Before Jordan The Bulls played without His Airness for 18 years. Most of that time they were pretty good; the rest of that time they were very bad

July 07, 1993
July 07, 1993

Table of Contents
July 7, 1993

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Before Jordan The Bulls played without His Airness for 18 years. Most of that time they were pretty good; the rest of that time they were very bad

Before the Chicago Bulls were born, in 1966, there were the
Chicago American Gears, the Chicago Bruins and the Chicago
Studebakers of the then long-defunct National Basketball League, as
well as the Chicago Stags, the Chicago Packers and the Chicago
Zephyrs of the NBA. Before the Bulls had Michael Jordan, they had Big
Red and the Blond Bomber; Flingin' Flynn and the Gem; the Jet,
Spider, Big Daddy, Butterbean and Stormin' Norman; the Big A, Dr. K
and Dr. Junk. And before Jordan and the Bulls brought championship
hoop to the Loop, it was accepted as gospel that pro basketball would
never fly in Chi.
Imagine that. Imagine today's decibel level at Chicago Stadium and
the worldwide demand for Bullabilia. Then imagine that not too long
ago, in the city of the big shoulders and the low-post mentality,
locals would have just as soon taken a January jump in Lake Michigan
as a seat at an NBA game. But that was the way it was in the Second
City. ''Long regarded as the burial grounds of professional
basketball,'' wrote The Sporting News in 1966, Chicago was a town
already sated by the Bears, the Blackhawks, the Cubs and the White
Sox. To take a measure of the game's futility in Chicago just
consider the metamorphosis of the Packers, who after their first
season, 1961-62, felt compelled to change their name to the Zephyrs,
a name made fitting when they wafted away to Baltimore the following
Undaunted by this state of affairs, a 6 ft. 8 in. businessman,
former Northwestern basketball player and ex-American Gear named Dick
Klein led a group of five investors who shelled out a total of $1.6
million to the nine- team NBA for an expansion franchise in February
1966. The night before the new Chicago club's initial press
conference, Klein came up with its nickname. ''All I could think of
was Bulls,'' he said. ''I imagine we'll be called the Ferdinands when
we lose.''
The Bulls set up shop at the 11,002-seat International
Amphitheatre, located among the stockyards and slaughterhouses on the
South Side. Then they set about attracting attention. Every day
cigar-chomping publicist Ben Bentley did his shoe-leather shtick,
making a personal pitch to each of the four local papers. ''There's
nothing like meeting eyeball to eyeball with a writer and throwing
him an angle he can use,'' Bentley says. The promotions director, 26-
year-old Jerry Colangelo, rented a flatbed truck and wheeled a
snorting bull down Michigan Avenue. ''Our total season-ticket sale
that first year was less than one hundred,'' says Colangelo, now
president of the Phoenix Suns. ''I think that stunt got us about two
more orders.''
The expansion draft in the spring yielded 18 players, the two most
significant ones coming from those erstwhile Packers/Zephyrs, the
Baltimore Bullets: guard Jerry Sloan, who had just completed his
rookie season, and veteran center Johnny (Big Red) Kerr, who at 33
gave up his playing career to become the Bulls' coach. Kerr, a
Chicago native who had been a star at Illinois, was colorful and
quotable. He rode the refs, pounded the floor with a knotted white
towel and prescribed LSD for his players -- not the stuff Timothy
Leary was then extolling but a ''loose, scrambling defense.'' In the
Bulls' first trade, Klein acquired San Francisco Warrior playmaker
Guy Rodgers, who wound up setting the NBA single-season assist mark
while running Kerr's freewheeling, ''fast weave'' offense in 1966-67.
Kerr earned Coach of the Year honors by winning 33 games, which is
still the NBA record for an expansion franchise, and taking Chicago
to the playoffs.
Less promising than the won-loss record was the average home
attendance of 4,772 fans, an especially feeble number given that the
Bulls spared no hype. Taking a page from the marketing of football
star Paul (Golden Boy) Hornung, Chicago promoted its top pick, Dave
Schellhase from Purdue, as the Blond Bomber. The Bomber turned out to
be a dud. Kerr also oversold his injured big man, Nate Bowman, a
career 2.9 points-a-game scorer, mentioning him in the same breath as
Bill Russell. (A more realistic Bentley said of Bowman, ''Nate the
Great, you're trading bait.'') And Bowman wasn't Kerr's only post
problem: center Len Chappell, it turned out, couldn't catch bounce
passes because he wore contact lenses. But then, the whole history of
the Chicago Bulls B.J. (Before Jordan) should not so much be written
as recorded on an old 45 with a hole in the middle, so constant was
their search for a center. (A search, some would say, that spins on.)

