The Chicago Bulls vs. the ABA
The American Basketball Association (ABA) didn’t last any longer than former Bulls guard John “Crash” Mengelt’s playing career. But, from 1966-67 to 1975-76, the ABA revolutionized professional basketball in America by giving fans loads of thrills, the three-point shot, the Slam Dunk Contest and ultimately four present-day NBA franchises. But this story isn’t about the rich and wonderful history of the ABA. The tale being spun here covers the somewhat forgotten account involving the ABA and the Chicago Bulls.
Some may only remember the ABA as the Santa Claus who gifted the Bulls with one of the all-time greatest centers in basketball history — Artis Gilmore. But did you know that while the two leagues repeatedly battled each other for talent and media attention, they also met on the hardwood for more than 150 interleague preseason games between 1971 and 1975 — and that the ABA won the all-time series, 79-76?
The Bulls played in 10 such exhibitions, going 4-6 overall. Specific game details are hard to track down — especially in contrast to today’s extensive coverage via television, radio and newspaper write-ups. However, back in the early-to-mid 1970s, oftentimes the preseason was ignored by the media, as it was fairly common for beat writers to stay home when the teams they covered hit the road prior to the start of the regular season.
A good number of NBA players during that time period also weren’t in tune with what the ABA had to offer. Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond, a veteran of interleague games while a member of both the Golden State Warriors and Bulls, said years ago, “We all thought the ABA was a joke. But once you got past the fact that they played with a [red, white, and blue] Harlem Globetrotter ball, you learned pretty quick that the ABA was loaded with a lot of fantastic players.”
“From the beginning, basketball fans from NBA cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago looked upon the ABA as minor league,” recalls basketball historian Arthur Hundhausen, who developed and continues to administer the definitive ABA Web site, www.RemembertheABA.com. “Most ABA teams were located in small cities and towns — Louisville, Norfolk, Virginia, Memphis, Greensboro, North Carolina, Denver, San Antonio — places the NBA didn’t consider to be very important at the time.”
And, if you were alive and a Bulls fan back then, you really can’t be blamed for drawing a blank when it comes to remembering the particulars of the Bulls vs. the ABA. Interestingly enough, none of the Bulls’ 10 interleague exhibitions was played in Chicago, and none were ever broadcast locally to fans.
Because the two leagues played under slightly different rules (the NBA had no 3-point shot; there was a personal foul limit of six in the NBA, but ABA players didn’t foul out; and the NBA shot clock was 24 seconds, compared to the ABA’s 30-second shot clock), the interleague exhibitions adhered to a guideline where one half was always played under NBA rules, and the other was governed under the ABA’s. Furthering the circuslike atmosphere was the fact that it was usually the host team that provided the referees, a notion that often annoyed Bulls Head Coach Dick Motta.
Basketball back in the 1970s was fast and loose, especially when the ABA came to play. And one of the craziest chapters in the history of the Bulls stemmed from the first interleague exhibition the team ever played.
October 2, 1971: Pittsburgh Condors 123, Chicago Bulls 121; at Sarasota, Florida
The very first Bulls vs. an ABA team — only the 10th interleague exhibition ever — boasted a sinister subplot.
It centered on 3-time All-American Howard Porter, who had secretly (and improperly) signed a contract to play for the ABA’s Pittsburgh Condors in December 1970, halfway through his final college season at Villanova. While many collegiate stars inked ABA contracts prior to the NBA Draft, no other player had ever signed a deal while still playing for his college team.
Porter’s situation was unusual in two key ways. First, Villanova came out of nowhere and went on an incredible run that season, making it all the way to the 1971 NCAA National Championship game against perennial power UCLA. In the Championship game, Porter scored 25 points, but the Wildcats still lost, 68-62. Afterwards, he was named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player. Second, news of Porter’s secret contract with Pittsburgh had been publically leaked a couple of months earlier after the document was discovered inside the briefcase of then-ABA Commissioner Jack Dolph at the league’s All-Star Game!
