Razorbacks had ties to Bulls' glory years

By: Bob Holt
Published: Sunday, April 19, 2020
Chicago Bulls' injured player Scottie Pippen sits on the bench between teammates Michael Jordan, left and Joe Kleine in the first period against the Milwaukee Bucks, Friday Dec. 5, 1997, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Michael S. Green)
Chicago Bulls' injured player Scottie Pippen sits on the bench between teammates Michael Jordan, left and Joe Kleine in the first period against the Milwaukee Bucks, Friday Dec. 5, 1997, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Michael S. Green)

— Darrell Walker experienced a lot in his 10 seasons as an NBA player, but nothing like what came with being a member of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.

“Being with the Bulls was like being with the Rolling Stones,” said Walker, who joined Chicago midway through the 1992-93 season. “Every night wherever we played — home or on the road — was a rock concert.

“If our bus pulled up to a hotel at 2:45 in the morning, you had tons and tons of people waiting and screaming, wanting to get a piece of Michael. They wanted an autograph or a picture or just to touch him or see him.

“Even for a guy like me who had played so long in the NBA, it was pretty eye-opening.”

Led by Jordan — a five-time MVP and 14-time All-Star with a career scoring average of 30.1 points — the Bulls won six NBA championships in an eight-year span between 1991 and 1998.

A 10-part documentary series titled The Last Dance focusing on the Bulls’ 1997-98 season, but also providing an in-depth look behind the scenes at Jordan’s career, will begin airing on ESPN at 8 tonight.

“Everybody’s going to want to watch it,” said Walker, the coach at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. “It’s going to be epic.”

Walker, an All-American guard for the University of Arkansas, is among several of Jordan’s former Chicago teammates with ties to the state.

Joe Kleine, an All-Southwest Conference center for the Razorbacks and co-owner of Corky’s Ribs and BBQ restaurant in Little Rock, played for the Bulls during the 1997-98 season.

Arkansas assistant coach Corey Williams was a rookie guard with the Bulls during the 1992-93 season after playing at Oklahoma State.

“When I was in college I used to dedicate a move in practice every day to Michael Jordan,” Williams said. “I couldn’t fly through the air like Michael, but I’d do a double-pump, spinning move off the glass or take a fadeaway jumper.”

The Bulls made Williams a second-round pick — No. 33 overall — in the 1992 draft.

“I didn’t immediately think about being on the same team as Michael Jordan,” Williams said. “My first thought was, ‘Man, I got drafted.’

“Then once you relax a little bit you realize, ‘I’m on the Bulls. I’m with Mike.’ It was a great day. I had tears in my eyes knowing I would get to play with the great Michael Jordan. I could not believe it. He was my basketball idol.”

The first time Williams walked into the Bulls’ practice facility, he saw Jordan lifting weights.

“He stopped and came over and introduced himself,” Williams said. “He said, ‘Hi, my name is Michael Jordan.’

“I was about to jump out of my skin, but I was trying to remain calm. I said, ‘Yes sir, my name is Corey Williams. It’s a pleasure to meet you Mr. Jordan.’ He started laughing and said, ‘Just call me Mike.’ ”

Kleine first faced Jordan in a game on Feb. 12, 1984, when Arkansas beat No. 1 North Carolina 65-64 in the Pine Bluff Convention Center. Kleine scored 20 points and Jordan 21.

Kleine and Jordan then were teammates on the 1984 United States Olympic team, which won the gold medal.

“In the Olympics we all knew Michael was going to be a really good pro,” Kleine said. “But what he became? Nobody saw that coming.”

By the time Kleine, who played 15 seasons in the NBA, joined the Bulls for the 1997-98 season, Jordan had led Chicago to five championships.

“I remember before the season started I was walking into practice and a really nice car pulled up right next to me,” Kleine said. “I was kind of like, ‘Who is this?’

“Then the window rolled down and it was Michael. He goes, ‘Well, I guess I’ve got to win your ass a ring, too.’ I looked at him and I said, ‘You’re damn right you do.’

“I was on two teams with Michael, and I got my Olympic gold medal and an NBA championship ring. They’re from the MJ collection. I owe him. He got me some good jewelry.”

Forward Scottie Pippen, a Hamburg native who played at the University of Central Arkansas and was the No. 5 overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft, became a star with the Bulls playing alongside Jordan.