This is an article from the July 7, 1993 issue

Because of a fire at McCormick Place, Chicago's convention center,
the Bulls were ousted from the cozy Amphitheatre by the relocated
convention business and had to move uptown to the stadium for their
second season. In the city where a lantern-kicking cow lives on in
infamy, fires have a particularly notorious place in history, and
this one would too: It was a bad omen. Klein, hoping to build through
the draft, traded the 32-year-old Rodgers to the Cincinnati Royals
for two picks and guard Flingin' Flynn Robinson. (Remember that
Chicago got off to a 1-15 start in 1967-68 and missed the
playoffs, with a 29-53 record. Kerr's slogan for his undersized team,
''Fight, fire and fall / back,'' sounded more like the tack he took
with management; he quit at the end of the season to coach the
first-year Suns. Attendance dropped to 3,975 a game, which made
sitting in the 17,222-seat stadium as lonely as taking a midnight
ride on the El.
The Bulls' one bright spot was the 6 ft. 5 in. Sloan, who, as a
rookie out of Evansville, had been buried on the Baltimore bench. He
played 48 minutes against the St. Louis Hawks in Chicago's first game
and would remain a stalwart over the next 10 seasons, averaging 35.6
minutes, 14.7 points and 7.7 rebounds a game. Good numbers -- but
Sloan's game could not be reduced to numbers. As the best perimeter
defender in the league, he was called either Spider or the Human
Chain Saw for the way he hacked away at his opponent's anatomy and
will. Thickly built and earthbound, he seemed more a hoops version of
Dick Butkus than a precursor of Michael Jordan. And yet in his
chin-out aggression and unshakable nerve, it is Air who is Sloan's
Still, Sloan and Co. put themselves in a bind that would plague
Chicago for years to come: They were good enough to prevent the Bulls
from drafting first but not good enough to finish high in the
standings. This quandry did little to fill seats at the Stadium.
After a home game in November 1968, Chicago announced a crowd of 891,
prompting NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy to reprimand Klein for
reporting a figure without a comma in it. Soon thereafter Bentley
gave out gate totals of 1,005 and 1,006 and, appropriately enough in
the Mayor Daley era, issued a recount for that November game, at
which the turnout had somehow swelled to 1,384. Still, the home
crowds dropped for the second straight season, to an official count
of 3,795 a game. The Bulls seemed poised to go the way of the
Studebakers as Klein anticipated a third straight year of six-digit
But beyond the debit sheet, things were looking up. In 1968 Klein
drafted 7- foot, 265-pound Tom (Big Daddy) Boerwinkle, who would
become a devastating pick-setter and high-post passer in Chicago for
the next decade. Klein acquired two more stalwarts from Milwaukee,
guard Bob Weiss and forward Bob (Butterbean) Love, for Flingin'
Flynn. And to replace Kerr, Klein hired 36- year-old Dick Motta from
Weber State -- or as he was known in Chicago, ''Dick who? From Weber
where?'' While Motta had made a modest name for himself in the
college ranks, he had seen only a couple of pro games. In announcing
Motta's hiring Klein said, ''Dick's college teams were well drilled,
they knew what they were doing, worked hard and played rough.''
Motta played rough too. He took on everything and everyone --
including his boss. While Klein had shown an eye for talent, he had
made his share of mistakes, like when he drafted Clem (the Gem)
Haskins instead of Walt Frazier in 1967 and when, a year later, he
traded Keith Erickson for the Los Angeles Lakers' Erwin Mueller when
he could have had Baltimore's Gus Johnson. Motta viewed some of
Klein's other moves as even more debilitating, designed strictly to
cut costs. ''I felt like throwing a dollar on the floor to see if it
could play for us,'' Motta snapped after one loss.
If the early Bulls had a watershed season, it was 1969-70. In a
move designed to shore up his front office and spark excitement,
Klein hired 28- year-old Pat Williams as executive vice-president,
luring him away from the Philadelphia 76ers, who had just set a team
attendance record. Williams, a devotee of White Sox owner and
huckster Bill Veeck, vowed to attract crowds with ''anything clean,
legal and moral.'' He quickly skirted the boundaries of all three.
For a halftime wrestling exhibition he hired Victor the Bear despite
an Illinois law that made ''watching the fighting or baiting of a
bear'' a $200 fine. The Anti-Cruelty Society finally approved the
promotion as long as Victor's opponent was known beforehand. Williams
was pinned in one fall.
