Chicago Bulls icon Michael Jordan faced the Detroit Pistons four years in a row in the playoffs from 1988 to 1991. The “Bad Boys” beat His Airness three times and mentally and physically intimidated him.
Jordan hated losing to the Pistons so much that he was emotionally devastated when the Bulls lost Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals. MJ cried on the team bus as Chicago left the Palace of Auburn Hills, and his father sat next to him and gave him words of encouragement.
Michael Jordan cried on June 3, 1990
The Bulls got destroyed in Game 7 of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals. The Pistons won by a final score of 93-74 to advance to the NBA Finals, where they beat the Portland Trail Blazers.
Jordan had 31 points in 45 minutes in Game 7, but the rest of his teammates struggled. Horace Grant (10) was the only other player to score in double-figures. Scottie Pippen had a migraine and was woeful all game, shooting 1-of-10 from the field.
In Episode 4 of ESPN’s The Last Dance docuseries, Jordan talked about crying on the bus after Game 7 and his father sitting next to him.
“We had a chance to beat ’em. We just didn’t respond,” Jordan said. “We got to that hill. We almost looked over the hill. I was devastated. I was absolutely devastated. I cried on the bus. My father came on and said, ‘Look, it’s just one game. Bounce back, come back next year.'”
Jordan felt helpless after losing to the Pistons three years in a row when it mattered most. So he changed his body and mind in the summer of 1990, and the rest is history.
Michael Jordan started taking strength training seriously
Jordan didn’t weight train often to start his career. However, after getting beaten up by the Pistons three years in a row, he finally started working out more and adding muscle to his frame.
With the help of Tim Grover, Jordan went from 200 to 215 pounds in the summer of 1990. Superman said he needed to add more muscle to beat the Pistons in one of his home videos.
“I put it in just to get myself physically strong enough to go against Detroit,” Jordan said. “I was a slim and skinny kid, but now, after I put on a couple pounds, I can throw my weight around a little bit more now.”
In 1990-91, the Bulls were determined to be a tougher team, both mentally and physically. The pain of losing to the Pistons in the playoffs three consecutive years was the motivation they needed to play with aggression, and with an angry Jordan leading the way, no team could stop Chicago.
Bulls were on another level in 1990-91
Not only did the Bulls finish the 1990-91 season with the best record in the Eastern Conference, but Jordan also led the league in scoring and won his second MVP Award. Chicago beat the New York Knicks in the first round of the 1991 playoffs and the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round, setting up the much-anticipated matchup with the Pistons in the conference finals.
Detroit had zero answers for Jordan in the ECF. The five-time MVP averaged 29.8 points while shooting 53.5% from the field. More importantly, he didn’t fight back when the Pistons players committed dirty fouls on him. Jordan also knew his teammates would follow his lead and remain mentally strong.
The Bulls swept the Pistons in four games and never retaliated when the “Bad Boys” performed hostile acts. The rivalry between Chicago and Detroit became more heated when the Pistons walked off the court before Game 4 ended and didn’t shake hands with the Bulls.
What a difference a year made for Jordan. In 1990, he was crying after losing to the Pistons. In 1991, he was leading the Bulls to their first title while putting an end to Detroit’s dynasty.
Stats courtesy of Basketball Reference