NBA

Michael Jordan Hated This Trade Until It Won the Bulls a Championship

No one wins a title in a team sport on their own. Just because a casual fan doesn’t recall the impact of a role player doesn’t mean their work was not needed or valuable. An example of this involves former Bulls player Bill Cartwright, someone Michael Jordan wasn’t so sure about.

If you simply look at Cartwright’s stats during his 15-year career, you wouldn’t consider him a noteworthy player. He made exactly one All-Star team and only averaged 20 points a game twice. The center’s arrival in Chicago was marred by the fact that the man he replaced was a beloved member of the squad. But without Cartwright’s efforts in the Windy City, we may not consider Jordan the best player of all time.

The center’s arrival in Chicago was marred by the fact that the man he replaced was a beloved member of the squad. But without Cartwright’s efforts in the Windy City, we may not consider Jordan the best player of all time.

The Chicago Bulls’ arduous road to the top

It took a few years for the Bulls to put together the squad that became one of the best teams in NBA history. The 1987 draft proved to be pivotal in the franchise’s history. During this draft, GM Jerry Krause traded up for Scottie Pippen and then chose Clemson forward Horace Grant with the 10th pick. 

With the two rookies on board, Chicago had its best regular season, 50-32, since 1974. Jordan led the NBA in scoring (35 points per game) and steals (3.16 per game) and earned NBA MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. But MJ’s greatness couldn’t get past the Detroit Pistons. The “Bad Boys” finished the season on top of the Central Division and beat the Bulls in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

The Bulls’ infamous trade for Bill Cartwright

Something had to change for Chicago to get over the hump. The front office decided the change would involve trading Charles Oakley — a controversial move at the time. An excellent defender, Oakley was the team’s second-leading rebounder in the prior two seasons.

Chicago felt like they needed a bigger presence at center, however. Horace Grant’s development made Oakley expendable. He was traded to New York Knicks for Bill Cartwright. Not everyone in the Bulls organization was in favor of this move, especially Jordan.

He and Oakley had become good friends while playing for the Bulls, in part because of Oakley’s willingness to protect Jordan from cheap shots and — sometimes literally — fight his battles for him. The two heard about the trade at the same time while watching TV before traveling to Las Vegas for a Mike Tyson fight. 

An unsung hero of the Jordan era

Bill Cartwright and Michael Jordan sit on the Chicago Bulls bench
Bill Cartwright (L) and Michael Jordan (C) on the Bulls bench | Tom Berg/WireImage

To Jordan’s chagrin, the trade went through. But Cartwright proved his worth. During his first season with the Bulls, he was instrumental in the playoff series against the New York Knicks. Cartwright had a notably strong performance against Patrick Ewing in the 1989 Eastern Conference Semifinals, which the Bulls won in six games.

It was a couple of years before Chicago finally won a championship. Once they did, however, only Jordan’s sudden retirement interrupted their dominance over the sport. 

Cartwright’s minutes and influence waned with each finals run, but he still averaged over 20 minutes as the Bulls became the first franchise in over 30 years to win three championships in a row. After completing the three-peat, Cartwright left the team for a final season with the Seattle SuperSonics before retirement. 

The center’s career won’t scream out at you from the history books. But all of his coaches and teammates were aware of what he brought to the table. Every successful team has players like Cartwright who are happy in the background, quietly contributing to the cause. 

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