On April 8, 1996, the Chicago Bulls trudged into the United Center on an unseasonably cold Monday night to face the Charlotte Hornets. They hadn’t lost at home in 44 games. The Hornets, meanwhile, entered the game as the East’s eighth seed, with a record that was just one game over .500.
The Bulls had pantsed the Hornets in Charlotte, 126-92, just three days earlier, and the Hornets were determined to put on a better face for the rematch. In a post-game Chicago Tribune story that was headlined “Hornets Recall Drubbing For Inspiring Upset,” Charlotte guard (and ex-Bull) Pete Meyers was quoted as having said, “It’s not gonna be the same as the other night. You’re gonna see a better Charlotte Hornets team tonight.”
Twenty-four hours before Charlotte would get their revenge, the Bulls had earned a hard fought four-point road victory over the Eastern Conference’s second best team, the Orlando Magic. Standings-wise the game was meaningless, but the Bulls had some unfinished business to attend. A year earlier—with Michael Jordan fresh off of hacking at curveballs in Birmingham—the Magic, spearheaded by Penny and Shaq, had knocked the Bulls out of the playoffs on their way to the Finals. The Magic had also given the eventual 72-win Bulls their first loss of the season on Chicago’s initial trip to Orlando back in November.
This game was low scoring but dramatic and hard-fought. Afterward, Jordan crowned the scrappy victory as such by telling reporters simply: “A win is a win.”
If the Hornets were energized for Monday night’s game in Chicago, it was apparent the Bulls were not. Chicago was playing its fourth game in five nights and its fifth in seven, and had travelled to Florida and back to Chicago twice within a week. Chicago’s inevitable fatigue loomed over the television broadcast. WGN announcers Wayne Larrivee and Johnny Kerr went out of their way to explain why the Bulls might be noticeably tired, essentially pre-packaging the blame in the event that the Bulls did actually lose to the shit-ass team they had squashed just days prior.
Certainly, Chicago emitted early signals that they didn’t have it. Several possessions were punctuated by Bill Wennington’s stiff, jackknifing jump shot. A three-on-one fastbreak ended with Scottie Pippen elevating to the rim and then dropping the ball at the feet of Toni Kukoc, who let it roll out of bounds. And though we think of Michael Jordan as being the gravitational pull of basketball, in the first quarter he seemed to orbit the game instead.
Four minutes in, Jordan took a handoff from Wennington at the top of the key, curled around the big man’s screen, pulled up from the right elbow and shot a pristine looking fadeaway jumper that sailed about a foot left of the basket. Jordan’s airball sent a small murmur through the crowd—a collective raised eyebrow. He may—or may not—have been comforted by the fact that he wasn’t alone. Eighty percent of the Bulls starting lineup—Jordan, Pippen, Kukoc, and Ron Harper—would shoot an airball at some point during the game, with only Wennington being spared.
Nonetheless, the Hornets seemed unable to take advantage of Chicago’s sluggishness. They had a starry core: Kenny Anderson, Larry Johnson, and Glen Rice were all high lottery picks in the primes of their careers. They could score the ball, but on this night they had all the rhythm of a teenage garage band. A banged-up Rice made more free throws than field goals. Johnson tossed his broad chest around down low to little avail, and missed most of the game with a sore wrist. On many possessions, that left Anderson to aimlessly dribble around the perimeter before squatting into a bow-legged jumper launched from some random spot on the floor. Charlotte’s starting center was 43-year-old Robert Parish, which caused me to briefly wonder if the NBA had another Robert Parish I had never heard of. But no, it was the Celtics legend Robert Parish, who in a perverse turn of events now found himself wearing neon purple.
The first quarter ended with the Bulls on top by four points. In the second quarter they were dragged further ahead by Jordan, who scored 17 of his eventual 40 points on an array of entirely unspectacular baskets supplemented by a large helping of free throws. All told, his performance was as dull as you could ever imagine a Michael Jordan 40-point game being, and that was true even in a quarter that he statistically dominated.
But Jordan did provide one moment of cinema in the second quarter when he drove past Pete Meyers on the left wing, planted his feet at the edge of the paint and soared for a dunk, his tongue curling out of his mouth and down across his chin. Jordan was also fouled in the air, because Kenny Anderson thought he might try and block the dunk of the man whose shoe logo is of him dunking. This played out predictably, with Anderson’s body easily bouncing off Jordan’s as he rocketed to the rim, the cow harmlessly spinning in the winds of a tornado.
