Bulls Legends Sloan, Love, Jordan & Pippen Prove the Sky’s the Limit
For some, it’s the gleaming hardwood that first catches their eye when stepping inside the United Center. For others, it’s a glimpse of a favorite player warming up on the court or the effervescent Luvabulls waving to the crowd. Eventually, though, all eyes look up.
Over the last five-plus decades, NBA fans in Chicago have been blessed with watching scores of talented athletes wear the red, white and black of their beloved Bulls. But only four players stand (or more appropriately hang) alone — Jerry Sloan, Bob Love, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen. They are the chosen few who have earned the highest honor a franchise can bestow on a player by having his number retired for all of eternity.
So what exactly are the qualifications someone must meet in order to have his number retired? Talent? Well, that goes without saying. Loyalty? Leadership? Consistency? Absolutely. And bleeding Bulls red certainly doesn’t hurt, either.
But Chicago’s Fantastic Four brought a little more than those admirable qualities to the table. And they brought itto every game — at home, on the road — in tears of pain and ultimately in tears of joy. They also left itall on the floor, and for that they will always be honored high up in the ceiling.
Jerry Sloan – # 4
For Jerry Sloan, what he remembers most is not how his jersey ended up hanging from the rafters but how he started.
“At the end of training camp during my first year, the equipment manager laid all the uniforms out on a table, and told us to go pick out a number. By the time I got over there, No. 4 was the only one left,” recalls Sloan. “I didn’t mind getting No. 4 because getting a jersey meant I made the team.”
Sloan was the very first player the Bulls selected (from the Baltimore Bullets) in the 1966 league expansion draft, earning him the nickname “The Original Bull.” Perhaps one of his most remarkable career achievements was leading that 1966-67 squad to an unprecedented playoff berth during its inaugural season. No first-year team before or since has ever accomplished such a feat.
Known primarily for his defensive tenacity, Sloan made two All-Star appearances and was named to the NBA’s All-Defensive First Team four times and All-Defensive Second Team twice during an 11-year career (10 in Chicago). But, more importantly, he played a vital role with a distinctive band of brothers that firmly established the Bulls on the map.
“Those Bulls teams back in the early to mid-1970s — me, Bob Love, Chet Walker, Norm Van Lier, Tom Boerwinkle — we kind of kept pro basketball alive in Chicago,” says Sloan. “It was an amazing group of guys. That’s what I remember the most.”
Not one to back off from a challenge, the always-hustling Sloan averaged 14 points and 7.4 rebounds per game in his career. After ten unforgettable seasons in Chicago, his playing days were cut short due to a serious knee injury. However, not wanting to limp away from the game he loved, he turned his energy to coaching, where he took control with the same passion and unyielding work ethic that characterized him as a player. Sloan’s first coaching job was as a Bulls assistant for two seasons under three coaches in Ed Badger, Larry Costello and Scotty Robertson before taking over as the team’s head coach for nearly three seasons.
A little less than two years after he stopped playing, Sloan was approached by Bulls management and told that the team’s owner wanted to honor him by retiring his No. 4 jersey, the first to receive such treatment.
“When I was first told the news, I was in shock because I immediately began thinking about all the retired numbers hanging at Boston Garden. All those guys were special players,” remembers Sloan.
After a few days, the idea sank in and Sloan humbly accepted the team’s gesture. On February 17, 1978, in front of a packed house at the old Chicago Stadium, Jerry Sloan Night was officially declared.
“The Bulls put on a great ceremony where my family came out to center court. They even brought out a big rocking chair for me to sit in,” laughs Sloan. “Governor Jim Thompson spoke, as well as my first Bulls coach, Johnny Kerr. I was pretty awestruck by the whole experience.”
So exactly how does he feel these days whenever he visits the United Center? Does he ever look up at his banner hanging high above, or is that something he’s forgotten about?
“I really don’t get a chance to forget, because whenever I come to Chicago somebody always brings it up,” says Sloan with another laugh. “My grandkids like to talk about it. It’s pretty important to them.”
Bob Love – # 10
What’s going on today with former Bulls standout Bob “Butterbean” Love is a far cry from where his journey first began. Like Sloan, the second recipient of a retired Chicago jersey was asked to make a short speech during his ceremony nearly 17 years after he retired, and that in itself is considered a personal triumph.