“Everybody talks about position-less basketball, and it’s new to the game and the [Golden State] Warriors created it,” said Arkansas Coach Eric Musselman, who as an NBA assistant coach faced the Bulls with Jordan and Pippen. “But position-less basketball was created in Chicago.

“Pippen, still to this day, is the No. 1 guy when you think of position-less basketball because he literally played the 1 to the 5. He could bring the ball up the floor, he could guard a center. The ultimate Robin to Batman with MJ.”

Pippen, who like Jordan is a Naismith Hall of Fame inductee, averaged 16.1 points over 17 seasons and 10 times was voted to the NBA All-Defensive Team.

“Scottie was a really, really good basketball player, and I think Michael pushed him to go to another level,” Walker said. “People are quick to say, ‘Oh, Scottie was just on Michael’s coattails.’

“But MJ will tell you he doesn’t win all these championships without Scottie Pippen. Scottie was a phenomenal two-way player that in my opinion doesn’t get enough credit.”

Kleine said he loved playing with Pippen.

“Scottie was such a good defender and so solid in everything he did,” Kleine said. “A great player like that can cover up everyone else’s mistakes.

“You get beat on defense, Scottie could clean it up for you. Or he’d rebound a bad shot somebody took and score on a put-back, catch an errant pass that should have been a turnover and make a play.”

Williams said that during his season in Chicago he and Pippen became friends.

“I hung out with Scottie every single day,” Williams said. “He took me up under his wing, he really did.

“He always was generous with me with his time and with his finances. I never had to pay for a meal. He really took care of me.”

Williams said Jordan also watched out for him.

“Michael always treated me well,” Williams said. “I wore Air Jordans, so when he ordered his stuff, he’d order stuff for me, too, and give it to me.”

Williams said it meant the world to him when Jordan was being interviewed by Bob Costas after the Bulls won the 1993 championship and Williams was the first person Jordan mentioned.

“Michael didn’t look at me as the last guy on the bench but as a teammate,” Williams said. “I really admired him for that.”

Williams’ primary role was as a scout-team player in practice to help the starters get prepared for games. Once when Williams guarded Jordan, he stole the ball from His Airness and dunked.

Williams said some of the other Bulls warned him that he’d make a mistake.

“I’ll never forget Stacey King and Scott Williams telling me, ‘You’re in trouble now. He’s going to get you back,’ ” Williams said. “But he didn’t get a chance.

“I didn’t guard Michael again that day, and by the next day, he’d forgotten about it. He had bigger fish to fry than me.”

The Bulls won 99-98 at Phoenix to take the 1993 NBA championship 4 games to 2.

“I sat next to MJ on the plane coming back to Chicago from Phoenix, and we were smoking cigars and having a good time,” Walker said. “Then he said to me, ‘You know D. Walker, I think they’ve just seen the last of me.’

“I said, ‘MJ, you’re just tired. It’s been a long season. You’re worn down. Go spend some time with your family, play some golf, drink some red wine and you’ll be fine. You just need to recharge your battery.’ ”

Walker said he asked Jordan what he’d do if Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf offered him $30 million?

“Michael looked right at me with a stone-cold face and said, ‘I don’t need 30 million dollars,’ ” Walker said. “But at the time, I didn’t think he was serious about leaving the Bulls.”

Walker said he was stunned when Jordan announced in October of 1993 — during an NBA lockout — that he was retiring from basketball to play minor-league baseball for the Birmingham Barons, the Class AA team of the Chicago White Sox, who also were owned by Reinsdorf.

After batting .202 in 127 games as a right fielder for the Barons during the 1994 season, Jordan resumed his basketball career with the Bulls in March of 1995.

“I spent three or fours days with Michael in Birmingham when he was playing baseball,” Walker said. “It was an interesting time.

“I think if he had played baseball from the beginning, he’d have been a major-league player. That’s how good of an athlete he was.”

Phil Jackson was the Bulls’ coach for all six of their championships, then he won five more with the Los Angeles Lakers.

“I liked playing for Phil, because he was really steady,” Kleine said. “There was no emotional roller coaster with him. It was, ‘This is what we do.’ His tone was always the same.

“There was no jubilation after a win or a series of wins and no despair after a couple losses. It was just very consistent game to game.”

