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Jerry Sloan: My Most MemoraBull Game

Jerry Sloan
More Most MemoraBull Game Features:
Tom Boerwinkle | Artis Gilmore
Reggie Theus | Norm Van Lier

Posted August 28, 2006

By Jerry Sloan, as told to Brett Ballantini

May 11, 1975 l Chicago Stadium
Game 6, Western Conference Finals
Golden State Warriors 86, Chicago Bulls 72

You read that right. The most memorable game of my career wasn’t a championship or an uncanny shooting night. It wasn’t even a victory. It actually was the most heartbreaking loss I’ve ever known.

I’m told it’s unusual to choose a loss as the most memorable game of my playing career. But I can’t help that. It is what it is.

I’ve never made it a secret how special Chicago is to me. The Bulls are the team that gave me my opportunity in the NBA. I was in a Bulls uniform—in the starting lineup—in the team’s very first game in 1966. I was the first Bulls player to have his number retired. They even gave me my first head coaching job.

More important than all that was the winning tradition we established in the early days of the franchise. For four straight seasons (1970-71 to 1973-74), we won at least 50 games, but wouldn’t you just know that, each year, we finished second behind the Milwaukee Bucks. It figures that the year that broke our streak of 50-plus wins, 1974-75, was the first year we won our division—with a 47-35 record.

The NBA was strong, top to bottom, back then. We had a good team year after year, but there was always a better one out there standing in our way. If it wasn’t the Los Angeles Lakers—we were in the Western Conference then—it was the Bucks. And there were teams right behind us, nipping at our heels, the Detroit Pistons and Kansas City-Omaha Kings mostly, so even second place was never secure.

If I had to choose one word for the Bulls of my time, it would be “tough.” There simply wasn’t a tougher team in the league. Tom Boerwinkle was our longtime center, an underrated guy who was one of the best team players I’ve ever known. He always managed to give taller, more talented opposing centers a tough night. Our forwards, Bob Love and Chet Walker, were a handful. Both could score, sometimes at will. Bob was an underrated, active defender; Chet drove defenders crazy with his endless pump fakes. Alongside me in the backcourt was our point guard, Norm Van Lier.

What can I say about Norm? There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do to get the Bulls a win. And there wasn’t much Norm couldn’t do out there on the floor—he was a terrific talent. We got into our share of scraps, but you couldn’t ask for a better teammate, someone who always had your back.

The Bulls had been a very successful team in their brief history. We made the playoffs in our first season, and we’re still the only NBA team ever to do that.

Not to say that we had success in the playoffs. We lost six straight series over seven seasons before finally winning one, a seven-game semifinal series versus Detroit in 1974. Still, in the next series that year—one step from the NBA Finals—Milwaukee swept us.

The team had been retooled for 1974-75. Clifford Ray, our young, active center, was traded to the Golden State Warriors for future Hall-of-Famer Nate Thurmond. It was a sign that ownership wanted to push for a title right then and there. Little did we know that we hadn’t seen the last of Cliff.

We started the season out slow. Love and Van Lier held out until November in contract disputes, and it was the end of January before we were five games better than .500 on a consistent basis. From there, however, we took off. We won a team-record 12 straight home games in January, and in February we shot to 12 games above .500, which is where we finished the season. When the dust settled, in spite of all our season struggles, we’d won our first Midwest Division title. Ironically enough, our two nemeses, the Bucks and Lakers, both finished in last place on the season. Maybe it was a sign that our time had come.

Jerry Sloan Sloan’s hard-nosed, fiery attitude struck a chord with Chicago fans and made him an instant hero. His No. 4 jersey was the first to be retired by the franchise. (NBA Photos)
It was a pretty typical year for all of us. Love and Walker led the team in scoring with 22 and 19.2 ppg, respectively. Norm and I both were among the steals leaders on defense, at 1.99 and 2.19 respectively. Nate gave us everything he could on defense, pulling down team bests in rebounds (11.3) and blocks (2.44). Although he was a low-post center, Nate adapted fairly well to playing away from the basket, and between him and Boerwinkle, the center position gave us an amazing 7.5 apg.

As a team, we were going to give you a hard time. We led the league in defense. We weren’t flashy—none of us made the All-Star team in 1974-75—but Love, Van Lier, and I all were on the NBA’s All-Defensive Team. Everybody knew that if there was one thing our Bulls team would do, it was get after you on defense.

We met the Kansas City-Omaha Kings in the first round of the playoffs. We were able to contain their star, Nate Archibald, at least to a degree, and won a hard-fought series in six games.

Next up for us were the Golden State Warriors. They were a bit of a surprise team that year—winning 48 games—more than anyone else in the West. Golden State was a young bunch, and no one knew what to expect. To be honest, I don’t think many people gave them much of a chance against us. They had one superstar, Rick Barry, and a bunch of talented supporting players. Ray and George Johnson shared time at center, Butch Beard and Charles Johnson were in the backcourt, and Rookie of the Year Jamaal Wilkes joined Barry at forward.

Our starting five was a stronger unit than Golden State’s. But the Warriors had some terrific players coming off of the bench, including Phil Smith, Bill Bridges, Charles Dudley and Jeff Mullins. Warriors coach Al Attles had a lot of confidence in his team’s bench. He wasn’t afraid to sit even a star like Barry if his game was off.

