Chicago Bulls Classic Rivalry: That ’70s Show

No matter how powerful the Bulls were, teams from L.A. and Milwaukee continually conspired to keep out them out of the Finals

Chicago Stadium
The Chicago Stadium was always packed to the rafters when the Lakers came to town.
(Photo courtesy of Brett Ballantini)

Posted February 24, 2005

Editor’s note: In the first of a three-part series, writer Brett Ballantini and attempt to turn back the hands of time to revisit the franchise’s most heated rivalries. Part I: The 1970s.

Just a single bounce of the ball in any number of playoff games could have changed everything.

The Chicago Bulls proved a success right from their freshman season in 1966-67, becoming the first expansion team ever to make the NBA playoffs. Their fifth season dawned as the decade turned, and the team would embark on four straight 50-win seasons—and a five-year playoff odyssey that few franchises have ever suffered.

The 1970s Bulls were a team of immeasurable promise, and their starting five equaled any in the league:

-- Point guard Norm Van Lier rejoined the Bulls in 1971 and made All-Star, All-Defensive (six times), and All-NBA teams in Chicago. “Norm was Mr. Energizer Bunny,” center Clifford Ray says. “He was so hyper; he needed to be calmed down all the time. He gave everything he had on that basketball court every night.

Jerry Sloan
No one to back down from a fight, tenacious guard Jerry Sloan personified the '70s Bulls gritty team makeup.
(Photo courtesy of Brett Ballantini)

-- Shooting guard Jerry Sloan was an All-Defensive honoree for each of the first five seasons of the 1970s. “Jerry wasn’t blessed with the most natural talent, and he’d be the first to admit it,” Bulls center Tom Boerwinkle says. “He made up for it in guts and dedication. He would never give up on a play, and never backed down from anybody.”

-- Small forward Chet Walker, considered washed up at age 28 by the Philadelphia 76ers, was a Bulls All-Star at 32 and 33, his 11th and 12th NBA seasons. “Chet was Mr. Clutch,” Van Lier says. “When we were slumping and needed a basket—we called it a ‘need’ play—Chet would get one.”

-- While most remember power forward Bob Love as purely a smooth scorer, the three-time All-Star also was named to three All-Defensive teams in Chicago. “Bob could score, for sure, but he played both ends of the floor,” says 1974-75 teammate Nate Thurmond. “He guarded the Rick Barrys, the Elvin Hayeses, and the Spencer Haywoods, better than anybody.”

-- Boerwinkle was the unsung member of the quintet, a center whose “wide-body” appearance belied an uncommon passing talent. “He was the greatest passing center in the history of the NBA,” Love says. “You didn’t recognize his talent until you played with him. I still dream about my backdoor cuts, and Tom hitting me with a bounce pass between eight guys for an easy layup.”

But Chicago’s promise was so thoroughly crushed by near-misses that by the middle of the decade, the Bulls were a shell of a team. Who were the primary nemeses torturing the Windy City Toros? Hollywood’s golden boys, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the boisterous neighbors to the north, the Milwaukee Bucks. For the first four years of the 1970s, the Bulls saw their season end at the hands of one or the other. One key cog says the reason why is simpler than you’d think.

“Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain were the difference,” the normally-ebullient Van Lier says succinctly. “They were always in our way.”

The battles among this triangle of elite Western Conference terrors were more complex than that, of course. Each team had its advantage over the others—yes, the Bulls could not match L.A. or Milwaukee in the middle, but neither could those teams equal Chicago’s high-flying forwards, Walker and Love. A whisker separated the Lakers’ Gail Goodrich-Jerry West backcourt duo from Brewtown’s Oscar Robertson-Jon McGlocklin and the bruise brothers from Chicago, Van Lier and Sloan. And forget the sweet-shooting L.A. guns or Milwaukee’s fire-and-ice combo—Chicago’s Stormin’ Norman and Spider Sloan were unlike anything the NBA had ever seen.

