The Birth of the Bulls

November 2nd, 2017 | by

How the Chicago Bulls Came to Be

Before telling the story of how the Chicago Bulls came into existence, you probably ought to know a little history to truly appreciate the founding of the team.

You have to go all the way back to 1894 to find the first evidence of basketball being played in Chicago. Amos Alonzo Stagg, the legendary college football coach, just happened to be one of Dr. James Naismith’s (the inventor of the game) students at the YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. In fact, Stagg took part in the very first basketball game ever played on December 21, 1891, and three years later he brought the game to the University of Chicago.

Another famous pigskin icon, George “Papa Bear” Halas, also tried his hand at basketball, founding the Chicago Bruins in 1925, a team that competed in American Basketball League (ABL), which was the first pro basketball league to go nationwide. Besides the Bruins, the ABL also had teams in Boston, Brooklyn, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Rochester, New York and Washington, DC. However the ABL lasted only six seasons before falling victim to the Great Depression in 1931. The Bruins also weren’t very good, posting losing records in five of the ABL’s six seasons of operation, compiling an overall won-loss record of 101-152.

For the most part basketball back in those days was a regional sport with only a handful of teams capable of barnstorming the country. The most famous barnstormers of all-time, the Harlem Globetrotters, believe it or not, originated in Chicago.

Abe Saperstein, who stood all of 5-foot-3, founded the Globetrotters in 1927. He was a London-born businessman who moved with his family to Chicago in 1907 when he was five years old.

The Globetrotters, who dressed in distinctive red, white and blue uniforms, had no connection to New York City whatsoever, but Saperstein adopted the name to signify the fact that each of his the players were African-American (Harlem was the epicenter of African-American culture). Also, many of the towns the Globetrotters played during their early years were predominately in rural areas with an overwhelmingly white population. Saperstein didn’t want opposing teams or their fans to be surprised when his squad ran out onto the court.

Abe Saperstein and the Harlem Globetrotters

Without a home court and traveling to any locale that would allow them to play, the Globetrotters won 101 of 117 games in their first year of operation. However Saperstein quickly learned that winning could prove problematic as a number of host teams became disenchanted with the idea of inviting the Trotters back for another game if all they were going to do was lose — oftentimes badly. So Saperstein shrewdly had his team learn and incorporate flashy tricks and hilarious routines in an attempt to downplay the final score, and in its place focus their efforts towards simply entertaining the crowd.

A dozen years later Halas decided to revive the Bruins in 1939 and they played in the National Basketball League (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 pro league. They were sponsored/owned by the United Auto Workers, and every player on the team had to work at the Studebaker defense plant located on the south side of the Chicago. Unfortunately the team wasn’t very good, going 8-15. Home games were played at four different venues around the city, which only made games hard to find, snuffing out any chance of developing a core of supportive fans, thus the franchise folded at the end of the season.

But Chicago pro basketball took a turn for the better with the formation of the Chicago American Gears in 1944-45, a team made up of both pros and local collegiate stars, that in 1946, made national headlines by signing George Mikan, a local Chicago kid who had starred at DePaul University, to an unprecedented five-year contract at $12,000 per season. Mikan, who was 6’10” became the game’s first giant as generally no other player stood taller than 6’3”. Mikan regularly scored 20 or more points a game when few could break double digits. His signing with an NBL team was also a blow to the rival Basketball Association of America (BAA), the forerunner of today’s NBA.

George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers poses for a portrait during the 1946 season in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Mikan led the American Gears to the 1946-47 NBL title, but what happened next was purely bizarre as the American Gears’ owner, Maurice White, decided to pull his team out of the NBL and form his own 24-team league (Professional Basketball League of America) — one in which he would owned every franchise and arena where they played. White firmly believed this plan was going to allow him to rake in millions of dollars. Unfortunately all it did was bankrupt him within a month into his new league’s operation. Mikan then jumped back to the NBL, signing with the Minneapolis Lakers, who a couple of years later merged with the BAA into the newly formed National Basketball Association (NBA) and went on to lead the Lakers to five league titles in its first six seasons.

