Great Chicago Rivalries of Years Gone By
The word rival generally refers to a person or a group of individuals that attempts to conquer or defeat another, which in essence means rivals tend to come in pairs. When it comes to sports, rivalries add extra excitement and some pizazz to games.
Would Muhammed Ali have been as great without Joe Frazier? Would Ali have achieved iconic status were there no Smokin’ Joe?
What about the Boston Celtics of Larry Bird and Kevin McHale going up against the Showtime Lakers of Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the mid-‘80s?
What if the St. Louis Cardinals didn’t exist? As pleasant a thought as that might be for every Cubs fan, who’d take their place as the North Siders’ chief adversaries? Milwaukee? Pittsburgh? Cincinnati? I don’t think so.
A primary component of a rivalry is familiarity, the type that breeds contempt and even hate. Rivalries also involve stakes, the bigger the better.
Over the years the Chicago Bulls have had their fair share of heated rivalries, and although the franchise’s first golden era during the early-to-mid 1970s failed to produce a Championship, those teams provided plenty of thrills.
From 1970 through 1975 the Bulls averaged 52 wins a year but always ended up being eliminated in the playoffs by the eventual Western Conference or NBA Champion.
In this series column we’ll tip-off with an in-depth look at the first real rivalry the Bulls had against the Los Angeles Lakers during the early 1970s.
1970s — California Dreaming or was it a Nightmare?
Right from the start the Bulls enjoyed unusual success for an expansion team. They posted 33 victories in their inaugural season, far more than any other first-year franchise had ever achieved, and even made the playoffs. The Bulls also qualified for the postseason in their second year, and posted the franchise’s first-ever postseason victory (104-98) against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 3 at the Chicago Stadium in the opening round of 1968 playoffs. Los Angeles went on to capture the series in five, but nonetheless knocking off a team led by All Stars Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Gail Goodrich in your second year of operation is worthy of respect.
Then, after a one-year playoff absence, Chicago began a new playoff run under the direction of fiery head coach, Dick Motta, beginning in 1969 and ending in 1975. Three straight times they attempted to take the next step from being a young, up and coming team to a legitimate title contender, only to be stopped by the Lakers, whose Hall of Fame roster had now been bolstered with the addition of another all-time great, Wilt Chamberlain.
“The Lakers were always standing in our way,” remembered the late Bulls point guard Norm Van Lier many years later. “No matter how hard we played they’d always find a way to stop us in the end.”
When the two teams first met in the 1971 Western Conference Semifinals, Chicago actually owned the better regular season record at 51-31 compared to the Lakers’ 48-34 mark. But since LA finished first in the weaker Pacific Division (the second place San Francisco Warriors were 41-41) while Chicago sat 15 games back of Milwaukee who had posted a league-best 66-16 mark, the Lakers were awarded home-court advantage by virtue of being a division winner.
Chicago featured high-scoring forwards Bob Love (25.2 points per game) and Chet Walker (22.0), tenacious shooting guard Jerry Sloan (18.3 points and 8.8 rebounds) and hard-knocks center Tom Boerwinkle (10.8 points and 13.8 rebounds). The Bulls almost stole Game 1 in LA but came up short as the Lakers escaped with a 100-99 victory.
This time around the Los Angeles wasn’t able to rely on the talents of West and Baylor, as both were sidelined for the entire postseason because of injuries. Yet they came out on top again in Game 2, 102-95, thanks to their ability to connect on 35 of 42 free throws, compared to Chicago going just 15 of 22 from the line.
The two teams headed to the Windy City for the next two games of the series where the Bulls captured both, including an exciting 112-102 win in Game 4 in front of a frenzied, standing room only crowd of 18,650 inside the Chicago Stadium.
