Pat Williams helped save pro basketball in Chicago

Pat Williams is arguably the renaissance man of the NBA.

He is the author of more than 75 books. He built the 1983 championship team in Philadelphia and brought pro basketball to Florida—central Florida, of all places—with the Orlando Magic. He raised a family of 19 children, 14 of whom were adopted from overseas. He has run more than 50 marathons and is a mountain climber who has scaled Mt. Rainier.

So it’s fitting and appropriate Williams this week will get one of the soaring honors from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, the John Bunn Lifetime Achievement award.

But it was in coming to the Bulls as general manager in 1969 that Williams may have made one of his greatest contributions to the game and the sport, and certainly Chicago. Maybe if there were no Pat Williams, there would not have been six Bulls championships and maybe no Michael Jordan wearing that angry red bull.

No, Williams didn’t score any points or grab any rebounds for the six-time champions, though Williams was a good athlete as well and a former minor league baseball catcher. Williams didn’t draft Jordan or trade for any of the champion Bulls. He was long gone and having helped deliver a great championship to Philadelphia in 1983.

But perhaps as much as anyone, Pat Williams saved pro basketball in Chicago. It was in critical condition and facing a sporting last rites when Williams came to the Bulls to play promoter, cheerleader, innovator and executive.

The result was the first great run of pro basketball in Chicago after some half dozen pro franchises had folded or left the city. The NBA’s early 1960s Packers changed their name to the Zephrys and then moved to Baltimore. Who leaves Chicago to go to Baltimore? Yes, the NBA was that close to saying its final goodbye to Chicago in 1969.

“Pro basketball was in a very tenuous position in Chicago in that 1968-69 period,” said Williams, whom Bulls owners hired to be general manager in the summer of 1969 after a season in which one home game had an official attendance of 891. “Teams had come in over the years and none had made it. Chicago was viewed as a pro basketball graveyard. By 1968, it was again teetering big time. Fan interest was low. The ownership group was discouraged and was going to make one last effort.”

Before apparently joining the memorials that include the Chicago Bruins (ABL 1925-31 and NBL 1939-1942), the Chicago Studebaker Flyers (NBL, 1942-43), the Chicago American Gears (NBL, 1944-47), the Chicago Stags (BAA and NBA, 1946-50), the Chicago Majors (ABL, 1961-63) and, of course, the Packers. They changed their name to Zephyrs. You’d think it was to hide from fans as it seemed to work.

How’s this for respect? The Bulls were kicked out of the Chicago Amphitheatre, where they played their inaugural season in 1966-67, after the big McCormick Center fire in early 1967. The Amphitheatre could make more money with the conventioneers and chose them. The expansion Bulls were a surprise and remain under coach Johnny Kerr the only NBA expansion team to make the playoffs. But they had to play their only playoff game that season in the shabby Coliseum on 15th and Wabash.

And the owners’ confidence in the franchise was just as shabby.

One of the owners was Lamar Hunt, the AFL football founder. He persuaded the team to play eight games for the coming 1969-70 season in Kansas City.

Yes, one franchise left for Baltimore and the one still hanging in was farming games out to Kansas City. To improve attendance. Kansas City!

OK, Pat. Good luck with your team that’s never won more than 33 games, was one of six to miss the playoffs, and coming off reporting its lowest ever average attendance. The team was exaggerating ticket sales and still reported attendance at fewer than 4,000 per game. And why wouldn’t NBA players want to be in Chicago? After all, the team had been having preseason camp at DePaul, players were housed at the Lawson YMCA and were eating in the DePaul student cafeteria. Think Bluto Blutarsky in the Faber College cafeteria. Big surprise most of the Bulls’ top draft picks were jumping to the ABA.

Go get ‘em, Pat.

But these are the challenges made for Pat Williams, who takes on jobs—if not life as well—with an evangelical fervor. Chicago’s basketball life needed more than prayer, though, and perhaps only a bit less than a miracle.

