By Liam O’Mahony
Growing up, my favorite month was June because of my birthday, school ending, great weather and the NBA Finals. After many years watching it on TV, I scored a front-row seat when the Chicago Bulls achieved the three-peat in 1998. My love for basketball and the Bulls dated to when I had the first Air Jordan shoes, yet I never imagined I would work with the team 12 years later.
Phil Jackson dubbed the season, “The Last Dance,” and it was memorable. The 72-10 season in 1995-96 remains the greatest, but 1997-98 featured an aura of finality as friction and free agency spelled the dynasty’s demise, while a lengthy lockout loomed. Their dominance was fraying, but Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and the supporting cast mustered enough gas to claim the sixth title.
Before a preseason game, I was interviewing a player for a fan magazine as the media availability ended when I heard a booming voice aimed in my direction, “Yo, what time is it? You better get out!” MJ was staring at me. I froze. He thought I was a journalist; I told him it was my first game with the media relations department.
I managed the press box and gathered interesting stories from Steve Kerr, Luc Longley and Jud Buechler for the website. It was a privilege to speak with legendary coach Tex Winter, architect of the “Triangle Offense,” and I enjoyed hobnobbing with Ahmad Rashad, Craig Sager, Rick Reilly and Marv Albert on press row.
Celebrities congregated in droves as the playoffs advanced – Bill Murray clowned around in the hallways before a game and Siskel and Ebert, Eddie Vedder, Oprah and Carmen Electra were regulars at courtside. One time I got a call from Ernie Banks asking to speak to my boss about tickets. Spike Lee showed up to shoot cameos of MJ and Pip for the movie “He Got Game.” David Halberstam called to fact-check stats as he finalized his MJ tome, “Playing For Keeps.” He later signed a copy, “To Liam, who knows the story well.”
When the finals arrived, owner Jerry Reinsdorf chartered a plane for the staff and rented condos in Park City, Utah, so we could enjoy the road games. Back at the United Center for Game Three, my sister surprised me with a happy birthday greeting on the Jumbotron as the Bulls crushed the Jazz, 96-54.
After practice the next day, I had to extract Pippen from a massage to fulfill his media obligations. I struggled to get him out in his relaxed state with my low-totem status, then my boss moved him along and Pip smiled, saying, “You didn’t have the juice.”
As Game Five ended, I stood in the tunnel with a disposable Kodak camera in anticipation of documenting the eruption, but MJ’s three-pointer rimmed out and the Champagne stayed corked for the trip to Salt Lake City.
Most employees did not travel, so we enjoyed Game Six in a United Center suite when MJ pushed Bryon Russell and drained the famous jumper. We all went nuts and I smoked my first cigar.
A few days later, a bus ushered employees to Chicago's Grant Park, where we sat on the stage behind the players and looked out over a Woodstock-esque sea of fans that toasted the title with fandemonium while chanting “one more year!” – even as we all knew it was over.
My boss gave me a Champagne bottle from the locker room and I received a commemorative watch. My most cherished item is a picture of six Larry O’Brien championship trophies that shows a skinny basketball fan and aspiring writer from Clarence Center who was cut three times trying out for the high school team but witnessed the greatest team to ever play.
Liam O’Mahony, of Williamsville, was a denizen of Wicker Park and Lincoln Park during his first job in Chicago.