“I was just a kid who wanted to make a living,” Porter recalled back in 2006. “At the time, signing with Pittsburgh sounded like a good idea. But, once the contract became public, I figured all bets were off, and so I was open to the idea of going to the NBA instead.”
Motta was a huge fan of Porter’s, going so far as to equate the 6’8” forward with all-time great Elgin Baylor. The Bulls had an extra second-round draft pick in 1971 and used it on Porter, triggering the first and only trade between the NBA and the ABA as Chicago agreed to send journeyman center Paul Ruffner to the Condors for the rights to Porter.
As part of the Porter trade, the Bulls also agreed to play two exhibitions against Pittsburgh, with the Condors keeping all gate receipts. The first contest took place in Sarasota, Florida, where Porter grew up and played high school basketball. [NOTE: The Condors folded after the 1971-72 season; thus, the second exhibition between the two franchises was never played.]
“Before the game, Pittsburgh General Manager Mark Binstein offered a bounty on Porter’s head,” remembers former Condors public relations executive Fred Cranwell. “In front of Porter’s hometown crowd, Binstein thought the kid should be taught a lesson for wanting to ditch us. So Binstein told the team in the locker room before the game that whoever could knock Porter out of the game that night would get a $500 bonus.”
George Thompson led the Condors to victory by scoring 43 points, while Bob Love chipped in 23 in a losing effort for Chicago. But it was ABA hit man John Brisker who came away with a pocket full of cash, claiming Binstein’s $500 bounty after exacting a hard foul on the Bulls rookie that sent Porter to the bench for the rest of the night. “I don’t remember much about the game, but I know after Brisker hit me pretty good I had to sit down,” said Porter. “It was our first preseason game, and Coach Motta didn’t want to risk me getting hurt anymore.”
October 9, 1971: Chicago Bulls 124, Dallas Chaparrals 113; at Dallas, Texas
A rare exhibition played in the host team’s actual home arena, the Bulls evened their interleague record at 1-1 behind 24 points from Love and 19 from Chet Walker. Steve “Snapper” Jones tallied 30 points, and Donnie Freeman chipped in 29 for the Chaps.
As a young player out of Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Love had attended the very first training camp of the ABA’s New Orleans Buccaneers back in 1968, in a sense his “hometown” team. “My dream was to always play in the NBA, against the best,” says Love. “Still, even though I’d already played my first year for the [NBA’s] Cincinnati Royals, I was looking for a better opportunity with the Bucs. But at that time, the ABA just didn’t measure up, so I went back to Cincinnati.”
September 21, 1972: Chicago Bulls 90, Utah Stars 86; at Honolulu, Hawaii
Love, seeing rich contracts awarded to Porter ($1.5 million) and Kennedy McIntosh ($375,000), considered holding out at the start of the 1972-73 season, which for Chicago opened at the Honolulu International Center Arena. But, before training camp opened, Love opted to report on time and make the trip to Hawaii with his teammates. Only 1,832 fans showed up for the Bulls victory over the Utah Stars. Chicago’s Bobby Weiss shot seven of 10 from the field, while McIntosh led Chicago in scoring with 16. Jerry Sloan was in midseason form, floor burning himself through 29 minutes and picking up a technical foul with 1:54 remaining in the first half. Utah’s “Wondrous” Willie Wise led all scorers with 22 points.
Motta was never a fan of interleague games, often complaining, “If we’re going to play ABA teams, we’d better merge. This is like the Vietnam War, where your friends are your enemies. To play them now weakens our bargaining position. Let’s either get them in our league, play a championship series at the end of the season or forget it all together.”
Likewise, Bulls beat writer Bob Logan of the Chicago Tribune at the time wasn’t all that enamored with the idea of playing the ABA, and clearly wasn’t mellowed by a trip to the beach, describing the ABA ball as “funny-looking,” and questioning whether or not it was “borrowed or stolen from a circus seal.”
Logan also termed the game a “hate-in,” commenting that the ABA had an “inferiority complex,” and claimed the ABA referees “awarded their league five free trips to the foul line.” Logan concluded his coverage saying that, by winning, the Bulls “upheld the greater glory of the National Basketball Association.”
