5 Decades Of Chicago Sports: The 1990's

Dave Kerner
May 22, 2018 - 11:41 am

Photo by TB

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- Michael Jordan may have taken flight in the 1980's, but he didn't really soar until the Bulls 90's dynasty ruled over the NBA.  Six championships in eight seasons thrilled fans around the world, and made Jordan and the Bulls arguably the greatest sports story Chicago has ever experienced. 

And still Chicago sports in the 1990's was more than just Michael and the "Jordan-aires."

The Bears saw a slow fall from NFL grace and the end of the Mike Ditka era. The Blackhawks grabbed a Stanley Cup finals berth under Mike Keenan in 1991. The Cubs, just removed from a National League East title in '89 toiled on until making the post-season in '98, by securing a wild card berth. The White Sox were perhaps the unluckiest of the pro teams in the decade, winning the American League West in 1993, then getting denied what could have been a run to a championship the next year because a labor dispute stopped the season in August and cancelled the World Series. At the time the Sox were leading the Central Division, 21 games over .500.

Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/TNS

Chicago Bulls

By the 1990-91 season, the Bulls rise to the top of the NBA world was nearly complete. The Detroit Pistons time appeared to have come and gone. The reigns of Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were also in the rear view mirror. That season turned into a then-franchise record 61 wins, and just two losses in the playoffs on the way to taking Magic and the Lakers in the Finals.

Two more crowns courtesy of Portland and Phoenix followed, and with Jordan leading the way with Scottie Pippen as his on-court sidekick, and management shaping rosters that complemented the two. Then, on October 6, 1993, the announcement that stunned the sport world: Michael Jordan deciding to retire, choosing to play baseball for the White Sox organization, apparently satisfied enough at three straight championships, and the distinction of being the most recognized person in the world. The Bulls would be ousted by the New York Knicks in round 2 of the ’94 Playoffs, and had many of the same struggles the following season, but with a light at the end of the tunnel: Jordan announcing his retrun on March 18, 1995 with the famous “I’m Back” fax that sent the sports world spinning again. The return was not enough for the Bulls to win a championship that season as Orlando dismissed them in round two. But Jordan’s record of making the Finals 6 times and winning all six was more than intact.

It would stay intact thanks to the shrewdest Jerry Krause deal of the bunch: Will Perdue to the Spurs for Dennis Rodman. Adding Steve Kerr and Ron Harper to the mix meant more greatness for the franchise…a then NBA record 72 wins in 1995-96, and the conquering of Seattle in the Finals, and then two more championships with the Utah Jazz, led by Karl Malone and John Stockton, on the wrong end. And through it all, Jordan was dominant whenever he wanted to be: an NBA Finals MVP in all six of the championship years, and a league MVP in four of those titles, including the last one in 1997-98.

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Covering those teams on a day to day basis was akin to following a world class rock group. Who would be available to talk to the media today? Who would stick their head out of a curtain at the Berto Center practice facility and impart some word of wisdom? For the local media covering this team, there was nothing like it before, and nothing like it since.And when the national media also descended during the playoffs, it was almost mayhem. In fact, a lot of the national media had reporters on hand all through the season as well. The stories and the subplots kept on flowing.

But it came to an end after the 97-98 season when collectively, it was decided the Bulls needed to be broken up. Jordan retired again, then unretired three years later in Washington.Pippen would be moved in a trade. Phil Jackson moved on as coach, eventually to the Los Angeles Lakers where there were more titles to be had with the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. Jerry Krause remained the GM, but couldn’t come close to rebuilding the team to the glory days. A winning era unlike no other in Chicago sports was done.

AP Photo/Michael S. Green

Chicago Bears

The 1990’s was the decade of serious transition for the franchise. Mike Ditka was fired after the 1992 season, with a team hanging on for playoff prosperity and relevance. It was also apparent that Michael Mc Caskey was running the shot, and went through a well publicized search to find a successor. He found one in Dave Wannstedt, who really cut his pro football coaching teeth under Jimmy Johnson with the Dallas Cowboys, leaving that team where he was defensive coordinator. In his second season, Wannstedt got the Bears a wild card playoff berth, with Steve Walsh leading them at quarterback. That was the only post-season success Wannstedt would have, and it was downhill from there. The football club did have an offensive surge in 1995 with Erik Kramer at quarterback, setting some team offensive records in the process, and scoring 24 points or more in 11 of those games. That was more a blip on the radar, however, and Wannstedt was let go after three more seasons, including a 4-12 record in 1998.

The coaching search that followed was hectic. The team thought they had hired former Bears assistant coach Dave McGinnis, but an announcement of an agreement was premature, and McGinnis abruptly walked out. Hours later, the Bears worked out a deal with another one of the finalists for the job, Jacksonville defensive coordinator Dick Jauron. His first season, and the final one of the decade, produced a 6-10 record, and a roster almost devoid of Pro Bowl caliber players. 1999 also marked the year of the passing of arguably the greatest Bear ever, Walter Payton, of complications from cancer at the age of 45.

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Chicago Cubs

Much of the decade of the 1990’s for the Cubs was mediocre. For six of the first seven years of the decade, the Cubs never finished better than six games over .500, nor any worse than eight games under the break even. The Cubs were way off the pace in the 1994 labor stoppage, and players could not have been disappointed that the season ended early. 1997 saw the team get off to an 0-14 start under manager Jim Riggleman, winning the second game of a doubleheader against the New York Mets to end the streak.

