In the early days of the Chicago Bulls and the Milwaukee Bucks, a rivalry was born
The two cities are strikingly similar. They share a Great Lake (Lake Michigan) and an unabashed love of beer and brats. They also are home to a countless number of basketball fanatics, many with ample waistlines and merciless vocal cords.
“Back in the ‘70s NBA teams played each other a lot more than they do today,” remembers Bulls icon Bob Love. “A lot of Chicago fans used to hop on buses to Milwaukee to see us play up there, and the same thing would happen with Milwaukee fans when the Bucks traveled to Chicago.”
“Those games were always physical, hard-fought,” remembers former Bucks guard and current Milwaukee TV analyst Jon McGlocklin. “We used to say we could swap uniforms with the Bulls and run each other’s offenses because we always knew what the other team was going to do. The Bulls and Bucks were a great rivalry, but I don’t think it ever reached the point where everybody hated each other. I don’t remember feeling angry at those guys before or after playing them. I knew most of their players off the court. Heck, I used to room with Bob Love when we played together in Cincinnati and I also use to go up against Jerry Sloan in high school — although sometimes I will admit I got mad at Jerry because every now and then he would pop me in the mouth with an elbow!”
Right from the start, the Bulls were a playoff team, becoming the first expansion team ever to make the NBA playoffs in their first year of existence (1966-67). By the time the Bulls turned five-years old they’d been to the postseason three out of four years and then began a string of four straight 50-win seasons beginning in 1970-71.
The Bucks debuted at the start of the 1968-69 NBA season and by the end of their sophomore campaign they too had made the playoffs, jumping from a 27-55 record in their inaugural year to 56-26 the next. In their third year Milwaukee got even better, winning 66 games and went on the sweep the Baltimore Bullets, 4-0, to capture its first and only NBA championship.
Despite Milwaukee owning a 23-15 regular season advantage over the Bulls between the 1969-70 and 1974-75 seasons, sweeping the only playoff matchup between the two (1974), the Bulls and Bucks battles were often legendary. Up and down the rosters, the two teams boasted several All-Stars and All-NBA players and eventually five future Hall-of-Famers.
At point guard, Chicago was directed by Norm Van Lier who would make three All-Star teams, eight straight All-NBA Defensive Teams, and one All-NBA team while with the Bulls.
“Norm was the Energizer Bunny,” former teammate Clifford Ray recently remembered. “He was always hyper. He needed to be calmed down all the time. But Norm always gave it everything he had.”
Teaming with Van Lier in Chicago’s starting backcourt was the aforementioned Jerry Sloan who was an NBA All-Defensive honoree for each of the first five seasons of the 1970s.
“Jerry wasn’t blessed with the most natural talent, and he’d be the first to admit it,” former Bulls center and teammate from back in those days, the late Tom Boerwinkle, explained a number of years ago. “But he made up for it in guts and dedication. Jerry never gave up on a play, and he would never back down from any challenge.”
Opposing Van Lier for the Bucks was the legendary Oscar Robertson, who many argue to this day is the greatest all-around point guard in league history. Although the Big O’s best days were in the rear view mirror by the time he arrived in Milwaukee at the age of 32 in 1970, “Mr. Triple-Double-Trouble” was still pretty darn good, posting averages of 37.5 minutes, 16.3 points, 7.5 assists and 4.9 rebounds over the final four seasons of his career.
Early on sharpshooter Jon McGlocklin, a perennial plus-.500 shooter and double-digit scorer, started at off-guard for the Bucks. Eventually he gave up his starting spot up to a young understudy, Lucius Allen, who was always good for 15 points a game and possessed quick hands on defense.
While Robertson could command a game like no other, and McGlocklin and Allen could light up the scoreboard, Chicago’s original bruise brothers were unlike any backcourt the NBA had ever seen.
“Jerry and Norm were the best pair of defensive guards any team ever had,” Bob Love continues to proclaim. “That ball was like a piece of cheese, and they were two hungry rats. If the ball hit the floor, watch out! I was so glad they were on my team.”
“Jerry and Norm were really good, but as an opponent all anyone ever saw were their gritting teeth, and a bunch of cuts and bruises on their arms and legs and a couple of balled up fists. You had to wonder whether you were going to play basketball of get into a fist fight,” former Bucks forward Bob Dandridge laughs. “Those guys were forever stepping in front of you and taking charges, playing rugged, hard-nosed basketball. Nobody ever enjoyed playing against those two.”
