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The one that got away

Sam Smith looks back at the 1975 Bulls-Warriors Western Conference Finals and one of the forgotten great teams in NBA history

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By Sam Smith | 6.1.2015 | 8:15 a.m.

This should be the NBA Finals in which the winner gets their first ever NBA title.

We know Cleveland’s winless streak, though it should have been for Golden State as well despite the 1975 championship.

Because that should have been the Bulls’ first NBA championship.

“We let that one get away,” Jerry Sloan was saying by telephone over the weekend. “Probably the most disappointing loss I ever was involved in, a real bust.”

That was the 1975 Western Conference finals, particularly Game 6 in Chicago which came to be known locally back then as the “Mother’s Day massacre.” It was when the Bulls with a 3-2 series lead, at home, an early double digit lead and a chance to go to the Finals faded down the stretch, losing 86-72. The Bulls then blew double digit first half lead in Game 7 back in Oakland.

“We fell apart,” lamented Sloan. “So close and yet so far.”

The Warriors would go on to win their first title (though they did win in the early NBA days in Philadelphia before moving to California) with a 4-0 Finals sweep over the Washington Bullets, the team that relocated to Baltimore in 1963 after two seasons in Chicago as the Packers and the Zephyrs.

“We had them,” added Chet Walker, the high scoring forward and Hall of Famer from that Bulls team. “Like when we had the Lakers on the hook (in the 1973 conference semifinals) and lost in the seventh game.”

It was the story of one of the most forgotten great teams of the NBA, those early 1970’s Bulls.

The Golden State Warriors will open the 2015 Finals Thursday in Oakland against the LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. And every time an announcer or writer notes the Warriors haven’t won an NBA title since 1975, it’s just another stab wound for guys like Sloan, Walker, Bob Love, the core of those teams along with the late Norm Van Lier and Tom Boerwinkle.

“We really were one player short,” said Sloan. “We needed one more guy.”

That one player probably was Maurice Lucas, the Bulls’ 1974 No. 1 draft pick. The rugged rebounder from Marquette would have been the guy to hold off longtime Bulls nemesis Bill Bridges, who played a decisive role in that Game 6 Golden State victory with his physical play and 11 rebounds in 26 minutes. Walker was working through a painful hamstring injury and Sloan had to play power forward as well. “I lost 15 pounds in that series,” Sloan recalled. “It took a toll.”

Motta was also general manager back then, replacing Pat Williams, which was the beginning of the end for that Bulls run. Motta reneged on Williams’ promises to Love and Van Lier for raises, resulting in both holding out in 1974-75 and a 12-13 start. Though the Bulls finished 47-35, it was one game behind the Warriors, who thus got that seventh game at home. Motta after the loss in Game 7 blamed the defeat on Love and Van Lier for their holdouts. He charged if they didn’t hold out the Bulls would have had home court and won the series. Motta also declined to pay Lucas, who then signed with the St. Louis Spirits of the ABA. Instead, Motta chose to sign another first round pick, forward Cliff Pondexter, who was hurt early and didn’t play.

Owner Arthur Wirtz that summer had tried to lure Wilt Chamberlain out of retirement to play for the Bulls since the view was the Bulls were just the one big center away and could never get by Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Though Wirtz probably was doing it more for attendance. But Chamberlain stayed retired and Abdul-Jabbar broke his hand punching a basket stanchion in exhibition season. The way was cleared and even Dave Cowens of the defending champion Celtics suffered a broken foot. The Bulls traded for former All-Star Nate Thurmond. But after a strong start, Motta soured on Thurmond and went back to Boerwinkle as starter.

In fact, not only was Motta a disaster as general manager, but he probably was as responsible for the loss as any of the missed shots.

Motta had a habit of playing basically only his starters and almost never using bench players. Predictably, the Bulls wore down against the pressing, running Golden State team in every crucial game, outscored 19-12 in the fourth quarter of Game 6 and 24-14 in the fourth quarter of Game 7. In fact, the Warriors even outscored the Bulls in the fourth quarter of two of the three games the Bulls won and six of the seven games in the series. In the clinching Game 7, the Warriors’ reserves outscored the Bulls’ 26-3 with the Bulls starters exhausted and gasping to the close.

“They put a press on us and (we were) constantly trying to dribble it through the press,” recalled Walker. “We kept losing the ball; we lost all our momentum. We should have played through Boerwinkle, passed, moved the ball. We kept trying to do the same thing. I had a hamstring that was hard as a rock (also a kidney problem). But we had no bench.”

In many respects, Chicago then was like Cleveland, a city of so close sports losses, the White Sox blowing the 1967 season, the Cubs in 1969, the Black Hawks with a lead in the Stanley Cup final game in 1971. The last title had been the Bears in 1963, and this time it seemed all set up for the Bulls.

Back then playoff series with arena uncertainties and TV issues still made the NBA almost a barnstorming league. The home team had the choice of sequence. The Warriors with the better record in order to get some early rest chose a 1-2-2-1-1 series starting in Oakland. The Bulls had beaten the Warriors three of four that season (travel was limited by geography to save money), and Boerwinkle and Thurmond had dominated Golden State’s Cliff Ray, the former Bull traded for Thurmond, and George Johnson. Love and Walker matched the scoring of Rick Barry and rookie Keith (later Jamaal) Wilkes. Sloan and Van Lier had dominated Warriors guards Butch Beard and Charles Johnson. In the end, though, the Bulls would be run down by their overuse as Warriors coach Al Attles deftly kept throwing depth at the Bulls.

The first four games went to the home court team. But then the Bulls won what seemed like the decisive Game 5 in Oakland with a defensive gem, holding Golden State to 79 points.

Barry was huge in Game 6 with 36 points. Walker led the Bulls with 21 in Game 7, but no Bulls reserve scored a field goal as the starters staggered to the close. Motta, who routinely labeled his players greedy in media sessions that season, told the players to deny playoff shares to Van Lier and Love for holding out and to Boerwinkle for being injured. They ignored him. Motta told Walker to retire as Pondexter could take his place.

The Bulls went 24-58 the next season, the poorest record in then franchise history, and began the wait for Michael Jordan.

“I liked the team we had,” recalled Walker. “We should have won two championships.”

Which would have left the Warriors along with the Cavaliers this week playing for No. 1.