September 21, 1973: Chicago Bulls 107, Indiana Pacers 94; at Indianapolis, Indiana
While the Bulls could lay claim to being one of the NBA’s most feared teams, the Indiana Pacers packed a bigger boast as they were the ABA’s only three-time titlists and back-to-back league Champions. So it is Indiana and not Chicago who might have been excused for taking this preseason get together lightly.
“Oh, yes, we believed we were better than the Bulls, no question,” longtime Pacers forward Darnell Hillman recalls. “Unlike Chicago, we won titles. People were calling us the ‘Boston Celtics of the ABA.’ We wanted to win every time out, of course, but we didn’t believe we needed to beat the Chicago Bulls in a preseason game to validate just how good we were.”
Norm Van Lier scored 20 to lead Chicago, as the Bulls took command of the game early and never trailed. The Pacers did mount a comeback, knotting the game at 74 by the end of the third quarter, but the Bulls went on a 12-0 run to start of the fourth to put the game away.
Again, indicating that any claim of casualness on the part of Chicago was pure bull, both Motta and Sloan were ejected during in the second quarter.
Pacers guard Billy Keller led all scorers with 27 points, and Indy’s George McGinnis chipped in 19 in a losing effort.
October 4, 1974: New York Nets 96, Chicago Bulls 78; at Uniondale, New York
The ABA long had to fight the notion that it was somehow “bush” league. Potshots about the tricolored ball were common, and its high-flying style of play, while proving popular with fans, was frequently dismissed as amateurish by NBA executives. But it was the Bulls who literally looked unprofessional in their first and only game against the ABA’s New York Nets and the amazing Julius “Dr. J” Erving. It wasn’t bad enough that Chicago was blown out right from the start, as Erving tallied 14 points in the first quarter, or that New York cruised to a very comfortable 57-38 lead by halftime.
It’s that the Bulls looked bush league. Both Van Lier and Love were no-shows as they were holding out in hopes of forcing the team to fork over more money and sign them to a multiyear contract extension. All-Star Chet Walker also hadn’t yet signed a new deal with the Bulls, so he wasn’t there either. Worse, Chicago’s top offseason acquisition, future Hall of Famer Nate Thurmond, was forced to play while wearing a nameless jersey. Ditto for newly acquired guard Matt Goukas. Rookie Mickey Johnson sported an old Garfield Heard Bulls jersey on the night as well — Chicago had traded Heard two seasons earlier. Journeyman Bill Hewitt wore Walker’s No. 25 uniform; while rookie Bobby Wilson donned Van Lier’s familiar No. 2 shirt.
“We were just not all there. It’s hard for me to visualize that this was the Chicago Bulls,” an aggravated Motta said afterward.
October 5, 1974: Indiana Pacers 95, Chicago Bulls 86; at Evansville, Indiana
In this obvious tip of the cap to University of Evansville alum Jerry Sloan, the second ever Bulls-Pacers game was played in what might be considered true, small-town, ABA territory. Indiana exacted revenge from the previous season’s trouncing with its own runaway victory, as Pacers All-Star guard Billy Knight led all scorers with 20 points, and the awe-inspiring McGinnis powered his way to 19 points and 15 rebounds.
October 12, 1974: Kentucky Colonels 93, Chicago Bulls 75; at Louisville, Kentucky
The Kentucky Colonels pretty much had their way with the Bulls in both exhibition meetings between the teams. The first time they met, Kentucky, who was coached by the energetic Hubie Brown, would go on to post a 58-26 regular season record and capture the 1974-75 ABA title.
This particular contest turned into an eye-opener for Thurmond, who was playing his third game in a Bulls uniform: “Before the Kentucky game, I thought Artis Gilmore couldn’t match up with me, but I learned quickly he could hold his own against anybody. Artis was one of the strongest guys I’ve played against. He was a man in the pivot. Artis, Dan Issel … those guys were serious ballers. At first I didn’t give them any respect — that is, until we played against them.”
In this game, Gilmore led all scorers with 24 points, Issel added 15 points and Wilson led the Bulls with 20.
