The one that started it all
The Bulls won their first game in team history 104-97 over St. Louis
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By Sam Smith | 10.15.2015 | 12:00 p.m.
It was doubt and a lack of respect from the beginning, though it only would fuel the motivation that always has driven the Bulls franchise at it enters its 50th season in 2015-16. It’s a franchise perhaps appropriately named, stubborn in its tenacity and determination, bullish, if you will.
And so it was even that first day, Oct. 15, 1966, when the original baby Bulls took the floor in the NBA for the first time. It was in St. Louis, and Hawks player/coach Richie Guerin, a perennial All-Star with the New York Knickerbockers, predicted this Bulls bunch of expansion rejects would be fortunate to win 10 games.
It wouldn’t take long for win No. 1, though, 104-97 Bulls in Kiel Auditorium on opening night, October 15, as point guard Guy Rodgers triggered the upset with 37 points.
“The motivation started when we were let go by the team that had you,” said Jerry Sloan, the celebrated “Original Bull” and backcourt mate for Rodgers in that first starting lineup. “That motivated us to play and make a name for yourself in basketball. The thing I remember most about it was they said we would not win 10 games. It was Richie Guerin. We beat them that first game and the first couple of times we played them.
“Then we won the first couple in the (International) Amphitheater (over the Warriors with Rick Barry and Lakers with Elgin Baylor and Jerry West),” recalled Sloan of the expansion team’s 3-0 start. “They had to turn people away. They thought we were going to win the championship. It was a tough team.”
It would be 25 more years before the Bulls would win that championship, but it was an historic start. The expansion Bulls would go on to become still the only NBA expansion team ever to make the playoffs. Johnny Kerr would be the only Coach of the Year winner with an expansion team. The Bulls remain the only NBA team to win its first three games as an expansion franchise, and Sloan and Rodgers went on to help lead the Western Conference to an All-Star game win later that season.
The Bulls this season are commemorating 50 years of Bulls basketball this season as the franchise enters its 50th season. The players are wearing a special logo on the uniforms and there will be various celebratory nights during the season. It all began on another October 15, unofficially, in a sense, when center Len Chappell made the first basket in franchise history.
“Good team, lot of fighters,” Chappell recalled in a recent interview. “Guy could play. I followed him into Milwaukee (where they both later would go in another expansion draft). We worked out something to give me the ball. He was a hell of a passer. You don’t see that with expansion teams. It was nice to start with a new team.”
It became a memorable start and season as the Bulls were 33-48, good enough for the playoffs. Though the Hawks with Hall of Famers like Guerin and Lenny Wilkens and All-Stars stars like Lou Hudson, Paul Silas, Bill Bridges and Zelmo Beaty took them more seriously in the spring and swept them in the 1967 playoffs.
But it was quite the journey to that opening day, uncertain and seemingly unlikely at the time because of so many previous pro basketball failures in Chicago that the NBA didn’t even want to try Chicago again.
There were the Bruins once run by George Halas and then a procession that included the Duffy Florals (named after sponsors then), Studebakers (one of the first ever integrated teams), American Gears of the great George Mikan, Stags, Majors, Packers and Zephyrs. That last entry moved to Baltimore in 1963 and it seemed the NBA was dead in Chicago.
But a Kenilworth businessman named Dick Klein who was a scholarship athlete at Northwestern and P.T. Barnum type salesman assembled a wealthy group of businessmen to bid for a Chicago franchise. They NBA was so uninterested other owners raised the entry price four times to try to discourage Klein. But he persisted and obtained the Chicago NBA franchise for what was reported to be $1.6 million.
As Klein always told it, he was fooling around with names like conquistadors and matadors and pretty much decided on matadors when his son exclaimed that was bull. A eureka moment! Klein settled on Bulls. And with a staff that was former Illinois basketball player Jerry Colangelo in marketing and boxing media maven Ben Bentley (the inspiration for Benny the Bull) in public relations, Klein got a police friend, John Capps, who still does security for the Bulls, to interrupt traffic on State Street for a parade. Confused Chicagoans watched Klein with a live bull on one flatbed truck going down State Street at lunch time.
