Where is America’s most livable city? Forget cost-of-living, quality of education, transportation and economic opportunity. The most livable city is the one with the best sports. For each year of the modern era, starting in 1976, The Sports Notebook has selected one city or part of the country where it was particularly good to be a fan. Below is the recap of how that year unfolded…
1991 wasn’t a year where one particular city or region really stood out in terms of sports success. It was a nice year in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins won the first of two straight Stanley Cups and the Pirates reached their second of three consecutive National League Championship Series. Beyond that, 1991 is a year similar to 1982, where we pay tribute to a coach/player who finally got a long-sought championship and silenced critics. In the spring of 1991, Mainstream Media Morons (MMM) were firm in their belief that Duke’s head basketball coach, Mike Krzyzewski and Chicago Bulls’ star Michael Jordan were among the group who “couldn’t win the big one.” Coach K and Jordan have now combined for ten championships between them, and they each broke through in 1991.
Duke had reached the Final Four under Krzyzewski four of the previous five years, but had missed the ring each team, twice in the championship game. The previous year they’d taken the worst beating ever administered in an NCAA final, as UNLV hammered them 103-73. The focal point of the Blue Devil attack was power forward Christian Laettner, a versatile junior who could score with his back to the basket or hit the jump shot. The year before he’d hit a last-second shot to put his team into the Final Four, and one year later he would hit one of the most famous shots in the history of the NCAA Tournament, one that beat Kentucky in a regional final. In 1991 he was supported down low by center Greg Koubek and sophomore point guard Bobby Hurley was back to the run the offense. Hurley enjoyed a strong freshman year after being thrust right into the fire. Hurley’s backcourt running mate was Bill McCaffrey, and Duke had tremendous talent and depth at swingman. Junior Thomas Hill would end up a third-team All-ACC selection, and he was joined by junior Brian Davis and an immensely talented freshman named Grant Hill.
Coach K put his team through a grueling non-conference schedule designed to get them ready for March. They went to the Preseason NIT and lost to second-ranked Arkansas, the team they’d beaten in the Final Four a year earlier. They also took an early loss to Georgetown, but those mixed in with quality wins over Notre Dame, Michigan and Oklahoma. Krzyzewski didn’t give his team a break, even when ACC play began in January. They rematched with Notre Dame (the earlier meeting had been in the Preseason NIT) on the road and won 90-77. In one seven-day stretch through February, Duke played four games and even though one was a double-overtime loss at Arizona, they were not only getting used to playing top-caliber competition, but having to do so with rapid turnaround, developing the kind of mental toughness it takes to win six in a row at the Dance.
They were also winning in the ACC. After losing the conference opener to a solid Virginia team, Duke rattled off five straight wins, the last of which was a 74-60 home win over North Carolina that gave Krzyzewski’s team the frontrunning spot in their league. A loss to N.C. State to three days later in a letdown spot on the road temporarily slowed the momentum, but Duke closed January with wins at Clemson and Georgia Tech and then beat Virginia in their return trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium. The regular season ultimately came down to a winner-take-all battle in Chapel Hill, as both the Devils and Heels sported 10-3 records. In front of a hostile crowd, Duke took home the ACC championship with an 83-77 win. Even though a conference tournament loss to the Heels left them with a #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Dookies had plenty of reason for optimism as they began their final push for a championship.
UNLV had not only demolished Duke in the previous year’s final, they had dominated all of college basketball. Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels were undefeated and a top-heavy favorite to be the first team since Indiana in 1976 to win a national championship with a perfect season. North Carolina’s ACC tourney win got them the top seed in the East, with the other #1 seeds including Arkansas and Ohio State, the latter who held the favorite’s role in the Midwest Region where Duke was shipped.
The Blue Devils opened the tournament in business-like fashion, taking care of UL-Monroe and Iowa without any unnecessary drama and punched their ticket to the Pontiac Silverdome, where they would join UConn, St. John’s and Ohio State in pursuit of the Final Four. Duke and UConn matched up in Friday’s regional semi-final. This was a rematch of last year’s epic regional final and a foreshadowing of a matchup that would only get bigger as the Huskies grew in stature. They weren’t quite there in 1991 and Duke was the better team. The Devils shot 56 percent from the floor and outscored UConn from the foul line 24-10, thanks to solid frontcourt scoring. Laettner scored 19, Koubek had 18 and Hurley dished seven assists. Then Duke got a bracket break, when Ohio State lost to St. John’s. On Sunday afternoon Duke looked to complete its strange run through the Big East in order to win the Midwest Region. They were in control against the overmatched Redmen (the school’s shift to the nickname “Red Storm”) was still years away. Duke again shot over 50 percent from the floor. They again had a big scoring edge from the line, 23-4. They again got 19 from Laettner and in this game Hurley knocked down 20. The final was 78-61 and a fifth Final Four trip in six years was up next.