As one of 14 children who grew up in rural Louisiana, Love discovered early on that he had a rare athletic gift that neither his siblings nor his friends possessed. He could fire up a basketball and make it go swish all day and night long, but what he had a hard time with was expressing his joy because he stuttered horribly. His thoughts were always there, as well as his desire to communicate, but he just couldn’t spit the words out.
“I figured if I couldn’t speak off the court, I’d try to let my actions talk on the court,” Love says today. “I always understood what was going on around me; it just took a real long time to get something to come out of my mouth.”
Love arrived in Chicago as something of an afterthought in a 1968 mid-season trade with the then expansion Milwaukee Bucks. The 6’8” forward from Southern University had failed to make an NBA roster his first year out of college and then struggled to find his niche in the league for three more years, before blossoming into one of the NBA’s top scorers while playing for Dick Motta’s scrappy Bulls squads of the 1970s. During the 1969-70 season, Love became a full-time starter, averaging 21 points and 8.7 rebounds. The following year, he averaged 25.2 points, appeared in the NBA All-Star Game for the first time and earned All-NBA Second Team honors. Love later appeared in two more All-Star games, in 1972 and 1973, and he would go on to average at least 19 points and six rebounds every season until his last. In seven full seasons in Chicago, Love led the Bulls in scoring six times and helped carry the team to four-straight 50-plus wins. He could handle himself at the defensive end of the court as well, three times making the NBA’s All-Defensive second team.
Love’s verbal difficulties didn’t matter during his playing days because his impressive play on the court spoke volumes. However, after racking up 13,895 career points (12,623 with the Bulls, the most by any Chicago player until Michael Jordan arrived on the scene), Love’s playing career came to an end after he was traded to the New York Nets, who later dealt him to Seattle, where he averaged just 7.3 points during the entire 1976-77 season — his last in the NBA.
Love had the misfortune to play before the era of high salaries, and his inability to talk cost him several off-the-court endorsement opportunities. So he didn’t have a lot of money after he retired, and so he quickly fell on hard times. Although he was occasionally recognized on the street, he learned the hard way that there wasn’t much demand for someone with a sweet jumper and poor communication skills.
As the story goes, Love ended up bussing tables at a restaurant located in a Nordstrom’s department store in Seattle, then moved on to being a dishwasher, sandwich maker, and, in time, a cashier. Eventually, an executive with Nordstrom’s, after getting to know him personally, decided to lend a helping hand and pay for private speech lessons. “I was embarrassed, and I guess they were embarrassed for me,” Love says. “Maybe because I tried to be the best employee I could be, Nordstrom’s took an interest.”
With the help of a speech therapist, Bob Love made tremendous strides almost immediately. Within a year, he was promoted and placed in charge of health and sanitation for all 35 Nordstrom’s restaurants. And, at the urging of his friends, a more confident person soon began giving motivational speeches throughout the Seattle area, which eventually brought him back to Chicago and a job with the Bulls. Today, Bob Love is in his 26th season as the Bulls Director of Community Affairs, representing the organization at various functions throughout the world and making close to 200 appearances a year.
On January 14, 1994, the Chicago Stadium turned into one big “Love-Fest.” Former teammates Norm Van Lier, Tom Boerwinkle and Jerry Sloan were on hand to witness the second Bulls jersey to make it up to the rafters as Love’s No. 10 officially went into retirement.
“That was the greatest night of my life,” Love beams. “Seeing my number hanging up there means I’ve earned respect, and all the hard work and everything I went through really paid off.”
Michael Jordan – # 23
Talk about making an impact, North Carolina native Michael Jordan not only left his mark on the Chicago Bulls; he left it all over the world.
Chicago’s decision to retire Jordan’s No. 23 seemed like a forgone conclusion right from the start. His endless gravity-defying dunks, inexhaustible defense and an innate ability to score at will astounded not only Bulls fans, but opponents alike, throughout a 15-year NBA career. For example, after Jordan notched 63 points against the Boston Celtics during a 1986 playoff game, Hall of Famer and Celtics great Larry Bird described him as “God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
To list all of Jordan’s accomplishments would literally wipe out a forest. But to highlight a few, heled the NBA in scoring a league-record 10 times. He was named the Most Valuable Player five times. And, to prove he could play at both ends of the court, Jordan led the league in steals three times, was named to the All-NBA Defensive First Team nine times and was also tabbed the league’s Defensive Player of the Year in 1988. And, in the unlikely event that someone still may not remember him, Jordan was also named the NBA Finals MVP a record six times, with six NBA World Championship trophies to match.
