Chicago and the Bay Area have all the waterfront property, Picasso sculpture, Union Squares, Loops and financial districts they need. What they don't have and do want is not another celebrity disco like the BBC on Division Street or a new organic dish for the Trident Restaurant in Sausalito, but a couple of teams that don't play as if Snoopy was the city mascot. On windblown Michigan Avenue and bustling Market Street they have been starving for a winner. Now dinner is on the table.
But for whom? Golden State Warriors or the Chicago Bulls? The entree in question is the Western Conference championship and after the Bulls beat the Warriors 108-101 last Sunday in Chicago Stadium, Chicago headed west with a 2-1 edge in the best-of-seven playoff.
The series figured to be close, not only because the teams' records during the regular season were almost identical, but because their personnel, if not exactly their styles, were similar. Both count on heavy scoring from their forwards, rebounding from their centers and ballhandling in the backcourt, and they both play mean defense. The difference is that Chicago Coach Dick Motta is a statistician and Golden State's Al Attles is a gypsy. The Bulls play deliberately and rarely need an eraser, while sometimes the Warriors will go helter-skelter. But basically the teams have the same soul. Also they have both been ignored over the years. This year, partly through the unexpected collapse of other teams, like Milwaukee and Los Angeles, the two clubs have gleaned a certain amount of recognition and recognize the playoffs as a chance to step out of the shadows. As a result, they were going at the series not like men at work, but like men at war.
Why else would Rick Barry, having taken in stride an attempted mugging by a woman in Seattle, misplace his cool and make more mistakes than a kid on his first date during the final seconds of the second game? Why else would Chet Walker play on a leg that felt like a worn-out shock absorber? Why else would Norm Van Lier bite his tongue?
May 11, 1975
Barry's gaffe occurred last Wednesday night in Chicago. He had scored 38 points in the series opener a few days before when the Warriors won 107-89 on their home floor. But in the second game in Chicago he lost track of the time and gave the Bulls a chance to win, which they did, 90-89.
Barry is moving into his career's middle age and finds himself still without an NBA championship. He had one of his best seasons this year: second to Bob McAdoo of Buffalo in scoring, first in free-throw percentage, and he has averaged 27.4 points in the playoffs. His performance in Golden State's first playoff round against the SuperSonics so enraged one Seattle woman that after the final game she swung at him with her purse. Barry played good defense and dodged the blow.
On the other side is the Bulls' Chet Walker. He played on the 1967 Philadelphia team that beat the Warriors in the NBA finals. He was called "The Jet" then. Now he is 35 and his hair is flecked with gray. Last week he confided that he was weary of children's games and that this would be his last season. "I haven't made it official, but I think I've outgrown basketball," he said. "Thirteen seasons is enough. The money's good but no longer that important—it's doing something to make me happy. I need a change in my life. I was talking to Jerry West the other day. People don't realize the pressure, especially on a veteran. They expect you to play well. If you don't, they throw that age thing into your face."
Walker had age on his face in the opening game. He was limping because of an injured thigh, took only seven shots and scored but 10 points while his counterpart, Warriors rookie Keith Wilkes, got 26. That provoked teammate Bob Love to say: "Rookies aren't supposed to score like that. A guy like Barry is going to get his points, but put me on Wilkes and I'll hold him to nothing."
The criticism was typical of the Bulls. Earlier in the year, Norm Van Lier chastised Motta because, he said, Motta would not stand up for him, and he sometimes questioned the coach's strategy. When the Warriors arrived in Chicago, they were laughing over the newspaper stories that had the Bulls arguing among themselves about who was responsible for the opening loss. "The press made us this way," Walker said. "We aren't recognized as good basketball players. Barry is the only all-star on either team. We have to be controversial because the only promotion we get is when we promote ourselves."
Walker came back and scored 28 points in the second game. In that one Motta got away with playing Love and Walker, both of whom had five fouls, for most of the fourth quarter. Walker had two minutes rest in the period, Love a minute. But Motta was forced to play them: the Warriors were leading by seven points with eight minutes left, even though Butch Beard had been on the bench with foul trouble for most of the night.
With 50 seconds to go, Golden State had possession and a three-point lead. But playmaker Charles Johnson had fouled out and Van Lier was hounding Beard so closely that there was no way he could get loose to take the inbounds pass. The ball eventually went to Wilkes, unprotected at the top of the Warriors' foul lane. Chicago's Jerry Sloan knocked it loose from him and fed Van Lier for a layin to narrow the score to 89-88.
Van Lier stripped Jeff Mullins of the ball a few seconds later, but the Bulls kicked it away with 22 seconds left and Barry wound up in possession. All he had to do was play keep-away. Unaccountably, he got befuddled on the time remaining, tried a wild double-pump-with-a-triple-twist shot and when it missed with 10 seconds to go, Chicago had the ball again. Eight seconds later, Van Lier zipped a pass to Center Tom Boerwinkle, who was free for a layin, and that was the game. Afterward, the shocked Warriors filed silently out of their dressing room still wearing their uniforms, and showered back at the hotel.
Van Lier views the playoffs as a personal chance to redeem a tragic year, and to that end has been striving to curb a sharp tongue that puts him among the league leaders in technical fouls. Van Lier's temper is legend. Once he attacked his hometown police station, because he felt one of the officers was harassing his brother. This season he went through a divorce that got a lot of publicity, was fined $1,000 for being rude to Referee Mark Mano during a game against Houston, and in Cleveland a packed house turned out to boo him after he was quoted as disparaging the Cavaliers' ability. Shortly thereafter he went to Motta and said he was ready to quit.
The relationship between Van Lier and Motta sometimes borders on love-hate. Both are fiery competitors. Van Lier has kicked over sideline chairs after a loss he felt was traceable to poor strategy. There are rumors that the two have battled in the locker room but the tale is probably inaccurate, as is the canard that Van Lier strangled his own dog in a fit of rage. "Can you believe that?" says Van Lier. "People look at how I play on the floor and they think I'm violent. I'm not an evil person. I'm not looking to kill anybody. My name is dirt in this league and it hurts me. I wish I could be cool like Walt Frazier, but then I wouldn't be me. Matter of fact, I sometimes go out and look for something to get upset about before a game."
What bothered Van Lier was the uncharacteristic attitude the Bulls had in the second game. "Golden State was more intense than we were," he said. "And that was strange, because a Chicago team isn't usually in that sort of situation." Van Lier admits that in the past there were Chicago players who did not go all out. What happened was that in practice the malingerers were knocked around unmercifully, and when they complained they were told to shut up until they put out like everyone else.
On Sunday, Van Lier's intensity level could not be questioned. He got a technical foul, spit on the floor in disgust and scored 35 points. After two straight victories, the Bulls had that old attitude back, as if they expected to be invited to dinner.