“Just a very nice man, liked by all,” said John Capps of Joe Lee (above right).
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Bulls lose a longtime contributor in Joe Lee

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By Sam Smith | 08.08.2014 | 2:00 p.m. CT | asksam@bulls.com | @SamSmithHoops

Organizations perhaps don’t win championships. But you don’t win a championship without an organization. A team, of course, most needs the guys to put the ball in the basket. But that guy also needs to know the ball is dry and that he has one, that the uniform is ready and the score is correct.

You may not have heard of Joe Lee if you are a Bulls fan. But you know him. Just as you know John Capps and Bob Rosenberg. They have been at just about every Bulls home game since the franchise began in the 1966-67 season. They were the Bulls when the Bull was barely snorting and no one was even sure where they were playing.

Now there’s two as Lee, 79, died Saturday after a long illness. The memorial service is August 12 at 4 p.m. at the W.W. Holt Funeral Home, 175 W. 159 St. in Harvey.

“Just a very nice man, liked by all,” said Capps, the former Chicago police officer who has been the chief security man for the team. “It was sort of the Three Musketeers. Rosy, me and Joe Lee. We were all hired the same time.”

That was in 1966 to get this new basketball franchise off the bench.

They had players, an expansion draft in April, 1966 that was: John Kerr and Jerry Sloan from Baltimore (Kerr retired to become the Bulls first coach); Nate Bowman and Tom Thacker from Cincinnati; John Barnhill and Don Kojis from Detroit; Len Chappell and Barry Clemens from New York; Al Bianchi and Gerry Ward from Philadelphia (Bianchi retired to become co coach); Jim King and Bob Boozer from Los Angeles; Jim Washington and Jeff Mullins from St Louis; Keith Erickson and McCoy McLemore from San Francisco.

Operating chief Dick Klein tried to hire Ray Meyer as head coach. Meyer elected to remain at DePaul. The next choice was Kerr. The Bulls then traded King and Mullins before the season for point guard Guy Rodgers, who Friday is being enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

But you need organizations to have a game.

The Bulls played that first season in the International Amphitheater at 42nd and Halsted.

Once you have the players and the gym, you need the workers.

All professional sports teams have a core of daily workers for home games. They do everything from statistics, the game clock, help with the locker rooms and security. There are dozens now. Then there was one or two. Lee, a former Park District employee, was hired as equipment manager, locker room attendant and even a sort of ball boy for the Chicago Zephyrs in 1962, their second season in Chicago after starting as the Packers in 1961. After the 1962-63 season, they moved to Baltimore and now are the Washington Wizards.

When the Bulls came along for the 1966-67 season, Lee returned along with the hiring of Capps for security and Rosenberg for official scoring. Rosenberg had also previously been scoring for the Packers and Zephrys as he literally was off the streets, looking to buy tickets to a game. Rosenberg got into a discussion with the ticket manager--the Zephrys weren’t quite picking up fans and bringing them to games, but it was close--when he was asked if he wanted to be the game scorer. Employment opportunities could be much simpler then. Rosenberg also is the official scorer for the White Sox, which he began in 1987 after newspapers finally made reporters stop doing the job. Rosenberg has missed just two Bulls home games since 1966, both when he went on a trip to Japan for Major League Baseball in 2000 to be the scorer for the Cubs-Mets games.

You’ll see Rosenberg at Bulls games, balding and with glasses in the center of the scorers’ table between the two benches. Capps, often wearing a Kangol cap, will be sitting behind the Bulls bench during games and accompanying the coach to and from the court. He used to travel with the team as well and was with the team during the 1990’s championship runs. Lee was the slightly built African-American man, generally with a towel slung over his shoulder who also sat behind the Bulls’ bench.

They’ve all been vital figures in the history of the franchise and friend to star and journeyman alike.   

Is recent years Lee, who in the early days literally sat behind the basket to retrieve basketballs that went out of bounds so fans would not take them home, has helped equipment manager John Ligmanowski, mostly with the visitors’ locker room.

“He was there way before me,” noted Ligmanowski, who has been with the team about 25 years. “Joe was there forever. He’d stick around after games with me to help and we’d be the last ones to leave.”

Joe Lee was a familiar figure to everyone, working the Bulls locker room and bench area for 48 years along with his hobby as a part time disc jockey and real jobs with the city, the Park District and later Streets and Sanitation. Joe would often also make mix tapes for the players from his DJ sideline.

It’s not glamorous work around the Bulls, getting the sideline drinks ready, the towels, retrieving the dirty laundry. But a team cannot be organized without it and without people like Bob Rosenberg, John Capps and Joe Lee.

“Joe was such a nice guy,” said Rosenberg. “The kind of guy who’d give you the shirt off his back.”

Joe would probably smile because he knew someone would need it washed.

When the 2014-15 NBA season begins for the Bulls in late October, it will be unique and something missing because there will be no Joe Lee to help with the organizing.

John Capps (above left, seated) and Bob Rosenberg (above right)
"You may not have heard of Joe Lee if you are a Bulls fan," writes Sam Smith. "But you know him. Just as you know John Capps (above left, seated) and Bob Rosenberg (above right). They have been at just about every Bulls home game since the franchise began in the 1966-67 season."

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