Seasons with Bulls:
September 16, 1920
October 10, 2000
Before telling the story of the first owner the Chicago Bulls, Dick Oland Klein, one ought to know a little history — at least for context sake — to truly appreciate the Chicago Bulls’ founding father.
You have to go all the way to 1894 to find the first evidence of basketball being played in Chicago. Amos Alonzo Stagg, the famous football coach, was one of Dr. James Naismith’s (the inventor of the game) students at the YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Stagg took part in the very first game ever played on December 21, 1891. Three years later Stagg brought basketball with him to the University of Chicago.
Another famous football icon, George Halas, also dabbled in basketball back in the day — 1925 to be specific — when he founded the Chicago Bruins who competed in American Basketball League (ABL), which was the first sincere attempt to establish a pro league on a national level. Besides the Bruins, the ABL also had teams in Boston, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Ft. Wayne, Rochester, and Washington, DC. Unfortunately the ABL lasted only six years before falling victim to the Great Depression in 1931. Halas’ boys also weren’t very good, amassing a record of 101-152, posting losing marks in five of the league’s six years.
For the most part basketball back then was a regional sport with just a couple of teams barnstorming the country, one of which happened to be the Harlem Globetrotters.
One of the most successful regional leagues was the Midwest Industrial Basketball Conference, whose 1934-35 championship was captured by the Chicago Duffy Florals. That league, which was made up of teams primarily representing major industrial companies such as Firestone, Goodyear and General Electric, was the forerunner of the National Basketball League (NBL), which existed for a little over a decade beginning in 1937-38. The NBL was the closest thing to true professional basketball during the first half of the 20th century. Unfortunately the Duffy Florals ended up folding in 1936, a year before the NBL came into existence.
Halas decided to revive the Bruins in 1939 and they played in the NBL for three seasons before giving way to a new team — the Chicago Studebakers — at the start of the 1942-43 season. The Studebakers were unique in that they were the first integrated pro team in a recognized national league. They were sponsored/owned by the United Auto Workers, and every player had to work at the Studebaker defense plant located on the south side of the Chicago. Disappointingly the team wasn’t very good, going 8-15. Home games were played at four different venues spread around the city, which only made them hard to find, snuffing out any chance of developing a solid core of supportive fans, thus the franchise ended up folding at the end of the season.
However, pro basketball in Chicago was revived a couple of years later in 1944 with the launching of the Chicago American Gears, a team made up of a handful of veteran pros and some local collegiate talent that in 1946 made headlines after signing Chicago native and former DePaul All-American George Mikan, a bespectacled 6’9” big man who was basketball’s first giant in both stature and skill. The American Gears signed Mikan a five-year contract for a then unheard of $12,000 per season. Mikan regularly dominated the floor, posting 20 or more points a game when few in that era even dreamed of scoring in double figures. Mikan did more than live up to the hype by leading the American Gears to the NBL championship. His playing in the NBL was also a blow to the rival Basketball Association of the America (BAA), the true forerunner of today’s NBA, which began playing that same season (1946-47).
What happened next can only be described as dumb. Maurice White, the president of the American Gear Company, became greedy in acting upon an idea he had in which his team would be the centerpiece of a brand new 24-team league in which he would own every franchise and control every arena where they played. In White’s mind he would rake in millions. So after capturing the championship, White pulled the American Gears from the NBL and established the Professional Basketball League of America, which within three weeks turned into a complete disaster, sinking into a sea of red ink. Once the American Gears were no more, Mikan jumped back to the NBL, signing with the Minneapolis Lakers who a couple of years later merged into the newly formed National Basketball Association (NBA) and became the league’s first dynasty by winning five championships in six seasons.
As mentioned earlier, professional basketball as a national sport essentially arrived in 1946 when the Basketball Association of America (BAA) was established by an assembly of professional hockey team owners from major American cities located throughout the Northeast and Midwest as well as Toronto, Canada. The group’s goal was simply to find a way to fill open dates in their arenas. They weren’t necessarily basketball fans, but rather businessmen who didn’t like seeing their arenas empty for days on end whenever their hockey teams went on the road.
