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Reggie Theus: My Most MemoraBull Game

Reggie Theus At 6-foot-7, Theus had the height to shoot over defenders, and the quickness and ballhandling skills to drive around them.
(Photo by Steve Schwartz)
Also: Tom Boerwinkle's Most MemoraBull Game
Norm Van Lier's Most MemoraBull Game

Posted December 29, 2005

By Reggie Theus, as told to Brett Ballantini

April 3, 1981 l Chicago Stadium
Eastern Conference Playoffs, First-Round
Game 2 | Bulls 115, New York Knicks 114 (OT)

Just in case you think the Chicago Bulls-New York Knicks rivalry was invented by Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, and John Starks, I’ve got a story to tell you. One of the most intense playoff series in Bulls history happened against the Knicks a decade earlier—in 1981, back when the first-round was only a best-of-three series.

I was in my third year, and the Bulls were really beginning to take off. We had a powerful post threat in Artis Gilmore, a solid forward corps of David Greenwood and Dwight Jones, and an underrated trio of guards: Ricky Sobers, Bobby Wilkerson and me. Yet this was also the season when both Artis and I started in the All-Star Game, so people were definitely aware of our team’s potential.

The season didn’t start off too sunny, though. In the previous year—my second season—we were just plain horrible. We lost Artis, who had played in 670 consecutive pro games, to a knee injury. He was out for something like 34 games, was pressured to come back too quickly, and had a wasted season. Our third-place finish that year was deceptive, as we finished 30-52. And that second season was actually one game worse than my rookie year, when we finished 31-51.

So in just two years, I lost way more games combined than I had in my entire life. Needless to say I was sick of losing and I wanted to do everything I could to push our team into the playoffs. But no one figured us doing much of anything in 1980-81—and they were right, up until March.

We were a somewhat mediocre .500 team for much of the season, and sat at 32-35 in late February. That’s when we went on a run that at the time was second only to the Bulls’ “Miracle on Madison” stampede of 1977. We went 13-2 to end the season, passing the Indiana Pacers for second place by beating them in Indy, 109-103, on the last day of the season.

New York was our first-round opponent for the best-of-three miniseries. The Knicks had finished third in the Atlantic Division, winning 50 games. We finished behind only Milwaukee in the Central despite winning only 45 games. The Bulls and Knicks had split six games during the regular season, so it shaped up to be a tight series.

We benefited from the reputation the early 1970s Bulls had built of toughness—and after all, former Bulls bruiser, Jerry Sloan, was our head coach. But our reputation must not have taken root in the Knicks locker room. New York thought they were going to coast through this short series. They planned to meet our physical play and then some, with aggressive players like Sly Williams and Larry Demic leading the way. The Knicks figured they could match our intensity and aggressiveness, and that the difference would be the superior play of their two guards, Ray Williams and Michael Ray Richardson. Williams and Richardson themselves claimed that they were quicker and better ball-handlers than anyone on the Bulls.

As a Bulls guard, I looked at their arrogance as an insult. As a unit—including Ronnie Lester, our rookie point guard who had missed most of the regular season with a knee injury—we were determined to bring our best game to New York for Game 1.

Guess what? We did just that, upending the cocky Knicks in Madison Square Garden, 90-80. Artis was a monster, and afterward the New Yorkers admitted that he completely intimidated them, particularly on defense. Sloan also scored points for his unorthodox approach to the game—he actually had the team fly to New York on the day of the game! Do that today and the NBA will most likely fine your pants off.

That set up a potential clincher back at home in Chicago Stadium. Winning Game 2 would send us into the next round of playoffs. Our confidence was sky-high, knowing it was our series to lose.

Reggie Theus Theus, whose outstanding play earned him a spot on the East’s All-Star team in 1981, and center Artis Gilmore led the Bulls past the heavily favored Knicks in the first round of the playoffs that season.
(Andy Jacobs/NBAE/Getty Images)
However, the Game 1 loss seemed to wake the Knicks up. They boasted that there was no way we could win the series. They insulted us again by saying that Wilkerson and I, the starting guards, were no match for Williams and Richardson.

Do you think we were going to stand for being trashed by New York, especially after we’d already beaten them? Please. Red Holzman was a legendary coach, but he should have known that all the cage-rattling was only going to make us fight harder.

