Bill Cartwright Has and Always Will Be a Difference Maker — His Arrival Helped Turn the Bulls into Champions
An NBA All-Star at the age of 22, and later a three-time World Champion with the Chicago Bulls during his mid-30s, James William (Bill) Cartwright was born and raised in North Central California in the tiny farming community of Elk Grove as the only boy among six other siblings — all girls, three older and three younger. As a child, he and his sisters would join their father chopping weeds in the hot sun at local sugar beet fields during the summer to help the family make ends meet. However, soon after starting high school, basketball began to take up most of his time as Cartwright quickly attained legendary status by twice being named California Player of the Year. As a junior in 1974, he powered Elk Grove High School to a perfect 30-0 record. As a senior, Cartwright and the Thundering Herd regularly played in front of packed houses, as “Big Bill” averaged 42 points and 21 rebounds despite being double- and triple-teamed on a nightly basis.
Before he burst onto the scene, high school teams from the Sacramento area garnered very little respect, but Cartwright changed all of that after posting 55 points against perennial Oakland powerhouse Bishop O’Dowd during the semifinals of in the prestigious California Tournament of Champions (TOC). Dunking was prohibited back then, but that’s exactly what he did after getting the green-light from his coach during the final minutes of the TOC championship game the next day as Elk Grove stampeded to a 15-point victory.
That senior year, Cartwright was the nation’s No. 1 high school recruit. A number of top college coaches, including Notre Dame’s Digger Phelps, North Carolina’s Dean Smith as well as UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian regularly knocked on his front door hoping to convince the 7’1, 18-year old basketball prodigy to join their program. Even a handful of NBA general managers called, but eventually Bill decided to stick close to home and play at the University of San Francisco.
USF went to three-straight NCAA Tournaments and advanced to the Sweet 16 in 1978 and 1979, going 93-22 (.809), including 45-7 (.865) in the West Coast Conference (WCC) during Cartwright’s four-year tenure. During his sophomore year, the Dons started 29-0 and were ranked the No. 1 team in the country for the majority of the season. The following year, Cartwright earned the first of three WCC Player of the Year awards and was named second team All-American by AP and UPI. He then went on to be named a first team All-American as a junior and senior. He graduated in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. To this day he is still USF’s all-time leading scorer (2,116 points) and rebounder (1,137 rebounds) with career averages of 19.1 points and 10.2 rebounds.
The New York Knicks selected Cartwright with the third overall pick in the 1979 NBA Draft — the same Draft Michigan State’s Earvin “Magic” Johnson went No. 1 to the Los Angeles Lakers and the Bulls tabbed UCLA’s David Greenwood with the second pick. Now many consider Chicago’s failure to take Cartwright a terrible mistake, but the truth of the matter is Bulls General Manager Rod Thorn was all set to select him had a trade sending Artis Gilmore to the Portland Trail Blazers for power forward Maurice Lucas gone through on the eve of the Draft. However, the Blazers ended up getting cold feet and backed out of the deal at the last minute. Thorn planned on Cartwright taking Gilmore’s place as the Bulls’ starting center, but once the deal fell apart felt compelled to take the best power forward available (David Greenwood) instead.
Cartwright went on to spend nine years with the Knicks, although he was forced to miss all of the 1984-85 season, and played in only two games the next due to a stress fracture in his left foot.
Statistically, Cartwright’s rookie year was his most impressive as he immediately stepped into legendary Hall of Fame Coach Red Holzman’s starting lineup and averaged team-leading marks of 21.7 points and 8.9 rebounds a game. That season Cartwright, Boston’s Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were the only rookies to play in the All-Star Game.
Cartwright finished among the NBA’s top 10 in field goal percentage in each of his first five seasons. His scoring and rebounding numbers slightly dipped each season, but his stats bounced back to a very respectable 17 points and 8.4 rebounds during the 1983-84 campaign, his fifth in the league.
Unfortunately during the early part of training camp the following year, X-rays revealed Cartwright had suffered a stress fracture in his left foot. Rest and rehab was prescribed by team doctors as it was announced he would miss at least the first six weeks of the season. Then just a couple of hours after being cleared to play, he broke his foot again at practice and was forced to undergo season-ending surgery.
Without the services of their star center, the Knicks hit a wall, going 24-58. However, “Lady Luck” smiled in New York’s direction as the Knicks won the NBA’s inaugural predraft lottery and went on to select Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing with the No. 1 pick in the 1985 Draft. Regrettably, Cartwright ended up breaking his foot two more times — just before the start of the season and again in late January after playing two games. Ultimately he underwent another season-ending surgery, but was able to make his way back onto the court by the start of the following year, playing 58 games and averaging 17.5 points, 7.7 rebounds with Ewing sliding next to him as New York’s power forward. However, despite having two, top-shelf big men playing alongside one another New York continued to struggle, finishing 24-58 once again.
Rick Pitino took over the reins before the start of the 1987-88 season and instilled an up-tempo system, one in which Cartwright struggled to fit. Ewing became the team’s full-time starter in the middle while Cartwright became a role player off-the-bench. However, near the end of the season, Pitino decided to give the Cartwright/Ewing combo another shot in hopes of causing problems for opponents. The strategy sparked New York’s strong finish and pushed the Knicks into the playoffs for the first time in five years.
“Playing in New York helped me establish myself as a player and as a person,” says Cartwright. “New York really challenges your character. Afterwards I felt if I could survive the media circus that goes on there, I could survive just about anything.”