“Those guys were the best pair of defensive guards on any team, ever,” Love says. “That ball was like a piece of cheese, and they were two rats. If the ball hit the floor, watch out. I was so glad they were on my team.”

The rest of the NBA took notice on the Bulls’ pace-setting duo, too. “They were two crazy guys who put their life on the line every time out on the court,” Golden State Warriors Hall of Fame forward Rick Barry says. “They took charges and dove for the ball, two incredible competitors who defined Chicago’s backcourt.”

“Jerry and Norm were basketball players, but you looked at them with their scars and bandages, and you wondered whether this was going to be a football or basketball game,” says Bucks forward Bob Dandridge. “They were playing a rugged, hard-nosed brand of basketball that wasn’t too common in the league at that time.”

The Bulls’ defensive approach and meticulous offense were a stark contrast to the Lakers and Bucks, both celebrated for their attacking offenses. This underdog Chicago team was led by an unknown coach in Dick Motta, who drilled his team like a Soviet bloc gymnastics coach. Crowds, traditionally sparse enough to saddle Chicago with a reputation of being unable to support pro basketball, packed the Stadium to cheer on the “Monsters of Madison Street,” whom they embraced as their own.

“Something about that Interstate 94 rivalry was special,” Dandridge says. “It was almost a people’s rivalry between Chicago and Milwaukee. We always seemed to bus in right in the middle of rush-hour traffic; Chicago Stadium wasn’t the most modern-looking building in existence. Chicago’s toughness was apparent before you even stepped on the floor.”

The Lakers dealt the Bulls their first crushing blow of the decade, a seven-game nail-biter in the 1971 Western Conference Semifinals. The Bulls were the favorites due to the injury absence of both West and Elgin Baylor, but L.A. still enjoyed home-court advantage as Pacific Division champ. The Lakers took the deciding seventh game, 109-98, behind Chamberlain’s 28 points, 19 rebounds, and six blocks. In the triumvirate of Seventies Setbacks for Chicago, this was No. 1.

Van Lier, Sloan and Love
Mostly due to the trio of Norm Van Lier, Jerry Sloan and Bob Love, Chicago enjoyed a six-year playoff run in the 1970s.
(Photo courtesy of Brett Ballantini)

In 1971-72, the Bulls defied expectations by surging to a 57-25 record. In fact, discounting their poor record vs. the Lakers (1-3) and Bucks (2-4), they were a 54-18 team. Yet the Bulls were but a speed bump in the record-breaking 69-13 Lakers’ road to their first L.A. title, getting swept 4-0 in the Western Semifinals.

It was two playoff eliminations in as many seasons at the hands of the Lakers. “I don’t think it was a lack of confidence,” Boerwinkle says. “Sometimes you’re just happy to be in the playoffs, but we had a good mix of veterans and young players. We just couldn’t overcome Wilt and all those L.A. weapons.”

The Bulls entered their seventh year of existence in 1972-73, having made the playoffs in five—and being eliminated by the Lakers three times. The worst was yet to come.

The Bulls had another 50-plus win season (51-31) and, predictably, faced a 60-22 Lakers team in the Western Semifinals—again. Both teams held their home floor, so the series came down to Game 7 in Los Angeles. The Bulls were poised to topple Goliath, building a 90-83 lead with 2:58 left. “We battled the Lakers all game long, and I thought we had them beat,” Van Lier says. “The way we were playing, there’s no way you could tell me we were going to lose this game.”

But lose the Bulls did, freezing up in a series of turnovers, mental errors, and missed shots. Chicago failed to make a field goal the rest of the way, while the Lakers used a 10-2 run to lead, 93-92. The Bulls had one last shot, and it would go to Van Lier, the team’s leader with 28 points and 14 rebounds.

“We still felt we were going to win,” Van Lier says. “The play was designed to free me up for the last shot. I had the ball in the corner and let fly a 20-foot jumper. I thought, ‘That’s it. It’s over.’ Out of nowhere came Wilt Chamberlain, who blocked the shot—and I never even saw him.”

