The Chicago Bulls Improbable Run to the 1976-77 Playoffs
In the summer of 1969, prior to the start of the Bulls fourth season of operation, a majority of the team’s ownership group voted to remove Dick Klein, the person truly responsible for team’s existence, from his position as president and general manager. Taking over the basketball operations would be Pat Williams, an out-of-the-box marketing genius who had enjoyed a great deal of success with the Philadelphia 76ers.
Not long afterwards a number of those same investors let it be known they wanted to sell their stake in the team because Klein’s original financial projections had proven faulty, as the Bulls were losing money every year. Arthur Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Stadium and the NHL’s Chicago Blackhawks got wind of the news and together with his longtime friend, Lester Crown, formed an investor group of their own that included Phil Klutznick, James Cook, George Steinbrenner (yes, the notorious New York Yankees owner), and 25-year old Jonathan Kovler, a basketball enthusiast whose family money came from Jim Beam whiskey, to purchase the team. (Note: original Bulls investor Lamar Hunt didn’t want to sell his stake, so he simply joined Wirtz’s ownership group.)
The Bulls, with Williams running the front office and the fiery Dick Motta as head coach, hit their stride during the early 1970s. Beginning with the 1970-71 season, Chicago posted four straight seasons of 50+ wins and regularly drew crowds of 15,000 to 19,000 at the Stadium.
Wirtz, who died in 1983, had been a major powerbroker in town for many years before taking control of the Bulls. He was a self-made millionaire, amassing most of his fortune during the Great Depression by purchasing a number of bankrupt properties and businesses. In 1934 he teamed with James Norris Sr. and Norris’ son to buy the Chicago Stadium, and then in 1952 he bought the Blackhawks. And although he was never much of a basketball fan, Wirtz recognized a good opportunity when he saw it. So once he came to believe the Bulls were here to stay and that they would annually fill 40-plus dates at his arena, he was all in.
When it came to his sports teams, Wirtz believed on-court performance was the most important thing. If a winner was put on the court and/or on the ice, fans would automatically turn out and he would make money. However, he also believed in keeping costs down and wasn’t a believer in spending money on marketing or promotions. Thus soon after Williams and Motta began to bicker, it wasn’t a surprise that Wirtz sided with Motta who was directing his basketball team to 50-plus victories every year over Williams, the guy who was always hitting him up for money to promote the team. As soon as Williams was let go, Motta’s duties expanded to include those of a general manager.
Although Motta initially was left alone to run the basketball side of team, minority owner Jonathan Kovler began to push his fellow investors to allow him to become more involved in the team’s overall operation. However, it became evident early on that Motta and Kovler weren’t going to get along. In fact the very day Kovler became a minority owner of the team (Kovler owned seven percent) he showed up to watch practice and Motta, never having met him or even knowing who he was, had security throw Kovler out of the gym.
Then after going up 3-2 in a best of seven series and then dropping the next two games and losing the 1975 Western Conference title to the Golden State Warriors, Wirtz gave into to Kovler’s relentless urging and installed him as team’s managing partner — the person in charge of the team’s day-to-day operations.
The 1975-76 season was a disaster from the start. Motta and All-Star forward Chet Walker got into a bitter contract dispute that ended up with Walker deciding to retire rather than play another season with the Bulls under Motta. Jerry Sloan badly injured a knee during the preseason and ended up being able to play just 22 games. Future Hall of Fame center Nate Thurmond, whom Motta had acquired the year before, looked old and got off to a horrendous start and was traded to Cleveland after just 13 games. In fact the Bulls started the season 3-13 and never recovered. By the end of the year they owned the league’s worst record at 24-58, and thus for only the second time in franchise history the Bulls missed the playoffs.
On the morning of May 28, 1976, Motta quit by submitting a letter of resignation to Wirtz. Then by two o’clock that afternoon the Washington Bullets announced they had hired Motta to be their new head coach.
Soon after Motta’s departure Wirtz decided to bring Jerry Krause back to the Bulls as the Director of Player Personnel. Krause had been with the team as a scout for a very short stint at the start of the 1969-70 season, but he and Motta eventually had a major falling out, and Krause was dismissed. Because of the Bulls poor showing during Motta’s final season Chicago ended up with the 2nd overall pick in the 1976 Draft, and Krause pushed to take 7’0 center Robert Parish out of Centenary College (LA), who in time would end up being inducted into the Hall of Fame after playing 20 seasons, mostly with Boston. However, with Kovler making the final call the Bulls selected Indiana University All-American forward Scott May because Kovler believed May would be easier to sign.
Krause’s luck didn’t turn for the better after the Draft as he also ended up getting into a public spat with Ray Meyer, the legendary head coach of DePaul, who leaked to reporters that Krause had offered him the Bulls head coaching job. The story created quite a stir, both locally and nationally. Krause denied he had made an offer to Meyer, but Meyer insisted he did. It didn’t take long for Wirtz to then decide to show Krause the door, with Kovler happily holding it open.
