Between the 1984-85 and 1989-90 seasons, Jordan just 6-14 against Bird’s Celtics. The two teams met on a pair of occasions in the playoffs. Boston swept Chicago both times, including the 1986 series when a young MJ scored a playoff record of 63 points in the Boston Garden and briefly struck fear in the hearts of the C’s.
The Celtics dominated just about every team in the 1980s, save for the Los Angeles Lakers. Boston won three NBA championships and five Eastern Conference titles between 1981 and 1987, with LA also winning three NBA championships during that span.
For Bird and Co., winning was the only option. It was a formality, so to speak. Jordan and the Bulls began to feel similarly after getting past the “Bad Boy” Detroit Pistons and winning their first championship in 1991.
Jordan applied lessons from the Celtics as the Bulls began their first three-peat
Even as the Celtics began to descend from the peak, the Bulls still faced another challenge from the Pistons. But after losing in the Eastern Conference Finals in consecutive seasons in 1989 and 1990, Chicago vanquished Detroit in 1991.
The Bulls gained a massive psychological edge by beating their past tormenters. Once they beat the Lakers to win their first title, they felt unstoppable.
Jordan explained that he and his teammates suddenly felt they could win every time they stepped on the floor. In the 1993 documentary Air Time (5:00 mark on YouTube), he said that the mindset came from the Celtics.
“When I was growing up, the Celtics would come in and… they knew they were gonna beat us no matter how we’d start the game. They just knew that we were gonna fold and they were gonna come back and beat us. Kevin McHale would talk more trash than anybody you’ve ever seen, and Bird as well. But they knew they were gonna win, and I think we’ve had that same attitude.”–Michael Jordan, Air Time (1993)
Indeed, the Bulls followed up a franchise-record 61 wins in 1990-91 by going 67-15 during the 1991-92 campaign. Scottie Pippen realized his full potential as one of the best wings in basketball, with Horace Grant putting together his best season as a Bull. Chicago faced a tough challenge from the New York Knicks, but took a stand against Pat Riley’s intimidators before winning their second straight championship.
Some might argue that the 91-92 team was even better than the 1995-96 Bulls that won 72 games. Regardless, Chicago’s refusal to give up the crown is evidenced by multiple three-peats in the 1990s. Jordan can thank Bird, McHale, and Celtics for instilling those valuable lessons in him.
MJ kept the same attitude through the end of his career
It’s probably fitting that Michael Jordan most associated with such an indomitable attitude at the very end of his career.
When the Indiana Pacers pushed the Bulls to seven games in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals, Jordan gave a postgame press conference in which he declared the Bulls would win the do-or-die contest. That prediction came after MJ had an entire monologue (as seen in Episode 9 of ESPN’s The Last Dance) about the rest of the NBA needing to “come through Chicago” to win a title.
His Airness came with similar material during a 1998 interview with the New York Times after he retired. Jordan elaborated on the entire generation of future Hall of Famers he kept from winning a championship, adding he felt those players would resent not being able to say they knocked MJ or the Bulls off.
Part of all this can merely be attributed to Jordan’s hypercompetitive ways. However, even Mike acknowledged he learned how to talk trash and win from Bird and the Celtics of old.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference.