CHOICE SEATS AT THE BULL RING

Behind Chicago's stormy facade lies an even more turbulent interior, featuring recriminations, backbiting and name-calling by the major figures of the team that has the worst record in the NBA
February 02, 1976

Just this side of the Lake Michigan glacier floes near Evanston, Ill. sits a 45-acre snowy plain that is the home of the Angel Guardian orphanage, the Hope and Home day-care center for children, the Renaissance House workshop for the blind, the Sisters of Mercy home for the retarded, St. Henry's Cemetery for the dead and the Chicago Bulls.

What a professional basketball team is doing with its training camp and practice facility located here is anybody's guess. But what the Bulls have been doing all season—holding out, caving in, battling suspensions, disputing contracts, starting hunger strikes, hassling, crying, screaming and fighting—is something of a mystery, too. At least they have been doing their unholy work mostly among, and to, themselves. What they have accomplished so far among the remaining membership of the NBA has been mostly to lose games and influence nobody.

Up until a fortnight or so ago the Bulls appeared to be making a serious run toward the hall of shame. Not only were they threatening to lower the 76ers' immortal record of nine victories in a single 82-game season, they were shooting under 40%, an accomplishment unmatched in the NBA for the past 15 years.

Were these the same big bad Bulls who come within a couple of traumas of the NBA title every year? The same dirty and delightful Bulls who pick and screen and scratch and claw and would battle the mercenaries in Angola for a loose ball? Well, no. Well, maybe.

The unofficial retirement of Chet Walker, preseason injuries to Jerry Sloan and Tom Boerwinkle and the emotional problems of Stormin' Norman Van Lier had not helped the Bulls' performance. Then, within sight of disaster, Chicago started "hitting some meat," as Coach Dick Motta likes to say. The Bulls won four of eight games and reached the magic 10-victory plateau before regaining their form. At the end of last week they were 12-31, not the Virginia Squires (7-37), to be sure, but still indisputably the worst in the NBA.

If Chicago's situation exemplified the state of the messy Midwest—the Bulls are a mere 6½ games out of first place in what is truly a pitiful division—it also spoke volumes about fear and loathing on the bench. In the midst of their brief rampage toward respectability, Van Lier was suspended for purposely smashing into a referee; Bob (Butterbean) Love was booed and benched for being ornery; the coach questioned the sanity of his men; his men questioned the parentage of the coach and emotions continued on a roller coaster.

"What a cesspool," Motta said of the Chicago situation one day. "What a circus of sickness," he said on another. During the short-lived high, however, he had other thoughts. It was "getting to be fun again," he said. "Maybe we've turned the corner."

It is important to remember that this isn't some kind of a cuckoo's nest we are dealing with here. This is the Chicago Bulls. The rough, tough, take-no-prisoners Chicago Bulls. The Team of the Big Shoulders. Whip Up in the Windy City. Whoop-de-doop in the Loop. All that. These are the Bulls who originated the art of sticking-together-while-being-incredibly-nasty-to-one-another long before Charlie Finley's boys got into the act.

In the past five seasons the Bulls were the only club in the NBA to win at least 47 games and advance into the playoffs each time. A proud franchise despite constant friction in the front office, Chicago found success in its unique hunt, strangle and destroy defense and the intense us-against-the-world coaching paranoia of the head man. Motta brought discipline to the Bulls, but over his eight coaching years his style and reputed power plays within the organization have fostered severe animosities.

For a moment during the playoffs last May, everything seemed to have come together for the Bulls. Before the regular season had begun, they felt they had bought a championship when they obtained Nate Thurmond from Golden State. And despite holdouts by Love and Van Lier (who together missed 33 games), numerous injuries and a disappointing season from Thurmond, who could not cope with Chicago's precision offense, they were leading Golden State 3-2 in the playoffs for the Western championship. And they were coming home for Game 6, certain victory and a place in the finals.

With everything within inches of their grasp, the Bulls led by nine points, only to give it all up and lose. Back in Oakland for Game 7, they led by 14, but lost again. So quickly do seasons and teams fall apart.

In the locker room after the final contest all bad feelings and checked anger rushed to the surface. For some time Motta had seethed over what he considered selfishness on the part of his two early-season holdouts. In turn, Love and Van Lier had been infuriated when Motta reneged on his promise to renegotiate their contracts. Now the coach lashed out at his broken team. In what has become a cause cél√®bre in Chicago, Motta referred to Love and Van Lier as he snapped, "When you vote on playoff shares, remember who wasn't at training camp."

Later, in conversation with the Chicago Tribune's Bob Logan, who was writing a book on the Bulls, Motta asked, "Is this book talk?" When Logan said yes, Motta proceeded to call Love "the greediest player in the league" and say, "I fear for Van Lier. I'd hate to trade him to a friend. I would like in the worst way to get rid of them both."

This was hardly rhetoric to hang a dream on, or a new season. Especially since the feeling seemed to be mutual. Nonetheless, both men returned this winter, again after contract hassles, Van Lier to blast Motta's coaching strategy ("He never used Thurmond right," "He never backs me up on technicals," etc.) and Love to issue daily announcements about how unappreciated and underpaid he is.

"My foot," says Motta, approximately. "These guys went for the brass ring last year and failed. Now they've cracked. I've always said coaching is just a matter of getting rid of the bad apples." A prevailing rumor holds that Motta makes hourly attempts to trade Van Lier, who has never been mistaken for Johnny Appleseed. So far, however, the only stormin' Norman will be doing out of a Chicago uniform will be as a reserve for the West in the NBA All-Star game on Feb. 3.

Chet (The Jet) Walker is one Bull who left the china shop. Always regarded as one of the game's gentlemen, Walker claims Motta's insensitivity was the clincher in his decision to retire. "I spent most of last season bleeding inside, calming down people and baby-sitting this team," Walker said the other day. "At the end we had busted our guts for this man, and he tells us not to pay those two. I couldn't believe it. The Chicago Bulls died in Oakland, all right. But it wasn't on the court, it was in the locker room."

Walker's absence and his accompanying running feud with Motta in the newspapers still haunt the Bulls. Had he returned, Walker would have been a significant influence on the young inside men, Mickey Johnson and Clifton Pondexter, as well as a valuable catalyst in the always difficult transitional period in which an old team turns young. But when Motta asked Walker to reconsider retirement, The Jet's conditions were practically laughable: he wanted a huge salary plus total control as coach and general manager.

That power is something Motta always demanded. To be fair, were it not for him the team probably wouldn't even be in Chicago. But shortly after he came out of the Utah mountains to take the Bulls by the horns, Motta discovered that being the coach didn't give him enough leverage to determine his own destiny. The team has experienced turmoil ever since.

The ultimate departure from any semblance of tranquillity occurred after the 1972-73 season, when Motta brandished rival coaching offers in front of the Bulls' 300-pound, gravel-voiced majority owner, Arthur Wirtz, and persuaded the team's executive board to give him the duties (though they withheld the title) of general manager as well as coach. This move forced out Pat Williams, who since has emerged as general manager at Philadelphia. Most important, it set up Motta as the man who both coached the Bulls on the floor and battled them in contract negotiations off it—a double-faced job hardly easy for a man of Motta's volatile ways.

Motta uses an expression from the Old West in pointing out that his only contract problems have been with Love and Van Lier. "The squeaky wheels get all the grease," he says. But there have been other squeaks. Since Williams and controversial Scout Jerry (The Sleuth) Krause departed, Motta has experienced plenty of misery in regard to trades as well as in signing players from the college draft.

When he traded strong Forward Garfield Heard plus No. 1 draft choice Kevin Kunnert for John Hummer, the deal turned out to be a disaster for Chicago. Motta supporters vehemently defend last year's trade of Clifford Ray plus a No. 1 pick plus bundles of cash for Thurmond by claiming that Ray didn't contribute nearly as much to the Warrior championship as Golden State's other center, George Johnson. Besides being nonsense, what is conveniently overlooked in this rationalization is that at one point Motta had Johnson also—Krause had drafted both Ray and Johnson for Chicago—but cut him in the preseason. Most NBA followers agree that if left unmade, this trade would have meant the championship for the Bulls instead of the Warriors.

But it is hardly fair to accuse Motta of anything but mixed results in the player exchange market; he outright stole the unknown Mickey Johnson from Portland after remembering him from his own summer camp at Aurora College, and his recent acquisition of Jack Marin has strengthened the Bulls in both ability and character.