There were 11 teams divided into two divisions (East & West) in the BAA’s inaugural season (1946-47). The Chicago Stags, who played their home games at the Chicago Stadium, won the Western Division with a 39-22 record, but came up short in the league’s maiden championship series to the Philadelphia Warriors in five games.
Unfortunately for Chicago basketball fans the Stags hadn’t been able to convince Mikan to stay in town and sign with them after the American Gears folded, so despite the success the Stags enjoyed on the hardwood, they never seemed to connect with locals as the team often drew less than 2,000 fans per home game. Yet somehow they remained solvent through the 1949-50 season when the league changed its name to the National Basketball Association (NBA) after merging with the NBL, expanding to 17 teams and three divisions. However the honeymoon lasted only a year, as six teams including the Stags, dropped out before the start of the 1950-51 campaign due to financial reasons.
So from March 1950, after the Stags were swept 2-0 by Mikan and the Minneapolis Lakers in the Central Division semifinals, Chicago professional basketball no longer existed. Nevertheless, a number of the league’s powerbrokers believed the city, under the right circumstances, could be a great pro basketball town since many of the city’s best high school players went on to star in college, and the local college teams (DePaul under Ray Meyer and Loyola under George Ireland) carried national reputations. So after the NBA decided to expand before the start of the 1961-62 season, the obvious place to go was the largest city in the country without a franchise — Chicago.
A number of potential ownership groups from around the country submitted bids for the new expansion team. After a long and exhaustive investigation, the league’s Board of Governor’s awarded its ninth franchise to a group headed by Chicago insurance executive David Trager.
Trager was the president of Associated Life Insurance, a company that no longer exists, but at that time was the primary underwriter of the Teamsters Union headed by someone you might’ve heard of — Jimmy Hoffa. Besides the insurance business, Trager was also involved in a number of other productions including that of promoting boxing and wrestling matches around the city.
The league set the official franchise entry fee at $250,000 but also required Trager and his group of investors put up an additional $250,000 to cover a variety of start-up expenses such as player and front office salaries, team travel, advertising/promotion costs as well as what it would cost to rent the International Amphitheater for the new team’s home games. After Trager and his group proved they could take care of the business end of things, he was given the go-ahead to name his new team and he chose to honor of the city’s robust meatpacking industry by calling them the Chicago Packers. Trager then used the team’s first-ever draft pick to select Walt Bellamy, a 6’11” All-American center from Indiana who had also recently won a gold medal with the 1960 US Olympic team.
A future Hall of Famer, Bellamy had a dazzling first year, earning the league’s Rookie of the Year award by averaging 31.6 points and 19 rebounds. Nevertheless the Packers were terrible, posting an NBA-worst 18-62 record in front of many embarrassingly small crowds.
Trager swiftly realized he and his group did not have deep enough pockets to withstand years of losses, both on the court and at the turnstile, so he didn’t waste time looking for a way out. One person he met with was Dick Klein, a native of Fort Madison, Iowa who some twenty-five years earlier had been a Big Ten All-American basketball player at Northwestern, as well as a former pro with the Chicago American Gears (1945-46). Klein, who was a terrific all-around athlete even spent a summer pitching for the Cleveland Indians in their farm system. However, as soon as he realized his future resided more in the business world, Klein went about establishing a successful professional career, starting up his own firm, D.O. Klein and Associates, where he marketed novelties to merchandisers.
Klein gained a great deal of moxie during those early industry days. As time marched on he became successful enough to move his family to Chicago’s well-to-do North Shore suburb of Kenilworth, however he was never so rich that he could simply purchase a team by himself. So after meeting with Trager where the two discussed the possible sale of the Packers, Klein began trying to assemble a group of wealthy partners to buy and keep the Packers in Chicago. However, he wasn’t able to come up with a viable enough package to compete with an offer Trager received from a group of Baltimore businessmen who proposed $1.4 million for the team. However at the time of the agreement Trager was informed that Baltimore’s new arena was under construction and that it wouldn’t be ready until late 1963, so if the sale was to go through the team would have to stay in Chicago for at least another season under his control.