The half ended with Meyers draining a mid-court heave, and the Bulls had a comfortable 50-40 lead. Though leading, they were not playing particularly well, yet the Bulls themselves didn’t seem to be alarmed. WGN cameras following Chicago down the tunnel to its locker room and captured Kukoc and Dennis Rodman (who had picked up a technical earlier thanks to a shoving match with Larry Johnson) laughing in concert.
But the dark cloud of fatigue hovered. Prior to the third quarter, WGN sideline reporter Bill Weir conducted a short interview with Bulls assistant coach Jimmy Cleamons. Their exchange began:
Weir: Four games in five days, is the fatigue starting to show for you guys?
Cleamons: A little fatigue. There’s no way in the world we’re gonna have the same effort we had Friday night, so we have to expect the Hornets are gonna come forth with a better effort. So our guys have to make that adjustment.
“And fatigue is also a factor,” Cleamons added once again for emphasis. Larrivee and Kerr, the broadcast partners, heard the message loud and clear. Even with Chicago’s lead having swelled to 15, they fixated on any signs of lethargy, of which there were plenty. After Harper chucked his airball, Larrivee reminded viewers that the broadcast team had previously predicted that “weariness would creep in early third quarter.” As if on cue, Kenny Anderson blew by Harper for a layup and a foul to cut the Bulls’ lead to six.
On Chicago’s next trip down the floor, Jordan was fouled. His first free throw thudded off the front of the rim. Kerr responded: “You know what, I’m gonna tell you again about the tiredness. Your legs are the ones that bother you, and that’s where you shoot from.” After Anderson drilled a three to make it a two-point game, Larrivee intoned with a hint of annoyance in his voice that “the Bulls were really lacking energy here.” Anderson then scooted past four Bulls in transition for a game-tying layup, prompting this back-and-forth:
Kerr: It’s quiet in this building. The Bulls will be tested here to see if they want to keep this streak undefeated. They’re sitting here playing poorly and look very tired.
Larrivee: That’s the big thing, right? They don’t just quite have the energy.
Fittingly, Chicago’s double-digit lead bled out slowly and almost imperceptibly. The Hornets had already lost Larry Johnson for the game, but shedding the inefficient, lane-clogging power forward might have been what spurred the Hornets’ comeback. In Johnson’s absence, they relied on the front court pairing of Parish and Matt Geiger, a skilled but under-utilized big who managed to hit two three-pointers in the second half, despite only having made one other all season.
This all, in turn, opened the paint for Anderson. The point guard, freed from dumping the ball off to Johnson down low, repeatedly sliced through the Bulls in the second half. After he zipped by Pippen, Rodman, and Jordan en route to another fast break layup to put Charlotte up five, Kerr stated flatly that “nobody can handle Anderson out there.” It is a sentence I promise you nobody remembers having been uttered about the greatest basketball team of all time.
Though the Bulls managed to claw back even with a minute remaining, the game ended with a whimper. With 20 seconds left, Dell Curry split a pair of free throws to put Charlotte up one, 98-97, which would be the final score of the game. On Chicago’s ensuing possession, Jordan drove down the middle of the floor and stumbled while flinging a pass in the direction of Steve Kerr. It was tipped by a Hornet, and after taking the ball out again, Kukoc drove left, spun into the paint and put up a layup that bricked. The ball was batted around at the rim until Scottie Pippen, who shot 3-11 on the night, got a clear look at a put back. But his two-handed shot bounced clean off the backboard and Robert Parish spiked the rebound out towards halfcourt. As the ball bounced away, Johnny Kerr yelped “no!” with a panicked desperation I normally associate with televised assassinations.
The image above, as the ball fluttered harmlessly down the court, equally showcases epic triumph and agony. The Bulls had just been felled at home for the first time in more than a calendar year.
But 20 years later, the loss has revealed itself to be entirely unmemorable. I know this because when the Golden State Warriors won their 45th straight home game this past March—thus breaking Chicago’s decades-long record—nobody, including the man himself, seemed to remember that the game-winning free throw which snapped the Bulls’ streak in the first place was made by Steph Curry’s father.
After the loss, Phil Jackson, hewing to his reputation, seemed serene. Talking to reporters, he said:
“I don’t think anybody is hanging their head after this loss. I don’t think we’re all that disappointed with the loss. We had a chance to win.”
The Bulls still needed four more victories to break the single-season record, and a few dozen more to reestablish their supremacy in Michael Jordan’s first full season back from retirement.
But first, they needed to get some sleep.