Williams did not come to Chicago alone. At the time Klein was
dickering with Philly for Williams's services, the 76ers were trying
to pry forward Jimmy Washington, who had been a star at Villanova in
Philadelphia, away from the Bulls. Both clubs got their wishes: After
one press conference to herald the hiring of Williams, the Bulls held
another to announce the acquisition of 6 ft. 6 1/2 in. forward Chet
(the Jet) Walker from the Sixers.
A prolific scorer with a deft fallaway jump shot, the 29-year-old
Walker was thought to be nearing the end of his prime. The 6 ft. 8
in. Love, Chicago's other forward, was not thought to be capable of
one. In three NBA seasons he had never averaged more than seven
points a game, and the Bulls nearly shipped him to the Seattle
SuperSonics in the summer of 1969. Walker was silky smooth, a
linchpin on the 1966-67 Philadelphia club then considered the best in
NBA history; Love was gangly and shy, self-conscious because of a
stutter. But under Motta, who designed an intricate, picking offense
that routinely got his forwards the ball close to the basket,
Walker and Love attained a gorgeous synergy: Walker using his rump to
gain position and then shooting over his defender with deceptive
quickness; Love in constant motion, back-cutting for easy buckets or
pump-faking once, twice, three times before firing in a line- drive
jumper. In 1969-70 they each poured in more than 20 points a game and
for the next five seasons held sway as the most productive forward
tandem in the league.
''I remember I saw Bean get 49 points in back-to-back games ((in
1973)) shooting that little fallaway jumper of his, and it seemed
like every shot went about an eighth of an inch over some bigger
guy's hand,'' Boerwinkle recalls. ''The best line I ever heard about
Bob was that he could get into a phone booth with Wilt Chamberlain
and still get his shot off.'' And Walker? ''He was one of the best
clutch players of all time,'' Boerwinkle says. ''There were some
tight games in which in the last two minutes we would literally go to
Chet every time down the floor. The huddles in timeouts wouldn't be
so much to set up plays as to say, 'O.K., Chet, where do you want the
ball?' ''
Home attendance shot up to 10,050 a game in 1969-70, and the next
season the Bulls went 51-31 for their first winning record.
Meanwhile, between his battles with Motta and the high rent that
Arthur Wirtz, owner of Chicago Stadium, was extracting for the use of
his building, Klein was losing his grip on the club. In '72 his group
sold out to Wirtz for $5.1 million.
With Klein out of power, Williams satisfied Motta's craving for a
playmaker in 1971 by swiping Norm Van Lier from Cincinnati. Stormin'
Norman was a perfect fit on the Bulls: a gifted ball handler,
tenacious ball hawk and as combative as Sloan. The season before, in
fact, the two had duked it out both during a game and in a hallway
afterward, prompting Motta to remark, ''This guy's as crazy as Sloan.
That's my kind of man.'' Once paired in the backcourt, Sloan and Van
Lier took more charges than Marshall Fields. ''Those guys woke up
every morning making two lists,'' Williams says. ''The first was what
they were going to do. The second was who they were going to do it
Indeed, in tracing the family tree of the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons
of the 1980s, one would find its roots in the Motta Bulls, who played
defense with a feral hunger. In 1974 columnist Leonard Lewin issued a
warning to the league in The New York Post: ''Anyone playing the
Bulls is advised to get a tetanus shot.''
/ But Chicago had one intractable problem in the early 1970s:
geography. As good as the Bulls were, they were in a Western
Conference that also had the Milwaukee Bucks of Lew Alcindor/Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson (obtained from Cincinnati for -- you
got it -- Flingin' Flynn) and the Los Angeles Lakers of Chamberlain
and Jerry West. The Bulls made the playoffs five of their first six
seasons but never advanced past the first round. Finally, in '74,
they beat Detroit in a seven-game series, but Sloan injured his foot
early in Game 6 -- though he still played for three quarters. Without
the Human Chain Saw, the Bulls were buzzed by the Bucks in Round 2.
In the off-season, Motta, now acting as general manager with
Williams having departed to the Atlanta Hawks the year before, traded
6 ft. 9 in. backup center Clifford Ray to the Golden State Warriors
for 33-year-old center Nate Thurmond, a six-time All-Star. ''You have
to have the cards to win in this league,'' Motta said, ''and now
we've got them.'' After having given a tryout to Zvonimir Petricevic,
a 7-foot Yugoslav, in the 1960s and fallen just short of acquiring
Chamberlain in the '70s, Chicago had finally landed its center. But
Thurmond turned out to be less Nate the Great than Trading Bait: He
averaged fewer than eight points a game.