Three break throughs in 1998: a rookie fireballer from Texas by the name of Kerry Wood, the team winning 90 games, grabbing a wild card playoff berth, and prolific home run hitting from Sammy Sosa. Wood pitched what many believe to be the best game in Major League history, a 20-strikeout, one-hit shutout against the Houston Astros on May 6th . The hit was a Ricky Guttierez infield hit in the 3 rd inning, and 122 pitches were thrown by Kid K in all. The Cubs needed to win a one-game playoff against the San Francisco Giants at Wrigley Field to earn the wild card spot. They would be swept in three straight games by the Atlanta Braves, and the pitching juggernaut of Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz. Sosa deposited 66 homers after 36 the year before. He would hit 49 or more for four seasons after that.

Bob Horsch Gallery

Chicago White Sox

If there was a word that summed up the decade of the 1990’s for the Chicago White Sox, it would be frustration. Win totals of 94, 87 and 86 weren’t nearly enough to earn a playoff spot in seasons before wild card berths were introduced. 1990 was the final year for old Comiskey Park, with fans showing up to take in a Sox game in the old place one last time. New Comiskey Park, built across the street opened in 1991. Two years later, an AL West title for the Southsiders, their first in 10 years, and the last AL West winners under the old division format. The ALCS saw them lose to the Toronto Blue Jays in six games, despite having the MVP (Frank Thomas), the Cy Young winner (Jack McDowell), and the Manager of the Year (Jeff Torborg).

The 1994 season was the cruelest of them all, with the White Sox at 67-46, owning the lead in the Central (though a small lead on Cleveland), only to see the season come to a halt due to a labor dispute, and with the unprecedented step of canceling the World Series. Though the team signed high priced free agent Albert Belle, there was no recovery from that disappointment for the rest of the decade, including the 1997 ‘White Flag Trade’ that saw Wilson Alvarez, Roberto Hernandez and Danny Darwin leave. The benefits of that deal were realized in 2000 when the Sox won the AL Central again.

Rob Grabowski-USA TODAY Sports

Chicago Blackhawks

The first half of the decade was promising, with star players on hand, and success that went with it, 1990-91 produced a Presidents Trophy as the top team in the NHL by regular season points, but a surprise first-round playoff ouster by the Minnesota North Stars. There was hardly a playoff hangover the next season, when the Hawks made the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 19 years. Though swept by the Pittsburgh Penguins and star Mario Lemieux, the turning may have been in game 1, when leads of 3-0 and 4-1 got away, and Lemieux scored the game winner with seconds left in regulation. That would be the Blackhawks last trip to the Final until 2010, when they would win a Cup beating Philadelphia with Kane, Toews and company.

There were playoff appearances every season until 1997-98, when the team missed out for the first time since 1968-69, when they finished last in the old Eastern Division and transferred to the West, where they had success again.

The 90’s meant star players: Jeremy Roenick scored 53 goals in the Final season of 91-92. Chicago-area native Chris Chelios, picked up from Montreal in the late 80’s, continued to thrive on defense. The team believed for a time they had their long term goaltender in Ed Belfour. Mike Keenan, who guided the Hawks to the Final berth with a ‘my way or the highway’ approach, was eventually shown the door as well. The three players were eventually traded away, with players not of their caliber in their prime brought in, and the result was an end to the decade of futility just trying to get a post-season spot.

Michael S. Green, AP

Other Items And Notes

As great and as captivating as the Bulls were in the 90’s, perhaps the feel good story of the decade was the rise of Northwestern football. Often doormats in the Big Ten, the Wildcats emerged with Gary Barnett as their head coach. Four years after he was appointed, in 1995, the Wildcats turned in a 10-2 record, rose to number 3 in the polls at their peak, and won the conference outright for the first time since 1936. A Rose Bowl berth resulted in a 41-32 loss to USC. 1996 gave the Wildcats a share of the Big Ten title with Ohio State, and a Florida Citrus Bowl loss to Peyton Manning and Tennessee. Barnett eventually departed for Colorado,and the late Randy Walker finished the decade as head coach.

1997 was notable in area college basketball on two fronts: Joey Meyer fired as coach at DePaul, and Lou Henson retiring as head coach at Illinois. There was only moderate post season success, with Northwestern getting a couple of NIT berths, and DePaul going to the NCAA’s twice in the early 90’s, and on March 10, 1999, Northwestern and DePaul faced one another in a first-round NIT game, with the Blue Demons winning 69-64. DePaul would lose to Cal in round 2.

The last half of the 1990’s also marked Chicago as a place that helped grow a golfing sensation: Tiger Woods, and his affinity for the Western Open. After the 1990 event, the Western Open moved from Butler National to Cog Hill in Lemont. Nick Price won consecutive Western Opens in 1993 and ‘94, but it was a 21-year old Tiger Woods that grabbed the golf world when he beat Frank Nobilo by three strokes to win the 1997 event, then won it again two years later. A photo of a smiling Woods walking to victory with a huge gallery right behind him in ‘97 is almost iconic. Woods always wanted to play at Cog Hill through the Western’s run there in 2006 because the Dubsdread course suited his game.

Woods was also the winner of one of the two major tournaments to take place in the Chicagoland area in the 1990’s: the 1999 PGA at Medinah course no.3, when he turned back a challenge from another young sensation, Sergio Garcia. The other major was the US Open in 1990, also on Medinah no. 3, and won by Hale Irwin, who celebrated a big putt in the final round by running to the gallery off the green and exchanging high fives.

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