The 1980-81 Bulls were one of the lone bridges between the bruisers of the early 1970s and the Michael Jordan era
They were lean days indeed, the stretch of seasons between the 1976-77 Miracle on Madison and the drafting of Michael Jordan in 1984. And there was only one minor miracle that kept this period from being the very darkest in Bulls history: seven straight seasons sans playoffs.
Somehow a pair of unlikely superstars and a yeoman’s effort from an unsung supporting cast turned 1980-81 into a magical season. For a couple of days in April, Bulls fans believed that anything was possible.
For years it had seemed that the Miracle on Madison was just that, a one-time fluke. But after pushing the eventual NBA Champion Portland Trail Blazers to a deciding third game in the first round of the 1977 playoffs, the infamous “Astronaut Draft” of Tate Armstrong, Mike Glenn, and Steve Sheppard kept the Bulls trapped on the launching pad, as the team finished the 1977-78 season at 40-42. The next year, 19-year-old Reggie Theus arrived in town from Las Vegas and ignited the league, but the Bulls still crashed and burned to the tune of 31-51. In the 1979 NBA Draft, Chicago wrongly called “tails” and lost out on the opportunity to select eventual five-time NBA Champion Magic Johnson, who instead went to the Los Angeles Lakers as the No. 1 pick. Chicago’s consolation prize was David Greenwood, and longtime franchise icon Jerry Sloan was promoted to head coach. Neither addition offset the loss of Artis Gilmore—the franchise center who, prior to that time, had never missed a game (670). Gilmore suffered a knee injury on October 20 in a game against Phoenix. The derailment of the A-Train for the next 34 games gutted Chicago’s season, and the club took another step back, staggering to a disappointing 30-52 record.
The 1980-81 season began with the usual hope and promise of prior campaigns. Though Gilmore rushed back a little too quickly from injury the previous season, he was now at full strength. Theus was blossoming into one of the most dangerous combo guards in the game, having averaged 18.3 points and 5.8 assists over his first two NBA seasons.
Theirs was a marriage of convenience, not choice. Gilmore had a well-deserved reputation as the strongest man in the NBA, but he was a true gentle giant. Theus had brashness and confidence, as well as a flair for the game that caused old-schoolers to shudder. And his passes into the post? Oh, don’t get Gilmore started.
“I used to tell Reggie all the time, ‘Throw the ball when I’m looking,’” Gilmore remembers with a stifled laugh. “I’m down [in the post] with Bob Lanier or Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] on my back, and I’m supposed to guess when and where the ball is coming to me?”
Theus, who even baffled the great Julius “Dr. J” Erving with a pass in the 1981 All-Star Game, remembers the tension well. “Artis, God bless him, was one of the nicest teammates I ever had and best players I was ever on the floor with,” Theus says today. “But his hands could be a little stiff. Our styles, yeah, they were a little different.”
So while one superstar needed to post up with a power game, the other desired to play baseline-to-baseline at max speed—what could be better for a thrilling playoff run?
Try stirring in a disappointing free agent, or a broken-down blue-chipper.
Yes, Chicago’s first splash in the free agent market was Larry Kenon. The power forward had been a lock to average 20 points and 10 rebounds during his career, and this seeming masterstroke by GM Rod Thorn was to give the Bulls a trio of superstars. Thorn similarly scored big by swapping his first-round pick, Kelvin Ransey, to Portland in exchange for the guard he really wanted on Draft night, Chicago native and University of Iowa star Ronnie Lester, plus a future draft pick.
Disaster struck early, however. Lester suffered a knee injury that took him off the court for the first 74 games of the season. And Kenon, a player borne of the free-wheeling style of the ABA and accustomed to soft-handed coaching in his previous stop with the San Antonio Spurs, seemingly lost his desire for the game.
“It was the worst of both worlds,” Thorn remembers. “We needed an impact draft choice, and Ronnie got hurt right away. We thought we’d secured a third star to augment Artis and Reggie, but we quickly found out he lived in his own world.”
