Tom Boerwinkle: My Most MemoraBull Game
(Photo courtesy of Brett Ballantini)
Posted July 6, 2005
By Tom Boerwinkle, as told to Brett Ballantini
January 8, 1970 | Chicago Stadium
Chicago Bulls 152, Phoenix Suns 123
I’ve always told people that I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had such a long career with the Chicago Bulls. I played in Chicago for 10 seasons, and only Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen played more. To be surrounded by a core group of Norm Van Lier, Jerry Sloan, Chet Walker, and Bob Love for so many years was truly a blessing.
It was a huge thrill to come so close to the NBA Finals, as we did in 1974 and 1975, even if we fell a little short. But my favorite game with the Bulls—a game that gave new meaning to home-court advantage—came more than 35 years ago, on January 8, 1970.
You might be thinking, “A game in January? In 1970?” But let me tell you, this one was beyond belief.
In early January 1970, one of the most wicked cold snaps in Chicago history was paralyzing the city; by January 8, it had been below zero for 10 straight days. Of course, you normally wouldn’t worry how cold it was outside when playing a game indoors at Chicago Stadium, but Murphy’s Law applied to this game—the Stadium’s heater was broken. And as the teams and officials were discussing whether to play the game at all on that very chilly night, there was one little secret nobody knew: I was a cold-weather person.
Unusual circumstances weren’t anything new to me in my young career with the Bulls. I was drafted at a time when the ABA was competing for players with the NBA. The ABA would conduct drafts of college or NBA players at the drop of a hat—many of them “secret” drafts—and by the end of my senior season at the University of Tennessee, the Denver Rockets of the ABA had drafted me.
So I had already been drafted by one professional team when I participated in the U.S. Olympic team trials in 1968. It was there in Indianapolis where I received an unexpected visitor in the middle of the night: DePaul University Coach Ray Meyer. Ray, who was under consideration as the next head coach of the Bulls, came to tell me that the NBA was holding its own secret draft the next day. He wanted to know, on behalf of the Bulls, if I had already committed to Denver; otherwise, the Bulls were going to draft me No. 4 overall. That’s just what happened, and I ended up choosing the Bulls and fulfilling my dream to play in the NBA.
At my first NBA training camp a few months later, I almost came to regret that choice. Dick Motta had been hired as Chicago’s new head coach at only 37 years old, with no prior NBA experience, and he was determined to set a hard-working tone right off the bat. I was expected to participate in a rookie/free-agent camp a couple of weeks before the veterans arrived. They invited a lot of players to rookie camp—there were probably a half-dozen drafted players and another 15 walk-ons. Dick ran us so hard that every morning my roommate, second-round selection Loy Petersen, would have to pull me out of bed because I was so sore, I couldn’t move on my own. We had two-a-days that exceeded anything I could imagine.
I wasn’t the only one getting killed by Motta’s practices. Some of the free agents who were long shots to make the team would leave in the middle of the night. We’d do a head count every morning at breakfast to see who had run away and left training camp.
(Photo courtesy of Brett Ballantini)
It actually got so bad that our team trainer, Jerry McCann, started calling all the veteran players, who would be reporting in a week or two, to tell them that they’d better show up in good shape; otherwise, Motta was going to kill them. As it turned out, Dick lightened things up a little bit once the vets arrived, but I’m sure Jerry’s call threw a real scare into them.
This game versus Phoenix came in the middle of my second year. I’d led the Bulls in rebounding in my rookie season, and was on pace to do the same in 1969-70. Motta had carved out a well-defined role for me at center: I distributed the ball from the high post to our scorers, Walker and Love. Those two had an amazing ability to work in close to the basket, so I would dish to them inside and then crash the boards for offensive rebounds. Otherwise, I set picks like any other center, and hopefully could pick up some cheap buckets underneath as well.
I’ve always described our Bulls team as a bunch of role players. You might say my role was to do a lot of the dirty work, but I was proud of being in such a pivotal position on a successful team for many years. I never looked at the game in an individual sense; I’ve always operated best within a system. Besides, Bob Love says he still dreams of my back-door passes to him for layups, and I’m ranked seventh all-time on the Bulls in assists, so something must have been working right.
