The curtain rises on the opening of "Pat, as in Rat-A-Tat-Tat," the rave Broadway musical. Center stage, young Pat Williams, valise in hand, stands in The Loop. Skyline backdrop. The orchestra strikes up "...that toddlin' town." Chicago mélange: gusts of wind. Sally Rand. Scar-faced gangsters. A newsboy cries: "Extra! Extra! Read all about the Monsters of the Midway and Papa Bear!" A woman in six-inch heels approaches Williams. "Hey, cutie, got a couple tickets for the Black Hawks?" Bewildered, Williams is almost bowled over by ruddy-faced men and excited urchins. "Look out, buddy, we got to get to the Cubbies' game." Williams drops his grip and cries: "Wait a minute, what about the Chicago Bulls?"
Chorus. "The Chicago who?"
The Chicago Bulls. Of the National Basketball Association," Pat Williams, 29, explains patiently over the phone. It is last fall, and he sits in his office in the nation's third largest city, the youngest general manager in major league sports. A great many important people he talks to literally have no idea who the Chicago Bulls might be.
With uncommon consistency, Chicago has rejected all efforts to provide comfort and shelter for pro basketball in its environs. The Stags, Gears and Packers-Zephyrs all atrophied, and in clever imitation of these forerunners the Bulls were showing sure signs of terminal disease by last year. They averaged 3,793 in attendance, had to sell regulars for ready cash, were late with paychecks, failed to sign top draft choices and were an embarrassment to the league.
General Manager Dick Klein, who also owned two-ninths of the team, was nevertheless fond of assuring most anyone who would listen in Chicago that the Bulls were "one player away from a world championship." More realistically, by the time his fellow owners at last decided to turn him out last summer, the roster was the weakest in the NBA. Pat Williams inherited only one major natural resource—a bright, if anonymous, young coach named Dick Motta. Otherwise, he had to depend on his own ingenuity.
Today, despite serious injuries to the team's only two recognized All-Stars and despite having to play one-fifth of their "home" schedule in Kansas City, the Bulls are hanging on to a playoff spot in the West and they are averaging nearly 10,000 a game—behind only New York and Los Angeles. It is a certified success story.
Still, for the precocious Williams, it is nothing particularly new. At the age of 24—and then for the succeeding three years—he was general manager of the Spartanburg (S.C.) team that led all Class A baseball in attendance. Naturally, baseball could find no way to promote such a talent, so last year Williams moved to basketball and, as business manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, he produced a new attendance record there.
He has succeeded, unabashedly, as a disciple of Bill Veeck. Indeed, he found his profession reading Veeck—as in Wreck when he was a Class D player at Miami in the Phillies chain in 1962. He hit .292 that year, his first out of Wake Forest, and caught Ferguson Jenkins. But he began to understand that his future in sports did not lie on the field when another teammate, Alex Johnson (now with the Angels), advised him: "Pat, I hit 'em when I want to; you hit 'em when you can."
In preparation for his new career, Williams at last screwed up his courage and got an audience with his idol. "I'll never forget the way I first saw Bill," Williams recalls. "It was beautifully typical of him. He was lying in a hammock, his shirt off, his leg off, reading a book of Civil War poetry and drinking a can of National Bohemian beer." Veeck counseled the young man for hours, and at last—Williams drew close, as if the message had just arrived from Mount Sinai—he promised Williams the one-two-three to success in the business of sports. Williams gasped; the door of life was being unlocked. All right, Veeck told him—first learn how to type.
It was not very romantic, but Williams proved he could vamp that part. Spartanburg (pop. 44,000) drew as many as 173,000 in a season. Every night was New Year's Eve—giveaways and acrobats and dog acts and awards and contests. They even had General Eckert Night, though that did not wow the Palmetto Staters quite as much as did Henri LaMothe. Henri dove 45 feet into a tub of water 18 inches deep. "Ever since I got to Chicago," Williams says, "I've tried to figure out how to get Henri in here. But we could never clean up all the water he would splash over the court."
Things have been going so well that he has yet to bring in Little Arlene, the dainty 105-pound gourmand who put away 77 hot dogs, 21 pizzas and 19 Cokes at a 76er doubleheader last year. Landey Patton, a 29-year-old Princeton man and real-estate broker who cavorts at every game in pink costume as the volunteer mascot, Benny the Bull, says he also wanted to help start fan clubs, but there is no need. It can be tough enough just being Benny, as it was last Friday when Benny had to battle some Milwaukee Buck fans who stole the little stuffed bull he waltzes with at time-outs.
Bull sessions have been so hot that Williams even put one over on the master himself when he brought him back for Pack 'Em in Tight for Bill Veeck Night. Veeck was about to throw up the first ball when a midget ran out, pushed aside 7-foot Tom Boerwinkle and took his place for the tap. Veeck broke up in surprise. The mind boggles at what Williams has in store for Forward "Butterbean" Love on, obviously, Valentine's Day.
Any affection showered on Love would be appropriate, for he epitomizes today's Bull player. Originally cut from the NBA after he got out of Southern U. in 1965, Love fell to the Eastern League and came back as an obscure substitute. He was shuffled along in the expansion draft, and then became a throw-in on a trade. Before this year he never averaged over 6.7 points. Now he is at 20.8, behind only Cunningham, Hawkins and Chet Walker, among NBA forwards. Always a good shooter and fine defensive player, Love has learned to move well without the ball and has developed a quick release. He scores mostly from inside, while Walker, the other forward, is the outside threat. Obtained from Philadelphia in a really advantageous trade, Walker has had to play with a groin pull lately, but at least he has not been knocked out of action by his injury as has Jerry Sloan, the team's best all-round player. Motta has been obliged to keep pumping up his castoffs with defense and passing and pride, and their youth and enthusiasm make them appear to be a squad of collegians.
At first a curiosity after Klein brought him in from Weber State in Utah, Motta now marshals almost universal acclaim. He works especially well with Williams, for both are shamelessly industrious. From pure exhaustion, Motta recently slept at his hotel through the first quarter of a game in Boston after he returned from a scouting trip. For his part, it is not unusual for Williams to work from dawn to well past midnight at his desk. He stands at the gates of the stadium and shakes hands with fans after every game. "Putting on the show is no more than hard work," he says. "The ideas are hardly all mine. The tough thing is making sure they work right. We'll do anything that's clean and legal, but they don't mean anything if it's not the game and the team that people remember first." Still, the showman never leaves him. Last Friday he stood in the open space between the end of the court and where the stands begin at the Chicago Stadium and said, "You know, I think we could put Henri in here. I don't think he'd splash that much on the court from here. And hey—this way we could give out raincoats to the people in the first few rows."
The final scene of "Pat, as in Rat-A-Tat-Tat." An aging Williams—nearly 50 now—finishes his reminiscences for the young visitor in his office. "Gee, Mr. Williams," the tad says, "was it really that exciting back in the '70s?"
"Yes, and more" the old man replies, rubbing the tousled hair of the youth as he escorts him to the door, "and when you get back, don't forget to say hello to your Grandpa Veeck for me."
In a time-out Dick Motta counsels "Butterbean" Love, vastly improved this season.
At halftime one of Pat Williams' added attractions, the Albertis, keeps fans happy.