A small crowd of 3,739 showed up at the Colosseum on March 23, 1967, for the first home playoff game in Chicago Bulls history, a memorable 113-107 Game 2 loss to St. Louis. Louis Hawks.
It was the first season of an expansion team that surprised everyone by reaching the Western Conference playoffs before being swept into three games by points guard Lenny Wilkens and the Hawks.
“For the new Chicago Bulls, the season is over,” wrote Tribune beat writer Bob Logan after the final game. “They will definitely be heard again, though, on the Chicago sports scene.”
That’s how it all started for the Bulls, a brand that became internationally known in the early 1990s.
Pro basketball was a big hit in Chicago 55 years ago. The Bulls once angered the NBA by announcing a crowd of 594, and owner Dick Klein was ordered to never publish such numbers again. John “Red” Kerr, the first Bulls coach and later a popular television analyst, always brought a pocket-full penny into play in the early days so he could call the newspapers afterwards.
“I called the newspaper’s sports tables and said something along the lines of, ‘Hey, this is John Kerr, coach of the Bulls,’ he recalled in ’91. ” The Bulls won 110-106 tonight, and Bob Boozer was our leader scores with 26 points. “The desk man would say, ‘Alcohol? How do you spell that?’ I would say: ‘BOOZER’, and then the operator jumped in and said, ‘Please deposit another penny’. “
When fans called up to the old Chicago Stadium and asked what time it was that night’s match, Kerr would reply, “What time can you be there?”
When playoff basketball returned to United Center Friday night with Game 3 of the Bulls’ first-round series against the Milwaukee Bucks, it’s hard for many to imagine a time when the team fought for attention, even went so far as to pausen. shows where fans could take on the mat against wrestling bear Victor.
After having to play in an empty stadium in almost every home game last season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Bulls led the league with an average attendance in 2021-22 with 20,881 per. fight, and moved back to first place. time since 2017-18.
The Bulls are now an iconic sports franchise like the New York Yankees or Green Bay Packers thanks to the six NBA titles they won from 1991-98, with Michael Jordan, the greatest player of all time, dominating the field and Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson pulling in the threads.
The Bulls have not returned to the NBA Finals since the “Last Dance” season in ’98 and have barely competed for the past four years. But Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations Artūras Karnišovas rejected the former regime’s rebuilding last summer, bringing in DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso, who teamed up with Zach LaVine and Nikola Vučević to change the direction of the franchise.
That’s not how it looked Friday night in a 111-81 loss to the Bucks, before a shocked crowd of 22,667 bulging from the third quarter onwards. The Bulls desperately need a wake-up call Sunday afternoon in Game 4 to avoid falling behind 3-1 and being ruled out Wednesday in Milwaukee.
DeRozan said “a loss is a loss,” even one as abysmal as Game 3.
“Whether we lost by 30 or one point, we have to come back and compete and protect our home court,” he said.
No matter how this series turns out, it is safe to say that the Bulls’ future is much brighter than it was a year ago. Redesigning LaVine will obviously be the No. 1 job for Karnišovas, but the Bulls have re-established themselves as an Eastern Conference challenger. With a healthy ball returning next season, the maturation of Patrick Williams and something out of season, expectations will be even greater for coach Billy Donovan’s team in 2022-23.
And that’s good news for the NBA, which always works better when big teams like the Bulls, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers are in the mix.
Well, two out of three are not bad.
The era of the dynasty may have completely transformed Chicago into a Bulls city, but the team still had a core entourage before the arrival of Air Jordan in 1984. Brian McIntyre, the former NBA director of media relations, who began in the same capacity as the Bulls at the end of 1970s, remembered when Chicago Stadium was less than half full after the era of teams led by Chet Walker, Bob Love, Jerry Sloan and Norm Van Lier ended.
But in 1981, a scrappy Bulls team led by Reggie Theus and Artis Gilmore disrupted the New York Knicks in the first game of a best-of-three series at Madison Square Garden, then came home to a breathtaking Stadium filled to the brim with 19,901 fans. After finishing 15th in the third quarter, the Bulls rallied to take it to overtime and eventually won 115-114.
“I swear it was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard at Chicago Stadium,” McIntyre said. “It was a late start for CBS and everyone on the top deck was plastered.”
The Bulls’ reward in the semifinals of the Eastern Conference was the Celtics. Larry Bird was so confident that he and his teammates drank to the small hours at Butch McGuire’s on Division Street. A bartender asked Bird if he was worried about drinking so late the night before a fight.
“Bird says, ‘We can beat the Bulls drunk or sober,'” McIntyre said.
Bird was right. The Celtics swept the series in four games on their way to the ’81 title.
The Bulls regressed again until they selected Jordan with No. 3 in the ’84 draft. There were good moments – Jordan beat “The Shot” over Cleveland’s Craig Ehlo to win a series in the first round in 1989 – and down moments, such as being swept by the Celtics in ’86 and ’87.
After heavy back-to-back playoff losses to the Detroit Pistons’ more physical “Bad Boys” in 1989 and ’90, the Bulls beat Magic Johnson and the Lakers for their first title in ’91, setting the dynasty in motion. Jordan always stepped up his game in the off-season, but Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, John Paxson, Toni Kukoč and Steve Kerr all had playoff moments that will live on forever in Bulls history.
The last time I covered the Bulls in the playoffs was in 1993, the third title of the first 3-turf. During a day off in the NBA Finals between the Bulls and Phoenix Suns, Jordan was asked if he thought the fan base would shrink when he retired.
“It’s something (the organization) needs to be aware of from a business aspect,” he replied. “I do not know how long the fans will be so supportive. Or will they be just as supportive? I hope they will, because I will definitely be a fan of Chicago when I’m away and I would love that the fans maintained that support even when I’m away because of what we’ve built here.
“It’s a good system now. I would hate to see that change.”
Little did we know that Jordan would retire the following October on the eve of the 1993-94 season. But fans continued to flock to the West Side after Jordan’s departure, and when he returned at the end of the 1994-95 season after his baseball sabbatical year.
The real test came after the dissolution of the dynasty after the Bulls’ sixth title in 1998.
In the first year of general manager Jerry Krause’s rebuilding, the Bulls still finished first with average attendance despite a record of 13-37 in a lockout-shortened season. But the loss eroded fans, and the Bulls sank to ninth spectators in 2001-02, when Tim Floyd – Krause’s hand-picked replacement for Jackson – was finally fired in the middle of the season.
Derrick Rose’s knee injury in the series in the first round against the Philadelphia 76ers in 2012 ended what could have been a championship season, and neither Rose nor the Bulls recovered in the safe years. The drought for Jordan continued.
But a decade after Rose’s franchise-changing injury, DeRozan, LaVine, Vučević and Caruso are hoping to get defending champion Bucks in the first round, making United Center a madhouse again.
If they repeat their game 3 performance, it’s probably the last home game until next season. DeRozan promised a more aggressive effort in Game 4.
“We have an opportunity to tie this thing up Sunday at our home court,” he said. “And that’s what we need to do.”