Horace Grant of the Chicago Bulls on playing with Jordan and the glorious 90s
On 30 January 1994 in Bangalore, Kapil Dev induced an edge from Sri Lanka’s Don Anurasiri that went into the safe hands of Mohammad Azharuddin in the slips. With this wicket, Dev equalled Sir Richard Hadlee’s record of 431 Test scalps. India also won the Test and the series. There was joy all around. In the dressing room, Dev and Azharuddin danced on a table. Champagne rained. Among the celebrating members of the team was a young Sachin Tendulkar. He wore a black cap with a red peak and an emblem of an enraged beast with flaring nostrils. The snarl of the animal, Benny the bull, was in sharp contrast with the benign face of the man wearing it.
Young fans of sports would have recognised the cap blindfolded. It was—it had to be—a Chicago Bulls cap. The first American basketball team to be known in India were arguably the Harlem Globetrotters. But the Globetrotters were entertainers, whose show combined sport and circus elements. The first active National Basketball Association (NBA) team to register in Indian consciousness were undoubtedly the Bulls. The legendary rivalry between the LA Lakers and Boston Celtics of earlier years, and that between the Celtics’ Larry Bird and the Lakers’ Magic Johnson, were great chapters in basketball history. But it preceded the Bulls era, when India had not woken up to the NBA.
The Bulls’ popularity in India was easy to explain. They had the most famous basketballer in the world: Michael Jordan. And they were the reigning champions. The Bulls won their first NBA Championship in 1991, India’s year of economic liberalisation and arrival of cable TV. The Bulls’ global impact in the 1990s gained force when they won three Championships in a row, called three-peats, twice in that decade (1991-93, 1996-98). It also helped that they had a hipster coach in Phil Jackson, a man who had done LSD and smoked marijuana in his youth and spouted Zen philosophy. Jackson was heavily influenced by the book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.
Jordan was the fulcrum of the team. But he had able support from two other men. One was the sleepy-eyed Scottie Pippen. And the other was Pippen’s buddy who had been drafted into the Bulls in 1987, the same year as him: Horace Grant. Jordan and Pippen did the sexier work in attack and indeed were the greater players. Grant did the grunt work in defence. They had a term for him. A lunch pail and hard hat guy.
Two decades after their glory years, this asteroid from the Bulls universe has landed in Mumbai as NBA ambassador to talk about the future of Indian basketball. Grant sits in an armchair in the lobby of the Taj Land’s End hotel in Mumbai, checking his mobile phone. Over two metres tall and a devoted weightlifter, Grant looks like a genie looking at his messages. He wears a black Adidas vest, shorts, a black cap and an oversized Diesel wristwatch. On one finger of his right hand is one of his four NBA Championship rings (from 1992), its diameter almost large enough to fit around a sushi roll. He looks younger than his 48 years. For those who grew up on the lore of the Bulls, it is thrilling to meet Grant. After all, he was part of that dressing room. And he played with that man.
Tell us about the first meeting, Horace. Where was it? What did he say? “At practice. ‘I’m MJ. Let’s work’,” comes the deep voiced reply.
Grant, whose identical twin Harvey also played in the NBA, is from Georgia. He went to college at Clemson University in South Carolina, not far from Jordan’s home state of North Carolina. At Clemson, Grant was dedicated enough not to miss a single game. This was not lost on talent scouts. In 1987, he was picked by the Bulls.
“Playing basketball as a youth, you want to get to college and the idea is to [eventually] get to the NBA. That day when I was drafted was one of the happiest days of my life. There are so many teams you visit, you don’t know what team is going to pick you. Back then teams did not like to show their hand, so to speak.”
Grant’s reaction to being drafted by the Bulls was this: “Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. I’m going to be playing with Michael Jordan.”
But once the thrill sank in, Grant realised the heft of the task ahead of him. The Bulls hadn’t won a Championship yet. And practice under Jordan was torture. Life was about to get very hard.
“College was supposed to prepare you for NBA,” Grant says. “Mentally? Yes. Physically, the NBA was just another level. My body had never been so torn down, so sore after that first practice. I’d rather be playing a game because practice would be so tough.”
Of Jordan, he says, “He was one of the toughest leaders. That team at that particular time needed that leader. If he hadn’t been there, we wouldn’t have gotten over the hump, meaning the Detroit Pistons [the Bulls’ archrivals]. He brought out the best of us.”
Jordan wasn’t the only beast in training. There also was Charles Oakley. The area under the basket during a melee is often called ‘the alligator pond’. Grant learnt many of his pond survival tricks from Oakley. He learnt them during a drill called ‘the box-out’, where you muscle out your rival in trying to grab the ball.
“Charles Oakley taught me how to scratch, kick, trip, even bite. He taught me everything,” Grant says. That’s why they sometimes called the Bulls ‘the Dobermans’.
