By any standards, it was a bear market in Chicago when the Bulls took their first hesitant steps in the National Basketball Association 23 years ago. Two other teams, the Stags and then the Packers (later renamed the Zephyrs), had either folded or fled town. The major problem facing the expansion club in 1966 was survival.
“Chicago was a graveyard for pro basketball,” recalled John “Red” Kerr, the Bulls’ first coach and now the team’s resident radio-television color commentator. Kerr, who had closed out his playing career the previous season in Baltimore, was willing to gamble on the future for one reason. He was born and raised in Chicago. “A South Sider,” he called himself proudly.
Before casting his lot with the new club, he placed a call to Al Bianchi. They had been friends since their first meeting at the East-West All-Star Game and were roommates for nine years with the Syracuse Nationals and later the Philadelphia 76ers. Bianchi also was looking for a new line of work.
Kerr suggested the job of assistant coach in Chicago. His friend readily accepted. When the Knicks met the Bulls in the second game of their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series Thursday night, the two were reunited again, in a fashion. Kerr was at court-side, broadcasting the game back to Chicago. Bianchi, now the New York general manager, was in his usual seat, a few rows above the visiting team bench.
“I guess you could say we both realized boyhood dreams,” Kerr said Thursday. “Al wound up a general manager in his home town. And me, a Chicago kid, wound up coaching the team there.”
Actually, he has gone beyond coaching, beyond broadcasting. He has chronicled the Bulls in a forthcoming book, to be published this fall, titled “Bull Session.” But before Kerr could write their history, he had to create it.
The franchise now ranks as among the most profitable in the NBA. The Bulls have sold out every home game in the last two seasons at cavernous Chicago Stadium and, in Michael Jordan, they have one of the most marketable athletes in professional sports. But the team that Kerr and Bianchi culled from an expansion pool had nary a star. Their home court was the Amphitheatre, near the odoriferous stockyards. The Stadium held too many seats and demanded too much rent.
“My title was coach,” Kerr said, “but I was also the unofficial public relations man. Al handled most of the practices while I was out speaking anywhere we could get 2-3 people together.”
When the new owners asked Kerr what style of play he expected to use, he told them he planned to fast break and apply pressure defense. “I figured that’s what they wanted to hear,” he said Thursday. “Of course, we didn’t really have a team that could do that until we made a trade for Guy Rodgers.” Approximately a month before the start of the season, the Bulls pried Rodgers away from the San Francisco Warriors and Chicago was off and running.
Expectations of the team’s performance throughout the league were not high. “Someone asked Richie Guerin, who was then with the St. Louis Hawks, how many games we’d win,” Kerr recalled. “He said, ‘Oh, about 12 or 15.’ That became our rallying cry.”
The new coaching tandem used some unorthodox means to do better. Kerr recalled a game in Los Angeles after the team had endured a seven-game losing streak. “One of the players asked, ‘Same starters tonight?”’ the man said. “I was going to say yes but then I decided, ‘No, five different guys.’ We wound up starting our pressing team, then came in with the starters. Confused (the Lakers), too. For about three quarters. Then they went to (Elgin) Baylor and (Jerry) West and it didn’t matter who we played.”
Another time, trailing badly in Philadelphia, the Bulls started fouling Wilt Chamberlain every time he touched the ball in the fourth quarter. “He was missing free throws left and right,” Kerr said, chuckling, “and it got us back in the game. The next day Danny Biasone and Eddie Gottlieb chewed us out ‘for making a mockery of the game.’ Al said we were just lawyers who discovered a loophole, that the big guy couldn’t shoot from 15 feet.”
The two coaches were so close that Kerr swears the left sleeves on his jackets were longer than his right by the end of the season. “I’d start to stand up to yell something,” Kerr recalled, “and Al would be yanking on my arm.” Whatever they did, it worked well.
That first edition of the Bulls won 33 games and qualified for the fourth playoff spot in the five-team Western Conference. To this day, no other NBA expansion team has won as many games or made the playoffs in its initial season. Kerr was honored as Coach of the Year.
Still, the Bulls were not a major success at the gate. They drew an average of 4,772 fans, a total of 171,793. Several factors worked against the club the following season. Bianchi left to take the head coaching position with Seattle, an expansion club. He was not replaced. Also, the Bulls had to donate two players to the expansion pool.
Again, however, Chicago made the playoffs. But a disagreement with the majority owner convinced Kerr to leave town. He landed the job in Phoenix, still another expansion club, for the 1968-69 season. The Bulls, under Dick Motta, missed the playoffs.
But they did survive. That was of paramount importance to Kerr. “I wanted the Bulls in Chicago when I came home to stay,” he said, smiling. “If we hadn’t done well that first year, I don’t know what would have happened. But it all worked out.”
If you have any doubts, check out the crowds today and Sunday when Chicago returns home for Games 3 and 4 against the Knicks. It’s decidedly a bull market now.