The day the expansion Raptors brought down Michael Jordan and the Bulls
The day the expansion Raptors brought down Michael Jordan and the Bulls
Thursday marks the 20th anniversary of one of the greatest days in Toronto Raptors history, a day the expansion team enjoyed its greatest moment, a win over the championship-bound Chicago Bulls. We look back through the eyes of people who were there.
It was a cooler than usual late-March Sunday afternoon almost 20 years ago, with temperatures outdoors below zero but the mercury climbing steadily inside the SkyDome.
The expansion Toronto Raptors — a tough-minded if flawed first-year NBA franchise — were set to face Michael Jordan and the mighty Chicago Bulls and the sense of “moment” was real. The Bulls, 60-7 going into the game, winners of 12 of their previous 13 games and seven in a row, were on the way to compiling an astonishing 72-10 record, a regular-season record being pursued this year by the Golden State Warriors.
The Raptors were a paltry 17-49 and had lost seven games in a row.
Still, their work ethic had captured the imagination of a city, and soon-to-be rookie of the year Damon Stoudamire was an ascendant star. The fans loved the Raptors and they were growing to appreciate the beauty of the game. The chance to see Jordan created the perfect storm of an afternoon.
In the fans came, in droves and droves, with the final announced attendance at 36,131, a record-setting number that created an electric atmosphere in a facility ill-suited for basketball and led to one of the most memorable days in franchise history — March 24, 1996, the day the basketball David slew the Goliath Jordan.
The unique thing about that first-year Raptors team was that it didn’t consider itself an expansion team. Its trademarks were hard work and a never-quit attitude that grew from the tenacity of rookie leader Damon Stoudamire.
The win over Chicago that March day was the pinnacle of a 21-win season — still a record for first-year NBA franchises — but to those closest to the team, it was a total surprise.
In three previous meetings with Chicago, Toronto had lost games by nine, nine and three points, always pushing what’s considered the best regular -season team in league history to the limit before that upset victory.
“The players on that team played very hard, they were very competitive, and they knew that they could beat Chicago because . . . we had played them tough throughout the season,” then Raptors head coach Brendan Malone remembered.
Stoudamire was the undisputed leader. The Raptors guard took every loss personally, and it wasn’t unusual to see him near tears after any number of close-but-not-good-enough performances. He battled all comers.
“Damon Stoudamire was being guarded by Michael Jordan the entire series (of games between the teams) and Michael couldn’t keep up with Damon as far as quickness and speed goes,” Malone said.
And, on that Sunday, Stoudamire’s 30-point gem that included six three-pointers. It was an eye-opening performance.
“We just didn’t have anybody to stop him,” Bulls guard Steve Kerr, now the Warriors’ head coach, said after Toronto’s win. “He stoned Michael and he stoned me. Most guys with his speed can’t shoot.”
The stunning win in front of what is still the largest crowd to witness a basketball game in Canada was the signature moment, validation in many ways for all the nights the Raptors worked so hard only to come away empty.
“In the first game (of the season), it was like an extravaganza before the game, we had all kinds of people parading around with costumes on and then we went out and I’m thinking, ‘Are we going to win a game this season?’ ” Malone said. “And we went out and we beat New Jersey handily.
“I think Toronto fell in love with that team.”
Twenty years on, it remains the regular-season NBA performance by which all others are measured, a galaxy of stars stringing together an unimaginable 72-10 year that was shocking for its domination of all comers.
As the magical Warriors take aim this year at the standard set by the 1995-96 Bulls, they are chasing a team that was a collection of true greats. They were led by Michael Jordan, of course, and legendary coach Phil Jackson. The supporting cast included Scottie Pippen, Toni Kukoc, Kerr, and Bill Wennington, the steady big man from Montreal. The Bulls had already won three NBA titles, from 1991 to 1993, and were about to start another three-year run that spring. It was a team of vast experience and outlandish skill, with a team-wide determination to win every night.
“No one wanted to lose, everyone was fighting for a common goal, that was to win basketball games and when we lost, we all felt it,” Wennington said. “It didn’t matter if I scored 20 points or Michael scored 20 points . . . if we lost, no one was happy.
“So there was no silver lining where it was ‘I played well,’ and that’s important if you want to be a good team.”
But, one day, an upstart group of expansion cast-offs turned them something close to mortal, as if the current Philadelphia 76ers or Phoenix Suns or Brooklyn Nets were to beat Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Klay Thompson and the Warriors right now.
Yes, there were nine other losses suffered by the Bulls that championship season but none resonates as loudly as the 109-108 win posted by the first-year Raptors.
“I know people weren’t happy, Phil wasn’t happy,” Wennington recalled. “They chalked that one up to experience . . . that year was a lot of good, very little bad, but that was bad.”
Whether this year’s Warriors can reach 73 wins and knock the ’95-96 Bulls from the record books remains to be seen. But whatever happens, it won’t take away from that magical day in Toronto two decades ago.
It ended with one of the iconic moments in Raptors franchise history, one of the great salutes to a loyal if young fan base that had something special to celebrate.
Brendan Malone, six or seven steps onto the SkyDome court, waved his appreciation to the fans in the far-flung regions of the cavernous stadium, in seats that would have had to be hundreds of metres closer to be even considered nosebleeds. He stood there and beamed and, though his thank you may not have been heard in the din, it was from the heart.
Malone’s Raptors had just upset the mighty Bulls, one of the first few “moments” in the team’s short history.
“I always looked up to the top because, when I was a kid in Madison Square Garden, that’s where I always watched games, in the balcony,” recalled Malone, now an assistant coach on Stan Van Gundy’s staff in Detroit. “I always related to the people who were up on top and I’d wave to them because it was like, ‘Yeah, I know who you are.’ ”
Malone had every right to bask in the glory that afternoon, just as the fans had every right to explode in jubilation.
The dramatic final few minutes were a testament to Malone’s coaching chops, to the grittiness of an expansion team that didn’t realize it wasn’t supposed to stay close to the Bulls. A couple of sparkling plays made the Sunday afternoon magical. Oliver Miller caught the Bulls asleep with a baseball-like pass that freed Tracy Murray for a layup, Doug Christie set a classic screen, and a frantic last-gasp Chicago possession ended with a miss by Kerr.
In the pages of The Star, basketball columnist Chris Young laid it out:
“That last possession was set up by a number of Malone’s chess moves, all of which paid off. He went with a small, quick lineup with 4:15 to go, switching Doug Christie to cover Jordan and double-teaming His Airness, then inserting Carlos Rogers for a little more size on the Bulls’ last gasp.
“All year long, the Bulls have prided themselves on doing the little things and they’ve done them quite well, winning 60 times. But yesterday it was their expansion opposition’s turn — Christie setting a screen to free Murray on that inbounds play and Miller making the pass, Miller and Christie stripping Jordan on the Bulls’ second-last possession, Miller making the winning free throw, the Raptors jumping out to finally sidetrack the superman in red.”
Wennington, Chicago’s starting centre and still a team broadcaster, doesn’t recall the day as vividly as folks in Toronto do, but it still stings a bit.