Jackson’s teams featured some of the NBA’s biggest stars — Jordan and Pippen in Chicago and Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal in Los Angeles.

“Phil had great players, but he was able to reach them,” Kleine said. “He was able to get them to play within the framework of the team, get everybody to adjust and accept their roles.

“I think he was really good at taking what he thought he was going to need from that team at the end of the year and building on that philosophy throughout the year. He always had the end championship in sight. He did a lot of things, had a lot of messages that worked towards that goal.”

Jackson had some fun with Williams during the team’s first film session of the 1992-93 season.

“I came into the film room and there were regular chairs, and then there was a kid’s chair,” Williams said. “I remember laughing and saying, ‘Look at that little, bitty chair.’ Phil said, ‘Peewee, that’s your seat.’

“So I sat in that little, bitty chair that whole film session and those guys were laughing up a storm. That lasted for a couple weeks. Then I got a regular chair. I was a part of the team.”

Williams said Jackson benefitted from Jordan’s attitude.

“Michael allowed Phil to coach him,” Williams said. “So if he’s coaching Michael, that allowed him to manage everybody else. Michael set the tone, so that made it easier for Phil to do his job and make sure everybody understood their roles.”

When Walker was released by the Detroit Pistons and joined the Bulls, he made an immediate impression on Williams.

“The first day I met Darrell, we were playing after practice for conditioning, and I was thinking it was a regular pickup game,” Williams said. “Then I drove to the basket and Darrell hit me so hard I went out of bounds.

“I thought, ‘Who the heck is this guy?’ We’re just trying to stay in shape, but he’s serious.

“Darrell was old school. He was like, ‘Nah, rook. No layups.’ ”

Walker and Jordan became so close that when Jordan was the Washington Wizards’ president of basketball operations, he hired Walker as the team’s interim head coach in 2000, then retained him as director of player personnel.

“When I got picked up by the Bulls, Michael and I just gravitated towards each other and became good friends,” Walker said. “MJ was a great teammate and he was loyal to you if you were loyal to him. That’s why I’ve always had a good relationship with him.”

Walker recalled that after he and Jordan retired as players, he visited Jordan at his office in downtown Chicago.

It was a warm, sunny day in September, Walker recalled, and the Chicago native was in town to visit some family members.

“I told Michael I was getting ready to take a walk and shop on the Magnificent Mile,” Walker said. “He said, ‘Hold up, I’ll go with you.’

“He took a couple of steps and said, ‘No, that’s not a good idea D. Walker.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ He said, ‘Because we won’t be walking alone if I go with you. It’ll turn into a circus.’ That’s when I knew this guy was a prisoner of his own fame and stardom.”

Kleine was among 106 people interviewed for The Last Dance along with Pippen, Sidney Moncrief and President Bill Clinton.

Moncrief, a Little Rock native and All-American guard for Arkansas, played against Jordan in the NBA and was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame last year.

“When you play against Moncrief, you’re in for a night of all-around basketball,” Jordan told the Los Angeles Times. “He’ll hound you everywhere you go, both ends of the court. You just expect it.”

Clinton, also a former Arkansas governor, was interviewed to talk about Pippen because both are from Arkansas.

“I can’t believe they didn’t want Clinton to talk about me,” Kleine said with a laugh. “Honestly, I was surprised they even interviewed me.

“I’m excited to watch it because that was my era in the NBA. But I’m not anticipating a lot of camera time for myself.

“They were really detailed when they talked to me. I think it’s going to be a good series.”

The title for the ESPN documentary comes from the last dance theme Jackson had for his team going into the 1997-98 season.

Jordan, Pippen and Jackson all had contracts that were expiring after the season, and they had been feuding with Jerry Krause, the Bulls’ general manager.

Jackson made it clear he wasn’t returning and Jordan said he wouldn’t play for another coach.

Jordan retired after the season, though he later played two more seasons with the Wizards. Pippen was traded to Houston during a lockout.

Jackson sat out for one season, then returned to coaching with the Lakers.

“Everybody knew going into the season that Michael, Scottie and Phil weren’t coming back,” Kleine said. “That was well known from Day One.

“Breaking up the Bulls, that was a head scratcher to me. It still is. I just think they were all burned out from the bickering between management and Michael, Scottie and Phil.

“It was sad it had to end the way it did.”

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