So if Ray Meyer wasn’t going to coach the Bulls, who was? Motta let it be known that he wanted to take his Bulls assistant, Ed Badger, with him to Washington, but Motta’s departure left such a bad taste in the mouth of Wirtz, he refused to let it happen as Badger was still under contract. Twice Wirtz refused letters of resignation from Badger who also wanted to join his old boss in DC. Finally with the start of the season nearing, Wirtz offered Badger the Bulls head coaching job, but Badger said he would only accept if Wirtz gave him a guaranteed two-year contract, which the Bulls owner did.
A couple of weeks prior to Badger becoming head coach, Chicago acquired the rights to 7’2 center Artis Gilmore in the ABA dispersal draft, which consisted of players from the now defunct American Basketball Association (ABA) other than those already rostered on the four teams that were being absorbed into the NBA (New York Nets, Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets and San Antonio Spurs) before the start of the 1976-77 season. Gilmore had led the Kentucky Colonels to the 1975 ABA Championship and was considered to be one of the very best big men in all of professional basketball.
Naturally Gilmore’s arrival sparked a great deal of fan excitement, but much of that enthusiasm disappeared after the Bulls suffered a 13-game losing streak that began just five games into the season. It also didn’t help that the team’s top draft pick — Scott May — contracted mononucleosis and had to miss the first month of the season. Bob Love, who was now 34 years old and had previously been a three-time All-Star with the Bulls during the early ‘70s, was a shell of his former self and was hastily traded to the Nets for a draft pick. That meant only Norm Van Lier and Tom Boerwinkle, Gilmore’s backup at center, were left from the franchise’s best days. Chicago’s new lineup now consisted of Gilmore in the middle, May and third-year player Mickey Johnson at forward, and Van Lier and second-year free agent pick up Wilbur Holland at guard, with Boerwinkle, John “Crash” Mengelt and Jack Marin as the Bulls’ top reserves.
By the time February rolled around, it looked as if Chicago was destined to miss the playoffs for a second straight year. Then after losing 90-87 at home to Portland on February 18th, falling to 24-34 on the season, the Bulls somehow caught fire. It started with the next game, a 118-102 thumping of Golden State in front of a little over 8,000 fans at the Stadium. That victory sparked a seven-game winning streak.
All of a sudden the Bulls could do no wrong, and a year that once looked lost all of a sudden became known as “The Miracle on Madison Street,” as the team went on to win 20 of its last 24 games. In fact, nine of the Bulls last 10 home games at the Stadium were sellouts, with the Chicago Fire Marshall looking the other way as more than 20,000 fans packed the stands.
Badger ended up blending some of Motta’s old school, forward-oriented offense with some clever plays designed to take advantage of Gilmore’s size and unique post-up skills, and suddenly everything came together. Gilmore’s (18.6 points, 13.0 rebounds) power and Boerwinkle’s nifty-passing skills dominated the middle, Van Lier (10.2 points, 7.8 assists) directed the offense from the point, while Mickey Johnson (17.3 points, 10.2 rebounds) and Wilbur Holland (14.9 points, 2.1 steals) provided extra scoring and plenty of grit, while May (14.6 points, 6.1 rebounds) came on strong down the stretch and ended up making the NBA’s All-Rookie Team.
Despite their awful start, the Bulls finished 44-38, tied for second place in the Midwest Division. That set up a best-of-three first round playoff series against the Portland Trail Blazers, who were led by Hall of Fame center Bill Walton and power forward Maurice Lucas, a one-time Chicago draftee (Lucas was taken by the Bulls with the 14th overall pick in the 1974 NBA Draft) who ended up jumping to the ABA instead.
The Blazers took the opening game of the series in Portland, 96-83, but the Bulls stormed back to take Game 2, 107-104, in front of a raucous, standing room only crowd of well over 23,000 at the Stadium. The series deciding Game 3 was played back in Portland and it went down to the wire, with Chicago having the ball and trailing by just two in the final minute of the game. During a timeout, Badger designed a trick play where he ordered Mengelt to inbound the ball by tossing it hard against the backboard with Gilmore, who had been fronted the entire game by Walton, rolling to the basket. With nobody standing behind him, Gilmore was to grab the carom off the glass and dunk the ball to tie the game. However, Mengelt’s throw-in ended up going through the hoop, a violation that not only cost the Bulls the ball, but also the chance to knot the score. Portland went on to win the game, 106-98.
From that moment on there was no stopping the Trail Blazers. They defeated the Denver Nuggets in six games in the next round and then swept the Los Angeles Lakers, 4-0, to capture the Western Conference title, before knocking off the Philadelphia 76ers in six games to capture the franchise’s only NBA title.
Portland’s legendary Hall of Fame Head Coach, Jack Ramsay, remarked afterwards, “The Chicago Bulls gave us the toughest time that year. Fortunately we had home court advantage against them, otherwise it might have been a very different story.”