Special thanks to Don Kojis, Forward for the Chicago Bulls during the inaugural 1966-67 season. His insight was a tremendous help in my understanding of the 1966-67 Bulls and Guy Rodgers.
“Everywhere I hear about someone’s being another Cousy…There isn’t anyone who comes close,” Red Auerbach shouted at the notion that Guy Rodgers, a Temple University sophomore, was the next Bob Cousy. Two years later, Auerbach admitted that Rodgers may be the only player worthy of the comparison. The 6-0, 185 lb Guard from Temple came into the NBA in 1958, and in 1966 the San Francisco Warriors traded Rodgers to the NBA’s newest addition, the Chicago Bulls. The thirty-one year old veteran only played one year in Chicago during which he became the expansion team’s leader, set the Bulls’ per game and single season assist records, and, along with Jerry Sloan, became the first Bulls named to the NBA All-Star team. In a franchise’s opening year all statistics are record-breaking and accomplishments historic, but Rodger’s assist records are the only records that remain unbroken after 48 seasons.
The Philadelphia Warriors drafted Guy Rodgers with the 5th pick in the 1958 NBA Draft, and in the early to mid-1960s he developed a reputation as a quick, off-the-dribble passer, dangerous on the fast break with an instinct for getting his teammates the ball in the right places. Many of his peers called him the “Second Cousy” and he lived up to the comparisons, eventually tying Cousy’s then record of 28 assists in a single game on March 14, 1963.
Chicago acquired Guy Rodgers via trade to lead an expansion team composed of veterans and a young group of “Baby Bulls” made up of Jerry Sloan, Jim Washington, Keith Erickson, and McCoy McLemore. Referred to as “castoffs,” the original Chicago Bulls seemed to embrace the underdog mentality from the start. Jerry Sloan, left unprotected by the Baltimore Bullets, said it made him and the others want to showcase the mistake made by their former teams. Don Kojis, taken by the Bulls in the expansion draft from Detroit, agreed, attesting to the chip-on-the-shoulder attitude of the team and to the fact that Guy Rodgers was the perfect blend of veteran savvy and toughness to lead them.
“They told us in training camp that we were a bunch of castoffs and we should have pride enough to show those other teams they made a mistake to let us go.” -Jerry Sloan, The Chicago Tribune, December 25, 1966
Nobody expected much from the Bulls in their first year and crowds in the International Amphitheater were labeled “disappointing.” By the end of 1966 the Bulls were 15-25 but the talk in Chicago was the backcourt duo of Guy Rodgers and Jerry Sloan. The two came from entirely different backgrounds but they complimented each other on the court. Sloan, who rode the bench his rookie season in Baltimore, flourished in Chicago under Rodgers’ leadership. Jerry Sloan had always been known for his toughness, defense, and hustle, but during his first year in Chicago he added offense to his arsenal and under Rodger’s leadership and passing, Sloan, who almost left the NBA after his rookie season, was reaching his full potential, averaging sixteen points per game.
“It couldn’t be better. I’m not that good a ball handler and Guy makes us do so many things. Now I’m learning to move without the ball and finding I can play in this league.” -Jerry Sloan, The Chicago Tribune, December 25, 1966
Don Kojis talked about Rodgers’ unique ability to pass off the dribble, his natural ability to run an offense, and his role as leader on the team. Rodgers found ways to compliment his teammates’ talents. One play, created and named by Rodgers and Kojis, called the “Kangaroo Cram” was essentially a backdoor alley-oop that combined Kojis’ exceptional jumping ability with Rodgers’ precise passing. The play became a crowd favorite designed to get skeptical Chicagoans out of their seats at the Amphitheater. Rodgers also seemed to embrace his role as leader:
“Guy Rodgers wanted to have the ball in his hands to drive to the hoop, and could always get around his man to draw other defenders to him and then pass to his teammates for easy jumpers or layups. He was our unquestioned leader and we all trusted him to make the right decisions. . . .He had the confidence he could beat any defender off the dribble, and he could, and his teammates then knew that no team could use the press against against us.” -Don Kojis, Forward, Chicago Bulls, 1966-67
Rodgers’ talents with the basketball were well-documented but as a small guard, mental and physical toughness were a requirment. For example, in the 1964 playoffs, when, after being knocked out cold in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals, he rested five minutes, and finished the game, scoring 19 points and dishing 8 assists. The same year in the Finals he dislocated his thumb in Game 1 and played with a cast in Game 3, scoring 10 points with a game high in assists. He displayed the same toughness as a Bull and according to Kojis, when bigger players tried to muscle him he never backed down.
“I recall instances where we had to hold him back from confronting an opponent after a hard foul. We didn’t want our leader to get hurt or get thrown out of a game for fighting, so we got between him and the offender while they jawed at each other. Can’t remember any names but when you have Jerry Sloan on your team he always had Guy’s back.” -Don Kojis
The 1966-67 season was special for Chicago for many reasons. Besides being the first, the “castoffs” led by Johnny Red Kerr defied expectations and made the playoffs, while for Guy Rodgers his season total of 908 assists and average of 11.2 APG not only led the league but also set two Bulls’ team records that appear to be permanent. Rodgers also set and continues to hold the Bulls single game assist record of 24, set on December 21, 1966 in a 110-107 victory over the New York Knicks, in front of 4,430 fans at the Amphitheater.
The cash-strapped Bulls traded Guy Rodgers to the Cincinatti Royals four games into the 1967-68 season and he finished his career with Milwaukee in 1970. Though he played only one year in Chicago, the guy known as the “Second Cousy” solidified his place in Bulls history. Everyone that played on the 1966-67 Chicago Bulls came from a different place. There were no “veteran Bulls,” and the only culture Chicago knew in regards to professional basketball was a series of failed teams. The first Bulls, under Rodgers’ leadership, grew close, played well together, and though the next few years were rocky, the 1966-67 season appeared to reverse the trend established by ill-fated Chicago teams like the Stags, Majors, and Packers. In 2014 Rodgers was postumously selected to be enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame, finally recognized for a twelve year career during which he was a four-time all-star, the league’s two-time assist leader, and recognized by teammates and opponents as one of the great point guards of his generation. Few Bulls fans have probably heard of him, his short career in Chicago lost to time and a sea of historic franchise accomplishments, but since the 1966-67 season no Bulls player has seriously threatened Rodgers’ assist totals, but whether or not his records are “unbreakable” remains to be seen.
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