The Bulls didn’t win just any international exhibition tournament – they won the 1997 McDonald’s Open Championship!

In Episode 1 of ‘The Last Dance,’ the historic McDonald’s Open Championship is addressed as an international exhibition tournament, without much mention of its true meaning, rich tradition, and overall importance for the development and growth of the international basketball movement.

“Before the 1997-98 season began, the Bulls traveled to Paris for an international exhibition tournament.”

The Last Dance

David Stern and Bora Stankovic, two great basketball visionaries who led the NBA and FIBA, and who we unfortunately lost early this year, wouldn’t be too happy with such a formulation of their brainchild.

It’s a fact that the McDonald’s Open was a historic basketball event of both a competitive and exhibition nature, invented, inducted, and promoted by both the NBA and FIBA from 1987 until 1999. In the last decades of the 20th century, the leaders of the NBA and FIBA, the late David Stern, and Bora Stankovic were the ones who shaped the tournament that had the primary task of bringing the two basketball worlds together.

And from the first tournament in Milwaukee in 1987 it worked out just fine – the European crowd got an annual chance to see their best teams and players battle some of the most influential NBA teams of that time – in 1991 and 1993, the NBA sent the finalists (the Los Angeles Lakers and the Phoenix Suns), and in 1995, 1997 and 1999, they sent the champions (the Houston Rockets, the Chicago Bulls and the San Antonio Spurs).

The tournament got a lot of media and fan attention, but it was not held in 1992 and 1996 because of the participation of the NBA-bound Dream Teams in the Olympics, and in 1998 because of the NBA lock-out.

The NBA’s teams expectedly dominated the competition and eventually won all 9 tournaments with their stars picking up all 9 MVP awards, named after the European NBA star Drazen Petrovic. In the 1988 tournament held in Madrid, Petrovic scored the same number of points as Celtics’ superstar Larry Bird – 56 in two games.

But, it was not always a sure bet that an NBA team would win the tournament. The weekend event also provided unbelievable excitement with European teams such as Scavolini Pesaro (Italy) and Joventut Badalona (Spain) being one possession away from beating the respectable NBA squads such as the New York Knicks and the Los Angeles Lakers in 1990 and 1991.

For example, in 1990, it was Knicks’ guard Gerald Wilkins’ clutch-time three-pointer that saved not only the day for the Knicks but also the NBA’s invincibility. The myth was finally debunked in the 2002 FIBA World Championship in Indianapolis (USA) and the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece.

This historical tournament also provided a mixed frame in which many future NBA stars such as Sarunas Marculionis, Drazen Petrović, Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoč (who is the tournament’s all-time leader in assists) and Dino Rađa proved their true worth to their future U.S. employers. In its essence, it was a weekend-long late-October preseason event, but both FIBA and the NBA officially accepted it as a Championship.

The 1996 & 1998 NBA champions, the Chicago Bulls won the 1997 McDonald’s Open Championship, which took place in Palais Omnisport de Paris-Bercy, in Paris, France.

The teams that took part in the 8th edition of the annual preseason tournament were the Chicago Bulls, Paris Basket Racing (France), Olympiacos Piraeus (Greece), Atenas de Cordoba (Argentina), Benetton Treviso (Italy) and FC Barcelona Banca Catalana (Spain).

Surprisingly, both the Italian and Spanish champions, traditional European powerhouses Benetton and FC Barcelona, lost their preliminary stage games and were forced to battle for 5th place. The Chicago Bulls led by Michael Jordan, and without their #2 player, Scottie Pippen managed to win their semifinal game vs. the hometown team PSG Racing by 89-82.

In the final game of the 1997 McDonald’s Open Championship, the Bulls faced Greek and European powerhouse Olympiacos Piraeus. Although the Greek side coached by legendary Serbian coach Dušan ‘Duda’ Ivković had much more firepower than the previous Bulls’ opponent PSG Racing, the Bulls pulled the best of their abilities and cruised to an easy 104-78 win in the final game of the tournament.

Michael Jordan led all scorers in the final game with 27 points while displaying great overall shape. Interestingly enough, the best scorer for the Greek side was Lithuanian forward Arthuras Karnisovas, who took over as the Bulls executive vice president of basketball operations on April 13th, 2020. Future Bulls center Dragan Tarlać, who was selected as 31st pick overall in the 1995 NBA draft, added 14 points.

The Bulls thus became the 1997 McDonald’s Open Championship champions, and Michael Jordan won the MVP award in the form of the ‘Drazen Petrovic’ Mc Donald’s Open Championship MVP trophy.

The prestigious list of players who had been awarded the McDonald’s Open Championship trophy today includes Terry Cummings (Milwaukee Bucks), Larry Bird (Boston Celtics), Walter Davis (Denver Nuggets), Patrick Ewing (New York Knicks), Magic Johnson (Los Angeles Lakers), Charles Barkley (Phoenix Suns), Clyde Drexler (Houston Rockets), Michael Jordan (Chicago Bulls) and Tim Duncan (San Antonio Spurs).

So, before the ‘last dance’ in the 1997-98 NBA season, it was all strictly business for MJ and the Bulls in the 1997 McDonald’s Open Championship, not just any exhibition tournament!