Children don’t pick their heroes, they gravitate to them. This youthful ignorance is blissful insofar as it frees one to feel that magnetic pull without questioning why it exists in the first place. The Jordan-era Chicago Bulls thus became the team of my childhood without any real reason beyond the media-fêted, Nike-crafted and protected image of the player and team that made the NBA into a bulletproof multibillion dollar enterprise. My experience—loving a team full of dickish players who hated each other—is proof that branding works.
This is to say that, as an adult, watching the 1995-96 Denver Nuggets hand the Bulls their fourth loss of a now less than singularly mythic season is a delight. Sure, watching an unfeeling automaton perform as expected has its appeal, but a sub-mediocre team fielding Dikembe Mutombo and some guys you remember sticking the Bulls’ collective dick in the dirt for one half and surviving the inevitable blowback for another has the appeal of relatability. If you are still reading this—a piece on an irrelevant 20-year-old game posted to the internet’s premier athlete dong blog—you already know which of the two teams in question has your experiential affinity.
The credit for this forgotten anomaly—an eventual 35-47 team taking it to, for now, the greatest team ever—belongs to someone I can’t imagine many children held up as a hero, never mind even knew by name.
The point guard formerly known as Chris Jackson was exactly the sort of amateur star that is ready-made for a predictable pro narrative. Perhaps generously listed at 6’1” despite being all of 162 pounds, Jackson put up 29 points per game over two seasons at LSU while mastering the art of not passing. He was drafted third overall in the 1990 NBA Draft behind Derrick Coleman and Gary Payton because, y’know, that whole 29 points per game thing.
One year later Jackson converted to Islam; a decision he would credit to discovering The Autobiography of Malcolm X in college. Two years after that he followed X’s example and adopted a Muslim name, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf—he combined the recommendations of two Colorado Muslim Society imams and ended up with a name meaning elegant and praiseworthy, most merciful, most kind. Three years after that he would set off a national controversy by refusing to stand for the National Anthem on the accurate basis that the American flag is a symbol of oppression and tyranny.
To the extent that Abdul-Rauf is a guy you remember, that needless controversy is the reason why you remember him. However, a month and change prior, he put a janky team on his shoulders, faced down the eventual NBA champions, and outplayed the greatest basketball player of all-time in exactly the sort of game that the greatest basketball player of all-time is supposed to win.
When you have a Jordan, it’s a matter of course to win even when Bill Wennington goes down as your second-leading scorer, Scottie Pippen shoots 4-15, and your team gets outrebounded despite having Dennis Rodman. True to the course, Jordan put up 39 points. Untrue to the course, Abdul-Rauf put up 32 points and nine assists. No other player on either team scored more than 18. The Nuggets won by just six points. That is what the box score says. What it doesn’t say is that Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf went heads up with Michael Jordan and walked away with a W.
I have no childhood memory of the game, but it’s a safe assumption that 10-year-old Tomás was displeased by any instance of the Bulls losing. Youth kept me from realizing that I was rooting for an experiment in letting the sociopaths run the asylum. Remember, Michael Jordan was Patrick Bateman in a jersey, Scottie Pippen wanted to be Patrick Bateman in a jersey, Dennis Rodman was Dennis Rodman, and Phil Jackson became a genius for the whitest reasons possible: spouting generic Eastern philosophy and not fucking up despite having every possible circumstance for success handed to him. That said, they won. A lot.
If the adage that children crave consistency holds any truth, my experience of that Bulls team at least counts as anecdotal evidence. The specifics of my garbage childhood don’t matter much; it was chaotic and it sucked and it was garbage. The Bulls were none of those things. The Bulls were an escapist fantasy made real and thus functioned as something approximating hope. Somewhere along the way, I lost any use for escapist fantasies and came to realize that I fell for the greatest scam the NBA ever pulled off. I’m glad I did. The all too real facts of Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf’s career and life sure as fuck weren’t gonna teach me anything I didn’t already know.
Still, for one game at least, Abdul-Rauf stood astray from himself and beat the greatest collection of dickheads the basketball world had to offer. No matter how the world chooses to remember him, he did that. Beating the dickheads just one time is as fine a legacy as any.
This is the fourth blog in our series Nearly Perfect, chronicling all 10 regular season losses of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. You can read the introduction here, and the other blogs in the series here.