Seasons with Bulls:
April 23, 1945, in Cleveland, Ohio
March 26, 2013
University of Tennessee
1968 / Round: 1 / Pick: 4th overall
Selected by the Chicago Bulls
A broad-shouldered center who spent his entire NBA career with the Chicago Bulls, Tom Boerwinkle played a key role in the Bulls rise to prominence during the 1970s.
A red-shirt freshman in 1964, Boerwinkle was the first 7-footer ever to play for the University of Tennessee. He didn’t see much action as a sophomore but come his junior year, “Long Tom” helped lead the Volunteers to the 1967 Southeast Conference (SEC) championship as UT posted a 21-7 record (15-3 conference). That season Boerwinkle averaged 12 points and 10.2 rebounds and was named first team All-SEC, and the following year he put up 15.2 points and grabbed 11.3 rebounds in garnering not only a second First-Team All-SEC award, but also national All-America honors.
Boerwinkle’s deft passing and size made him a textbook fit for Bulls head coach Dick Motta’s forward-oriented offense. His job wasn’t to score, but rather to set bone-jarring screens at the top of the key to free up guards Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan as well as to find ways to get the ball into the hands of Chicago’s two high-scoring All-Star forwards, Bob Love and Chet Walker near the hoop. Defensively, Boerwinkle’s responsibilities were to clog the lane and to relentlessly crash the boards and jump-start fastbreaks, hitting teammates in stride with laser-like outlet passes as they streaked to the other end of the court.
“Half of my points came from Tom’s passes,” says Bulls legend Bob Love, who ranks behind only Hall of Famers Michael Jordan (29,277) and Scottie Pippen (15,123) on Chicago’s all-time scoring list with 12,623 points. “We knew and understood each other so well. We didn’t have to say a word; we just caught each other’s eye and Tom would hit me with a great pass for an easy score.”
“Tom made everybody look good because he would do the (defensive) dirty work under the basket and (on offense) he’d free us up and hit us with a terrific pass for a bucket,” says fellow Bulls legend and Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan. “Other than John Stockton (Utah Jazz), Tom was the only guy I knew who could make pinpoint passes — bounce, chest, back door, leading — from the high post. He had great timing and always made the right pass.”
The Bulls selected Boerwinkle with the fourth overall pick in the 1968 NBA Draft and he appeared in 635 games over 10 seasons. He holds the distinction of amassing more rebounds (5,745) than points scored (4,596), posting lifetime averages of 7.2 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists.
As soon after he arrived in town, Motta placed Boerwinkle in the starting lineup and he didn’t disappoint, averaging 9.8 points and pulling down a team-high 11.1 rebounds as a rookie. He went on to grab more than 1,000 rebounds in each of the next two seasons, averaging a double-double in both points and rebounding. In fact, in his second season Boerwinkle, who averaged 10.4 points and 12.5 rebounds that year, established the Bulls’ record for most rebounds in a game by collecting 37 against the Phoenix Suns on January 8, 1970.
“That was one of the coldest days in history,” Boerwinkle recalled during a 2005 interview. “It had been something like 10 below zero for 10 straight days.
“Of course, you normally wouldn’t care how cold it was outside when you’re playing a game indoors, but Murphy’s Law was in effect — the heat inside the Chicago Stadium didn’t work, so players and coaches ended up wearing jackets and mittens on the bench.
“Never before had I experienced the number of breaks I got that night. Everything seemed to bounce my way. I had 12 rebounds by the end of the first quarter and was closing in on 20 by halftime. The ball was just finding its way to me.”
In his third season (1970-71) Boerwinkle set career-highs in scoring (10.8), rebounding (13.8) and assists (4.8) while helping the Bulls to a 51-31 record, the franchise’s first 50-win campaign. The following year (1971-72) he continued to play a vital role as the Bulls jumped to 57 victories. Affectionately dubbed “Wink” by his teammates, Boerwinkle spilt time in the middle with rookie Clifford Ray that season, and combined they averaged 14 points and almost 22 rebounds a game.
However the next year Boerwinkle suffered a devastating knee injury that ended his season after only eight games, and the damage carried over throughout the following year, as he was only able to play 46 games in 1973-74 and average just 3.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists in 13.1 minutes a game.
