“Golden State was more intense than we were…And that was strange, because a Chicago team isn’t usually in that sort of situation.” -Norm Van Lier on Game 2 of the ’75 WCF, from “Their Way To Get Up Is To Get Upset” by Barry McDermott
The past few years of Chicago basketball have had their share of memorable moments, with the Bulls setting themselves apart as a gritty bunch that have fought through tons of adversity. The Bulls teams over the last five seasons have been case studies in expectations, tragedy, and disappointment, and even with a healthy Derrick Rose they enjoyed an exceptional amount of success only to come up short in the playoffs. Since 2012 it has felt as though this team was on the verge of greatness only to have it torn away by something nobody, not even themselves, could control. From 1970-1975 there was another generation of Bulls players and fans that shared the same pain: the pain of being on the cusp and never quite reaching the desired goal.
The absence of the three-point line, the presence of less than twenty franchises, and shorts that resembled underwear gave the NBA an entirely different look in the 1970s. The Bulls of that generation, led by Dick Motta, who began coaching the team in 1968, competed in the Western Conference. Jerry Sloan, Tom Boerwinkle, Norm Van Lier, and Bob Love made up the core of a Bulls team that put together four consecutive 50-win seasons from 1970-1974 only to have their dreams dashed by untimely playoff exits, three times at the hands of the Lakers. In 1974-75 the Bulls won the Midwest Division and came one game away from competing in the NBA Finals.
Statistically, both today and in the 1970s, the Bulls consistently had one of the league’s best defenses. While offensively they may not have been bad, they were certainly not exciting. They consistently ranked among the worst in points per game and relied on a game plan that paired physical defense with offense that slowed the game down and used creativity to get shots in the absence of superstar talent. These Bulls were not a nightly highlight reel, but they won their share of regular season games even if that success did not translate well to playoff victories.
The culture, atmosphere, and expectations surrounding the Bulls of the 1970s speaks across four decades. When Dick Motta came to the Bulls in 1968 winning meant surviving for the young franchise. Within three seasons the Bulls were a 50-win team and the tough coach had won Coach of the Year honors. In the 1970s, the Bulls had a reputation for physicality, emotion, and passion. They were a tough, physical team that beat opponents down and frustrated them. They knew they weren’t incredibly talented or flashy but they played hard, dove for loose balls, took charges, and made up for lack of talent by doing things that don’t necessarily require it. However, many times the consequence of full throttle regular season basketball is that teams can enter the playoffs banged up with their gas tank approaching empty, and, much like recent history, the Bulls of four decades ago never translated their regular season success into playoff success, where they got accustomed to first round exits from 1969-1973. After going down 3-0 to the Lakers in the 1972 playoffs, Dick Motta confessed that the Bulls did not have another level of intensity, as quoted here,
“We’re not like other good teams. We have to play so hard just to win during the regular season that we don’t have the deep emotional reserve to turn to when the playoffs come.”
During the first half of the 1970s the Chicago Bulls brought a style of play that was admirable and fans loved to watch. By the end of 1975 the grinding style of play, age, brewing internal conflicts, and perhaps their failure to live up to their own expectations tore the team apart. Peter Carry wrote a Sports Illustrated article in January 1974 entitled “Trying Hardest, but Still Second,” about the Bulls in relation to their division rivals the Milwaukee Bucks, which was a perfect summation for a team that could never grasp that elusive goal. Just trying harder than anyone else is commendable but it can wear on players and perhaps that is the biggest obstacle in front of the current generation of Bulls. Whether it’s injuries, lack of talent, or just plain bad luck, the expectations that have been looming over the Bulls for the last few years have always been tempered by a feeling that this team always comes up a little short. In many ways these Bulls teams, separated by almost half a century, share the same trajectory. Will this generation be the next to constantly come up short or has all of this been a prelude something better? Only time will tell, but let’s hope it’s the latter.
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