There was a public tryout camp at DePaul. Izzy Schmiesing, who once scored 56 points for St. Cloud State against Michigan Tech, survived and moved on to training camp at North Central College in Naperville.
Klein was a showman in the Bill Veeck mode with a bit of Mark Cuban and Jerry Jones. He’d send substitution suggestions during the game to coach Johnny Kerr. He had waitresses serving the courtside patrons, then paying $4 per seat. There were promotions and entertainment, like when Bentley had to wrestle a live bear at halftime. There were 176 season ticket holders.
And there was Chappell in that opening day starting lineup—Sloan, Rodgers, Chappell, Bob Boozer and Don Kojis--because Klein figured he could have his players hypnotized to excellence.
“Nate Bowman was supposed to be our starting center,” recalled starting small forward Kojis, who generally is credited with the Bulls for inventing the NBA alley-oop dunk, called the kangaroo kram back then as supposedly the first lob dunk to be in a game plan. “But he broke his ankle in training camp. Dick Klein one day pulled a bunch of guys out of the practice and took them in a room with this one guy in a suit. They were in there and the rest of us were shooting around. He had what he thought was going to be his starting five in there.
“All of a sudden they came out and said they were going to play a scrimmage,” Kojis recalled in an interview from his San Diego home. “We found out later when Nate Bowman went down and Klein started chasing this guy in the suit up and down the stairs and out of the arena where we were practicing that Klein had hired a hypnotist, took those guys in the room and hypnotized them that they were going to beat the snot out of all of us. And then when Bowman went down we beat them real bad.”
No one said it was going to be smooth, but the Bulls had put together a good team.
Klein wasn’t much of an NBA expert. So he made a deal to pass on K.C. Jones in the expansion draft in exchange for Red Auerbach helping Klein select players. Klein picked John Thompson from the Celtics. Thompson retired rather than join the Bulls, and went on to a fairly successful career as Georgetown coach.
It was a talented first team with Rodgers and Sloan selected as All-Stars that first season and Boozer the next season. Kojis would go on to be an All-Star with the expansion San Diego Rockets. Kojis said he was mistakenly put on the expansion list after the season despite being a starter when one of the owners got drunk on the flight to New York for the expansion draft and changed the list to keep one of his favorites and let go Kojis.
“Johnny Kerr came to me at the end of that season and said we’re protecting seven players, the starting five, which I was one, and two more,” Kojis recalled with a laugh. “As the story goes (one of the owners) got drunk on the plane and said why wasn’t this guy on the starting five or being protected? He scratched my name off and put, I think Jimmy Washington, there. Johnny Kerr gave me a call and used every swear word he knew. He said he couldn’t believe they broke up our starting lineup. But it turned out good for me.”
It was an exciting season for those Bulls, who were short at center without Bowman and 2-16 against Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. They played the rest of the NBA basically even.
“Johnny Kerr and Al Bianchi (the NBA’s first assistant coach) complemented each other well. And with Rodgers, they gave him the freedom to do what he wanted to do and push the ball up the floor and get the young guys to run and get easy baskets,” recalled Sloan in an interview from Salt Lake City where he works with the Utah Jazz. “We pushed the ball, had a few set plays but not many. We just pushed the ball up the floor and got after people defensively. We were a pretty good defensive team. Played by the stockyards. They were the greatest fans in the world. Chicago fans always are great. Went to Detroit late that season and beat them out of the last playoff spot. The fans supported us. I think they always felt like they got their money’s worth.
“Exhibition season we played like 15 games, Detroit eight or nine times,” Sloan recalled. “Rode the same bus with them; stayed in the same hotel. Weren’t big league yet. Washed our own clothes. Had to keep track of our shoes. If you forget them you didn’t play. We were young guys. We played hard. It was fun.”
And it all began with an upset win when they said they couldn’t do it on October 15, 1966.