Even his retired jersey has a history like no other. In October 1993, at the age of 30, after leading the Bulls to a third straight World Championship, Jordan stunned everyone by announcing his retirement from basketball. A year and a month later, a national TV audience watched a classic rafter-raising ceremony honoring him at the United Center. Five months later, he staggered the planet once more by announcing his return to the Bulls with the release of a simple, two-word press release — “I’m back.”
Since No. 23 was already hanging from the rafters, Jordan opted to sport No. 45 at the start of his second tour of duty in honor of his older brother, Larry, who used to wear that number during his playing days in high school. (There’s a charming, little-known story as to why Jordan chose to wear the No. 23 in the first place. The reason, he says, is he hoped one day to be half the player his brother was.)
At times, Jordan’s initial return was a struggle, which prompted Orlando Magic forward Nick Anderson to smugly suggest after a playoff victory over the Bulls that No. 45 looked old and not as good as No. 23. As if he needed any extra incentive, Jordan requested that the No. 23 banner come down from the rafters and that his original digits immediately be placed on his back. Three NBA Championships later, Jordan called it quits for a second time in January 1999. “It was a very emotional time,” Jordan says about his decision to hang up his Bulls jersey for the second and last time. (Note: Anderson never played on a championship team during his 13-year career, whereas Jordan captured 6 gold rings.)
Even Michael Jordan couldn’t predict what would happen three years later, when he un-retired for a third go-around, but this time he came back wearing the blue and copper of the Washington Wizards. After two seasons in our nation’s capital, Jordan’s tank finally ran dry. At age 40, with aching knees and a creaky back, he played one of his final games in Miami, where Heat President and Head Coach Pat Riley stunned the basketball icon during a pregame ceremony by pointing towards a No. 23 banner hanging high above the Heat’s home court, pledging that no Miami player would ever wear that number again.
“I wanted to do something special that would honor Michael and all that he achieved for the game of basketball,” Riley explains. “About a month before [the game], I discussed the idea of retiring his number with my owner, Mickey Arison. We both thought it would be a terrific gesture.”
A shocked and grateful Jordan said afterwards, “To have my number hanging in someone else’s building says a lot. Pat Riley and Mickey Arison are truly class acts. What they did was very special, and something I’ll never forget.”
Scottie Pippen – #33
Scottie Pippen was also beyond belief when his number 33 was officially called into a life of leisure on December 9, 2005. It was as if the old band got back together one last time as former Chicago teammates Horace Grant, Craig Hodges, Toni Kukoc, Dennis Rodman, Will Perdue, Bill Wennington, Stacey King, Charles Oakley and Michael Jordan all attended Pippen’s banner ceremony. Former Bulls Head Coach, Phil Jackson, was also on hand, along with Pippen’s family and numerous friends from all around the globe. NBA Commissioner David Stern addressed a packed house at the United Center, listing all of Pippen’s career accomplishments, but was quickly drowned out by the 23,000-plus fans in attendance chanting, “Scottie, Scottie.”
And why not? The most famous co-pilot in any sport holds quite an impressive resume of his own. Pippen and Jordan are the only two Bulls to have been a part of all six Chicago World Championships. Pippen was also named one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players and was a seven-time All-Star. Not bad for an Arkansas country boy who initially didn’t receive a college scholarship to play ball.
“Scottie was a great student and a really fine leader on the court,” Jackson said before the ceremony. “He directed a lot of what happened and was one of the reasons why we were so successful.”
A highlights package aired on the United Center’s scoreboard, as did taped messages from former teammate and current Bulls Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations John Paxson and former coach Doug Collins. But the biggest reaction of the night came after legendary roundball pundit, Hall of Famer and good friend, Charles Barkley, blurted to the crowd, “Scottie, Michael Jordan should be kissing the ground you walk on because you helped him win all those Championships — you did all the heavy lifting, too.”
Jordan himself, backed by thunderous applause when introduced, had only warm words from the heart for his old teammate.
“Scottie Pippen, he’s my guy. I love him like a brother,” Jordan said. “He pushed me to be the best every day in practice. And I pushed him to be the best he could be. When we went into battle, I always knew I had someone there to watch my back.”
Pippen fought back tears as his banner was unveiled to a deafening standing ovation.
“This is one of the greatest honors a player can ever receive. It’s something you dream of as a kid. To have my number hang alongside Michael’s (Jordan), Jerry’s (Sloan) and Butter’s (Bob Love) means so much.”