Trager decided to rename his lame-duck franchise the Zephyrs and he move them out of the International Amphitheater, playing their home games instead at the much smaller Chicago Coliseum which originally had opened in 1899.
After drafting another Rookie of the Year award winner (Terry Dischinger, a 6’7” forward from Purdue) prior to the start of the 1962-63 season the Zephyrs ended up just slightly better on the court (25-55) but were equally weak at the gate just as they were the year before. When the season ended, the Zephyrs packed up and headed to Baltimore where they were renamed the Bullets (today that franchise calls Washington, DC home and is known as the Wizards). Few in Chicago seemed to care about the Zephyrs leaving town, with the exception of Dick Klein, who immediately began the process of establishing the Chicago Professional Basketball Corporation in the hopes of giving his city one more bite at the apple, all the while knowing the job was going to be an uphill battle.
Besides searching for some well-heeled investors who would be willing to trust him with their money, Klein also knew he had a lot to learn about the business side of professional basketball, so he reached out to the owners of the St. Louis Hawks and Cincinnati Royals, Ben Kerner and Tom Grace, respectively, who ran two highly successful franchises, to help advise him as to how best to go about securing an expansion franchise and how to make it a success.
Klein’s enthusiastic personality and his willingness to listen and heed the advice of those owners as well as other league executives won him a great deal of support, including that of J. Walter Kennedy, who recently had replaced Maurice Podoloff as the NBA’s president. Kennedy believed expansion was necessary for the health and welfare of the league, however at first he wasn’t sure that Chicago would be the best place to go since it was just a couple of years after the Packers/Zephyrs had failed miserably. However after fabled TV sports pioneer Roone Arledge let it be known that adding Chicago to the fold would, in his opinion, be a great idea, the Windy City’s prospects gained momentum. Arledge, who ran ABC Sports, and the NBA were in the middle of negotiating a new national TV contract. Arledge was convinced his network and the league itself could both turn a healthy profit if the NBA had teams representing each of the three largest markets – New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — in the country.
Initially Kennedy and members of the league’s expansion committee informed Klein that a new franchise would likely cost around $600,000, and that any prospective ownership group would also have to be willing to put up an additional $100,000 nonrefundable deposit just to be considered. So if he was serious, Klein needed to come up some cash fairly quickly.
Klein, who had earlier put together a comprehensive financial prospectus detailing how a new franchise could easily become profitable in Chicago within five years, began knocking on the doors of some of the city’s heaviest hitters in search of partners.
“To attract interest, I showed everyone I talked to the figures I had worked out,” Klein told the Chicago Tribune in 1966. “The quick-buck artists quickly faded, but there were more than a few millionaires I came across who were very interested.”
Klein projected a maximum loss potential of at least $285,000 over the first two years of operation. “But in the third year, I was convinced we’d begin to make a little money,” he insisted. “And by the end of five years, everyone would have made their investment back and the franchise would be worth at least $6 million. By then I told everyone it would be just as hard to get a ticket to a Bulls game as it was for a Bears or Blackhawks game.”
While Klein was busy making pitches to Chicago’s rich and famous, the NBA expansion committee voted against adding a new team for the start of the 1965-66 season. Of more consequence, however, was the news that the price tag for a potential expansion franchise for the 1966-67 season was most likely going to be $1.6 million.
“The new price was unquestionably a setback,” Klein told the Tribune in 1966. “Three potential investors dropped out right away, but a couple stayed. Everyone had agreed to participate for X dollars each, so the new price meant everyone would either have to invest more (money) or accept a lower proportionate share of ownership.”
Klein had envisioned putting together a balanced group of investors, each holding approximately 10 percent, with Klein himself controlling at least 20 percent and where he would be placed in charge of the franchise’s daily operation.
It took time to pull everything together as a couple of prospective backers insisted on a wait-and-see approach, agreeing to only buy in only if Klein actually was awarded a team. But three prominent local businessmen, Harold Mayer of Oscar Mayer and Company, Dan Searle of Searle Pharmaceuticals and Ed Higgins, chairman of Pepsi-Cola bottlers of Chicago, were willing to back Klein all the way and put their money up front in order to help him move forward. In the end, Klein cobbled together an impressive, wealthy group of investors, headed by himself and the aforementioned Mayer, Searle and Higgins, as well as Elmer Rich Jr., president and chairman of the Simoniz Co., Newton Frye, a prominent Chicago attorney, businessman Greg Barker as well as a late entry, Lamar Hunt, a multimillionaire Texas oilman and an original founding father of the old American Football League (AFL).