October 1, 1975: Kentucky Colonels 95, Chicago Bulls 86; at Cincinnati, Ohio
The Bulls and Colonels christened Cincinnati’s brand new Riverfront Coliseum in front of 4,219 fans to open the next season, with each team headed in distinctly different directions. The Colonels took the floor as the defending ABA Champions, and after the final buzzer few would’ve argued they couldn’t have beaten the reigning NBA Champion Golden State Warriors if ever an interleague title would take place. Chicago was still reeling from its crushing Game 7 Western Conference Finals loss to the Warriors from five months earlier, and was playing without Walker, who later ended up deciding to retire rather than play one more season under Motta.
Beforehand, Motta made the claim, “Our main job down there [in Cincinnati] will be to get out alive. There is no way they’re going to let us win tonight with ABA referees and a home crowd rooting for Kentucky.”
Motta needn’t have worried, as his veteran squad was grossly overmatched from the opening tip. While Thurmond won the battle of the boards over Gilmore, 14-7, he struggled from the floor, shooting just two-of nine. “The ABA ball always threw me off,” Thurmond said years later. “I just hated it. It was a little smaller than our ball and those spinning colors … there was a different feel to it, too.”
The Bulls in fact dominated Kentucky on the glass, 59-40, with Mickey Johnson backing up Thurmond at center due to an injury to Tom Boerwinkle. Gilmore and Wil Jones led Kentucky in scoring with 22 points apiece, while Love paced Chicago with 14 points in only 17 minutes of action. Per usual, the stormy Sloan got in referee Ed Rush’s face and was ejected after only 13 minutes.
Ironically, Thurmond would appear in only a handful more games for the Bulls before being traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers, while Gilmore would end up attending his next preseason training camp in Chicago where he would man the center position for the Bulls at the start of the 1976-77 season.
October 12, 1975: Virginia Squires 105, Chicago Bulls 102, Norfolk, Virginia
Despite the Virginia Squires entering the game with only one preseason victory under their belt, Virginia’s Luther “Ticky” Burden hit for 28 points on the night to lead all scorers in the ABA’s final triumph over the Bulls. Willie Wise, this time playing for Virginia, chipped in 19 as Burden’s co-star.
Initially Chicago came out uninspired, going four minutes without scoring a point to start the game, eventually digging themselves into a 13-0 hole. However, the Bulls stormed back to lead 29-28 after the opening quarter, and later overcame another double-digit deficit late in the game to take a 100-98 lead with just 1:30 left on the clock.
The Bulls were led by Mickey Johnson’s 17 points and rookie Cliff Pondexter, who pumped in 15. With Sloan sitting this one out thanks to a knee injury, the passionate Van Lier took up the referee-bating slack by earning an early technical foul, which most likely gave Sloan something to smile about.
The game was played in front of 3,992 fans at the Scope in Norfolk, Virginia. Later that year, the Bulls filed a law suit against the Squires for failure to pay $13,000, which Virginia had guaranteed Chicago for playing the game on the Squires’ home floor.
October 14, 1975: Chicago Bulls 122, Utah Stars 119 (OT), Salt Lake City, Utah
Two nights later, Chicago’s final interleague contest was also one of its wildest. The Bulls again were minus Sloan and Boerwinkle, as well as veteran forward John Block, due to injuries. Late in the game, a grouchy Van Lier was forced to sit after fouling out, as the Bulls overcame a 10-point deficit midway through the fourth quarter, and eventually upended the host Utah Stars, 122-119, in overtime.
Ron Boone drilled the Bulls for 43 points, matching Pittsburgh’s George Thompson’s brilliant effort in Chicago’s first-ever interleague game for the most points scored in interleague play. Bobby Wilson led Chicago with 20 points and second-year guard Leon Benbow chipped in 16.
As with Virginia, the wobbly Utah Stars later reneged on payment for hosting the game in Salt Lake City, inviting a $17,000 law suit which was never settled. Both the Squires and Stars folded before the finish of the 1975-76 season.