Another cow could kick over another lantern. Frank Sinatra could announce that he's running for mayor. Whatever, Chicago has something more important on its mind. From the steel mills to the Gold Coast to Herm's Hot Dog Palace on Dempster Street, the Windy City is in the grip of Bulls playoff fever.
Laughed at in November as just another mismanaged 2-13 team with a stooge for a coach and a hound for a center, and written out of the playoffs as recently as the end of February, the Bulls now are rampaging right through the NBA. Last week, before three successive packed houses at "The Miracle Madhouse on Madison Street"—also known as Chicago Stadium—the Bulls walloped the Lakers, the Knicks and the Cavaliers for their 13th, 14th and 15th victories in 16 games. Meanwhile, the Kansas City Kings tripped three times on the road, giving the Bulls, however tenuously, occupancy of the Western Conference's final playoff berth. That man you see walking in the clouds is rookie Coach Ed Badger. "I read I was gone so many times early in the season," he says, "that if I had a lease I couldn't have gotten it renewed. Now my wife thinks I'm Coach of the Year. I told her Jerry West has the Hollywood vote."
When a disgusted Dick Motta quit as Chicago coach at the end of last season, the Bulls were a tail-end, 24-58 pile of rubble. Hopes for a Phoenix-like rise flared briefly when the college draft yielded 6'7" Forward Scott May from Indiana, and the ABA dispersal draft delivered 7'2" Artis Gilmore. But in short order both May and reserve Forward Jack Marin succumbed to mononucleosis, Guard Jerry Sloan could not make it back from knee surgery and Captain Norm Van Lier found himself in a backcourt with a bunch of virtual nonentities: Tom Kropp, John Laskowski and rookie Keith Starr. The Bulls didn't have a shooter who could drop a ball into Lake Michigan. Opposing defenses collapsed on Gilmore and Forward Mickey Johnson.
The Bulls ran, as Badger had promised they would. They ran off a 13-game losing streak. The blame devolved on Badger, because he was the coach, and on Gilmore, the savior. Some gentlemen of the press demanded that Gilmore be traded. "Didn't Wilt Chamberlain used to say, 'Nobody loved Goliath'?" asked Gilmore. "I can't do it by myself. What do they expect of me?"
Help began to arrive a little at a time. The guard problem eased when the Bulls bought John Mengelt from Detroit and signed 6' Wilbur Holland, who had called Badger's assistant coach, Gene Tormohlen, and begged for a tryout after being cut by Atlanta. Tormohlen had drafted Holland for the Hawks and he told Badger, "If he can't play, I'll pay his salary." Within a month Holland was a starter. May returned to the lineup in November and, after groin surgery following his mono, Marin was back in January.
Sloan could not bear to stay away altogether, so he hung around as an informal assistant coach—he later officially joined the staff—teaching the young Bulls the kind of defense that had caused his old teammates to call him "Gestapo" in practice.
"Jerry really turned it around," says Van Lier. "He came in and said, 'Let's play some defense and then do the other thing.' He'd stop practice and get on guys. I know, I played with the man. We were the best defensive-guard combination in the history of the NBA."
After repairing the defense, which, true to Chicago custom, is the stingiest in the league, the Bulls honed the offense: they began to run more plays for Gilmore where he wants the ball—on the right side of the lane so he can take his left-handed hook, or fake the middle and drive for the dunk; they set screens for May to get him open for his baseline jumpers; they got Johnson inside for offensive rebounding and dish-offs from Gilmore; they let "Dr. Junk" Holland fire his odd lefty heaves from the outside. Reserve Center Tom Boerwinkle got the ball to the hot hand, usually Marin, and Mengelt spelled Van Lier as the playmaker or Holland as the shooter.
The revamped Bulls opened in Chicago on Washington's Birthday, at which point their record stood at 24-34. Golden State was the first victim, 118-102. Gilmore exploded for 24 points and 15 rebounds; Johnson, May and Holland scored 19 each and Van Lier had 15 assists. Next the Bulls beat Atlanta 96-87. Then the miracle moved out of town, where the Bulls had been 5-25. Late in a narrow game at Cleveland, Gilmore blocked a shot, threw the outlet to Holland, filled the lane and ended the break with a shattering dunk. Chicago won by six. "That was the game," says Van Lier. "That made us cocky enough to think we were good."
Five more road wins followed. The Bulls had Los Angeles, the NBA's best home-court team, down by 36 in the fourth quarter; they embarrassed Golden State, Phoenix and Detroit, and won at Philadelphia. Van Lier put it to the rest of the Bulls: "There is nobody, no-body, in this league we can't play with. We better get our butts into the playoffs."