Hunt had been part of another prospective ownership group, but after the NBA Board of Governors voted in favor of awarding Klein the league’s 10th franchise, Hunt privately approached Klein and said “That’s the first time I’ve ever lost out on something like this, and I don’t like it. I want in.” So Klein sold Hunt a minority stake in the team provided Hunt agree that he wouldn’t attempt to gain control.
Klein came up with the idea to call his team the Bulls somewhat by accident. Like Trager before him, Klein wanted a name that denoted strength and power that was tied into the city’s meatpacking tradition. He also wanted a name that would be in-line with the one-syllable directness of Chicago’s other team names — Bears, Cubs, (White) Sox, and (Black) Hawks.
“Chicago was the meatpacking capital of the world,” said Klein years later while reminiscing about the early days of the Bulls. “At first I was thinking about calling the team the Matadors or the Toreadors, but neither felt right. Then one afternoon I was home with my wife and three sons and we started kicking around ideas. After I brought up Matadors and Toreadors, my son Mark said, ‘Dad, that’s a lot of bull,’ and at that moment it hit me. I said, ‘That’s it—that’s our name! We’re going to call them the Bulls!’”
The next order of business would be to hire a coach, and who better to reach out to than DePaul’s legendary sideline boss Ray Meyer.
“It was a given that Coach Meyer should be offered the opportunity to be our first head coach,” Klein stated years ago. “He was a fixture in Chicago. He was Chicago basketball.”
Meyer was flattered but never seriously considered jumping, so Klein offered the job to Johnny “Red” Kerr, a popular, 33-year old Chicago native who starred at the University of Illinois and who was concluding a terrific 12-year NBA career, where he played the same position and in the same division as future Hall of Famers Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. The 6’9” Kerr had been the sixth overall pick of the Syracuse Nationals in the 1954 college draft, and as a rookie he averaged 10.5 points and 6.6 rebounds in helping the Nationals claim their first NBA championship. He was a three-time All-Star (1956, 1959 and 1963) who was also one of the finest passing centers in the game. At the time of his retirement Kerr had accumulated totals of 12,480 points, 10,092 rebounds and 2,004 assists, and established the NBA’s mark for most consecutive games played (844). Kerr agreed to take the Bulls coaching job, but only if Klein would also hire his friend, Al Bianchi, to be his (and the NBA’s first-ever full-time) assistant coach.
Part of the league’s expansion agreement was that the Bulls would not be allowed to make the first pick in the 1966 college draft, but rather they would have to go last (10th) in every round. Klein said he’d agree provided the other nine teams would only be allowed to protect seven and not the originally planned eight players off their 12-man roster for the expansion draft. The NBA countered with a proposal saying they would agree but only if after Chicago completed its first round picks the teams would be allowed to reclaim one their own players from the remaining draft pool. In Klein’s mind this was a major victory for the Bulls because he would now have the opportunity to stock Chicago’s roster with the eighth and 10th best players from every team instead of the ninth and 10th best. The local media, however, was not as enthusiastic as Klein with these arrangements because the top college player was Chicago native Cazzie Russell, an extremely talented high-scoring All-American forward from the University of Michigan. However, as great as it might have been to have Russell on the Bulls, Klein believed his team had a far better chance to succeed from the beginning if he could stock the roster with more veteran talent instead relying upon unproven college players. “Our deal gave us nine (veteran) players the other teams didn’t want to give up,” Klein said afterwards.
Ever the wheeler-dealer, Klein then came up with another novel idea by striking an agreement with Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach. Klein promised Auerbach he would not grab future Hall of Fame guard KC Jones in the upcoming expansion draft provided Auerbach would sit down and give him a thorough evaluation of every player in the league which would help the Bulls select the best available players in the expansion draft.
