Growing Pains to Championship Reigns
the ten greatest shots
in Bulls history.
A contending team, headed up by the best player in history. An adoring crowd of 23,000 packing the United Center. Worldwide popularity with red Bulls' No. 23 or No. 33 jerseys seen on city streets on half a dozen continents.
The momentum is all forward as the Bulls mark their 31st season in the NBA in 1996-97. But only a minority of Jordan/Pippen/Rodman followers truly realize how tenuous a hold the team, and pro basketball for that matter, once had on Chicago.
Only 13 years ago, the Bulls struggled to draw fans as a rudderless, defenseless team before snaring a young man out of North Carolina, and before the addition of an aggressive new ownership. But go back another 15 years and you'll learn how the Bulls endured tremendous growing pains. One night the Bulls announced a record-small Chicago Stadium gathering of 891 against the Seattle SuperSonics on November 7, 1968.
Follow the timeline back still another five years: Chicago had been abandoned by the NBA after two league franchises had come and gone. Only the insistence of ABC-TV Sports' President Roone Arledge persuaded the NBA expansion committee to give the Windy City still another chance with the neophyte Bulls, who would begin by hanging on for dear life as a Chicago franchise until the mid-1970s, and naturally Michael Jordan cemented the team's future once and for all.
Chicago, in fact, once was called a "graveyard" for pro basketball. The success the Bulls have enjoyed over the past decade went against the grain of local sports history. The string of continuous home sellouts at both the Stadium and United Center, dating back to 1987, would have been unthinkable in other decades. But the foresight and enthusiasm of a small group of basketball pioneers provided just enough impetus to keep the Bulls going until the franchise and the NBA truly got airborne in the '80s.
There was Dick Klein, a hustling importer who tried to buy the Chicago Zephyrs, the previous local NBA entry, but founded the Bulls on a shoestring instead. There was Johnny "Red" Kerr, who came home after a 10-year pro career out East to midwife the Bulls as coach in their first season.
No present-day Bull, basking in the attention of a far-flung rooting section, can truly understand how fragile a grip basketball once had on Chicago. Until the mid-1970s, Blackhawks' hockey dominated as the city's top wintertime sports attraction for fans and TV coverage.
While basketball became a passion in New York and other Eastern markets after World War II, Chicagoans often greeted the sport with shrugged shoulders. Hoosier Hysteria did not cross the state line and migrate the few miles up Route 41.
"The East Coast people knew the game, and they were very up on how the game should be played," said Kerr, who starred at Tilden Tech on the South Side of Chicago, and at the University of Illinois before setting endurance records as a center with the old Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers).
"Chicago didn't have that kind of background and history, where people cared much about the game," said Kerr. "In the East, they watched top college programs, and they liked the give-and-go, pick-and-roll plays and the game strategy. I don't think people in Chicago talked about those things."
No dominant college program emerged to galvanize the city's attention prior to the 1970s. Loyola won the NCAA title in 1963, but its tiny lakefront campus gym prevented a sizable patronage from following the Ramblers. Neither Loyola nor DePaul ever came close to establishing a dynasty. The University of Illinois fielded respectable programs but was 135 miles away. College basketball doubleheaders at the Stadium occasionally piqued local interest, but that could not be sustained.
In the meantime, several fledgling pro basketball leagues started fielding franchises both in big cities like Chicago and in much smaller markets like the Quad Cities. Baseball stars like Lou Boudreau played a few months of pro basketball in their offseasons to earn a few extra bucks, but the leagues usually had a short life span.
Some of the Chicago entries in those leagues included the Bruins, Gears and Majors. They often competed against one another for the minuscule slice of the market interested in basketball. The result was always the same, the teams folded.
Chicago also sported a charter franchise in the Basketball Association of America, soon to become the NBA, in its first season of 1946-47. The Stags won the league's Western Division with a 39-22 record, outdistancing the St. Louis Bombers, Cleveland Rebels, Detroit Falcons and Pittsburgh Ironmen. Meanwhile, the only two original NBA teams still in the same city -- the New York Knicks and Boston Celtics -- began competition in the Eastern Division against the division titlist Washington Capitols and the Philadelphia Warriors, Toronto Huskies and Providence Steamrollers.
Paced by New Yorker Max Zaslofsky and Illini product Andy Phillip, the Stags fielded competitive teams through the 1949-50 season, after which they disappeared into trivia lore. In the meantime, the NBA was taking in practically every fly-by-night owner it could find, with franchises popping up in such unlikely cities as Sheboygan, Wisconsin; Waterloo, Iowa; and Anderson, Indiana.
Teams continued to come and go through the league for several seasons. Pro basketball's time truly had not come for the consuming public. By 1955, the NBA had shrunk to an eight-team circuit. Teams played in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, along with Syracuse and Rochester, New York. The Minneapolis Lakers moved to Los Angeles in 1960. But there was still no team in Chicago until the NBA gingerly took another step into expansion by adding the Packers at the International Amphitheatre for the 1961-62 season.
The Packers hardly attracted attention with an 18-62 record, and their only distinctive player was NBA Rookie of the Year Walt Bellamy with his 31.6 points-per-game average. They were hardly better in 1962-63 when they were renamed the Zephyrs and moved to the decrepit Coliseum, south of the Loop. The Zephyrs drew few fans and finished 25-55.
By now, businessman Klein was entertaining thoughts of owning a team. A former Gears' player, he made an offer to Zephyrs' owner Dave Trager. But while on an Arizona vacation, Klein found out that Trager had instead sold the Zephyrs to Baltimore owners, who planned to move the team.
