Dateline: St. Louis, Missouri. October 15, 1966.
On this date, The Chicago Bulls played their first game as a franchise against the St. Louis Hawks. Playing one of the guard positions for the Bulls was Jerry Sloan. The final score was Chicago 104-St. Louis 97. Professional basketball in Chicago was back.
The NBA in 1966 looked nothing like it does today. It lagged far behind in popularity to major league baseball and the national football league. It was probably closer to the national hockey league than the other two leagues. Attendance was low in most of its cities. Many franchises moved from their original location or folded. Owners of the teams were suffering huge losses. Teams would play games in cities other than their own. When Wilt Chamberlain scored one hundred points in a single game, it was done in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
The Bulls were Chicago’s third professional franchise. They lost their second team just a few years earlier, when the Zephyrs moved to Baltimore. It was said that this was Chicago’s last chance to have a team.
Acceptance for the Bulls was slow. In the winter, Chicago was a Blackhawks town. They were led by the charismatic Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. Those Hawks were constantly in the running for championships…always falling just a tad short.
Attendance for those Bulls teams was small, not much different than the rest of the NBA. Fans came out to see the stars of the other teams almost as much as their own Bulls. There were plenty of seats available to see such greats as Bill Russell, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West and the aforementioned Chamberlain.
The first year Bulls went on to win their first three games. They finished with a 33-48 record and made the NBA playoffs. That was quite an achievement for a first year team.
It took a few years and a turnover of the team’s original players, but by the early 1970’s, the Chicago Bulls were contenders. They now had household names, at least in Chicago, of Bob Love, Norm Van Lier and Chet Walker. The one tie from those beginning teams to the now contending Bulls was Jerry Sloan. He set the tone for those ball clubs with his tough defense and rebounding skills.
Like their Chicago Stadium building mates, the Bulls came close to championships, but fell frustratingly short. Still, this run cemented the Bulls standing in Chicago. They weren’t folding. They weren’t leaving for another town. The Chicago Bulls were in town to stay.
Jerry Sloan played for the Bulls through the 1976 season. He averaged fourteen points per game and almost seven and a half rebounds. he coached the team for three season in the late 1970’s. His number four hangs in the rafters of the United Center. He was the first member of the Bulls to have his jersey number retired.
Jerry Sloan was the first face of the Chicago Bulls organization.
His profile became larger in the sports world as the head coach of the Utah Jazz teams that came so excruciatingly close to winning two championships. Ironically, he and his team lost to the team where Sloan made his name, the Chicago Bulls. We saw a lot of him during “The Last Dance” documentary last weekend.
In 2016, Jerry Sloan was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease and Lewy body dementia. Having Parkinson’s and losing control of your body is a tough enough, but to add in the dementia that makes you lose all your past memories is heartless. Sloan suffered for four years before passing away on Friday.
Before Jerry Sloan and his early teammates, there was no professional basketball in Chicago. They made it viable in Chicago. They made it stick. Without them, they may not have been the Michael Jordan story in Chicago. No six championships. No “The Last Dance.” Would it have occurred elsewhere? Proabably, but no one will ever know for sure.
That’s the real legacy of Jerry Sloan. Rest easy!
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