Without Williams as a buffer between the volatile Motta and his
players, the Bulls bickered nonstop, but they fed off the hostility.
They won the Midwest, willed themselves to the conference finals,
took a three-games-to-two lead over the Warriors -- and collapsed.
They botched Game 6 at home and blew a 14- point lead in Game 7 as
Ray helped the Warriors to a series victory and eventually to the NBA
title. Motta lost his last ounce of locker-room respect when,
according to the players, he suggested that they vote only partial
playoff shares to Van Lier and Love because the two had held out in
contract squabbles early in the season. (Motta denied making this
suggestion.) Chicago won only 24 games in 1975-76, while Motta
variously called his team ''a cesspool'' and a ''circus of
sickness.'' He was gone after the season.
A year later, only Boerwinkle and Van Lier remained from the
nucleus of a stout-hearted club that had earned the respect of a city
that had shoveled dirt on five previous pro franchises. So as fate
would cruelly have it, the party broke up just when the present
everyone had wished for finally arrived. Artis (the Big A) Gilmore,
picked up from the Kentucky Colonels in the 1976 , ABA dispersal
draft, was 7 ft. 2 in. and 240 pounds of immovable muscle and immense
Afro. And while he may not have dominated -- it seemed at times that
the gentle Gilmore preferred golf and scuba diving to hoops -- he
gave Chicago six respectable seasons at center and lent stability to
the B.J. Bulls, who certainly needed it.
A parade of seven coaches came and went between 1976-77 and
'84-85. Before his first season, Ed Badger, who replaced Motta,
requested WIN 50 plates for his car, but some more realistic civil
service employee in the state licensing office sent him ones that
read WIN 20. Badger did, winning 44, including 20 of his last 24
games. When Badger resigned after the next season, his successor,
Larry Costello, lasted 56 games, or as long as it took him to figure
out that guard Wilbur (Dr. Junk) Holland was deaf in his left ear and
not just ignoring him. After Costello, in rapid-fire fashion, came
Scotty Robertson, Sloan, Rod Thorn, Paul Westhead and Kevin Loughery,
who ushered in the Jordan era.
That era almost didn't happen. The Costello and Robertson coaching
tag team of 1978-79 went 31-51 and Chicago finished last in the
Western Conference, earning a coin flip for the top draft choice with
the Lakers, who owned the Utah Jazz's choice. At stake: the rights to
Magic Johnson. The Bulls held a fan vote to decide which way to call
the flip. The public picked heads, and even though Thorn, then the
team's general manager, had a strong hunch that Chicago should go
with tails, he felt he couldn't go against the fans' choice. When the
Bulls' staff gathered on the 13th floor at 333 North Michigan -- a
floor no other tenant wanted, so Wirtz, the owner of the building,
assigned it to the team -- for a phone hookup and informed the Lakers
of their fan poll results, L.A. graciously let the Bulls call the
There was a pause as commissioner Larry O'Brien flipped the coin
and announced the verdict: tails. A celebration of Laker fans roared
over the speakerphone. Kerr, back in Chicago as a Bulls' broadcaster,
gave Thorn some overdue words of advice. ''If you listen to the
fans,'' he said, ''sooner or later you wind up sitting with them.''
Having lost a flip for Alcindor when he was with the Suns, Kerr also
told Thorn of the approach he had used to deal with disappointed
Phoenicians: ''I told them I wanted Neal Walk ((a decidedly less
promising center)) anyway.'' Of course, who would have believed Thorn
if he had said he wanted David Greenwood, Chicago's choice in the
1979 draft, anyway?
The Bulls had to use more than their share of spin control in
those days. Greenwood, a 6 ft. 9 1/2 in. All-America from UCLA, would
be a solid pro, but he was no Magic. Delmer Beshore, a guard out of
Cal, was a terrific name, but he was no NBA point guard (except in
Chicago in 1979-80). Larry (Dr. K) Kenon was a fair small forward,
but he was no Bernard King, whom Chicago passed on to sign Dr. K in
'80. Reggie Theus was an All-Star scorer and looker, but he was no
franchise player. Loughery was a fine coach, but he was no model of
patience: He wanted to file an official protest of a December '83
game at Houston before the game ended. Erroneously informed by a
substitute ref that he had to produce $500 on the spot to lodge the
complaint, Loughery fumbled around for some dough, finally produced a
piece of plastic and asked, ''Will you take American Express?''
No, but the next year the Bulls would take Jordan in the draft,
and 18 years of paying their dues would finally pay off.