It needed a showman, an innovator, a tactician and a technocrat, and Williams proved all of those in a pivotal period. If you read Williams’ biography, you’ll often see his Bulls four years from 1969-1973 skipped over in a line between his minor league baseball playing days to the 76ers title, the Magic’s creation and the big family.

All were intriguing and remarkable periods. But those four years with the Bulls were every bit as significant in the history of the NBA.

When Williams arrived amidst a dysfunctional organization and fading roster, ownership was considering leaving once again. Four years later, there were three ownerships groups bidding for the franchise and attendance had nearly tripled. It was under 4,000 when Williams arrived and more than 10,000 when he left.

“By the end of the ’72 season, the franchise had value,” notes Williams. “There were three ownerships groups fighting over it when before you couldn’t give it away. That’s the story. They were going to court to fight over the Bulls.”

Years later, one of those groups, led by Milwaukee businessman Marvin Fishman, would win an antitrust suit that had to be settled before the Jerry Reinsdorf sale could finally be completed in 1984. And we know the rest of that story.

But in 1969, it was an exasperated ownership group and coach Dick Motta, who had won the first of several ill-conceived power plays and run out general manager Dick Klein, who stayed on as a minority investor.

Williams had been business manager of the 76ers under coach and general manager Jack Ramsay, and Pat thought he had it made then.

He was born in Philadelphia and grew up nearby in Delaware. He went on a baseball scholarship as a catcher to Wake Forest and signed with the Phillies’ organization. He went to class D Miami, where he was catching rookie Ferguson Jenkins. It was clear Pat didn’t have the same future, and then realizing “The Show” wasn’t in his future he began a career putting on shows.

Pat was an admirer of Bill Veeck, the legendary baseball impresario, and his book “Veeck as in Wreck.” Williams moved into the front office with his Miami Marlins team after two seasons and began trying some of Veeck’s famous promotions. Veeck had taken a career break and was living in Easton, Md. at the time, not far from Williams’ Delaware home. Pat got an introduction from a mutual friend and was invited to see Veeck.

“There he was waiting for me and five hours later he’s still talking,” remembers Williams, who often is asked to speak about Veeck at lectures. “He became a mentor, counselor, friend. Hardly a day goes by I don’t think about him.”

Williams went on to the minor league team in Spartanburg, S.C., where he became minor league executive of the year. One of the Bulls owners, Phil Frye, had a summer home in North Carolina and heard about Williams and Frye knew Veeck. Veeck gave Williams a hearty endorsement as Williams’ promotions were going over well in Philadelphia.

At 29, Williams was offered the Bulls’ general manager job, though not before the convoluted, bizarre trade of Chet Walker to the Bulls. Ramsay had wanted to trade Walker for the Bulls’ Jim Washington. But it was difficult to deal with the Bulls then with no general manager. Ramsay told Williams he’d release him from his contract if he’d go to the Bulls and trade him Walker. Williams found out Motta was all for it, and the trade was consummated along with Williams’ hiring. While stuff like that was hardly unusual in the NBA at the time.

“I’m one year out of minor league baseball,” recalls Williams, “we have a staff of four people, we’re playing home games in Kansas City and they say, ‘Try to win some games, put some people in the building and save money.’ That was the state of pro basketball in Chicago in August, 1969.

“But little by little the promotions began to work, the crowds began to come and the team began to worm its way into the hearts of Chicago sports fans,” says Williams.

First it was the team. Williams brought in Walker. Jerry Sloan was there along with Tom Boerwinkle and Bob Love and then they added Norm Van Lier and became one of the more feared and ferocious teams in the league. From 1971 through 1975, the Bulls were the top defensive team in the league and the only one to be in the top three in fewest points allowed every one of those seasons.

It was perhaps the toughest if not the most highly regarded teams by media and fans (outside of Chicago) in the era. They were 51-31 in 1970-71 with the third best record in the league and second in the Western Conference to eventual champion Milwaukee. They were 57-25 in 1971-72, the third best record in the league to eventual champion Los Angeles, who eliminated them in the playoffs. They were 51-31 in 1972-73 and eliminated in the playoffs by Western Conference champion L.A. In 1973-74, they were 54-28, the third best record in the league and eliminated in the playoffs by Western Conference champion Milwaukee. And in 1974-75 after early season Motta-induced holdouts, they were 47-35, still the second best record in the conference, and were eliminated in the playoffs by eventual champion Golden State.