The original Chicago Bulls expansion picks were:
Baltimore: Johnny Kerr, Jerry Sloan
Boston: Ron Bonham, John Thompson
Cincinnati: Nate Bowman, Tom Thacker
Detroit: John Barnhill, Don Kojis
Los Angeles: Bob Boozer, Jim King
New York: Len Chappell, Barry Clemens
Philadelphia: Al Bianchi, Gerry Ward
St. Louis: Jeff Mullins, Jim Washington
San Francisco: Keith Erickson, McCoy McLemore
Besides selecting his two coaches (Kerr and Bianchi), Klein also tabbed two others who would later become Hall of Fame coaches after their playing days ended.
John Thompson was a 6’10” backup center to Bill Russell with the Celtics. However Thompson chose to retire and return home to Washington, DC rather than continue his playing career with the Bulls. He later became one of basketball’s most influential college coaches at Georgetown University where he compiled a record of 596-239 (.714) over 27 seasons, and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in 1999.
Jerry Sloan was a hardnosed guard hailing from downstate McLeansboro, IL who had been an All-American at Evansville (IN) University. Sloan didn’t play much during his rookie season with Baltimore, however he quickly blossomed into an All-Star with the Bulls and later went on to post a remarkable 1127-682 (.623) record as an NBA head coach, directing the Bulls (1979-82) and the Utah Jazz (1988-2011) over 23 seasons. Sloan, like Thompson, was also inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, in 2009.
Thanks to Auerbach’s counsel, Klein selected a handful of other quality players in the likes of Bob Boozer, Jim Washington, Jim King, Keith Erickson and Jeff Mullins.
As for the college draft, Klein used the 10th overall pick on Dave Schellhase, a 6’3” All-American guard from Purdue, and Erwin Mueller, a 6’8” power forward/center out of the University of San Francisco with the 20th overall pick in the second round.
When the Bulls opened training camp, Klein, Kerr and Bianchi felt good about their collection of gritty misfits. Many years later, Jeff Mullins, who later ended up as a three-time All-Star with the San Francisco/Golden State Warriors recalled that first Chicago training camp experience by saying, “That was a tough team to make. It was the most competitive situation I had ever been in.”
“No question — there was some talent in that first camp,” Kerr remembered years later. “Jerry Sloan proved himself to be a great player and a great competitor, and we had some other guys who could definitely hold their own. But we also saw early on that we needed a leader, someone who could settle things down and bring everyone on the court together.”
That person turned out to be a crafty, six-foot, 31-year-old point guard named Guy Rodgers, whom Klein obtained towards the end of training camp by trading Mullins and fellow expansion draftee Jim King, along with cash and a future draft choice to the San Francisco Warriors. At the time Rodgers was an eight-year veteran who had been a three-time All-Star, but the Warriors believed he was at the end of his career so they were willing to pull the trigger on a deal. With the Bulls, Rodgers went on to have the best statistical season of his career that year, averaging 18 points and leading the league in assists at 11.2 per game, then the third-highest single season assist total in NBA history. The Bulls starting backcourt of Rodgers and Sloan were named to the Western Conference All-Star team, where Rodgers helped direct the West to a victory by posting a game-high eight assists.
After posting a 6-3 preseason record, the Bulls defeated the St. Louis Hawks on the road, 104-97, in the franchise’s first official game in franchise history, on October 15, 1966. Chicago’s starting lineup was Rodgers and Sloan in the backcourt, Bob Boozer and Don Kojis at forward and Len Chappell, who scored the Bulls’ first basket 11 seconds into the game, at center. Rodgers played 44 minutes that night and led all scorers with 36 points.
Three nights later the Bulls won their home opener, 119-116, over the San Francisco Warriors, before 4,200 fans at the International Amphitheater. The highest priced ticket was $4.00. Once again Rodgers sparkled, scoring the winning basket in the final minute of the game, sealing the victory with a free throw, and then stealing the ball and dribbling out the clock. All-in-all, Rodgers notched 22 points, handed out 21 assists and snared 10 rebounds to post the franchise’s first triple-double.
