By Neil Beldock
Yes, there was a Chicago Bulls team before Michael Jordan captivated the City of Chicago and the entire basketball universe, catapulting the Bulls to six NBA championships. But the acceptance of the Chicago Bulls and the NBA in Chicago was not immediate.
A great sports city, Chicago sports fans were enamored with their Cubs, and White Sox, and Bears, and Blackhawks. Chicago was also a Big-10 and Note Dame college football town. Would there be room for the Bulls?
The Chicago Bulls inaugural season in the NBA was the 1966-67 season. A smashing success they were not averaging just over 4,700 fans per home game.
Things did not improve in Year 2. In fact, the acceptance of the team regressed with the Bulls average home attendance falling to under 4,000 fans per game. The trend continued in Year 3 when once again the Bulls could not crack an average of 4,000 fans per game. A far cry from the ‘Madhouse On Madison” the Chicago Arena would become years later.
But, by the early 1970’s the Bulls had constructed one of the most hard-nosed, tough and physical basketball teams that has ever played in the NBA.
Those Bulls teams, and the way they played the game, were the forerunners to the style of play the Isaiah Thomas / Bill Lambeer led Detroit Pistons would employ on their way to two consecutive NBA titles in 1989 & 1990. A style similar to that which was put forth by the Pat Riley / Patrick Ewing New York Knicks teams of the 1990’s who ironically could not get past the Michael Jordan led Bulls.
The Chicago fans took notice, and liked what they were seeing.
During the 1969-70 season the Bulls home attendance averaged over 10,000 per game, a trend which would continue for the next several years.
The Chicago Bulls teams of the early to mid-1970’s, much like the Knicks of the 1990’s, can be identified as one of the greatest teams to never win a championship.
If you were around to watch the Bulls teams of that era play, then you know how good and how tough they were. They were a special group of players, led by a very, very good coach.
As much as anything, this is the story of how to build a franchise with a specific style and approach in mind, and the ability to recognize the type team the fan base would embrace.
Through the first 3 years of their existence the Bulls were little more than a blip on the schedule of other NBA teams.
During their first three seasons, 1966-67 through 1968-69, the Bulls would win 33, 29 and 33 games in successive years. The tide would begin to turn during the 1969-70 season, a season in which the Bulls would elevate their win total to 39 games.
The seedlings for the development of a franchise, and ultimately the metamorphosis of the team from a struggling team to a highly competitive team would start during the 1966-67 season with the expansion draft acquisition of a tough and hard nosed guard by the name of Jerry Sloan.
Though the Bulls would struggle over the next few years, gaining the type player of Sloan’s caliber, who played the way Sloan played night in and night out, epitomized what management wanted, and would set the tone for the type of team the Bulls would become.
Two years later, the Bulls added another ingredient which perfectly fit within the recipe of the type team they were looking to build in the form a new head coach.
Going into the 1968-69 season, the Bulls hired Dick Motta to coach the team. Motta, to that point in time had exactly “zero” experience coaching in the NBA.
Motta had just finished a run as the coach at Weber State University which saw them win 3 consecutive Big Sky championships. But most importantly, Motta’s approach to the way basketball should be played was very much in line with the way Jerry Sloan played the game, and the way the Bulls front office wanted to build the team. He too believed in a hard-nosed, aggressive, defensive-minded approach to the game.
Prior to the 1968-69 season, at Motta’s behest, the Bulls acquired both Bob Weiss and Bob “Butterbean” Love in exchange for Flynn Robinson from the Milwaukee Bucks.
Bob Weiss, though not a great player by any means, did play the game with the type of intelligence and toughness Motta and the Bulls organization wanted. He would blend well with Sloan and form a backcourt which was as hard-nosed as any backcourt in the NBA.
And in Bob “Butterbean” Love, the Bulls had acquired a front-court player who they thought could emerge and develop into an elite scorer and star player who would compliment the ultra aggressive Sloan and Weiss in the backcourt.
Another key acquisition entering the 1968-69 season was a 7-foot, 265 pound center by the name of Tom Boerwinkle. The Bulls drafted Boerwinkle with the 4th overall pick of the 1968 NBA draft.
The NBA of the late 1960’s and 1970’s was a center-dominated league. Players such Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Willis Reed, Nate Thurmond and Wes Unseld were the dominate players in the league.
If you were to be a competitive team in the NBA during those years, you needed to have a physical presence at the center position.
Tom Boerwinkle was a mountain of a man. He was an enormous, bruising type player who represented yet another piece that fit well with the hard-nosed group being developed, and would provide the Bulls with the presence in the middle that would enable them to be a competitive team.
By the start of the 1969-70 season, the core group the Bulls had assembled was beginning to come together and show results.
Sloan was emerging as one of the best defensive guards in the league. Weiss was continuing to be the highly intelligent and tough floor-leader/point guard he had always been. Love was proving that the Bulls were correct in their vision of him having elite talent and scoring ability. And Boerwinkle was giving the Bulls the needed presence in the middle as evidenced by his 37 rebound game against the Suns.
But there was one other event which occurred prior to the 1969-70 season which would be a key element in the Bulls beginning to turn a corner. The Bulls would acquire Chet “The Jet” Walker from the Philadelphia 76ers.
Chet Walker was an elite-level player who had won an NBA Championship with the 1966-67 Wilt Chamberlain-led Philadelphia 76ers. He played the game with a unique blend of toughness and craftiness. The 76ers felt that Walker was on the back-end of his career and were willing to trade him in an attempt to get younger. Chet Walker was far from done as a player and would prove to be an essential piece of a developing and surging Bulls team.