“We slowed the pace to a crawl,” Love remembers. “We held the ball until the last second of the shot clock. We’d miss or make a turnover, and they were off on a fast break. That loss was heartbreaking.” It was also Seventies Setback No. 2.

At the time, the Bulls regrouped by taking solace in their string of 50-win seasons and the realization that their five-player core matched up with anyone’s. But in reality, the club wasn’t getting any younger, hadn’t produced a measurably good draft choice beyond Clifford Ray in 1971, and had missed the golden opportunity of the Golden State Warriors knocking off the Bucks in the other semifinal, clearing the Bulls’ path to the 1973 NBA Finals.

“It was another situation where we hit a wall and couldn’t climb over it,” says Boerwinkle, who had torn a tendon in his knee and missed the bulk of the 1972-73 season. “But we came close.” Close was getting tedious. Seven seasons, six playoffs and three 50-win seasons in, the Bulls hadn’t won a playoff series.

That would change in 1973-74. The Bulls stormed to a franchise-best 13-2 start en route to a 54-28 record. By the 1974 playoffs, the Bulls were flying high, ready to erase the debacle of 1973. They won their first playoff series, in seven games versus the Detroit Pistons, despite a Sloan foot injury in Game 6 that would take him, and his 16.7 point and 10.3 rebound postseason averages, out of the rest of the playoffs.

Next was a banged-up Bucks team that finished “only” five games ahead of the Bulls after averaging 10 games ahead of Chicago in the previous three seasons. The Bulls may have smelled blood, but the Bucks were finally healthy after injuries to Robertson, Lucius Allen, and Dandridge during the season—and they had a return trip to the Finals in mind.

“The dominance of Kareem [who averaged 32.2 PPG and 15.8 RPG in the 1974 playoffs] was the difference,” Bucks guard Jon McGlocklin says. “As smart and as big and effective as the Bulls centers were, his height and effectiveness were too much in that series. Chicago had outstanding players, but we had two top-10, all-time players in Kareem and Oscar Robertson. In a series, that pays off.” The Bucks bulldozed the Bulls in four straight, by an average of 14 points a game.

The Lakers and Bucks fell from grace in 1974-75, but still the Bulls could not take advantage. That season ended mere seconds from the Finals, as Seventies Setback No. 3.

The Bulls were in a free-fall for the rest of the decade. The 1975-76 season was an unmitigated disaster: Walker’s contract holdout became a premature retirement, Sloan was injured and retired, the Nate Thurmond experiment ended 13 games in and Motta’s increasing disillusion with the team resulted in Chicago’s worst season ever (24-58).

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
Although the Bulls won 50 or more games for four straight seasons, the Bucks, led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar thwarted Chicago's divisional title hopes.
(Photo courtesy of Brett Ballantini)

Rival Milwaukee was enduring some lean seasons as the Bucks reloaded after trading franchise center Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers. L.A. struggled for a season to rebuild around Abdul-Jabbar. The Bulls made one mad dash into the playoffs in 1976-77, but otherwise stayed out of the postseason fray for a decade. The rivalries were gone from the floor forever.

The Lakers stymied the Bulls once more—off the floor. On the coin flip for the No. 1 pick in the 1979 NBA Draft, the Bulls called “heads”… and lost the opportunity to snag Earvin “Magic” Johnson. It would be 10 years before the Bulls exacted their revenge, defeating the Lakers for Chicago’s first NBA title in 1991.

For those early 1970s Bulls, however, a ring was forever out of reach. Was it Motta’s stingy playoff rotations—shortened sometimes to six or seven players—that did the team in? Was it a lack of clutch play from normally reliable players? Perhaps it’s as simple as Van Lier says: “Point blank, better teams beat us. We had our opportunities.”

Despite having the fourth-most wins (260) in the first half of the 1970s, the Bulls fell short. Thankfully, time has mellowed the memories of the men who suffered.

“It was such a privilege to play with Norm, Jerry, Chet, and Bob,” Boerwinkle says today. “We were truly excellent as a unit. We had competitive teams that were a thrill to be a part of.”