As mentioned earlier, pro basketball as a truly national sport essentially began in 1946 when the BAA was established by a group of pro hockey team owners from major North American cities spread throughout the Northeast and Midwest as well as Toronto, Canada. The group’s primary goal was simply to find a way to fill open dates in their arenas. These team owners weren’t necessarily basketball fans, but rather savvy businessmen who didn’t like seeing their arenas sit empty for days on end whenever their hockey teams went on the road.

In the BAA’s inaugural season (1946-47) there were 11 teams divided into two divisions (East & West). The Chicago Stags, who played their home games at the Chicago Stadium, won the Western Division with a 39-22 record, but lost the BAA’s first ever championship to the Philadelphia Warriors in five games.

Despite the success the Stags enjoyed on the hardwood, they never connected with the locals as they often drew less than 2,000 fans a game.  Yet they remained solvent through the 1949-50 season when the league merged with the NBL and changed its name to the National Basketball Association (NBA), expanding to a total of 17 teams and three divisions. However the honeymoon lasted only a year, as six teams including the Stags, folded before the start of the next season due to financial reasons.

So from March 1950, after the Stags were swept 2-0 by Mikan and the Lakers in the Central Division semifinals, Chicago professional basketball ceased to exist. Nevertheless, a number of the NBA’s powerbrokers believed the city, under the right circumstances and ownership, could become a great pro basketball town since many of Chicago’s top high school players went on to star in college, and the local college teams (in particular DePaul and Loyola) carried national reputations. Thus after the NBA decided to expand before the start of the 1961-62 season, the obvious place for the league to go was America’s largest city without a franchise — Chicago.

A number of potential ownership groups from around the country submitted bids for the new Chicago expansion team. After a long and exhaustive investigation, the NBA’s Board of Governor’s awarded its ninth franchise to a group headed by local insurance executive David Trager.

Trager was the president of Associated Life Insurance, a company that no longer exists today but at that time was the primary underwriter of the Teamsters Union. Besides the insurance business, Trager was also involved in a number of other side businesses including the promotion of a number of boxing and wrestling matches all around the city.

The NBA set its official entry fee at $250,000, plus it also required Trager and his group 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 covering the rent to play home games at Chicago’s International Amphitheater. After Trager and his group proved they were financially stable, he was given the go-ahead to name his new team and he chose to honor of the city’s meatpacking industry by calling them the Chicago Packers.

1960-61 Chicago Packers logo

Trager went 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, as the Packers’ first-ever draft pick. A future Hall of Famer, Bellamy enjoyed a dazzling rookie season, earning the league’s Rookie of the Year award by averaging 31.6 points and 19 rebounds. Nevertheless the team was terrible, posting a league-worst 18-62 record in front of a number of embarrassingly small crowds.

Trager quickly realized he and his group did not have deep enough pockets to withstand more 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 twenty-five years earlier had been a Big Ten All-American basketball star at Northwestern, as well as a former pro who played a season with the Chicago American Gears (1945-46). Klein had gone on to establish a successful business career, starting up his own firm, D.O. Klein and Associates, where he marketed novelties to merchandisers.

During his early business years Klein had gained a great deal of moxie, and as he became more successful he was able 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 all by himself. After meeting Trager where the two discussed the sale of the Packers, Klein began the task of assembling a group of wealthy local partners in the hopes of taking ownership of the Packers and keeping them in town. However, Klein wasn’t able to come up with enough money in short order to compete with an offer Trager received from a group of Baltimore businessmen who proposed $1.4 million for the team. However the agreement hinged on the fact that since the new arena in Baltimore was still under construction and wouldn’t be ready until late 1963, the Packers would have to stay in Chicago under Trager’s control for at least another season before the sale would become official.