The 1969-70 Chicago Bulls had indeed turned a corner. They won 39 games that season, the most ever in franchise history, and fans were beginning to show up night-after-night.
But more importantly, the seedlings for and of future success were beginning to blossom, and the type team they were to become was beginning to emerge.
The 1969-70 Bulls were a team which had as prolific a front court as there was in the NBA. With Walker, Love and Boerwinkle manning the front court, the trio would combine for 52.9 points and 28.9 rebounds per game.
The scoring would be led by Walker at 21.5 points per game and Love at 21.0 points per game, forming one of the most dynamic forward duos in the league. And Boerwinkle would average 12.5 rebounds per game and provide the physical presence that the Bulls envisioned he would when they drafted him.
In the backcourt, Sloan was terrific averaging 15.6 points, 7.0 rebounds and 3.1 assists. He would also be an All-NBA Defensive team selection. Weiss was also solid in the backcourt averaging 11.5 points and 5.8 assists per game. And their toughness and aggressive style of play was never in question.
With the base core now in place, the Bulls entered the 1970-71 season with a level of optimism never before felt within the organization.
As an organization they knew how they wanted to play, and felt they had the players who understood as well. And the results would not disappoint.
With the City of Chicago beginning to truly embrace the Bulls, they would finish the 1970-71 season with the best record in franchise history. They would win 51 games while losing just 31, before ultimately losing to the powerful Los Angeles Lakers in an epic 7-game playoff series.
The 1970-71 season would see the emergence of the core group of Walker, Love, Boerwinkle, Weiss and Sloan continue to gel and be one of the best defensive teams in the league, and far and away, the most physical team in the league.
The play of the front court was stellar. Love was now recognized as a star after averaging over 25 points per game. Walker continued to be the player he had always been and added 22.0 points per game. And Boerwinkle would do exactly what was asked of him in the middle, averaging 10.8 points and 13.8 rebounds per game.
The backcourt was once again solid, but the organization felt that if they were to continue to grow as a team, more dynamic play from the backcourt would be required.
Enter Norm Van Lier…………..“Stromin” Norm Van Lier………….
The Bulls had drafted Van Lier in 1969 and then immediately traded him to the Cincinnati Royals, a move they regretted in very short order.
Van Lier had led the league in assists in the 1970-71 season averaging 10.1 assists per game. He also displayed the type of tough, hard-nosed style which ingratiated him to the organization when drafted. The Bulls wanted him back and during the 1971-72 season, the Bulls were in a position to re-acquire Van Lier. But before bringing Van Lier to the Bulls, a conversation with Jerry Sloan would be required.
During the pre-season of 1969 the Bulls were playing the Cincinnati Royals shortly after Van Lier had been traded by the Bulls. To say he had a chip on his shoulder about the trade would be an understatement. Van Lier came out loaded for bear. And it didn’t take long for the fireworks to commence.
Said Van Lier: “Jerry (Sloan) and I got to pushing and shoving each other, and then fighting. Play continued at the other end, and Jerry and I kept going at it. We had rolled right out of the gym into the hall. I think we knocked over a popcorn maker”.
So before the Bulls would re-acquire Van Lier, they wanted to make sure there would be no lingering problems with and for Sloan.
Sloan’s answer was simple and to the point; “Any player who fights like Van Lier can be my teammate”.
With the blessing of Jerry Sloan now in hand, the deal was made and Norm Van Lier finally became a Chicago Bull.
Management felt they had constructed a team that could truly challenge for a championship. Over the next 4 seasons the Bulls would win 57, 51, 54 and 47 games. In two of those seasons, 1973-74 and 1974-75, the Bulls would advance to the Western Conference finals, losing each year.
Each year, from the 1973 playoffs through the 1975 playoffs, the Bulls would lose to the eventual NBA Champion.
In 1973 it was the Jerry West / Wilt Chamberlain led Los Angeles Lakers. In 1974 it was the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar / Oscar Robertson led Milwaukee Bucks. And in 1975 it was the Rick Barry led Golden State Warriors.
By the 1975-76 season, the run was over. The group assembled who played so hard and so physical for so long were aging and beat up from the night-in and night-out wars they fought over the past 6 seasons. Unfortunately those Bulls couldn’t quite get over the top and bring an NBA Championship trophy to the Windy City.
But what they did do was both introduce and seduce the fans of a great sports city into embracing the NBA.
As is often the case when a core group of players age and retire, the Bulls absorbed some difficult times with up and down seasons over the next several years. And although their up and down play would result in up and down attendance, Chicago fans never abandoned the affinity they had developed for the NBA game as a result of the special group of players who manned the Bulls teams through the early to mid-1970’s.
In 1984, fortunes would turn for the Chicago Bulls and their fans in a big, big way with the drafting of one Michael Jordan. The rest, as they say, is history. A history every basketball fan is well aware of.
But truth be told, the story of the Chicago Bulls and the capturing of the hearts of an avid fan base, can be traced back not to Michael Jordan, but to Jerry Sloan, Bob Weiss, Bob “Butterbean” Love, Tom Boerwinkle, Chet ‘The Jet” Walker, and of course Stormin’ Norm Van Lier. These were the players who put the Bulls on the map in Chicago.
The Bulls teams of the early to mid-1970’s were one of the greatest teams to never win a championship but, because of the way they played the game, were champions in the hearts of many, many Chicago sports fans.