Thorn was able to offset the loss of Lester with a clever, last-minute acquisition of former Indiana Hoosier playmaker Bobby Wilkerson from the Denver Nuggets, giving the Bulls the biggest starting backcourt (Wilkerson was 6’6”, Theus 6’7”) in the NBA.
“Bob was the best thing that could have happened to me,” Theus gushes. “His size made my job so much easier. He was one of my favorite backcourt partners, without a question.”
Compensating for Kenon’s inability to fit in with the Bulls, however, was a setback the team couldn’t overcome with an additional roster move. And Sloan, just 38 and only four years retired from playing, was having none of Kenon’s obstinance.
“To be honest with you, I wanted us to go get Bernard King that summer,” Sloan says. “But ownership wanted Kenon. Guess who won that battle?”
Still, the Bulls had a strong second-year man in Greenwood, who had made the All-Rookie team the year before by leading the team with an average of 9.4 rebounds, as well as Ricky Sobers, a strong and experienced guard who had chipped in 14.2 points and 5.2 assists in his first season in Chicago the year before.
“We thought we could come out strong and surprise teams,” Theus recalls.
The point man was point-blank wrong. The Bulls started sluggishly, losing seven of their first 10 games and digging a hole that would take nearly the entire season to climb out of.
“I was just a young coach,” Sloan explains. “It’s not an easy transition, from the floor to the sideline. I was still learning, not as much Xs-to-Os as person-to-person.”
“We were streaky,” Gilmore adds. “It seemed like the team was slowly jelling and coming together, but then we’d lose another handful of games. I had no sense that we could make a playoff push at all.”
Indicative of this Bulls season was a wild stretch from December through February. With a record of 13-20 in mid-December, Chicago reeled off seven straight wins to reach .500. Yet three games later, the team began a six-game losing streak, essentially wiping a month off the schedule with no progress up the standings. Then, right on the heels of the losing streak, the Bulls again put seven straight wins together. That seventh victory, in February’s first game, nudged Chicago over .500 to 28-27, the first time the team had more wins than losses since the season’s third game. Capping Chicago’s sprint was an amazing accomplishment for a middling team—both Gilmore and Theus were named starters in the All-Star Game.
Still, the Bulls trailed both the Milwaukee Bucks and Indiana Pacers in the Central, and with three solid postseason bets entrenched in the Atlantic Division, there was very little room for error if they hoped to snatch the sixth and final playoff spot.
The situation may not have been dire then, but the Bulls made it so, wasting another month of the season by dropping eight of 15 games in Feburary. As late as February 24, Chicago stood a paltry 32-35, with just 15 games remaining. The Bulls were barely clinging to their postseason hopes and trailing the 36-29 Pacers by five games for the fifth seed in the East.
In the stretch run, knowing that even a single loss could eliminate them, Sloan made the gutsiest coaching decision of his young career. He benched Kenon and installed journeyman power forward Dwight Jones as a starter.
“That was a big decision,” Sloan says. “Dwight gave us the effort I was looking for. He did more with less time on the floor than Kenon. He wasn’t disruptive. And as much as it was my call, the rest of the players understood my thinking and were willing to back me up.”
And just like that, Chicago went on an incredible run that’s second in Bulls annals only to the Miracle on Madison team. The team finished the season a blistering 13-2, passing the Pacers for second place in a breathless 109-103 upset in Indianapolis on the last day of the season. Chicago had won its last eight games and had an average margin of victory of almost 11 points in its last 13 victories, taking five of six games from eventual East playoff teams.
The Bulls’ reward for such greatness meant that they drew the 50-32 New York Knicks in a best-of-three first round matchup. The Knicks finished third in the Atlantic and had the home-court advantage, but the two teams split six games during the year, with Chicago winning two at Madison Square Garden during the frantic stretch run.
Some may think that the Bulls-Knicks rivalry was invented by Pat Riley, Phil Jackson, Jordan, and John Starks, but this 1981 miniseries was one of the most intense playoff battles in either franchise’s history.