Indianapolis was the host city and Duke’s rival North Carolina had joined the party. They would play Kansas, who’d ousted the top two seeds in the Southeast in beating Indiana and Arkansas. But the nation was fixated on the Duke-UNLV rematch. No one gave the Devils much of a chance. In retrospect, we should give a ton of credit to Tarkanian. Because while his team had National Player of the Year Larry Johnson at power forward and a future NBA point guard in Greg Anthony, the Rebels were not demonstrably more talented than Duke, with Laettner leading the way. But that was the perception at the time and it was assumed that UNLV would supplant ’76 Indiana in history and do it right in the Hoosiers’ backyard.
I had the good fortune to attend this game. I was going to school in Indiana at the time and somehow managed to get into Saturday’s games for $50. We were sitting just off the Duke student section and while the view of the game in the Hoosier Dome left a lot to be desired, we were surrounded by Duke alums who’d traveled to the previous Final Fours and were desperate to be the ones celebrating on Monday night. The game was a classic in every sense of the word. Prior to the tournament, NBC commentator and former Marquette coach Al McGuire had offered his thoughts on what it would take to beat UNLV. McGuire said that anyone who picked against the Rebels was doing it for shock value, but there was one narrow window that they could be beat. Because it would take a sterling coaching effort, only Dean Smith, Bob Knight or Mike Krzyzewski had a chance. Even then, it would have to take place on the Saturday of the Final Four when there was a full week to prepare. And even allowing that, Anthony had to get in foul trouble. On Semi-Final Saturday, with five minutes to go in a tight game, Anthony fouled out. Everything was all there as McGuire had predicted, and it was still coming right down to the wire. Laettner would score 28 points and grab 7 rebounds. Davis came up big with 15. Duke again shot over 50 percent from the field and had their free-throw scoring edge at 17-9. Because Vegas dominated the glass (39-21 in rebounding), they still had a chance to win at the end. Trailing 79-77, Rebel guard Anderson Hunt, who’d scored 29 points, got a clean look at a three-pointer. He missed. Duke had pulled the upset.
The win exorcised the demon of last year’s title game humiliation, but Duke still needed one more win to complete their coach’s vindication. Kansas stood in their way. This was Roy Williams’ first of what would be four trips to the Final Four as Kansas coach and three more and counting as North Carolina boss, including national titles in 2005 and 2009. It wasn’t a team of breathtaking talent, led by Mark Randall down low, along with Terry Brown and Adonis Jordan. The Jayhawks had been seeded third in the Midwest and their wins over Indiana, Arkansas and UNC were all a break for Duke. The Devils didn’t let down on Monday and their victory formula held firm. Shooting percentage from the floor—56. Free-throw scoring margin—20-4. Laettner with 18 points, Hurley with 12. Randall played a nice game with 18 points of his own, along with 10 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough. The lasting visual image of this game is an incredible dunk by Grant Hill. An alley-hoop pass from Hurley on the fast-break was overthrown and going out of bounds. Hill, on the dead run, leapt and caught the ball with his right hand and before falling out of bounds slammed it home in one fell swoop. The lasting legacy of the game was that Mike Krzyzewski had a ring, with the MMM crowd forever silenced.
MICHAEL TRUMPS MAGIC
The end of the NCAA Tournament always gives way to the beginning of the NBA playoffs and for the Chicago Bulls it was a spring of great expectations. The Bulls had been gradually growing in strength, and the previous year they’d come within one game of the Finals before losing a road Game 7 to the Detroit Pistons, on their way to a second straight NBA title. Jordan was averaging 31 points a game would win the league MVP. Scottie Pippen was perfect in the supporting role, scoring 18 points, grabbing 7 rebounds and dishing 6 assists per game. Surrounding these two were a rookie point guard in B.J. Armstrong and a solid power forward in Horace Grant.
The 1991 Chicago Bulls started slowly, losing their first three games and sitting on 5-6 at Thanksgiving. There had been a coaching change in the offseason, as Doug Collins was replaced by assistant Phil Jackson, getting his first opportunity as an NBA coach. The Bulls had also made a major offseason trade, dealing power forward Charles Oakley to New York in exchange for Bill Cartwright and a draft pick that would become center Will Perdue. It took some time for Jackson to take the new pieces and mesh them in with returning veterans like two-guard John Paxson. But when the Bulls took off, there was no looking back. They won seven straight in late November and early December and were 20-9 when the calendar turned. Over February and March they ripped off a 20-1 streak that all but secured the top seed throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs and the Finals. Chicago’s final record was 61-21 and then entered the playoffs as the favorite to win the franchise’s first-ever NBA title.