If ultimately unfulfilling without a championship, those seasons were great theater and built a strong foundation for the NBA in Chicago.

The owners, though, were giving the volcanic Motta increasing say in personnel and he forced Howard Porter, a late blooming collegiate star and pro bust, on the team when Klein was pushing for George McGinnis. Though Cliff Ray proved a third round steal as Williams was able to add key pieces around the edges to support the great team oriented core, like Bobby Weiss, Matt Guokas and the return of Van Lier in 1971 (originally drafted by the Bulls in 1969, but traded because the Bulls had Shaler Halimon from the Walker deal).

Still, they never could quite get that so-called “big name.” Walt Frazier wanted too much money in 1967, so the Bulls drafted Clem Haskins ahead of him. Motta pushed for Jimmy Collins in 1970 instead of Nate Archibald on the advice of scout Krause, which soon had Motta pushing out Krause. Shortly before Williams was let go before the 1973-74 season, the Bulls thought they had a deal for Doug Collins, the 76ers’ No. 1 pick. But it fell through at the last minute when Cliff Ray failed the physical. So the Bulls drafted Kevin Kunnert. Williams was right about Motta not being the right man for general manager. Motta traded him and Gar Heard for John Hummer. And part of the Bulls’ agreement just to get into the NBA was to not draft local star Cazzie Russell, whom the Knicks wanted and wouldn’t allow expansion without.

It was a wild time in the NBA, and the Bulls were always trying to catch up.

Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse was doing Bulls games—badly—with a lack of basketball knowledge, and eventually Williams found future Hall of Fame broadcaster Jim Durham after a few hyperactive seasons with Jack Fleming.

And Williams had things going around the floor in the forerunner of the NBA marketing mania of the 1980s and 1990s. He found a wrestling bear, which he wanted to have face fans coming down from the stands. City officials (and some wives of the men, but only some) objected. So Williams and publicity chief Ben Bentley wrestled the sleepy bear.

As then Bulls writer for the Chicago Tribune, Bob Logan, wrote, it was unusual for a Bear to win in Chicago.

Bentley, by the way, had his name proffered for the famous Benny the Bull mascot, whom Williams invented.

“I had this idea of a mascot,” said Williams. “There was this real estate developer, Landy Patton, who tracked me down when I came and said if there was anything to do he’d like to help me. I had gone to this costume shop and they made a red bull for us. We were having this lunch for season ticket holders. I called Landy and said, ‘We need you to put on this costume and run around the luncheon as the bull.’ It’s probably not what he had in mind. We opened Friday, Landy was wearing the outfit for the first game and he wore it every game for three years and then passed it on to his buddy.”

Motta pulled a second power play after the 1972-73 season and ousted Williams, persuading owners he should also be general manager. “I warned them it was a mistake to have him negotiating contracts and coaching the team,” recalls Williams with a sigh.

It was, of course, as Motta got into damaging feuds that led Walker to retire early and led to crippling holdouts by the likes of Love and Van Lier. The team began to break down and come apart after that 1975 playoff loss to the Warriors, and though there were brief flurries of interest with the 1977 team with Artis Gilmore and Sloan’s coached 1981 team, it wasn’t until Jordan’s arrival in 1984 that basketball began to soar again in Chicago.

But if not for Williams in 1969, it might have been grounded even before it took off.

“That team of Walker, Love, Boerwinkle, Sloan (and later Van Lier) put in the foundation for Chicago that this is going to be a pro basketball city and not just baseball, football and hockey,” said Williams. “To this day when I’m on the road to speak, old timers from Chicago will have vivid memories of that team. The thoughts were basketball wouldn’t work in Chicago. But that thinking evaporated and Chicago was an NBA town of good standing.”

And for many reasons, Williams, deservedly, will be standing tall in Springfield this week.