Oftentimes Sloan and Van Lier would swap defensive assignments with Sloan shadowing Robertson who stood 6’5, and the 6’1” Van Lier going up against McGlocklin and Allen.
“Jerry was the best, as tough as anyone I ever played with,” Van Lier, who passed away in 2009, reminisced a number of years ago. “He was a tough guy with a nasty attitude. I came to work with the exact same nasty attitude he had. We were great together. We knew we always had each other’s back. Night after night, we were ready to play, and if our opponent wasn’t ready, we’d look at each other and smile and then tear them up.”
Says Dandridge: “Oscar vs. Jerry was always a fun battle. Oscar would get so worked up and tell us that if Sloan tried to step in front of him to draw a charge, he was going to get his money’s worth. Oscar said he was going to try to lay Jerry out and make him see stars.”
Even Robertson, a player who was renowned for fearlessness, knew there was something different about going up against the Bulls.
“That Chicago backcourt, Sloan and Van Lier, those guys were junkyard dogs. You could always see hunger and determination in their eyes.
“Now I was always very intense, I loved to compete and hated to lose. Of all the players I went up against, I’d say Sloan and Van Lier came closest to matching my intensity.”
When it came to frontcourt play, Chicago held an advantage over the Bucks thanks to a couple of virtually interchangeable star forwards.
Hall of Famer Chet “The Jet” Walker was considered to be washed up at age 28 by the Philadelphia 76ers, who inexplicably dealt him to Chicago prior to the start of the 1969-70 season for two players (Bob Kaufman and Jim Washington) who were good, but not anywhere close to his level. Walker was among the best open-court forwards of his day, adept at driving to the basket and drawing fouls. He was also remarkably durable, never missing more than six games a season throughout a 13-year career. At the time of the trade Walker had made three All-Star teams in seven seasons with the 76ers, and had proven to be a key player in their winning the 1967 NBA title. He averaged 16.2 points and 7.9 rebounds in Philadelphia, but upped his game after the trade, making four All-Star teams and averaging 20.6 points and 6.1 rebounds over six seasons with the Bulls.
“Chet was Mr. Clutch,” Van Lier recalled years ago. “Whenever we needed a basket we looked to Chet and he seemed to always deliver.”
The second Chicago superstar forward was the team’s best all-around player, Bob “Butterbean” Love. While most remember him as a smooth scorer, the three-time All-Star also was also named to three All-NBA Defensive teams while with the Bulls.
“Bob could put points on the board, that’s for sure, but he played both ends of the floor,” remembered the late Nate Thurmond a couple of years ago, who teamed with Walker and Love on the Bulls during the 1974-75 season. “Butterbean always guarded the other team’s best, Hall of Famers like Rick Barry, Elvin Hayes and Spencer Haywood. He always made it tough on them to score.”
Milwaukee’s best forward during this era was Dandridge, a crafty, 6’6” silky-smooth slasher who seemed to always put up 18 points and grab eight rebounds a game against the Bulls.
“The competitiveness [of the rivalry] between our two teams was always intense,” Dandridge said not long ago. “Bob Love was such a handful to have to deal with — especially my rookie year (1969-70). He always worked me hard on both ends of the floor.”
Milwaukee’s Curtis Perry came a little late to the Bulls-Bucks rivalry, joining Milwaukee during the 1971-72 season. But, if there was one bruiser who brought that Van Lier/Sloan mentality to the Bucks’ frontcourt, it was Perry, who wasn’t much of a scoring threat but he sure could grab rebounds and draw fouls.
By now you’re probably wondering if the Bulls had better players overall how in the world did Milwaukee average nine more wins a season and consistently outpaced Chicago in the playoffs?
“Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — he was the difference,” Van Lier used to shout. “That guy killed us.”
Chicago boasted a pair of centers that most teams would have been thrilled to call their own. Tom Boerwinkle was a unique and rather unsung player in his day. He stood an imposing 7-feet tall and possessed a 265-pound wide-body physique that helped clog paths to the basket defensively. Offensively, he wasn’t much of a scorer but was an excellent passer, adept at threading the needle in finding both Walker and Love cutting to the basket for easy scores.