Our bench was much thinner. We had Boerwinkle backing up Thurmond, but Matt Guokas was the only other bench player seeing significant minutes. Unless there was an injury or foul trouble, our starting five were in for the duration.

After the season, many pundits second-guessed that our coach, Dick Motta, rode the starters too hard, and, because of that, we didn’t have the energy to withstand the rigors of the postseason. I’m not sure I believe that; as a coach, you always want your best players on the floor. The Warriors just had a much deeper bench than we did, and that turned out to hurt us.

We won three of the first five games of the series, including an 83-79 win in Game 5 in California that stole home court advantage away from the Warriors. We had two days off and were coming home to a Sunday afternoon, Chicago Stadium crowd in hopes of clinching our first NBA Finals berth.

Our confidence was very high. We’d won the game we needed to on the Warriors’ home floor that would give us the chance to clinch the series at home. We had 20,000 screaming fans behind us, all of them just as hungry for us to advance to the Finals as we were. You couldn’t have asked for a better situation to play in.

I’d been through a lot in my career. I wasn’t the kind of player who would take plays off or sit out with minor injuries. I was 33, and, because of my style of play, it was an old 33—although I might not have looked at it that way then. I knew that this might well be not only my best chance at an NBA Finals, but my last.

The NBA postseason is incredibly draining. There’s so much more tension than in the regular season—and I was a pretty intense guy during the regular season. In the playoffs, I wanted to do everything I could to play my best.

In 1975, I may have tried too hard. I was really nervous. I was hardly eating and lost 25 pounds during the playoffs—I began at about 195 pounds, but fell to 170.

None of this really occurred to me at the time. I was focused on the game in front of me as if my life depended on it. And my teammates were just as focused. We jumped out to a big, nine-point lead early and were up 25-18 at the end of the first.

Rick Barry Hall of Famer Rick Barry’s stellar play not only led the Golden State Warriors to defeat the Bulls, 4-3, in the 1975 Western Conference Finals, but also sweep the heavily favored Washington Bullets, 4-0, in the NBA Finals for the Warriors’ only World Championship. (NBA Photos)
The crowd was incredible. They roared each time we scored a basket, and roared even louder when we made a good defensive stop or dove to the floor after a loose ball. We had a huge “sixth man” advantage that day.

It seemed as if in every game of the series we jumped out on Golden State, only to have the Warriors fight back and take a lead back on us. And wouldn’t you know that our seven-point lead evaporated in a snap. Even though we were known as the defensive team of the two, they shut us down cold in the second period. We could only muster 13 points, while Barry and the Warriors went crazy for 28. At one point, they were scoring almost at will, with 10 straight points. By the half, the mood had completely changed inside the Stadium, and we went to the locker room down 46-38.

We didn’t feel as though we were out of gas, especially only halfway through the game, but coming out for the third quarter we sure played like it. Golden State upped its lead to 14 at one point, and the third quarter ended 67-60.

The last thing we wanted to do was to have to win a Game 7 back at Golden State. We were confident that we could beat the Warriors anywhere, anytime, but we wanted to get the job done in Chicago.

So we summoned up all the energy we had to try to mount a fourth-quarter comeback. We had fought within five points at 71-66, and the crowd was louder than ever. But our old teammate, Clifford Ray, hit a shot and was fouled. His three-point play extended the lead to 74-66. Then Charles Johnson hit a jumper. Bridges, who had a monster game on the boards with 11, threw in his only field goal of the game, and Golden State was back up by 12.

Cliff was definitely motivated for this game. While Barry was his usual self—hitting a ton of jumpers en route to 36 points and playing uncommonly sticky defense (seven steals), Ray really stepped up when it counted. His numbers (eight points on three-of-four shooting, eight rebounds, three blocks) might not say it, but he played 36 minutes and held Boerwinkle and Thurmond to one-of-eight combined shooting.

We couldn’t recover from Golden State’s counter, and it turned out to be a knockout punch. We lost 86-72. We felt that we not only let ourselves down and saw a golden opportunity slip away, but that we let down the entire city of Chicago.

Our momentum was shot, and while we played well back in Oakland, we lost Game 7 to the Warriors, 83-79. Our Finals dream crashed down, and we had to deal with the fact that another season had ended without winning an NBA Championship.

Golden State’s comeback was the last straw for our team. Walker wouldn’t return to the Bulls in 1975-76, and Thurmond played only briefly before being traded. I would suffer a knee injury early that season and would be forced to retire. We didn’t know it at the time, but losing to the Warriors marked the end of Chicago’s first great NBA run. It would be more than 10 years before the Bulls would come that close to a title again, and by then I would be coaching the Utah Jazz, watching the progress of Michael Jordan and a new breed of Bulls from a distance.

As much as I feel bad that I wasn’t able to help provide it for them, I’m happy that Bulls fans finally were rewarded with a championship with Michael and Scottie and that group. Looking back now, as much as I wanted the fulfillment of winning a title and as much as I think our core group deserved a chance to win one, I’m disappointed that I wasn’t able to deliver a title to the great fans of Chicago. They never gave up on us, cheering us on until the very end. I’ll never forget and will always appreciate their support.