It’s funny enough to picture all 5,086 fans who braved the elements that night, wearing their hats, scarves, and gloves during the game. You certainly don’t arrive at an indoor basketball game expecting to see your breath when you cheer for your favorite player. But it wasn’t just the fans who were bundled up—the players on both benches wore coats and mittens to stay warm. It was only about 40 degrees inside the Stadium that night, so could you blame us?
You couldn’t have asked for a better team to play under these imperfect circumstances than a team from the desert. And Phoenix acted like they’d been dropped off at the North Pole; we jumped on them right away. It was 34-20 after the first quarter, and a runaway 78-51 by the half.
Good things were happening to me from the opening tip. Never had I experienced the breaks—not in high school, college, or the pros—that I did on that night. Everything was bouncing my way. I had 12 rebounds by the end of the first quarter, and was closing in on 20 by halftime. Balls were just finding their way to me; I was in the right place at the right time all the time. Things just snowballed from there.
The Phoenix franchise was two years younger than ours. Johnny Kerr, who was the first coach of the expansion Bulls and had left to take the same challenge in Phoenix, had just been fired by the Suns. Both teams had similar records heading into the game; the Bulls were 20-25 and the Suns 17-25. Phoenix “rallied” their way into the playoffs by the end of the year, finishing 39-43, and nearly upset the Los Angeles Lakers by pushing them to seven games in the playoffs. Connie Hawkins, Gail Goodrich and Paul Silas were the nucleus of the Suns, so this was a strong team we were facing.
Of course, we were very similar to Phoenix, a team of great promise. I had no idea we’d one day be just seconds away from making it to the NBA Finals, but I sensed that there were some good things happening. The club was starting to really jell. Norm Van Lier wasn’t back with the Bulls yet, but four of the other core players were learning to play together: me, Love, Walker, and Jerry Sloan. Like the Suns, we would also finish 39-43 and be eliminated in the first round of the playoffs—we lost to the Atlanta Hawks in five games.
There was a great sense of the team coming together. We were certainly heading in the right direction and building a lot of confidence. What I liked best was that the Chicago fans started to get some understanding and appreciation of what we were trying to do.
Despite how evenly matched the teams appeared to be on paper, we proved to have a major advantage in this “Ice Bowl” game. We continued to roll after halftime, and by the end of the third quarter, we were up 115-80.
I already had played more than my average minutes for the season, which were around 30. I wasn’t on the floor much in the third quarter because we were up so big, but by the end of the game, I had tallied an unimaginable 37 rebounds—in 35 minutes. It was an all-time Bulls record, and it stands to this day.
You might wonder why I didn’t shoot for 50 rebounds, seeing as how I played somewhat sparingly in the second half—and I probably could have finished with 40 with my gloves on. Well, I was never much for individual records. One of the worst things an athlete can do is get caught up in records and numbers—it sets an unrealistic expectation every time out. For me, an individual record just wasn’t that important. At one point, when I was on the bench in the 4th, someone from the scoring table walked down with a sign that said “Rebounds—37,” indicating I should go back into the game to grab some more boards. But I wasn’t interested in doing that. To go back in would have been solely to pad my stats. I wanted the Bulls to win, have me and my teammates stay healthy, and that’s it.
There’s another thing about that game I’m very proud of. We finished with five players scoring 20 points or more: I had 22 points; Bob Love had 34, Bobby Weiss and Clem Haskins 24, and Chet Walker 21. It’s a Bulls record that still stands, and that’s appropriate for our team, which made it a priority to share the ball.
I look at the box score today, and one thing really jumps out at me that I have no recollection of: the length of the game. Phoenix committed 44 fouls—still an opponent record vs. the Bulls—to our 16, which gave us an unimaginable 71 free throws, another team record. Do you realize how long it must have taken to finish a game where one team shot 71 free throws? By the fourth quarter, I don’t know if there were any fans left. The more I think about it, I wonder if it was because the game was a runaway, the temperature in the stands—or having to watch a never-ending parade of players to the foul line.
The funniest thing that struck me in looking back at the game is that even though we ran away with the contest early, three Bulls played more than 40 minutes: Haskins (45) Weiss (45), and Love (43). That doesn’t make a lot of sense, until you factor in the cold. I figure that while those three didn’t need to be in the game that long, it must have beaten sitting on the bench in their mittens and shivering.