For starters, the Knicks failed to take the Bulls seriously heading into the series. They essentially laughed off Sloan’s brusque and intense manner, figuring any aggressiveness instilled in his team would be offset by the glitz and lure of Madison Square Garden and New York’s musclemen like Sly Williams and Larry Demic. Worse, Gotham’s two superstar guards, Ray Williams and Michael Ray Richardson, both claimed that they were quicker and better than anyone on the Bulls.
However, confidence was sky-high in Chicago based on the club’s finish, and New York’s arrogance created bulletin-board material. Says Gilmore: “You would have thought they were the defending Champions. We looked at them, and asked ourselves, ‘what have they accomplished that we haven’t?’”
Sloan also added a wrinkle by having the Bulls fly into New York on the day of the game, rather than the on night before.
“Management was really angry at me for that,” Sloan remembers with a laugh. “They thought I was throwing away the series on a stunt, that the guys would be tired or unprepared. But I told [the team], we’re going to take care of business—get in, beat their [butts], and get out. And that’s just what we did.”
The Bulls outmuscled New York in Game 1, 90-80. Gilmore was as dominant as he’d ever been, and afterward the New York players, arms sore from short-arming shots, admitted that Gilmore had completely intimidated them.
The victory set up a potential clinching game back at Chicago Stadium. But even on the brink of elimination, many Knicks still boasted that there was no way Chicago would win the series, again insisting that Theus and Wilkerson were absolutely no match for the dynamic duo of Williams and Richardson.
There was a huge demand for Game 2 tickets, and while the official line says that 19,901 were in the Chicago Stadium that day, many claim that the Madhouse topped 21,000, easily.
Theus paced the Bulls with 19 points in the first half, but New York’s Campy Russell and Sly Williams were also enjoying monster games of their own, pacing New York to a 62-52 halftime lead. In the third, the Knicks went up by as many as 15 and held a lead of 11 with three minutes left in the period.
Gilmore was exhausted, but his defense was the key to the Chicago comeback, and by the end of the third, the Knicks were up only seven, 87-80. With four minutes left in the game, Theus hit two free throws to tie the score at 98. After falling behind again, Sobers made a driving layup with three seconds left to knot the score at 106, his second huge basket in the final 30 seconds.
“Ricky was so good in that series, and really all year long,” Thorn says. “He was unbelievable with all the last-minute heroics he pulled out.”
Sobers had sent the game into overtime, but again Chicago fell behind. The Bulls hadn’t held a lead since being up 23-22 in the first, but then Gilmore and Theus took over and combined for the next nine points in the overtime, battling the Bulls back into the game. Gilmore gave Chicago its second lead in the game with a free throw, giving the Bulls a 109-108 edge. That lead wouldn’t be relinquished.
Fueled by their two superstars, the Bulls came away with the win and a 2-0 series sweep. It was Chicago’s 10th victory in a row, drawing back to the regular season. Theus notched a career-high 37 points on 10-of-18 shooting, and hitting 17 of 18 free throws, while dishing 11 assists, grabbing four rebounds, and pulling off four steals.
“It was the game of my life,” Theus says today with a grin. “I always loved the Chicago crowd, and you can imagine, it was chaos after the game. You know Bulls fans, when they get up and cheer, they stay up. I think the crowd was whooping it up for about an hour after the game was over.”
The Bulls would go on to be swept in the next round by the eventual NBA Champion Boston Celtics, but even so, those final three losses to the Cs were by an average of only seven points.
Fortunes changed quickly for the Bulls after that, however. Sloan would be fired by the middle of the 1981-82 season and before long, both Theus and Gilmore would be traded away. It would be four long years before Chicago would return to the playoffs, and seven years between series wins.
“Bulls fans have always been my favorites,” Theus says. “People still talk to me about that New York series.”
And it was only fitting that the earliest face of the franchise, Jerry Sloan, would be the man who brought the Chicago Bulls back in vogue.
“We really got the city excited for basketball again,” Sloan remembers. “That’s something I’m very proud of.”