Finally free of Motta, with whom he was constantly at odds, and at peace and in love with Chicago, Van Lier has curbed the legendary temper that made him the perennial NBA leader in technicals and, among other episodes, got him suspended for knocking down referee Darell Garretson and fined $1,000 for chasing Sidney Wicks off the floor with a chair. Even so, in the biggest game of the streak—against Kansas City, which was on a tear of its own and still 3½ games up on the Bulls—Van Lier got so hyped he lost his cool and was ejected after nine minutes of play, with the Bulls down by seven. The 18,129 home fans gave him a standing ovation.
"I couldn't believe it," he said. "I looked at the crowd and thought, wow, I can't do anything for you tonight, but I'm sure going to get you into the playoffs. I was so up, I walked around the stadium for 20 minutes, still in uniform. I listened to the second half on the radio. You should have seen me, calling plays, taking imaginary jumpers. Acting like a kid, and I'll be 30 next week."
The game went to the wire, with Gilmore tipping in the winning basket in the last second to enable Chicago to win 114-112. The next night the Bulls beat Seattle—the other team fighting for the last playoff berth and a half game up on the Bulls at the time.
"It's a perfect situation," says Boer-winkle. "It was a while before all our people were here and healthy. Then we had to adjust. For 10 years this team was oriented toward a non-shooting, non-running center—me. Then we got Artis and put him with 11 guys he'd never even seen before. Now he's playing better than any center in the league. Earlier, teams could stop us by stopping him. Now we can go anywhere for our offense."
Aside from Gilmore and Johnson, who has quietly become a first-rate offensive rebounder and scorer (17.5 points a game), the difference in the offense has been May. While he was bedridden with mono his weight dropped below 200 pounds for the first time since junior high. Just about the time the Bulls started winning, he regained his full strength.
"People ask me two questions," says May. "Do I want to be Rookie of the Year? And do I miss the NCAA tournament? Well if I had to choose between Rookie of the Year and making the playoffs my first year, I'd take the playoffs. And look at our crowds. I don't miss the NCAAs. I've got them."
"Everyone on this club has accepted a certain role," says Marin, "and we're operating at peak efficiency. Maybe we're a bit like the Golden State team that came from nowhere and won the championship two years ago. I don't see any club making better use of its personnel, and I haven't seen one get along better since my first years in Baltimore. And we don't have a head case on the club."
"We don't know satisfaction," says Van Lier. "We keep pushing and pushing. That's what keeps me young."
"They are awesome," says Johnny Kerr, the original Bulls coach and now the team's radio and TV color man. "They remind me of professional hitmen. They come in, put down their bags, get dressed, go out and kill people."
"We didn't use to kill people," says Johnson. "Now we pick 'em apart. They know they're beat."
There was certainly no doubt in the minds of the Lakers and Knicks last week. In the 102-86 win over the Lakers—played before 21,046, the largest Bulls crowd ever—Holland, May and Gilmore stole the ball from Lucius Allen, Don Chaney and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the Lakers' first three possessions in the first minute of the game, all resulting in fast-break baskets. In the next five minutes, Van Lier controlled a jump ball with Abdul-Jabbar after diving at his feet for a loose ball, and Kareem sat down with three fouls, having failed to stop Gilmore. May scored 18 points and held Cazzie Russell to eight. Holland scored 24 and had six steals. Gilmore and Johnson out-rebounded the Laker big men, 28-21.
After a shoddy first half against the Knicks, the Bulls led 53-48 in the third quarter. They called a time-out and Badger ordered a "get" play, which means, says Van Lier, "Everyone gets moving." The Bulls got moving, outscored the Knicks 22-4 over the next six minutes and blew out the New Yorkers 105-87. Gilmore: 21 points, 21 rebounds, nine blocked shots. Holland: 20 points, six steals. Van Lier: 16 points. May: 17 points. Johnson: 10 rebounds. Mengelt, Marin, Boerwinkle, and Forwards Phil Hicks and Cliff Pondexter all filled their roles perfectly.
"They remind me of a team I once played on," said the Knicks' Phil Jackson after the game.
Outside the stadium, a bouquet of roses had been placed on the windshield of Van Lier's Jaguar. An hour and a half after the game he was fighting his way through a horde of fans to get to the car. "I love these people," he says. "It was no secret that I didn't get along with Dick Motta. When I got suspended, Motta didn't back me up, the fans did. I got fined $1,000, and the fans paid it. I belong to Chicago. That's why I'll do anything it takes to win. And while we're winning, I think about all the Bulls that aren't playing now—Jerry, Chet Walker, Matt Guokas. As long as I'm playing, a part of them will be out there too, because they're all a part of me. Including Dick Motta. And, it's corny, I know, but I wish the mayor were here for this, too."
Indeed one can almost hear the late Richard Daley urging the Bulls on to greater heights as he once did all Chicagoans: "Together we must rise to ever higher and higher platitudes."
At rest and at peace, Norm Van Lier gets a resounding five from a lakefront fan.