Greetings, Bulls Nation! Let’s all give a round of applause to NBC Sports Chicago for so quickly answering the call to start re-airing classic Bulls and Blackhawks games while the NBA and NHL are indefinitely suspended due to COVID-19. From now through the middle of April, you can watch our beloved Bulls and Hawks fight their way through the 1996 and 2010 playoffs, respectively, on their way to championship victories.
As I’m sure many of my fellow Bulls fans did, I watched the first game of the Bulls-Heat first round series on Wednesday night and was immediately transported through time. I felt like a kid again. I felt like the game was happening in real time, and I felt a strong sense of familiarity as every play unfolded before my eyes. “Michael has his defender on his hip at the elbow. It’s gonna be a turnaround fadeaway, and he’s gonna drill it.” …Yup.
Fans talk about the different styles and eras of the NBA all the time, especially when debating greatness of individuals and teams, but we rarely get the treat of going back to watch an entire game from a previous era. And while I do very much enjoy today’s version of the world’s greatest basketball league, I couldn’t help but feel a longing and sense of nostalgia for the game I grew up with. The version of the game I fell in love with as a kid.
So here are some things I miss most about the NBA of the 1990’s. It’s the Pecking Order.
1. Good, hard fouls are just good, hard fouls
I don’t care if this is an “old man yells at cloud” take, and I don’t care that I might not be old enough to have it. After all, I just turned 33. Abe Simpson, I am not. But watching ‘90s hoops made me so mad about how S-O-F-T soft the league has gotten.
I know, I know. Protect players from injuries. Prevent fighting by eliminating hard fouls. The Malice at the Palace was the last straw, etc. I get it. And I’m not saying I miss Robert Parish vs. Bill Laimbeer levels of hard fouls going unpunished or under-punished. I just miss when good, hard fouls were good, hard fouls.
A perfect example presented itself during Game 1 of Bulls-Heat. The Bulls were on a fastbreak. Dennis Rodman is the trail man of the break and gets a pass as he’s coming down the lane in an all-out sprint. A Heat player – maybe Chris Gatling or Kurt Thomas, I can’t remember – absolutely clobbers Rodman on his way up to score.
In today’s NBA, this foul unquestionably has prompted the officials to gather around the monitor at the scorer’s table to determine if it’s a flagrant foul. Perhaps a letter or two is written to some senators to get their opinions. “What’s Goin On” by Marvin Gaye or “Tell Me Something Good” by Rufus and Chaka Khan plays over the P.A. system while fans at home and in the stands wait for what seems like hours for the officials to reach a decision. We all know this feeling. It sucks.
Not in the ‘90s NBA. In the ‘90s NBA, the whistle blows. Shooting foul. Dennis goes to the line to shoot two free throws. He splits the pair. The game continues. I really, really miss that.
2. No flops to be found
Remember when NBA players didn’t flop? It coincides with the “good hard fouls” complaint above, and yes, it’s also a take that Abe Simpson and his grouchy cohorts would have. Call me a grouch, I don’t care. Flopping in the NBA has gotten ridiculous.
In my opinion, the meager fines occasionally handed down to those who get caught isn’t nearly stiff enough of a penalty. The fines should be much bigger, but I also think flopping should have in-game consequences. The player gets a technical. Free throw and possession for the opponent. Get caught flopping twice in a game? You’re ejected. Get caught flopping in multiple games over a certain period? Suspended. Like yellow card accumulation in soccer tournaments. Soccer players have started to be penalized in-game for diving, so why can’t the NBA punish players in-game for flopping?
LeBron James and Chris Paul are two of the biggest faces of the NBA right now. They’re also two of its biggest floppers. That’s a problem. You think MJ or Tim Hardaway were flopping to get calls? No. I watched an entire NBA playoff game from start to finish and saw NOT ONE player flop or exaggerate contact to get a call. They just played hard. I miss that.
3. 3-pointers were a bigger deal
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve come to accept the insane volume of 3-point attempts in today’s NBA. It is what it is. But with the sheer quantity of attempts, and the increased long-range efficiency of all the league’s players, three-point makes have lost some of their majestic feeling.
Back in the ‘90s, especially in a tense playoff game, a made three was a BIG moment. Some made threes in today’s NBA still are. The daggers. The buzzer-beaters. Even the big momentum swingers. But not like the ‘90s. EVERY time a player hit a three in that era, it meant a big momentum swing. A roar from the crowd. Players on the benches on their feet. And those moments were rare.
Watching that Bulls-Heat game, I saw a LOT of ugly 3-point attempts. Most players on each team had bad, flat shots from distance. Clanging off the rim and sometimes missing it completely. As a team, the Bulls shot 3 -for-17 from downtown. That’s 17.6%! Yikes. The Heat did better, thanks to Hardaway hitting 5 of his 10 attempts. Just seeing a player in a ‘90s game take 10 threes was shocking to me. That’s commonplace now. But before it was commonplace, the players’ failure to master the long ball made the makes all the more exciting.
4. Midrange, baby
Okay, so maybe this entire column is flying in the face of analytics. I don’t care. I miss when midrange was king in the NBA. Probably because the Bulls had THE King of midrange. MJ’s midrange game was downright filthy. Essentially unguardable. As I watched him score 35 points on 13-of-22 shooting, I was shocked at the rare times he missed from midrange. I grew up learning that a fundamental part of basketball was: “Michael shoots from 15-20 feet. Michael makes it.”
I guess that’s just me missing my childhood, and missing the Bulls having a player who dominated the league at its most fundamental level.
5. The Bulls were so, so good
Yeah, that’s what I miss most about ‘90s basketball. The Bulls were good. And I mean really, REALLY good. The best NBA team of all time, arguably. It was like watching genius artwork being made before your eyes. I hope that all younger Bulls fans seize this opportunity to watch these games on NBC Sports Chicago to learn a thing or two about history and greatness. It’s what I grew up on, and it’s why 22 years after the magic ended – through lots of bad seasons and frustrating times – I still love this team with all my heart.
For those youngsters who don’t believe it, it really was that big of a deal. And it really was that good. We’ll never have it that good again.
But it sure is fun to remember the good times. Especially during hard times like these, both for Bulls basketball and for a world fighting through a pandemic.
Thanks for reading. See red, be good, stay healthy!