Hall of Fame can't pass on Rodgers
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The Bulls have had some good playmakers in franchise history. Michael Jordan has the most assists in Bulls history, though he was more known for other things. Scottie Pippen was good, though more quietly efficient. Norm Van Lier was effective, if not spectacular. Toni Kukoc was clever, though subtle. No, he wasn’t Magic Johnson. Reggie Theus never was subtle, but more offensive. Clem Haskins and Ennis Whatley had their moments, though not many.
The Bulls in their 48-year history have had one truly great playmaker, a basketball magician with the ball whom the greats of the game regard as perhaps one of the five best passing guards ever.
“I’ve seen them all, from (Bob) Cousy to the point guard revolution we’re seeing now,” says Al Bianchi, the Bulls co-coach with Johnny Kerr in 1966 and an NBA and ABA player, coach and executive for more than 50 years. “No one. And I repeat, no one, was as good dribbling the ball coming at you as Guy Rodgers. No one.”
Added Oscar Robertson, regarded by many as the game’s greatest combination scoring and point guard and for a time a teammate of Rodgers: “Guy was a great player. Smart, great with the ball, great running a team. Played with Wilt when Wilt was scoring all those points (including the 100-point game in 1962). How’d he get all those baskets without the assists?”
Rodgers also still holds the all-time Bulls franchise record for assists in a season and assists in a game, the two longest held records in team history. And Friday in Springfield, Mass., at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Guy Rodgers finally will be appropriately honored with enshrinement.
“A shame it took so long,” added Robertson.
Rodgers, who died of a heart attack at 65 in 2001, will be enshrined in an impressive class along with former NBA commissioner David Stern, Chicago 16-inch softball legend and one of the first African-Americans to play in the NBA, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, former NBA players Alonzo Mourning, Sarunas Marciulionis and Mitch Richmond, college coaches Nolan Richardson and Gary Williams and ABA coach Bob “Slick” Leonard.
The highlight will be the Stern induction with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson presenters along with the recent NBA stars. Rodgers is not as well-known given he retired in 1970. But he was one of the truly elite players in the game’s history and as good with the ball in an era when guards set up the big men as just about anyone who ever has played. If you never saw Guy Rodgers, you don’t completely understand the point guard position.
“He was the best passer I ever played with or against,” said Jon McGlocklin, who was a teammate of Rodgers with the Bucks in Rodgers’ last two seasons. “(Pete) Maravich was close. Guy could really put the English on the ball, make it exciting like Cousy and Maravich. Not quite as fancy as them, but close. Oscar was the greatest all-around player, but Guy really had the flair with the ball.”
It’s in many ways a lost art, though we see players like that occasionally these days. Steve Nash is one, though point guard has more become a get-mine-first position in this era’s NBA.
“He was the toughest coming at you,” said Bianchi. “The only guy even now comparable coming at you is (Russell) Westbrook. But his deal is to get to the basket and score. Everyone else is in the way. He’s not close to someone like Guy in distributing and hitting the open man. The end result with Guy was he usually found the right man and got the assist.”
And did get them.
Rodgers, who played one season and just four games into a second season with the Bulls before being traded for Flynn Robinson, set the franchise assist record with 908 for a league leading 11.2 average in the Bulls inaugural 1966-67 season. Of course, given it was the first season everyone established records. Rodgers also had 24 assists in a game that season, 13 in the first half in a game against the Knicks. Both records still stand for the franchise.
That Bulls expansion team also remains, in large part thanks to Rodgers and backcourt partner Jerry Sloan, the only expansion team in NBA history to make the playoffs. Both Sloan and Rodgers made the West All-Star team that season with Rodgers a starter. In the Western Conference victory, Rodgers led both teams in assists with eight. The previous season as an All-Star with the Warriors, Rodgers’ 11 assists was then second most ever in an All-Star game to Robertson.
The Warriors changed coaches from Alex Hannum to Bill Sharman after the 1965-66 season and Sharman wanted more scoring at guard. So the original baby Bulls got a break. They traded Jeff Mullins and Jim King to the Warriors for the veteran they needed with their roster of expansion kids.
“We didn’t have anybody to really come in with all those kids, a guy who understood, could create and help out the kids, get us easy baskets,” said Bianchi. “Also, someone who we wouldn’t have to worry bringing the ball up.”
The Bulls were reluctant to give up Mullins, who would become an All-Star scorer. But no one was replacing Sloan at shooting guard.
And Rodgers didn’t disappoint in many ways as the Bulls, also trying to regain fan interest in a city not known for pro basketball, needed to be competitive immediately.
They were. St. Louis coach Richie Guerin had mocked the Bulls before the opener. Then the Bulls led by Rodgers’ 37 points beat the Hawks in St. Louis. The Bulls then came home for their opener and shocked the Warriors led by Nate Thurmond and Rick Barry. Rodgers led a late comeback with 14 fourth quarter points. The Bulls then were the early stunner of the season, beating the Lakers and Elgin Baylor as Rodgers had 34 points and 18 assists for a 3-0 start.
Chicago had a new sports hero.
There was too much talent around the then 10-team NBA for the Bulls to sustain. Without any true center, those Bulls were 2-16 against Wilt and Bill Russell. But in making the playoffs, media members were so impressed they voted coach Johnny Kerr Coach of the Year even over Hannum, whose Philadelphia 76ers were 68-13.
Though barely six-feet, Rodgers was a fearless player, a slick left hander toughened on the streets of Philadelphia growing up with Chamberlain and attending Temple U. He was a territorial draft pick for the Philadelphia Warriors in 1958, a year before Chamberlain. And they were with Cousy and Russell in Boston the one/two point guard/center pairing of the era. Perhaps only Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar went on to rival them.
Though small, Rodgers was regarded as one of the league’s toughest players. “The toughest player I’ve ever seen,” the Knicks Dave DeBusschere once said of Rodgers. “When Rodgers came through the middle, I was always on the lookout for a punch in the jaw.”
Recalled McGlocklin: “He had this trick to irritate guys when they’d try to lock him up. The guy is face guarding and the next thing you know he throws a pass and hits the guy square in the face. He’d be, ‘Hey, sorry. I wasn’t trying to hit anyone.’ But it would be hard not to back off him then. You knew better than to mess with him. He and Wilt were friends. But I remember watching this double header game (McGlocklin in the other game as there were four team doubleheaders often back then). But he gets into it with Wilt during the game and Wilt starts chasing him into the stands until Guy picks a chair up over his head and Wilt stops. You didn’t mess with Al Attles, Wilt, Guerin, Guy, those guys. Guy also had some amazing years (leading the league or runner up in assists eight of his 12 seasons).”
Rodgers also is the Warriors all-time career assists leader and finally getting in the lineup where he belongs, in the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“It was Cousy, Lenny Wilkens and Guy,” says Attles, a former teammate who roomed with Rodgers with the Warriors and Thursday received the John Bunn award from the Hall of Fame. “As good with the ball as anyone you’ll ever see. He could take the ball against pressure anywhere on the court. But he always was looking for the next play. He wasn’t concerned with who was playing him. Just making the play. Cousy was the guy. Then it was Guy, Lenny and Oscar. Sometimes you’re concerned with who’s in the Hall of Fame. I’m happy he got there. He deserved it.”