With all of the media attention in New York and Chicago, Game 2 shaped up to be a colossal battle. There was a huge demand for tickets. You might recall that there was a tendency to fill Chicago Stadium beyond its 17,500 legal capacity, and that certainly happened in this game; the official line says 19,901 were in the stands for Game 2, but the “Madhouse” most definitely topped 23,000 that night.

Things weren’t just tense in the stands. On the floor, our ears were still stinging from some of the Knicks comments. These guys had done nothing but disrespect us. The harsh words carried over from the pregame press conference onto the floor, where there was a lot of physical play: pushing, grabbing and shoving. I recall that there were at least three fights.

I got into a couple of shoving matches with both Williams and Richardson. I was still a young guy, and this was only my second career playoff game, but I wasn’t about to take any noise from or be intimidated by anybody. While I was concentrating on not getting too fired up because of all the smack talk from New York, I set out to have the game of my life.

As the game heated up, the atmosphere in the Stadium did as well. The Chicago Stadium was rocking as loud as I’d ever heard it. Late in the game I was a little concerned that a part of the building might collapse, or least one or two of the old rickety rafters might fall down. The noise was deafening in there.

Between the thunderous ovations we were getting from Bulls fans and the chattering coming from the Knicks’ side of the floor, I was ready to attack. I scored 19 points in the first half, but Campy Russell and Sly Williams, the New York forwards, were having monster games, too, and we were down, 62-52. We were playing a little tight, and New York’s pressure defense forced us into making some dumb turnovers as well.

In the third, the Knicks went up by as many as 15 and held a lead of 11 with three minutes left in the quarter. I have to admit that it was looking a little bleak, but we kept fighting. Slowly we made our way back into the game. While there’s no way to diminish the role Artis played in this series—he just dominated all the New York big men and played as aggressively as I’d ever seen him—our guard corps really stepped up to get us back into the game. Diving for loose balls, scratching, getting dirty, clawing, we were determined to do whatever it took.

By the end of the third, the Knicks were up only seven, 87-80. We kept creeping up, and with four minutes left in regulation, I sank two free throws to pull us even, 98-98. I had been attacking the basket all night long and ended up converting 17-of-18 free throws.

But we were only tied. If we wanted to avoid a long flight back to New York, we were going to have to dig deep and find a way to win. The game continued to go back and forth. In fact, it almost slipped away as time ran out, but Ricky Sobers made a driving layup with three seconds left to knot the score at 106. It was Ricky’s second big hoop in the last 30 seconds. He saved the game, and we were headed into overtime.

We weren’t an experienced or particularly good overtime team that year, going 0-3 in the regular season. And just as in the regular season, we fell behind right away at the start of OT. In fact, we hadn’t led in the game since being up 23-22 in the first quarter.

But Artis and I took over and combined for nine points in overtime. Gilmore gave us our first lead in 45 minutes of play with a free throw that put us up 109-108. I then stole the ball from Russell and scored, putting us up three, with three minutes left.

I added another basket, and, with a little more than a minute remaining, we led 115-111. But the game was far from in hand; Russell made a quick layup, and Richardson stole a pass during our next possession and fed Williams. Sobers hacked Ray and sent him to the line in the old three-to-make-two bonus situation.

Williams, who shot better than 80% from the line, choked on two of three shots, leaving our lead intact at 115-114. Although both teams had a couple of chances to score after that, it didn’t happen, and we came away with the win and a 2-0 sweep. It was our 10th victory in a row, including the regular season.

I finished with a career-high 37 points on 10-of-18 shooting and also added 11 assists, four rebounds, and four steals. I had played the game of my life. That was extremely satisfying.

Afterwards, it was chaos. The crowd was going wild. You know Chicago fans. When they get up and cheer, they stay up. I think the crowd was whooping it up for about an hour after the game ended.

Most importantly, we’d proven ourselves worthy versus a supposedly superior opponent. Our guard play was outstanding in both games—I had the big numbers, but Sobers and Wilkerson did all the little things to keep us in the game from start to finish. To be fair, Williams and the Knicks ate plenty of crow afterwards and gave our guards our proper due.

Even though we were swept 4-0 in the next round by the eventual NBA Champion Boston Celtics, I was thrilled that we’d proven our point and done the Bulls and Chicago fans proud with our upset win over New York.