“Without a doubt Big Tom was the greatest passing center in the history of the NBA,” Love says. “I still dream about all the backdoor cuts I scored on, and Tom finding me with a nifty bounce pass.”
Boerwinkle’s primary understudy, Clifford Ray, was a hardnosed defensive force who regularly produced close to nine points and 11 rebounds in limited minutes. He was a 3rd round pick out of Oklahoma in 1971 and was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team that season. He often outrebounded and outhustled bigger and more heralded players he went up against on a nightly basis.
But, no matter what Chicago’s bigs brought to the floor, it was never enough against Abdul-Jabbar, arguably the greatest NBA player of the 1970s (and many would contend the 1980s as well). Averaging 40-plus minutes a game, Abdul-Jabbar dominated just about every contest, averaging more than 30 points and 16 rebounds against the Bulls during the early ‘70s. In fact, it wasn’t just Chicago he subjugated, as he was named the league’s MVP six times between 1970-71 and 1979-80.
“[Bulls head coach] Dick Motta used to tell me to just go out and do whatever I could to stop Kareem on my own,” Boerwinkle recalled. “He wasn’t going to sacrifice another defender [with a double-team]. Kareem was so good, that no matter what I tried, he still got his points, grabbed a ton of rebounds and blocked a bunch of our shots.”
“I had a lot of respect for what the Bulls tried to do with me, overall, especially Tom and Clifford Ray,” says Abdul-Jabbar today. “They played me straight up, physically. However, the Bulls had another guy who joined the team a couple of years into our rivalry, Dennis Awtrey, and he was a different kind of guy. Awtrey always tried to bait me into getting into a fight, and sometimes we did.”
“Oh yeah, I remember one time Awtrey spun Kareem around and hit him in the mouth,” McGlocklin laughs. “We should have all thanked Dennis for that, because all it did was fire Kareem up even more. He went crazy that night.”
While the Bucks were the team that often prevented Chicago from getting an easier draw in the playoffs, it was the Los Angeles Lakers with Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West who routinely extinguished Chicago’s postseason dreams, knocking off the Bulls in 1971, 1972, and 1973. By the time the Bulls tipped off their eighth NBA season in 1973-74, Chicago had made the playoffs six times — and had been eliminated by the Lakers in four of those years.
That would change in 1973-74. Chicago stormed to a then franchise-best 13-2 start en route to a 54-28 record. By the time the playoffs rolled around, the Bulls were flying high, ready to erase the misfortune of the year before. Chicago won its first playoff series ever, in seven games vs. the Detroit Pistons, despite Sloan suffering a serious foot injury in Game 6 that knocked him out for the rest of the playoffs.
Next up was the Bucks who finished five games ahead of Chicago in the regular season standings. The Bulls may have thought they smelled blood, but Milwaukee came into the series healthy after fighting off a series of nagging injuries that dogged Robertson, Allen and Dandridge during the regular season.
“Our 1973-74 team had a purpose,” Dandridge says. “We all knew that it was probably going to be Oscar’s last year, and so we were on a mission for him. At the time, we felt we had the two best players in the league at the two most important positions — Kareem in the middle and Oscar running the show from the point.
“When we met Chicago in the playoffs the Bulls really focused trying to shut those two down, which then freed me and a few other guys on our team to step up our games.”
“Kareem was Kareem. He was unstoppable [Abdul-Jabbar averaged 32.2 points and 15.8 rebounds during the 1974 playoffs]. As always he was the difference,” McGlocklin says. “Because of all the injuries we dealt with during the year, the Bulls thought they had an opening. But as smart and as big and as physical as Chicago’s centers were, Kareem was just too much.”
The Bucks bulldozed the Bulls in four straight by an average of 14 points a game, with only one of the contests being close. By Game 4 Chicago’s frustration had grown so passionate that Motta, Sloan (in street clothes) and the team’s mascot, Benny the Bull (who gave “the hoof” to the referees as he left) were ejected before the end of the game.
Convinced it would take a big-name center to finally push its way to the NBA Finals, the Bulls decided to trade Ray to the Golden State Warriors for future Hall-of-Famer Nate Thurmond prior to the start of the 1974-75 season. And although both the Bucks and Lakers fell from grace that year, Chicago failed to take advantage, as they lost to Golden State in seven games in the Western Conference Finals. Ironically, it turned out to be the Warriors, with ex-Bull Clifford Ray manning the middle for them, who captured the NBA title that year.