After the Lakers posted a 115-89 victory in Game 5 back in LA at the Forum, Bobby Weiss (25 points) directed Chicago to a 113-99 Game 5 win at the Stadium to even the series at 3-3. Unfortunately for the Bulls and their fans the series ended with a thud back in LA as the Lakers took command from the beginning to post a 109-98 victory to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
Chicago bolstered its lineup early on the following season (1971-72) thanks to a trade with Cincinnati that brought Norm Van Lier to town. Motta immediately inserted “Stormin’ Norman” behind the wheel as the Bulls’ lead guard and the team took off, posting a then-franchise best 57 victories. But despite Baylor announcing his retirement just nine games into the season, the Lakers were better and stronger than ever as they went on to string together an amazing 33-game winning streak and set the league’s all-time best won-loss mark at 69-13.
Jim McMillian easily stepped out of Baylor’s shadow to play alongside fellow forward Happy Hairston, with Chamberlain entrenched in the middle. West returned to court ready for full-time duty, and together with Goodrich, the pair formed a potent backcourt, with each averaging almost 25 points a game with West also leading the league in assists at almost nine per game.
Once again Chicago and Lakers would meet in the playoffs, but this time LA would easily sweep the Bulls in four straight games. Chicago came into the series overwhelmed with injuries. Boerwinkle was forced to the sidelines due to a knee injury, while Love limped along thanks to a badly sprained ankle while Walker nursed a pulled hamstring. At full strength Chicago might have given the Lakers a run for their money, but with so many key players sporting ice bags most hours of the day, they virtually had no chance.
The Lakers then went on to dethrone the defending NBA Champion Milwaukee Bucks in six, and then took down the New York Knicks in five for the team’s first title since moving from Minneapolis in 1959.
Could a third bite at the apple prove to be the juiciest for Chicago, as the 1972-73 season ended with the Bulls and the Lakers meeting for a third straight year in in the playoffs.
Going into the last few weeks of the season, Los Angeles looked to have locked up the No. 1 seed in the West while the Bulls and Milwaukee battled one another for the Midwest Division crown. However, the Bucks caught fire down the stretch, winning 14 in a row to not only put distance between themselves and the Bulls, but also catch LA, as both ended up finishing with identical 60-22 records. The Bucks and Lakers were then forced to flip a coin for the No. 1 seed — Milwaukee called heads and heads it was — so LA slipped to No. 2 while Chicago clocked in at No. 3 with a record of 51-31, once again pitting themselves against the Lakers in the playoffs.
The Bulls were a feared team, but at the same time somewhat vulnerable. Both Love (23.1 ppg) and Walker (19.1 ppg) were fully healthy and coming off All-Star seasons. Chicago’s hardnosed backcourt of Van Lier and Sloan was also hitting their stride. The pair were the toughest and meanest guards in the game. They treated everything as a life and death situation. They eagerly dove for loose balls, fought and scratched for rebounds and fearlessly stepped in front of just about every opponent — big or small — to draw charges. After hearing Chicago was coming to town to be LA’s opening round opponent for a third straight year Lakers icon Jerry West shook his head and laughed, “Oh Lord — I hate those guys! Jerry and Norm beat me up every time. Can someone please remind them I have a wife and kids?”
Chicago’s Achilles heel was once again in the middle where big burly center Tom Boerwinkle was unable to answer the bell for most of the season after reinjuring the same knee that knocked him out the year before. In his place the Bulls employed a tag-team of 6’9 pivots Clifford Ray and journeyman Dennis Awtrey. The two middle men were tasked to do battle against the mighty Wilt Chamberlain, who at 36 years of age had once again played in all 82 games and led the league in rebounding (18.6) while also setting an all-time record in shooting 72.7% from the field over 43.2 minutes a night.
The underdog Chicagoans refused back down, going toe-to-toe with the defending Champs and presumptive title favorites. In Game 1, LA barely survived in overtime, defeating the Bulls 107-104. Game 2 wasn’t anywhere near as close as the Lakers took command during the second quarter and didn’t look back in corralling Chicago a second straight time, 108-93. However, once the series headed to Chicago, the Bulls were able to take care of business by coming out on top in both Games 3 and 4.
In Game 3, Walker led all scorers with 30 points while Love chipped in 24 and pulled down 13 rebounds to lead the home team to a 96-86 victory. But Walker and Love weren’t the only stars of the night as Dennis Awtrey also proved critical.
