Thursday, January 27, 2011

Bullish

DICK KLEIN, AL BIANCHI, AND JOHNNY "RED" KERR, 1966
    
     When the inexhaustible Dick Klein finally wore down all his opposition and was awarded an NBA expansion franchise for Chicago in 1966, he got to work right away.
     First, Klein needed to find the right nickname for his team, one that would evoke the stockyards and the brawny, big-shoulders character of Chicago. He almost settled on “Matadors,” but he was hesitant because it had more than one syllable. “Chicago had the Bears and the Sox and the Cubs and the Hawks,” he explained, “all single syllables.” When he hit upon “Bulls,” Klein knew instantly that he’d found the right name.
     Next, he wanted to hire a coach with a strong Chicago connection. His first choice was Ray Meyer, whom he could not persuade to leave DePaul University. He then received a petition on behalf of Johnny “Red” Kerr, a Chicago native and former University of Illinois star who was just finishing up his playing career. “They had something like 1,600 names,” Kerr recalled, “but I’m not sure all of them were real. It’s a little like how they used to register people for voting in Cook County.” Genuine or not, the petition worked. Kerr was hired.
     The Bulls drafted two players from each existing club in the 1966 expansion draft. Because Kerr and his intended assistant, Al Bianchi, were technically still active players, both were acquired through the draft. They promptly retired as players and signed on as coaches.
     The following players were the first to become property of the Bulls: Kerr and Jerry Sloan from Baltimore, Ron Bonham and John Thompson from the Boston Celtics, Nate Bowman and Tom Thacker from the Cincinnati Royals, John Barnhill and Don Kojis from the Detroit Pistons, Bob Boozer and Jim King from the Los Angeles Lakers, Len Chappell and Barry Clemens from the New York Knicks, Bianchi and Gerry Ward from the Philadelphia 76ers, Jeff Mullins and Jim Washington from the St. Louis Hawks, and Keith Erickson and McCoy McLemore from the San Francisco Warriors.
     Of all these players, only Sloan and Boozer would make a lasting impression with the Bulls. Thompson retired to go into coaching and later led Georgetown University to the NCAA championship. King and Mullins were traded to the Warriors for point guard Guy Rodgers.

     The 1966-67 Bulls had 179 season ticket holders, each of whom paid four dollars per game for a courtside seat at the International Amphitheatre. Their front office “staff” was general manager Klein, marketing director Jerry Colangelo, public-relations man Ben Bentley, and a receptionist. The Bulls organized a parade down State Street to publicize the season opener. It consisted of two trucks and a car. “The press that came to the parade might have been giggling,” Klein said, “but at least they were talking about us.”
     Klein actually put an ad in the papers calling for players, and about 180 showed up for an open tryout. Kerr was not amused. “I told Al [Bianchi] to line them all up against a wall and have them count off by twos,” he said, “then have the twos go home. We did that, and later on we sent all the ones home, too.”
     The Bulls played their first game on October 15 at St. Louis with a starting lineup of Sloan and Rodgers at guards, Boozer and Kojis at forwards, and Chappell at center. They won 104-97 behind Rodgers’s 37 points. Three nights later they made their home debut against San Francisco. Newspapers estimated that the announced crowd of 4,200 was padded by about 1,000. In any event, the few fans on hand got their money’s worth. The Bulls rallied late to overcome a 13-point deficit and won 119-116. Sloan scored 26 points and Rodgers had 20 assists.
     The Bulls were young and quick, and they played an entertaining style built around the fast break. When they won four of their first five games, Chicagoans sat up and took notice. On October 23, the Bulls had their first sellout. “We could have sold 30,000 seats that night in a 7,000-seat arena,” Klein asserted. “We let 9,000 in and the fire marshal came to me and said, ‘Dick, you gotta close the doors.’”
     “They got people who can’t get into the game,” said Sloan. “It’s sold out. I thought, ‘My goodness, we’re not that good, are we?’ We certainly found out that night. The Knicks waxed us pretty good, and reality started to set in.”
     A nine-game losing streak in November and December dropped the Bulls into last place in the West Division at 8-15. “I remember how cold it was that first winter,” sportswriter Bob Logan said, “and how small the crowds were.” The Great Blizzard of ’67 struck in late January, dumping almost 30 inches of snow on the city. On January 29, the Bulls lost to Los Angeles by 20 points before an announced crowd of 1,077. Klein later admitted that the actual attendance, “including security guards, was something like 72 people.”      Since the Lakers were stranded in Chicago after the game, Klein treated them to a steak dinner.
     By the end of February, the Bulls were 25-44 and still mired in last place, three games behind Detroit for the final playoff berth. On March 1, they traveled to Evansville, Indiana, to take on Philadelphia. (Sloan had played his college ball at Evansville, and the Bulls played five “home” games there to capitalize on his popularity.) The 76ers were en route to a 68-13 record and the world championship, but the Bulls upended them 129-122. The game was a turning point for the Bulls—they won eight of their last 12 to qualify for the playoffs.
     The Amphitheatre’s management did not consider the NBA playoffs as big an event as the boat show it had already scheduled, so the Bulls’ postseason home games were relegated to the decrepit Coliseum. The Bulls were swept by St. Louis in the first round, with the lone home game drawing a mere 3,739.

Adapted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) by Christopher Tabbert

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