John Salley pulled the shaving kit out of his locker at the United Center and unzipped it to display a seemingly foreign language.
Echinacea. Cat’s Claw. Goldenseal.
“What are those?” I asked, pointing to the small bottles that Salley had neatly displayed in a row hanging inside his kit.
“They’re medicinal plants and herbs,” he said. “They help your immune system. I’ve been taking them for years. You should try them.”
And then Salley launched into a long dissertation on the benefits of the alternative medicines and their histories over previous centuries. He had clearly done his homework.
The 1996 Eastern Conference semifinals between the Bulls and Knicks proved an extremely physical affair. And this, obviously, isn’t to suggest Salley’s plants and herbs played a factor in the Bulls’ victory. The situational reserve averaged just 5.3 minutes over 16 playoff games for the Bulls after playing a more critical role during the Bad Boy-era Pistons’ two titles in the 1980s.
But Salley’s ahead-of-his-time usage of items that are now more widely known represented several important aspects about the dynasty-era Bulls. Jerry Krause never strayed from adding free and independent thinkers – we’re looking at you, Dennis Rodman and Brian Williams – because he knew Phil Jackson and the structure he created within the locker room could handle them.
And players always did their homework, on every aspect.
This is an underrated aspect to the 1995-96 Bulls. Everyone remembers the soaring majesty and lithe athleticism of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. But you don’t win 72 regular-season games and continue to stifle playoff opponents defensively without being on point with the game plan.
Phil Jackson earned the nickname “Zenmaster” for his usage of atypical methods like meditation and passing out books on road trips. But the entire team possessed an extremely high basketball IQ. Even the noted perfectionist-seeker Tex Winter, the venerable assistant coach, would admit that when asked.
I haven’t talked to Salley in years. But I still take echinacea on a fairly regular basis. Whether or not it helps my immune system – and I believe it does – isn’t the main point. What’s important is the broader lesson it represented at the time.
Every other night through April 15, NBC Sports Chicago is airing the entirety of the Bulls’ 1996 NBA championship run. Find the full schedule here.
Bulls attacked Knicks in ways fans could see, and in ways they couldn’t originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
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