“[The title] Dobermans fit our team. We weren’t the biggest team. But we trusted each other at the back end. Michael and Scottie took a lot of chances getting in the passing lane, stealing the ball, because they knew I was back there. I knew if I was guarding a guy like Charles Barkley [a star of the Philadelphia 76ers], and I was in a bind, I knew Michael or Scottie would help. Our defence was close and sleek, that’s why we got the nickname ‘The Dobermans’.”
Jordan joined the Bulls in 1984, and Pippen and Grant were signed in 1987. But the league title wasn’t coming. Though Jordan’s gifts were never in question and he won individual honours almost every season since joining the Bulls, he had a reputation of being a selfish player. The team that troubled the Bulls most was Detroit. They defeated them three consecutive years (1987-88, 88-89, 89-90). What made the losses to Detroit worse was that they had a player named Bill Laimbeer who was a good basketballer but a troublemaker who stopped at nothing to rile opponents. Asked if he had forgiven Laimbeer, Grant says with a mocking grunt and some guffaws. “Laimbeer… Heh, heh, heh. Well, I forgive everybody. But Laimbeer, I forgive but never forget. Ha ha ha ha ha. He’s the type of guy you love to have on your team, but you just don’t like him much.”
The breakthrough came in 1991, when the Bulls finally shut Detroit up in the Eastern Conference finals. Detroit were so upset that their captain, Isiah Thomas, and some key players walked off the court with seconds of the game still left just to avoid shaking hands with the Bulls. That season, says Grant, they did not allow Detroit and Laimbeer to get to them. This caught Detroit offguard. A few days ago, Thomas said that he regretted his actions, but that the Bulls, including Jordan and Jackson, had insulted the Pistons in a pre-game press conference in Detroit, their own soil, provoking the decision on not shaking hands with the Bulls. Grant says, “Every team talks trash. But after the game is over, you shake hands. Every year they beat us, we shook hands. They didn’t have sportsmanship. Kids crying over spilt milk.”
In the finals, the Bulls got over the mighty Lakers led by Magic Johnson. And finally, the mountain had been climbed. In a famous picture, a sobbing Jordan can be seen hugging the trophy, his father James beside him. Jordan was close to his father. Two years later, his dream life was shaken to the core when Jordan senior was murdered while taking a nap in his car, a red Lexus coupe which was a gift from his son.
Of the night of the win, Grant says, “It was a surreal moment. I don’t think it sank in till that summer. Looking back, I still get tingles. I remember having a cigar with my guys, drinking champagne. Not sleeping.”
Superstars they always were, but now the Bulls became the beloved sons of Chicago. “It was an A-lister’s lifestyle. You go into a restaurant, ‘Okay Mr Grant, you don’t have to wait, there’s a table.’ That first championship, I don’t think I paid even $20 out of my pocket.”
Grant was popular for playing with goggles. Off court, he, Pippen and some other players started another fashion trend: colourful zebra pattern pants. “It was one of those 90s moments,” he says. “Michael didn’t wear them, of course. Bill Cartwright had a pair. BJ Armstrong.” And of course Pippen, his best friend. “Scottie, that’s my man. We came in the same year. We were always close. You saw Scottie, you saw Horace. You saw Horace, you saw Scottie.”
In Barcelona 1992, you saw Scottie, but you did not see Horace. That year, superstars of the NBA deigned to play the Olympics, swaggering into town and enjoying the staggering hype around them. They were called the Dream Team, and remain the most star-studded side in any sport in Olympic history. Grant did not make the team. Pippen, on the other hand, was an automatic choice. Grant reportedly did not handle his exclusion well.
“It wasn’t that,” he says. “I was a role player then. Lot of role players don’t make Dream Teams.” It is humble of him to say this. A role player is someone with a specific task who often starts a game on the bench and comes on when required. Grant says the reason for his pique was that while Jordan and Pippen got the odd off-day from the rigorous training, he didn’t. “We had a disagreement, Phil (Jackson) and I. I had been working all summer long. I said to Phil, ‘Phil, give me a day or two off.’ Phil said ‘no’.”
Grant won three more Championship rings (1992 and 93 for Chicago and in 2001 for the Lakers). Asked to show the one he is wearing on his finger, he says, “If you want to see them, you must see them all.” He unzips his backpack and pulls out the other rings. They are chunky and heavy, with team logos and victory years inscribed on them. He says he’s been offered upwards of $100,000 for each. But 1991 was special. In March 2011, the team had a reunion on the court at United Center, the Bulls home venue, on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the win. “You put us all together in a building, there is reminiscing, cigars, champagne and leg-pulling.”
Signing off, Grant is asked to name the five best teams according to him in modern basketball history. For numbers 2 to 5, he names the Lakers, the Celtics, the San Antonio Spurs and the Houston Rockets. At No 1, he picks the Chicago Bulls.