Tired of always coming up short in the playoffs against teams featuring dominate big men (i.e. Wilt Chamberlain of the Los Angeles Lakers and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then of the Milwaukee Bucks), Motta decided to trade Clifford Ray to the Golden State Warriors for 6’11” center Nate Thurmond, a 33-year old future Hall of Famer who was fast-approaching the end of a great career prior to the start of the 1974-75 season. Unfortunately Thurmond had trouble adjusting to Motta’s offensive system, as “Big Nate,” like so many other great players from that era needed the ball in his hands near the rim in order to be effective. Boerwinkle, however, flourished away from the rim as a facilitator, passing the ball to cutting teammates, thus by the time the playoffs rolled around Thurmond ended up moving to the bench while Boerwinkle slid back into the starting lineup.
“Motta wanted the forwards to do the scoring,” Thurmond remembered years later in reminiscing about his brief Chicago tenure. “I figured he’d change his offense a little bit to take advantage of my skills, but he didn’t, so I tried to adjust as best I could. And although I averaged a career-high in assists (4.1), I wasn’t as good a passer as Tom Boerwinkle. Wink was a magician. Sometimes I thought he had eyes in the back of his head because he’d make some incredible passes that were on the money. I mean he would hit guys with a behind-the-head pass, a bounce passes through a defender’s legs — flashy stuff good guards would try, guys like (Pete) Maravich, (Walt) Clyde Frazier and Earl Monroe. You’d never see a 7-foot center try stuff like that, but Wink, man, he could pass.”
With Thurmond and Boerwinkle manning the middle Chicago captured its first ever division title by going 47-35, which ironically it was the first time in five years the Bulls failed to win at least 50 games. Winning the division meant earning a bye in the opening round of the playoffs, an always dangerous best-of-three, anything-can-happen affair. But in the second round, a best-of-seven series, the Bulls drew the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, who were just as hardnosed and physical in makeup but unlike Chicago the Kings had a game-changing, First Team All-NBA superstar in Nate “Tiny” Archibald. The generously listed 6-foot lightning bolt seemingly could score at will, and for the season he wound up notching 26.5 points and 6.8 assists. However thanks to Love and Boerwinkle, the Bulls were able to dispatch the Kings in six games. Love averaged 30 points in 45.5 minutes, and Boerwinkle did what he did best, putting up a respectable 9.3 points, while taking ownership of the boards, pulling down 16.3 rebounds and also leading the Bulls in assists at 4.8.
Up next was a meeting with Thurmond’s old team, the Golden State Warriors, whom Chicago had beaten three out of four during the regular season. But this series carried more weight as it was for the Western Conference championship and a ticket to the NBA Finals.
Chicago came into the series feeling confident, as the duo of Thurmond and Boerwinkle had easily manhandled Golden State’s big-man twosome of Ray and George Johnson during the year. Chicago’s one-two forward punch of Love and Chet Walker also regularly outplayed their Northern California counterparts, Rick Barry and Jamaal Wilkes, whenever the teams met.
Contrasting coaching philosophies however ended up playing a major role in how this series would be decided. Motta routinely ignored his bench, sticking with the starters for extraordinarily long stretches. For example, Love and Van Lier averaged 44.4 minutes a game during the series. Sloan, who like Love was also 32-years old and in his 10th NBA season, averaged 40.4 minutes. Boerwinkle, who during the season was Chicago’s backup center, logging just 14.7 minutes a game to Thurmond’s 34.5 average, jumped to 27.0 minutes per game, while Thurmond’s time shrunk 21.0. On the other hand, Golden State head coach Al Attles liked to freely substitute in the hope of keeping his players fresh, often employing 10, and sometimes 11 players every game.
The Bulls won two of the first three, but blew a 19-point lead late in Game 4 to allow Golden State to knot the series at 2-2. It turned out that blown lead was the beginning of a disturbing trend for Chicago.
“It seemed like after every whistle, Attles brought somebody new into the game, but Motta never subbed. By the time the 4th quarter rolled around we always felt like we were running out of gas but their guys were raring to go,” remembers Sloan.
