McDill was the only beat writer to cover all six of the Bulls NBA titles, handling the duties for the Daily Herald from 1988-99. He had backstage access to one of the greatest and wildest shows in sports history.
McDill writes about Jordan, Pippen, Rodman, Jackson and more in a new book 100 Things Bulls Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die (published by Triumph).
Here’s my Q/A.
Was it tempting just to do this book on 100 things about Michael Jordan?
I wanted to avoid writing a Michael Jordan book. I wanted to promote the idea that the Chicago Bulls existed before Jordan, and have existed after Jordan. That being said, I also wanted to make sure Jordan and the championship seasons were presented in a new, complete way without repeating too many stories we all know. The Bulls actually have a rich history and I think the book presents all of it.
When people ask you what it was like to cover the Bulls during the championship years, what do you tell them?
The common response is that it was like covering the Beatles, but when you are in the middle of it all, the day-to-day requirements made it a grind. That being said, it was a pleasure covering a story daily that you knew would be read by thousands. As a reporter, knowing you have an active audience waiting breathlessly for your story makes it easy to get up in the morning. There was an element of celebrity involved in being one of the reporters on the inside of a story that big.
What was Jordan like to deal with on a daily basis? How much access did you get?
Michael Jordan was the nicest, most accessible incredibly wealthy and famous person you could imagine, at least through the 1993 season. Once he went through the gambling controversy and his father died, he became more guarded with his time. But originally he was having a good time and letting most of the people on the inside enjoy the ride with him. My relationship with him was extremely pleasant, in part because I demanded very little of him. Unlike many other reporters who hounded him, or those who were looking for dirt, I covered him (as much as possible) as just another member of the team. I went out of my way to stay out of his way, and when I did need him for something, he was willing to participate because I was not hanging on hiim all the time. Access changed after his first retirement; things got tight, not just with the Bulls but with the entire league. I think someone could probably mark the day when professional sports teams became ultra-protective and guarded with everything involving their teams.
One other aspect of my access to Jordan was that when I started traveling with the team in 1988, the team was still traveling commercially. They stayed in the town they visited overnight, as reporters had to, and so we often traveled on the same planes. Many of my favorite memories with Jordan were time we spent together at airports or hotels.
What about Jackson, Pippen, Rodman?
I got to know Jackson a bit when he was an assistant, and looked forward to him becoming head coach. Initially, he was jovial and certainly different than any other coach I ever covered. He changed over time, and covering him became more difficult. But he enjoyed any attempt I made to engage him in philosophical
My relationship with Scottie Pippen was unique among reporters. I think he recognized the fact that I tried to cover him in the same way I covered Jordan, and we developed a good working relationship. When he decided to throw his famous “I’m not going to play for the Bulls any more” fit, he came to me. He knew I would present his side of the story fairly. I remember when he and I talked about how he suffered as Robin to Jordan’s Batman. He told me “When Michael taps the ball away and I grab it, he gets credit for the steal. When I tap the ball away and he grabs it, he gets credit for the steal.”
Rodman was so unique. I hated the idea of covering him, but when I got to know him I was amazed at how intelligent, conversational and engaging he was. That was in one-to-one conversations; in a crowd he turned into the Worm. I am always surprised at how much I enjoyed spending time with Dennis.
What is your favorite memory from those years?
My favorite moments were almost all away from the floor. I had special access to the greatest sports story in history and was always amazed by how famous they were. I enjoyed a lot of moments in the locker room when we were on the road. Jordan, for one person, was entirely different on the road than he was at home.
I have three memories that stick out.
When the Bulls won their first title, we were in Los Angeles, and the team was celebrating the title in the locker room. Bill Cartwright and I were close in age and had several things in common and had developed a pleasant relationship. But in that locker room, playing on a team where he really did not have any close friends, I saw him standing by himself whle everyone else was celebrating. I went up to him to get his reaction to winning his first NBA title and he grabbed me and gave me the biggest huge possible. I think he just needed to hug something, and I was there.
In 1993, when John Paxson was hitting the game winning shot against Phoenix, I had some weird premonition that he would play a big role in that game. If you ever see a replay of the final play of the game, after John hit the shot, when Horace Grant blocks Kevin Johnson’s final shot, you can see me in the background on press row witih my hands folded against my chest because I knew the game was over and John was the hero.
In 1996, my twins (one boy, one girl) were born during the finals. I had to fly home from Seattle while the Bulls were playing Game Three to attend to the birth, then flew back. One of the twins, the girl, had to remain in the hospital because she was born small. The players all asked about her daily, and Ron Harper was especially interested, because he was a twin. When the Bulls won the championship game, we were back in Chicago, and I was in the locker room to get reaction. Again, it was Ron’s first title after a very long NBA career, and I really wanted to get his reaction. And the very first thing he said to me, at this ultimate moment of professional success, was “how’s your daughter?”
Besides the Jordan years, what else stood out for you while doing research for the book?
Those of us who were around for the Van Lier-Sloan-Boerwinkle Bulls know there was a time before Jordan, but I was excited to write about just how good those teams were. They mattered in the NBA, even though they did not win anything. Those years were important, and Bulls fans need to know why Sloan’s jersey is hanging up in the United Center, why Bob Love loves the Bulls as much as the Bulls love him, and why everyone has something to say about Norm Van Lier.
How would define/categorize the Bulls as a franchise?
I really believe they are the third most important franchise in the NBA behind the Lakers and the Celtics. They won’t move ahead of those two. But I think they were popular in part because they weren’t the Lakers or the Celtics. I also believe the franchise will change dramatically (and this is probably true of the Bears as well) if and when they win another title. That will allow us to move past the 1990s and we can find a way to relate the new champions to the old champions.