A 1970 third round pick of the Philadelphia 76ers, Awtrey, who went to college at Santa Clara, was dealt to Chicago a week into the season after Boerwinkle had reinjured his knee during the preseason. For most of the year, Ray was Chicago’s starting center and played a little more than half the game, averaging 8.6 points and 10.9 rebounds in 28 minutes. Awtrey, on the other hand logged 20 minutes a night while adding 4.7 points and 5.5 rebounds. But in Game 1 Motta decided to go with Awtrey almost the entire time, and the pesky big man did not disappoint, notching 15 points while grabbing 15 rebounds and handing out six assists in 48 minutes before fouling out early in overtime. Awtrey’s hardnosed approach and somewhat questionable defensive tactics frustrated Chamberlain to no end. In Chicago’s Game 3 victory at the Stadium, Awtrey was able to hold Chamberlain to 1 of 6 shooting from the field and zero free throw attempts over 44 minutes. Offensively, Awtrey chipped in 13 points while also holding his own on the boards, snagging 14 boards to Chamberlain’s 18 on the night.
Thanks to a furious late 4th quarter rally the Bulls were able to even the series in Game 4 with a 98-94 victory at the Stadium. Love played all 48 minutes and led all scorers with 38 points, while Jim McMillian led the Lakers’ with 25 points. Chamberlain also bounced back in a big way, dominating the glass by collecting 30 rebounds.
Game 5 took place a couple of days later back in LA and the Lakers hit the floor running, dominating right away in posting a 21-point (123-102) win. West torched the nets for 36 points and dished out 11 assists, while Chamberlain put up 21 points and 29 rebounds. Once again Love and Walker were Chicago’s best with 27 and 25 point efforts, respectively. Love also grabbed 14 rebounds while playing 45 minutes.
The Bulls then refused to lay down on their home floor in Game 6, and once again evened the series with a hard fought 101-93 victory in front of a sellout crowd of 18,096 at the Stadium. This time it was Chicago’s backcourt that saved the day as Sloan led all scorers with 27 points while Van Lier was right behind with 26. Chamberlain (14 points, 26 rebounds) and West (19 points, 5 assists) steered LA’s charge.
A national TV audience awaited the Bulls and Lakers in Game 7 set for Sunday, April 15, 1973 at Forum. The teams battled back and forth with neither squad able to take more than a six-point lead during the first 36 minutes of action. The Bulls held a four-point lead at the half (50-46) and extended their advantage to six (78-72) by the start of the fourth and final stanza. As tight as the game was, Chicago was playing with an air of confidence nobody had ever seen from them before. The Bulls were poised and played under control. It also looked as if they had more energy than the Lakers, as every Bull hustled after every loose ball and all five made a concerted effort to crash the boards in hopes of keeping Chamberlain in check. Then late in the fourth quarter, with just 2:58 left on the clock, and Chicago leading 90-83, everything suddenly turned to mush. The Bulls made one mistake after another, turning the ball over, missing wide open shots, committing silly fouls and putting the Lakers on the free throw line. Basically Chicago could not do anything right as the Lakers went on a 12-2 run to win the game (95-92) and survive the series.
The Bulls were not only on the verge of winning the franchise’s first ever playoff series by knocking off the defending NBA Champions (on the road and on national TV, no less), but also vanquishing a bitter rival that had sent them home early for two straight years. Chicago literally snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
“We absolutely blew it,” an exasperated Norm Van Lier said in the locker room immediately after the game. “They [Lakers] had all but given up. This [loss] is hard to take, especially because of the rivalry we had developed with the Lakers.”
The ‘70s Bulls never got another chance to exact revenge. The next season Chicago was pitted against Detroit and won their first postseason series, while Los Angeles fell to Milwaukee in the other bracket. By the end of the 1974-75 season the Lakers had fallen on hard times, sliding to the bottom of the Pacific Division. The Bulls and the Lakers would not meet again in the playoffs until 1991, when Chicago, with Michael Jordan leading the way, went on to beat LA in five games to win the Bulls’ first ever NBA Championship.
Next up: The 1980s — vs. the Detroit Pistons