Chicago won Game 5 in Oakland, 89-79, holding the Warriors to 37 percent shooting and to their lowest point total of the playoffs. Boerwinkle and Thurmond combined to post 18 points, 23 rebounds and 5 assists, as the Bulls never trailed and gained the upper hand in the series.
With a berth to the NBA Finals in sight for the first time in franchise history, all the Bulls needed to do was to scratch out one more victory at home. The Madhouse on Madison was never louder as close to 20,000 rowdy fans showed up at 1800 West Madison Street expecting a party on Sunday, May 11, 1975 — Mother’s Day.
Once again the Bulls jumped to an early 10-point lead, but Golden State battled back behind some uncanny shooting from Rick Barry, outscoring Chicago 28-13 in the second to take a 46-38 lead at the half. The two teams went back-and-forth throughout the third, but by the time the fourth quarter began the Bulls had only shaved a point off Golden State’s lead. Then Barry went off again, shooting lights out from all over, while the Bulls went cold, mustering just 12 points in the final stanza.
Neither Boerwinkle nor Thurmond could get into a groove at either end of the floor. Boerwinkle mustered only 2 points, 8 rebounds and 2 assists in 25 minutes while Thurmond was held scoreless, but did grab 6 rebounds and dished out a team-high 5 assists. By the time the final horn sounded, the once raucous Chicago Stadium easily could have been mistaken for the Cook County Morgue as the standing room only crowd quietly shuffled out onto the street after witnessing the Bulls lose by 14 points.
The same sort of scenario unfolded again in Game 7 three days later in Oakland. Chicago jumped to an early lead, but unlike the last time, the Bulls stayed hot and went up 11 at the half, 47-36. The Bulls continued to roll into the third as Motta rode his starters hard while Attles regularly subbed players in-and-out. The Bulls were able to extend their lead to 14 by the six-minute mark of the third quarter, but Golden State reserves Jeff Mullins and Phil Smith provided a spark that helped the Warriors draw closer. By the start of the fourth quarter Chicago’s lead was down to six (65-59).
“People afterwards said we were too old,” Sloan recalled, “but honestly, that wasn’t the reason. They just wore us down.
“The amount of minutes we played (Love 48, Sloan 46, Van Lier 46, Boerwinkle 40 and Walker 35) in that last game and throughout the series knocked us out. We played as hard as anyone could ever play, but we flat ran out of gas. They just ran by us and we couldn’t do anything about it.”
That they did, as Golden State went on to outscore Chicago 24-14 in the fourth quarter to win Game 7, 83-79. And although it came in defeat, that game was probably Boerwinkle’s finest as a pro. The 29-year old center was on the floor for 40 minutes, scored 10 points, grabbed 16 rebounds and handed out 6 assists.
Boerwinkle played three more seasons with the Bulls before retiring at the age of 32 in 1978. Afterwards, as a favor to Motta, who had been named the first head coach of the expansion Dallas Mavericks, he joined forces with his old coach as a part-time big man coach and scout. Then in 1981 Boerwinkle decided to try something new and jumped into the oil business, becoming a co-owner of the Olympic Oil Company in south suburban Stickney, IL. During the early 1990s he returned to the Bulls, this time teaming up with current TV play-by-play man Neil Funk as an analyst on the radio. Together Funk and Boerwinkle called Chicago’s first three championships on WMVP AM 1000.
“Tom was successful in everything he did, yet no one worked harder at it,” Funk remembers. “We’d get back from a road trip and he’d head straight to the office. Yet you’d never hear him complain of long hours.
“Tom was never down about anything, always upbeat. He was a great partner and a better friend.”
In 2003 Tom Boerwinkle was diagnosed with Myelodysplastic Syndrome (MDS), a form of leukemia. He bravely and gracefully battled the disease for 10 years before passing away on March 26, 2013, at the age of 67.
In team annals, Tom Boerwinkle ranks second in total rebounds (5,745), fourth in seasons played (10), seventh in games played (635) and ninth in assists (2,007).
“Tom was one of the best friends you could ever have,” insists Sloan. “Humble, hard-working, a great person, and fun to be around every day.”