In June 1988, Bulls General Manager Jerry Krause had his eye on Cartwright and gave the Knicks a call, offering 24-year old power forward Charles Oakley along with Chicago’s first and third round picks for the then 31-year old center and New York’s first and third round picks. Michael Jordan, for one, was not on board with Krause’s idea to ship Oakley to the Big Apple and regularly took his frustrations out on Cartwright. Eventually Cartwright and Jordan made peace and figured out how to work together.
Cartwright started 76 of 78 games in his first season with the Bulls, averaging 12.4 points and 6.7 rebounds. Then in 1989-90 he started all 71 he played and averaged 11.4 points and 6.5 rebounds as the Bulls advanced to the Conference Finals for the first time since 1975. Unfortunately, Chicago lost to the eventual NBA Champions — the much hated Detroit Pistons — in seven games.
The 1990-91 campaign was the first time Cartwright failed to average double figures in scoring (9.6), but it also marked the first time he won an NBA title.
With Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant each hitting their primes, Cartwright didn’t have to score for the Bulls to win. Instead he focused on doing the dirty work. He anchored Chicago’s defense near the rim, kept the ball moving on offense and hit the boards hard at both ends of the floor. The Bulls went on to sweep Detroit in an Eastern Conference Finals rematch and then captured the franchise’s first title after defeating the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.
“When I came to the Bulls, I was entering my 10th year, and I wasn’t sure if I would ever get the chance to win a championship,” reflected Cartwright at the time. “But obviously my dream came true.”
The following year Cartwright was forced to miss the first 17 games of the season after breaking his hand, and although he moved into the starting lineup after healing, he ended up splitting time with Stacey King and Scott Williams, logging just 23 minutes a game and averaging 8.0 points and 5.1 rebounds as Chicago went on to repeat as champions, defeating the Portland Trail Blazers in six games.
By the start of the following year, Cartwright had turned 35 and ended up missing six weeks during the middle of the season due to a balky back. Yet the 14-year veteran still started 63 games but this time he averaged less than 20 minutes to along with career lows of 5.6 points and 3.7 rebounds. But again, it was Cartwright’s leadership and steadying influence that made the most impact the Bulls went on to knock-off the Phoenix Suns in six games to win the team’s third straight NBA World Championship.
Jordan retired (for the first time) just before the start of the 1993-94 season, and the now 36-year old Cartwright, battling aching knees and on-again-off-again back spasms, ended up missing 40 games. Nonetheless he started 41 of the 42 he was able to play and the Bulls shocked everyone in league by going 55-27 with Pippen as the team’s leading man. Sadly, Chicago’s fairytale season ended at the hands of Cartwright’s old team, the Knicks, in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Cartwright answered the bell in all seven games against New York, averaging 25.7 minutes, 5.9 points and 6.0 rebounds. That also proved to be his final season (as a player) with the Bulls.
The Seattle Supersonics talked Cartwright into playing one more year, signing him as a free agent on September 9, 1994, with the hope that he would provide some savvy guidance to a highly talented, but young roster that included a couple of All-Stars in Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton. Cartwright played in only 29 regular season games that year, averaging career-lows of 2.4 points and 3.0 rebounds. He officially retired at the end of the year, but the Sonics asked him to stay on as a West Coast scout, which he agreed to do. He also returned to the University of San Francisco and earned a master’s degree in human resources and organizational development.
“I thought getting a master’s degree would help me in whatever I decided to do next,” Cartwright explains. “I’ve always enjoyed dealing with people and problem-solving, bringing groups together. When you think about it, that’s what athletics is really all about — functioning in a group for a sole purpose.”
The following summer Cartwright returned to the Bulls full-time after Jerry Krause talked him into becoming one of Phil Jackson’s assistant coaches before the start of the 1996-97 season. At the time of Krause’s call Cartwright was still living in Seattle and planned to coach his son’s eighth-grade basketball team. He was also about to start classes at McDonald’s famed Hamburger University with the hope of owning and operating a franchise of his own. In fact, he says he envisioned he would own and operate up to four franchises one day. “I already had locations picked out,” insists Cartwright. “I was ready to rock and roll!”
Cartwright was a Bulls assistant from 1996 to 2001, winning two more championships under Jackson (1997, 1998) and then surviving Chicago’s swift post-Michael Jordan decline under Tim Floyd. He eventually became the Bulls’ head coach in December 2001 after Floyd stepped down and compiled a 51-100 record with a bunch of young, inexperienced players before being let go 14 games into the 2003-04 season. He then had NBA assistant gigs with both the New Jersey Nets and Phoenix Suns from 2004 to 2012.
While conducting a basketball camp in 2013, Bill received a call from a friend who had an interesting proposal. He informed Cartwright there was a team in the Japan Basketball League – Osaka Evessa – that was struggling, and they were wondering if he might be interested in going over there to coach.
“I thought, ‘Wow, never been to Japan, so why not?’” Cartwright says with a laugh. “We started 5-19, but then we won 10 in a row. It was a great experience. But it was just too far. It was morning back home and night over there, and there always seemed to be a little bit of disconnect. But it was still a lot of fun. I mean, who gets a chance to do something like that?”
Apparently Bill Cartwright does, that’s who.
These days you can find him at his alma mater, the University of San Francisco. His official role is Director of University Initiatives, where he seems to do just about everything from public speaking, to schmoozing with alumni, to student mentoring, and a fair bit of fundraising. In late November of 2017, USF asked Cartwright to add one more thing to his plate — Special Assistant to USF Head Men’s Basketball Coach Kyle Smith.
“I have always felt a strong connection with the University of San Francisco,” Bill says. “I’m here to re-engage. I’m having a great time getting to know everyone. I meet with alumni, faculty and students all the time. I really believe we are the No. 1 University on the planet. We can be a great academic school and be great in athletics, too. We can do both. But like everything in life, it all starts with education.”