The Bulls captured their third straight victory the following evening, also at the Amphitheater, knocking off the defending Western Division champion Los Angeles Lakers, 134-124 behind a 34-point, 18 assist effort from Rodgers.
“After that game we were sitting with a 3-0 record and I thought to myself, ‘I like coaching a whole lot,’” joked Kerr years later.
The Bulls soon cooled off, yet still made the playoffs with a 33-48 record. In his rookie season on the bench, Kerr was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year.
As Chairman and General Manager Klein wielded a heavy hand. He often sparred with members of his front office as well as Kerr, as well as his financial partners.
“Dick had a lot of George Steinbrenner (the late renowned New York Yankees owner) in him and that was before anyone knew who George Steinbrenner was,” Kerr remembered years later in explaining why he chose to step down from the Bulls after only two seasons and join his friend and former Bulls front office executive Jerry Colangelo to help launch the expansion Phoenix Suns in 1968.
Within three seasons only five original Bulls were still with the team. Nevertheless Klein proved astute once again when he named Dick Motta, a 36-year old, little known, no-nonsense college coach to man the sidelines in place of Kerr before the start of the 1968-69 season. Unfortunately for the Bulls’ founder, Motta’s arrival ultimately proved to be the beginning of the end of his reign as boss of the franchise.
Motta grew up in tiny Midvale, Utah (population of 2,450) as the son of immigrant farmers. His personality was feisty and competitive — he had little use for anyone who didn’t approach life the same way. Upon graduating from Utah State University, Motta served in the U.S. Air Force achieving the rank of Lieutenant. He then began his basketball coaching career at Grace High School in Idaho Falls, Idaho. In his first year, Motta took Grace to the 1958 State Championship game but lost. However, the following season Motta and his team took home the title.
Motta then went on to coach at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, and after six outstanding seasons (120-33 .784) where the Wildcats won three Big Sky Conference Championships and appeared in the NCAA Tournament, he was tabbed by Klein to direct the Bulls. During his eight-year Chicago tenure, Motta, who holds the unique distinction of being the only NBA coach in history to never have played in high school, college or the pros, led the franchise to six consecutive playoff appearances (1969-1975), four consecutive seasons of 50 wins or more (1970-1974) and was the recipient of the 1971 NBA Coach of the Year Award.
The Motta-Klein honeymoon was short-lived as the always intense coach quickly grew weary of his owner’s daily involvement with the team. The two clashed frequently and openly. Klein was notoriously frugal, and although the each of the team’s investors were extremely wealthy individuals, the Bulls always seemed to be run on a shoestring. At midseason during Motta’s first year, Klein decided to trade veteran center Erwin Mueller to Seattle for $75,000 and a future 4th round draft pick. The new Bulls coach exploded, rebuking his owner to the local media by angrily throwing a dollar bill down onto the Chicago Stadium court and huffing out loud, “You can’t play money! Money won’t play!”
Afterwards Motta didn’t think twice about trying to undermine Klein’s authority by constantly taking his grievances directly to each of the team’s investors in an effort to get them to dump the Bulls’ founding father. Klein’s efforts to smooth things over while also staying deeply involved with the running of the team failed. By the start of the Bulls’ fourth season of operation the other owners insisted he step down as president and general manager, and on the advice of former Chicago White Sox owner, Bill Veeck, the Bulls hired Pat Williams, a young, innovative executive with the Philadelphia 76ers to be the team’s General Manager.
Although no longer in charge of the team’s daily operation, Klein held onto his ownership stake for a few more years and got to see his dream of the Bulls becoming a legitimate title contender come true as Chicago went on to win 51 games during the 1970-71 season and 57 the next. Then in the summer of 1972, Klein helped orchestrate the sale of his and several other’s share of the Bulls to a new ownership group headed by Chicago Blackhawks owner Arthur Wirtz.
Klein never lost his love of basketball. He and his wife, Margaret, retired and settled in Greenville, SC, where, on a part-time basis, he enjoyed scouting prospective players for the Phoenix Suns as a favor to his former Bulls executive, Jerry Colangelo.
On October 10, 2000, Dick Klein peacefully passed away in his sleep at the age of 80.