Trager decided to then rename his lame-duck franchise the Zephyrs and move them out of the highly expensive International Amphitheater, playing home games instead at the smaller and little used Chicago Coliseum which was located closer to downtown.

After drafting another Rookie of the Year award winner (Terry Dischinger) prior to the start of the 1962-63 season the Zephyrs finished slightly better on the court (25-55) but just as weak at the gate as the year before. When the season ended, the Zephyrs headed to Baltimore where they were renamed the Bullets (today they are the Washington Wizards). Few in Chicago seemed to care — with the exception of Klein — who immediately went about forming the Chicago Professional Basketball Corporation in the hopes of giving the Windy City one more bite of the NBA apple, all the while knowing it was going to be an uphill battle.

Besides relentlessly knocking on the doors of many well-heeled potential investors who might be willing to trust Klein with their money, Klein also knew he had a lot to learn about the business of basketball, so he reached out to the owners of the St. Louis Hawks and Cincinnati Royals, Ben Kerner and Tom Grace, respectively, asking them to advise him as to how best to go about securing an franchise and how to make it a success.

Klein’s outgoing personality and his willingness to listen and heed the advice of those two owners as well as a number of other league executives won him a great deal of support, including that of J. Walter Kennedy, who had recently replaced Maurice Podoloff as the head of the NBA. Kennedy believed expansion was necessary for the health and welfare of the league, however at first he wasn’t on board with Chicago getting another shot, especially so soon after the Packers/Zephyrs had failed miserably. However once legendary TV sports pioneer Roone Arledge informed Kennedy that adding Chicago to the fold would, in his opinion, be a great idea, Klein’s prospects gained some serious momentum. Arledge, who ran ABC Sports, and the league were in the middle of negotiating a new national TV contract. Arledge was convinced both his network and the NBA could both turn a nice profit if the league had teams representing each of the three largest markets — New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — in the country.

Initially Kennedy and members of the NBA’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.

Klein, who had earlier come up with a comprehensive financial prospectus detailing how a new franchise could become profitable in Chicago within five years, began lining up a handful of the city’s heaviest financial hitters as partners.

“To attract interest, I showed everyone the figures I had worked out,” Klein told the Chicago Tribune back in 1966. “The quick-buck artists quickly faded, but there were more than a few millionaires who were very interested.”

Klein projected a maximum potential loss of $285,000 over the first two years of operation. “But in the third year, I was convinced we’d begin to make 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. I told everyone by then it would be as hard to get a Bulls ticket as it was for a Bears or Blackhawks game.”

While Klein was busy pitching 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 was the news that the price tag for an expansion franchise for the following 1966-67 season was most likely going to double, jumping to $1.25 million.

“The new price was unquestionably a setback,” Klein told the Tribune in that same 1966 interview. “Three potential investors I thought I had immediately dropped out, but a couple stayed.

“Everyone had agreed to kick in X dollars each, so the new price meant everyone would either have to invest more (money) or accept a smaller proportionate share of ownership.”

It took a little extra time to pull everything together as a few new prospective backers insisted on taking a wait-and-see approach, agreeing only to kick in money if Klein 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, backed him all the way and put their money up front in order to help Klein move forward. In the end, Klein had cobbled together an impressive, group of wealthy 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 American Football League (AFL).

Hunt had been part of another ownership group competing against Klein’s, but once the NBA Board of Governors voted in favor of awarding Klein the league’s 10th franchise on January 26, 1966, Hunt privately approached him 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.” Klein went ahead and sold Hunt a minority stake in the team provided he agreed that he wouldn’t attempt to gain control.

Klein then came up with the idea to call his new team the Bulls somewhat by accident. Like Trager before, 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 professional team names — Bears, Cubs, (White) Sox, and (Black) Hawks.

“Chicago was the meatpacking capital of the world,” said Klein years later in reminiscing about the early days of the Bulls. “At first I was thinking about calling them the Matadors or the Toreadors, but neither one 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 new name! We’re going to call the team the Chicago Bulls!’”

Presented by