The Bad Attitude Choke Artists of Chicago
The 1970s were a difficult time for the NBA and for America in general. The Bill Russell lead Celtics dynasty which had dominated the 1960s had come and gone. Wilt Chamberlain was a shell of the man who once scored 100 points in a game. Cocaine and drug abuse was a serious problem in the league. The Summer of Love had descended into Helter Skelter. The US had ended its involvement in Vietnam The people did not trust their own government because of the Watergate scandal. Than there was the circus sideshow known as the Chicago Bulls.
Even with the difficulties of the era the Bulls had seen some success on the court. The team made the playoffs eight times in their first decade and had even made a few serious deep playoff runs. But the Bulls still struggled to bring in the big bucks, despite playing in the third largest market in the US. Fans in Chicago would rather watch the Bears in the fall and winter and the Cubs and Whitesox in the spring. This forced the Bulls to get creative with their ways to get fans in the seats.
Pat Williams is widely considered to be one of the best general managers the NBA has ever seen, he has rebuilt team after team after team, but in the early 1970s he was just starting out in the NBA and had the unfortunate task of saving the Chicago Bulls.
Williams, who was mentored by Bill Veeck, who himself was a bit of a side show, needed to come up with something fast. He tried door prizes and other standard gimmicks but they failed. He also tried building up the fan base by having a quality product on the floor, that too failed. Williams tried other more outlandish tricks to get people to the games by having crazy half time shows. Most these shows involved acrobats and even a staged old west style gun fight complete with cowboys. But Williams most outlandish gimmick involved him fighting a bear.
The Sleeping Bear
Williams idea was the have fans wrestle a muzzled and declawed bear named Victor from a nearby circus. The city of Chicago objective to this act because they rightfully feared that people could be seriously injured in the event.
Williams got around this by fighting the bear himself, along with Ben Bently. The sight was a pathetic one has Victor the bear was heavily sedated and fan interest in a basketball game slash bear fight was not very high. The visiting San Francisco Warriors even refused to enter the court until the poor bear was removed.
No event like this could take place in America today, groups like PETA would have a conniption fit and likely get court injunctions. For his part Pat Williams has since apologized for the incident and it has now been largely forgotten.
Benny the Bull
Williams finally got his gimmick that would work however when he helped create Benny the Bull. Benny was named after Ben Bently. The lovable Bulls mascot was not always so lovable. The original costume was cheap and poorly constructed. It was too big for the person wearing it and looked more like a child Halloween costume than a professional mascot.
Through all this Benny was able to stick and became one of the first NBA mascots and finally helped bringing people into the game, this and the teams success on the court, prevented a sale of the team to a group from San Diego.
The Bulls started finding success on the court and in 1971 had their first 50 win season in franchise history. Behind Bob Love, Chet Walker and Jerry Sloan the team got real good and fans in the windy city finally started loving the Bulls.
With the regular season success came the annual choke-a-thon in the playoffs. The problem started in the 1971 playoffs when the Bulls blew multiple 4th quarter leads in a seven game series vs the Lakers, which had they been able to keep the Bulls would have won the series.
They also blew a 3-2 lead in the 1975 western conference finals to the eventual champion Golden State Warriors. The Bulls had chance to end the series in 6 games at home leading in the 4th quarter, the Bulls offense abandoned them and they needed us losing game 6 and eventually game 7 back in Oakland.
The biggest personification of the choking Bulls came in the 1973 western semis vs the Los Angeles Lakers. The Bulls were leading game 7 by six points with just a little under 3 minutes to go and had the Lakers on the ropes But the Lakers fought back and took the lead with under 30 seconds to play.
Bears were not the only thing that the Bulls were fighting in their early days. The team was notorious for getting into scuffs and brawls. All-star guard Jerry Sloan was the instigator of many of fisticuffs that fans loved and hated at the same time.
Before Kermit Washington totally destroyed Rudy Tomjanovich's face and nearly killed him with a punch in 1979, the NBA would generally allow fighting as it added to the entertainment experience. The Bulls and Sloan used this to their advantage as the tenacious guard was usually defending the opposing teams best guard and he would use grabbing, tripping and hitting as a way to stifle the opposition. This was totally allowed in the game of the time, but that did not mean opposing players did not take offense to this, and thus the fights started.
Sloan and the Bulls did not just keep the fighting to players and bears, there were several incidents where fans and officials felt their wrath as well. One incident involving Sloan is very reminiscent of the Ron Artist incident in the mid 2000s. A fan threw his beer on Sloan after the guard was knocked out of bounds and Sloan attacked the man. Unlike Artest, who received a season long ban, Sloan only had to go to the locker room to change his beer soaked uniform.
Head Coach Dick Motta was not beyond fisticuffs either. In 1974 he attacked a referee, pushing the ref and poking his finger into his chest. This cost Motta a 3 game suspension. Not surprisingly Motta's fiery guard Jerry Sloan would be involved in a similar situation where he would strike a referee in 2002. Sloan's incident cost him 7 games.
The craziest event involving the Bulls had to be in the 1974 western finals were Motta, Sloan and Benny the Bull all got involved in an incident and got ejected from the game. Referee Earl Storm who was at the brunt of their attacks said in a memoir that Benny the Bull made many obscene gestures and remarks.
Following their 1975 collapse to the Warriors the Bulls began having difficult times. After the 1976 season coach Motta was fired, and star Jerry Sloan missed most the season with injuries and would retire. Bob Love would start to decline and be traded to the Knicks half way through the 1977 season.
In their first 10 seasons the Bulls would make the playoffs 8 times, in their next 10 season, in their next 10 seasons they would only make the post season 4 times. From 1971-1974 the Bulls finished with 50 or more wins all 4 seasons, and would not reach 50 wins again until 1988. In 1990 the Bulls would finally reach 60 wins, that same season they would exercise all Chicago's basketball ghosts as Michael Jordan lead the team to it's first world championship.