"I now had a taste of wanting to own a basketball team, but I had no team to buy," recalls Klein. "So in 1963 I called the NBA's expansion committee and formed the Chicago Pro Basketball Corporation."
Nothing happened for the next two years. Finally, the NBA decided to add another team for the 1966-67 season. Klein had already lined up affluent investors in oilman/NFL owner Lamar Hunt, drug company impresario Dan Searle, and Harold Meyer of Oscar Meyer fame. He also had the support of owner Fred Zollner of the Detroit Pistons and Ben Kerner of the St. Louis (now Atlanta) Hawks to put another team in Chicago. But New York Knicks' President Ned Irish was "violently" opposed to a Chicago franchise.
Klein credited a pivotal role to Roone Arledge, then the most dynamic executive in sports TV. He said Arledge told the expansion committee he would not cut a network TV deal for the NBA unless it fielded a team in Chicago, then the nation's second largest video market.
Finally granted a team, Klein went about wooing a reluctant city. He got the late Mayor Richard J. Daley to proclaim "Chicago Bulls Day." The big welcoming parade down Michigan Avenue featured several cars, a high school marching band, and a live bull riding a flatbed truck.
Klein was hamstrung with a $125,000 player payroll and $75,000 for coaching and office salaries. His travel budget was $265,000. He could not make a trade in which the player coming to the Bulls would make more than $10,000 over the traded player's salary.
Nevertheless, Klein made more good moves than bad for the inaugural season. Obtaining Kerr and guard Sloan in the expansion draft from the Baltimore Bullets (the old Zephyrs), he retired Kerr from the playing ranks and made him head coach, while Sloan became a starting guard. He traded young guard Jeff Mullins and Jim King back to the Warriors for veteran backcourt playmaker Guy Rodgers, giving the Bulls some veteran credibility.
Fans could not easily follow the Bulls at times. None of Chicago's four newspapers sent beat writers on the road with the team. WGN-Radio broadcasted only home games, while WGN-TV aired just a handful of road games, meaning many away contests were not covered by any Chicago media. Kerr and assistant coach Al Bianchi kept a ready supply of change in their pockets to call in road-game box scores to Chicago newspapers.
Nevertheless, the city paid some attention to the Bulls. Klein nearly filled the Amphitheatre when top NBA draws like Wilt Chamberlain and the 76ers or Bill Russell and the Celtics came to town. "It was a cozy atmosphere in the Amphitheatre," said Bob Rosenberg, who has served as official scorer for every Bulls' home regular-season and playoff game in franchise history. He also scored every Packers/Zephyrs home game.
Klein's break-even point was 5,000 in attendance. "I promised my investors they would triple their money in five years. Well, it quadrupled in three years," he said.
The first-year Bulls won 33 games, still a record for an expansion franchise. And the team made the playoffs, also an unprecedented first-year feat. Chicago made the postseason again in 1967-68.
"Making the playoffs those first two years were keys to making the team stick in Chicago," said Kerr.
But the bumps in the road soon grew large. Klein's spartan budget prevented him from building up the roster. He had to pass up drafting Walt Frazier out of Southern Illinois University because he wanted a three-year, $75,000 contract. Klein had to select guard Clem Haskins instead. Frazier would soon help the Knicks win two NBA titles.
The Bulls were forced to move to the higher-rent Stadium for the 1967-68 season when the original McCormick Place burned down. When crowds did not increase at the Stadium for a worse team, the team's finances were hobbled further.
Unusual, and often questionable player moves were the order of the day. The Bulls let promising forward Don Kojis go in an expansion draft, then traded top backup Keith Erickson, a contributor to some top Lakers teams of the early 1970s, to get back their original center, Erwin "Wolfgang" Mueller. Half a season later, Mueller was sold to the SuperSonics for cash and a draft choice.
Gunning guard Flynn Robinson came to town. "Flynn was just worried about hitting home runs," said Rosenberg. "He used to say, 'I'll get my 40 tonight.' He wasn't a team player."
Klein drew more criticism for hiring then-unknown college coach Dick Motta in 1968 to replace Kerr, who left for the then-expansion Phoenix Suns. But Motta did not wait long to begin building the Bulls back up -- particularly when new General Manager Pat Williams took over player personnel decisions from Klein in 1969.
Trades brought Chet Walker and Norm Van Lier to complement the floor-burns-crazy Sloan on the roster. The Bulls enjoyed their first winning season in 1970-71 -- the first of four straight 50 wins plus campaigns under Motta. Williams introduced a series of fan-pleasing promotions to augment the action on the court. Capacity crowds began to rock the Stadium for visits by the Lakers and Bucks, the latter headlined by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
"Pat Williams did a nice job of making the Stadium a friendly, family-type affair," said Kerr. "People always used to say it was in such a bad neighborhood, and nobody wanted to go there. But once they started winning, nobody cared about the neighborhood."
All Bulls road games were finally broadcast on radio in 1970, while the majority of road contests were televised by 1973. Only a collapse at the end of the 1975 NBA semifinal playoff series against the Warriors prevented the Bulls from completing the half-decade of fun with a championship.
The remainder of the 1970s and early 1980s were shaky years for the Bulls, brightened only by an astounding 20-4 run at the end of the 1976-77 season that clinched a playoff spot, and the addition of Artis Gilmore, the only dominating center in franchise history. A total of 157 defeats from 1981 to 1984 once again left the Stadium half full while frightening longtime Bulls watchers.
But soon any such thoughts became moot. The Stadium started to rock, title banners began decorating the rafters, and Bulls' merchandise proliferated throughout the planet.
Not bad for a team whose growing pains have encompassed two-thirds of its existence.