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Gentle giant Boerwinkle an unassuming success

Tom Boerwinkle grabbed more rebounds in a single game than any player in Bulls history, was a team broadcaster during the first three championships, a successful businessman, and the most unassuming seven-footer you’d ever meet, writes Sam Smith.
Selected by Chicago with the fourth overall pick in the 1968 NBA Draft, Boerwinkle spent his entire career in Chicago. During his 10 seasons with the Bulls, he played in 635 games and averaged 7.2 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 3.2 apg and.453 shooting from the floor.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Chicago Bulls. All opinions expressed by Sam Smith are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Chicago Bulls or its Basketball Operations staff, parent company, partners, or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Bulls and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

Sam Smith Mailbag

>> Statement from Chicago Bulls on the passing of Tom Boerwinkle
>> In his own words: Tom Boerwinkle: My Most MemoraBull Game

Tom Boerwinkle really was the gentle giant.

He grabbed more rebounds in a single game than any player in Bulls history, was a team broadcaster during the first three championships, a successful businessman, and the most unassuming seven-footer you’d ever meet.

It was often said about the likeable Boerwinkle by friends he was the only former NBA player they knew who didn’t always start sentences with, “When I played…”

Boerwinkle, 67, died Tuesday in his sleep after a long battle with Myelodysplastic syndromes (MDS), a form of leukemia. Boerwinkle was diagnosed about 10 years ago, but you’d see him around the United Center never with a concern for himself and always a positive, upbeat, outgoing outlook about life and basketball.

And a work ethic that not only fit perfectly with that first great Bulls team of Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier, Chet Walker and Bob Love, but which carried through to everything he did.

Tom Boerwinkle "You’d meet him and think here’s just some big guy," said Funk of Boerwinkle, above with Phil Jackson and Johnny Kerr following the Bulls' third championship. "He was never down about anything, his condition, anything, always upbeat."
(NBAE/Getty Images)

“He was successful, yet no one worked harder at it,” said Neil Funk, Boerwinkle’s broadcast partner in the first Bulls championships and close friend. “He bought a failing oil company and made it a success. He was the kind of guy we’d get back from a road trip and he’d be going to his office. Yet, you’d never hear him ever talk about long hours. So successful, but so low key about it.

“He never used the fact he was a former player,” said Funk, who still is Bulls play-by-play TV broadcaster. “You’d meet him and think here’s just some big guy. He was never down about anything, his condition, anything, always upbeat. A great partner and a better friend.”

When Boerwinkle played as one of the best, if most unappreciated centers in the NBA, the Bulls were an elite, tough, hard working blue collar team that gave you every bit of talent it had every game. It’s why Chicagoans embraced that Bulls team that averaged more than 50 wins a season in the early 1970’s even though it never reached the ultimate success.

But it achieved the ultimate of its talent every game, and that’s something any person can be proud of and aspire to. It’s what made that Bulls team popular, but also why it became so ingrained in Chicago sports lore. It reflected the city as it liked to see itself and hoped to be seen, the way anyone would want to. It set an example of hard work and selflessness without celebrity. If Chicago was the second city or the home for blue collar workers, this 1970’s Bulls team was its coat of arms.

And in the midst of it all, even the players basically found Boerwinkle as their favorite.

“He made guys like myself look good because he’d be the one making the passes for us to score,” said Jerry Sloan, who was Boerwinkle’s closest friend as a teammate. “He’s the only guy I ever knew other than (John) Stockton who would ask you where you wanted the ball (on a pass); on the outside, the inside. He had a great knack for passing the ball and making just the right pass, the simple play.”

Bounce pass, chest pass, back door, leading you. Boerwinkle had it all playing out of the high post. Those wonderful back door bounce passes you see Joakim Noah making these days? That was the Boerwinkle video.

“Everyone wanted him to be Russell, Thurmond, Chamberlain,” said Sloan. “That was an unfair comparison. He was instrumental in helping us win. He was who he was. His strengths complemented his teammates very well.”

Tom Boerwinkle In team annals, Boerwinkle ranks second in total rebounds (5,745), third in seasons played (10), fifth in games played (635) and eighth in assists (2,007).
(Robert Kingsbury/Getty Images)

Which is what a team truly is about, and that Bulls group in the early 1970’s defined team. Boerwinkle liked to call them the team of role players.

They were thwarted and eventually stopped at the end of the season playing in the Western Conference then by Wilt or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Though when I’d ask Phil Jackson, who played on the 1973 Knicks championship team, whom they feared the most back then, he’d invariably say the Bulls because of the way they fought and battled you. No, they didn’t have quite the exceptional talent. But the games were as fiercely contested as any you’d play then. And Boerwinkle was the man in the middle.

Which really allowed Dick Motta to run the forward oriented offense for which he became famous and successful, winning a title with the Washington Bullets in 1978.

When the Bulls, frustrated losing to the Lakers and Bucks, finally went the way of the big center in trading for Nate Thurmond in 1974 they basically lost their way. They began to lose the identity of the team they were, making one last run that season despite failing to win 50 games for the first time in five years and then beginning a precipitous fall that wouldn’t end, except with a few brief interludes, until the arrival of Michael Jordan.

Boerwinkle played his entire career from 1968 through 1978 with the Bulls. He is third on the franchise list for seasons played and fifth in games played. He was always a Bull, and he represented what it was to be a Chicago Bull, if there was such a thing. Perhaps that identity changed some with the titles and the flash of Jordan and the 1990’s and then Dennis Rodman.

But there’s an ethic of competition and consistency and showing up to do your job that is built within the franchise. Boerwinkle represented that without the glamour, a first round pick in 1968 out of the University of Tennessee.

Only once in his career did he average more than 10 shots per game in the era of the NBA’s Big Center with Russell, Chamberlain, Abdul-Jabbar, Wes Unseld, Bob Lanier, Willis Reed, Walt Bellamy and Thurmond, the greatest center era in league history. This was who Boerwinkle met every day at work. And there wasn’t much help defense back in those days. You had your man. Boerwinkle had the greatest to play the game most every game. Unsurprisingly without complaint.

Yet with their forward oriented offense and tough guards, the Bulls evolved into one of the premier teams of the era winning 51, 57, 51 and 54 games in consecutive seasons. And this was when the Lakers were winning 33 straight, when the Bucks were becoming one of the great teams just up the road and the Knicks were setting a standard still admired in New York.

Boerwinkle quietly averaged a double-double two seasons and was among the league’s top rebounders in 1970 and had himself a 37-rebound game on a snowy January night that season in 35 minutes. His teammates tried to get him to go back in as there was ample time left for more stats. He declined. Boerwinkle was the ultimate team guy, as he was as a friend and colleague, always sacrificing for the group to be better, to succeed as well as it could.

“He was one of the best teammates you could have,” said Sloan. “Humble, hard working, a great person, fun to be around every day. Sometimes the talent is not enough. But we were guys who were as good as we could be and good for Chicago, and Tom was one of those guys.”

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