Though Motta's intransigence in dealing with player salaries is one of the few recent steps toward financial sanity in all of pro sport, it is still true that among the Bulls' unsigned draftees have been Artis Gilmore, Ralph Simpson, Maurice Lucas and Mike Gale—creating the impression that Chicago has a better team in the ABA than in the NBA.

Dissatisfied with mere partial chaos, the Bulls went for the whole thing last year by forcing out the popular Johnny Kerr as business manager. A former coach and veteran player with a fine sense of humor, Kerr got along even with Motta. Into the breach stepped Jonathan Kovler, a 29-year-old scion of the Jim Beam whiskey family who had purchased stock in the Bulls, he once said jokingly, in order to get better season tickets.

As "managing partner," Kovler insists he is just like any other fan "with no expertise" in the game and "no input" regarding team policy. But insiders say Kovler is a kid with a new bourbon, uh, toy. Shortly after taking over, he advised the Bull coaches to "work on Dave Bing; he can't go to his left anymore."

One Bull says that Kovler, who like any other fan has the team insignia painted on his kitchen floor, approached Motta about his desire to sit in on team meetings as well as run laps, shoot lay-ups with the players and have daily conferences with the coach. Rebuffed on all counts, the managing partner has accused Motta of "shirking duty" because the coach hasn't been in the Bulls' Michigan Avenue offices in eight months.

Budgetary squabbles during the preseason resulted in Kovler firing the Bulls' long-time trainer Bob Biel over a $300 expense item after Biel had thrown a roll of tape at Kovler in the dressing room. Moreover, there was the terrific "hunger strike" walkout the Bulls staged in a dispute over $19 a day in meal money. Big Daddy Wirtz, who owns maybe three-fourths of Illinois, dismissed that one by booming, "You'd think a guy earning $150,000 could buy his own lunch."

So Motta is beset on all sides. Last summer he purchased a general store in Fish Haven, Idaho as a hedge against the day he gets out of basketball, and there must be times when he longs for his cabin in the woods. But Motta must finish this season to qualify for a $200,000 life-insurance policy connected to his contract, which has another two years to run. "I once said I would get out if things went sour," Motta says. "But after the way they've treated me like dirt, there's no way I would resign now."

Indeed, the younger Bulls appear to be on the threshold of better things. While Johnson is a coming star and Pondexter might be, the infant backcourt of Leon Benbow and John Laskowski is already big league; Benbow is this close to being one of the best defensive guards in the pros. With a good draft, says Motta, "we could have some fun."

Be that as it may, one friend of Motta's thinks a change of scenery is in order. Kansas City Coach Phil Johnson, who was once Motta's assistant at Chicago, says, "It's hard to coach the same team in this league for as long as Dick has. It's like marriage. After too long, nerves get raw. Little things become big things."

Guard Jerry Sloan, who played in agony with a damaged knee until last week, when a cartilage operation put him out for the season, says, "You can tell it isn't the same for Motta. Some games I've noticed he just hasn't been in it. His mind wasn't there. Of course, some games I haven't been in it either."

Motta's chief tormentor, the effusive Butterbean, may speak for the coach as well as all the old Bulls when he relates his feelings about this most perplexing of teams.

"Chicago is racist," Love begins the litany of moans and groans. "They boo me on the floor. I don't get respect. I don't get endorsements. The coach plays me like a mule, then he doesn't pay me what I'm worth. I'd love to get out of here and play somewhere else. Then I remember this team is a part of my life.

"The Bulls," Love adds softly. "It seems we built the Bulls like a house, and I know every little room, every detail. Chet, Norm, Jerry, Tom Boerwinkle. The Bulls. I love those guys. The Chicago Bulls will always be a part of me."

Possibly preoccupied with similarly touching thoughts, Love missed practice recently, because, he said, his car wouldn't start in the sub-zero temperatures.

"Must be an epidemic. Love's got four cars," somebody said.

"I've got two cars," Love said.

The next night at Buffalo, Love was benched, only to come in later to score 25 points and lead the Bulls to victory. Afterward Motta was asked about the disciplinary measure. "I figure if his car won't start, why should he?" Motta said.

The Bulls keep goring on.

TWO PHOTOSThe Bulls run as Managing Partner Kovler watches from the stands; Van Lier and Coaches Motta and Ed Badger from courtside.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)