“I wouldn’t trade my experiences for anything,” Love adds. “It was just disappointing not to bring a championship to the city of Chicago.”

Something in the Way

The Chicago Bulls averaged 52 wins per season from 1970-71 to 1974-75 but never reached the NBA Finals, thanks to the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks. They were two teams the Bulls could neither beat consistently in the regular season (18-31 in the 1970s vs. L.A., 20-36 vs. Milwaukee) nor in the playoffs.

In a tragic twist, the one season when both the Lakers and Bucks were cleared out of the Bulls’ postseason push (1974-75), the Golden State Warriors broke Chicago’s hearts.

Season Regular Season Wins Result
1970-71 Bulls 51, Lakers 48 Lost to Lakers, 4-3 in WC Semifinals
1971-72 Lakers 69, Bulls 57 Lost to Lakers, 4-0 in WC Semifinals
1972-73 Lakers 60, Bulls 51 Lost to Lakers, 4-3 in WC Semifinals
1973-74 Bulls 54, Detroit Pistons 52 Beat Pistons, 4-3 in WC Semifinals

Bucks 59, Bulls 54 Lost to Bucks, 4-0 in WC Finals
1974-75 Bulls 47, KC-Omaha Kings 44 Beat Kings, 4-2 in WC Semifinals

Warriors 48, Bulls 47 Lost to Warriors, 4-3 in WC Finals

Clifford, Big Nate, and the End of an Era

In 1974-75, the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks fell far below the Bulls (to 30-52 and 38-44, respectively). But Chicago still could not take advantage and break through to a Finals berth.

The Golden State Warriors were never a significant Bulls rival—until the 1975 playoffs. After being ousted by the Bucks in 1974, GM/coach Dick Motta decided he couldn’t compromise his core four by playing another season without a “franchise” center. Thus on September 3, 1974, Motta dealt fourth-year player Clifford Ray to Golden State for future Hall-of-Famer Nate Thurmond. The fact that Ray’s numbers per 48 minutes were comparable to Thurmond’s and that Motta would force the low-post Thurmond into a high-post passing role ultimately spelled the end of Chicago’s 1970s run.

“We believed we could get past [the Bucks and Lakers], but management didn’t,” Ray says. “They were always trying to find something better. I wish they would have stayed with me a year longer.”

While disappointed to be traded from his lifelong Warriors, Thurmond was intrigued by the possibilities ahead: “I couldn’t have picked a better team to be traded to,” he says. “Everybody knew how to play. I really liked the players.”

In a true stroke of irony, the Warriors faced off against the Bulls in the 1975 Western Conference Finals. The two teams split the first four games, but the Bulls stole the home court with an 89-79 Game 5 win, and looked to wrap things up on Mother’s Day in Chicago. In that Game 6, the Bulls were outscored 28-13 in the second quarter and lost, 86-72. By Game 7, the Bulls were playing not to lose, coughing away another double-digit lead in an 83-79 defeat.

It was bittersweet for the two centers who exchanged uniforms before the season. Says Ray: “No matter how close I got to guys in Golden State, my heart was always in Chicago.”

Warriors star Rick Barry—who led the Game 6 upset with 36 points, eight rebounds, and seven steals—was pained to see his longtime teammate Thurmond denied just as Golden State’s “team of destiny” took flight.

“I can imagine how the Bulls felt not having won a championship, particularly Nate, who lost his chance at a ring after so many years in Golden State,” says Barry, whose only NBA title came in 1975. “He got so close to the championship, and then his old team knocked him off.”

Perhaps the Bulls sensed that their time had passed, like Thurmond’s. The scene after Game 7 was ugly. Jerry Sloan had lost 20 pounds in the grueling series. Motta called out stars Norm Van Lier and Bob Love, claiming they lost the series for the Bulls by holding out at the start of the season—handing over home-court advantage to Golden State—and earned only a partial playoff share.

It was a bitter ending to a great, and ultimately unsung, team.

By Brett Ballantini


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