New York awaited them in the first round, with Oakley and center Patrick Ewing. This was a rivalry that was just getting started, as the teams would battle in the playoffs for each of the next four years. As long as Jordan was playing, the Bulls had the edge and they won this series in three straight (the first round was still best-of-five at this time), with none of the games being particularly close. Another star awaited them in the second round, as Charles Barkley’s Philadelphia 76ers were the opponent. The 76ers managed to eke out a two-point win Game 3 and keep a couple others close, but there was really no doubt about Chicago’s eventual 4-1 series win. It set up the long-awaited rematch with Detroit for the conference championship.
The Pistons still had all the key faces of the teams that had reached the conference finals four straight years, the NBA Finals three straight and won the last two championships. Isiah Thomas was running the show at the point, and Joe Dumars was a 20 ppg scorer at the two-guard spot. Vinnie Johnson was coming off the bench, nicknamed “The Microwave” because of how fast he could heat up, and the glass was ably patrolled by Bill Laimbeer and future Chicago Bull Dennis Rodman. None of that mattered in May of 1991. In the NBA, it’s about whether your time has come or your time is up. Detroit’s time was up and Chicago’s had come. The anticipated series from the standpoint of an objective fan, but for Chicagoans the four-game sweep couldn’t have been sweeter. Throughout NBA history there are examples of champions graciously handing over the mantle to a new team. This was not one of them. At the end of Game 4, Piston players walked off the court early rather than congratulate the Bulls, a display that makes Brett Favre’s handoff of the mantle to Aaron Rodgers look positively sportsmanlike by comparison.
Chicago would get another chance to effect a transition of power in the NBA Finals. The Los Angeles Lakers were the opponent. While this particular Finals run from LA was something of a surprise, given that Portland beat them out for the Pacific Division title and #1 seed in the West and head coach Pat Riley had been replaced by Mike Dunleavy Sr, it was still Magic Johnson nearing the end of his career, with Michael Jordan still in his prime. We knew at the time this was Jordan’s first appearance on the league’s biggest stage. We had no way of knowing it would also be Magic’s last, as it would be less than a year that he would retire after contracting the HIV virus.
It was also the transition of NBA TV coverage. CBS had long been the home of the NBA, but this was NBC’s first year in the spotlight and they had to be thrilled with their first Finals matchup. Not only were there two marquee stars in the #2 and #3 TV markets, but in strictly basketball terms this looked like a competitive series. That seemed to be validated in Game 1 on a Sunday afternoon in Chicago. Jordan scored 36 points, but the biggest shot was hit by LA’s Sam Perkins, who buried a three-pointer late in the game to give his team a 92-91 lead. Jordan got a chance to win it, but his 17-footer rimmed out and the Lakers took the opener on the road.
Jordan started slow in Game 2, but Grant kept the Bulls afloat with 14 1st-half points. And the Chicago star inevitably heated up, canning 13 straight shots at one point and the Bulls pulled away with a 107-86 win. Now they needed to find a way to win at least one of the next three in Los Angeles and get the series back home for Games 6 & 7.
In fact, Chicago did much better than that. In Game 3 they rallied from a 67-54 third quarter deficit, forced overtime and then let Jordan take over in a 104-96 win. Game 4 turned into a rout in the middle quarters, when the Lakers hit only 12-of-41 from the field and then lost cornerstone players James Worthy and Byron Scott for the rest of the series. Los Angeles needed to win three straight, the last two of which would be on the road and do it without two key starters. Magic did everything he could to extend the series in Game 5, dishing 20 assists and the Lakers led 93-90 in the fourth quarter. But Chicago got production from the supporting cast. Pippen had a huge night, with 32 points and 13 rebounds. Paxson kicked in 10 down the stretch. A 9-0 Chicago run sent the signal that a new era had arrived, as the team won 108-101.
It was more than just a new era for the Chicago Bulls, as they won the first of what would be six championships in the Jordan Era and might have been eight, had he not taken a hiatus in 1994-95 to try his hand at minor league baseball. It was a new era for Duke basketball, winning the first of what’s currently four titles for Krzyzewski. And it was a new era for the MMM crowd, who had to find new people to torment. Coach K and Jordan were off-limits now.