Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Coming on Like a Fire Truck

     Former Bulls center Artis Gilmore was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame this week, which naturally led one to ask, "What took so long?" For some reason, Gilmore never became as famous as his accomplishments warranted. Actually, there are several likely reasons: 1) the NBA was not as popular during Gilmore's career as it became later; 2) Gilmore was overshadowed by the great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the dominant center of his era; 3) the Bulls did not win any championships during Gilmore's tenure; 4) Gilmore was not a self-promoter in any way, shape, or form.
     At seven-foot-two and 240 pounds, Gilmore was a genuine force at both ends of the court. He ranks first all-time in field-goal percentage, first in defensive rebounds, third in blocked shots, and fifth in total rebounds. When he is officially inducted into the Hall in August, Gilmore will be joined by two other Bulls alumni, forward Dennis Rodman (his polar opposite in the self-promotion department) and assistant coach Tex Winter (innovator of the triangle offense that was and continues to be Phil Jackson's bread and butter). Winter's absence from the Hall to this point was an even more glaring omission than Gilmore's.
     Below is a look back at Gilmore's first year with the Bulls, which featured a surprising and electrifying late-season drive to the playoffs. That drive culminated on April 8, 1977 -- 34 years ago this coming Friday. This account is reprinted from the recent book Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports.

     Despite the acquisition of center Artis Gilmore, the 1976-77 Bulls got off to a horrendous start, losing a club-record 13 straight games early in the season. It seemed that their futility might even exceed that of the previous year, when they had struggled to an abysmal 24-58 record. Gilmore, a veteran of five outstanding campaigns in the recently defunct American Basketball Association, couldn’t seem to get it going in Chicago. Worse, his placid demeanor suggested that he didn’t care. His tremendous size and massive salary made him an easy target for increasingly frustrated Bulls fans.
     Gilmore and his teammates improved as the season went along, but the Bulls were still mired at 24-34 with just six weeks to go. From then on, with Gilmore leading the way, they played like men possessed. When the Bulls started winning, it appeared that they might salvage some sort of respectability out of an otherwise wasted season. Then it became reasonable to hope for a .500 finish. Finally, it looked as if they might even make the playoffs.
     The stirring stretch drive galvanized Chicagoans, who began turning out in droves for home games, and captured the attention of the national media. “Chicago is coming on like a fire truck,” said Don Criqui of CBS. The climb reached its climax on April 8. It was a Friday night, and the largest crowd ever to witness a Bulls game at the Stadium—21,652—was on hand. Fans were in the usual standing-room-only spots, behind the last row of seats, but they were also standing or sitting in every aisle of the first and second balconies.
     The Bulls had won 18 of their last 22, and they needed just one more to clinch the coveted playoff spot. The Houston Rockets were their opponents, and it was a thrilling contest from the opening tipoff. The Bulls surged to an early lead, but an 18-4 rally by the Rockets sent the two teams into the halftime break tied 51-51. The two smallest players on the court, Calvin Murphy of Houston and Wilbur Holland of the Bulls, had done most of the damage, with 18 and 15 points respectively.
     In the third quarter, with Gilmore tying up Moses Malone to the extent that it was possible, Bulls guard Norm Van Lier repeatedly sprung forwards Scott May and Mickey Johnson on fast breaks. As the huge crowd roared its approval, May scored 10 points and Johnson nine in the quarter. The running game carried the Bulls to a 98-82 lead with only 7:55 remaining, but the Rockets wouldn’t go quietly. Determined play by Malone and Rudy Tomjanovich inside the paint brought them to within four points in the final minute.
     Johnson’s 18-footer in the closing seconds finally settled the issue, and the Bulls prevailed 113-109. It had been a smashing performance by the Bulls’ starting five, each of whom played between 35 and 45 minutes. The key was Van Lier’s astute distribution of the ball; he finished with 18 assists while ensuring a balanced attack that saw Johnson score a game-high 27 points, May 22, Gilmore 19, and Holland 16.
     The Bulls closed out the regular season with another win, their 20th in 24 games. Coach Ed Badger said that his players had come to “accept the fact that if they played the same way every night, we could beat anybody.” Suddenly the unthinkable—a world championship—was being discussed by the same fans who had showered the Bulls with catcalls only weeks before. So hot and so confident were the Bulls entering the playoffs that it was actually plausible. But they were turned back in the first round by a team with superior depth, the Portland Trail Blazers, in an epic best-of-three series. When the Blazers went on to win the title, to a man they said that the Bulls had been their toughest foe of the playoffs.

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009-2011 by Christopher Tabbert

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