The following is an excerpt from what is hopefully an upcoming book on the first season of the Chicago Bulls franchise. The culture surrounding the Bulls and how fans understand it is just one of the many areas of investigation.
“Basketball…can be an exciting game. As played by the Bulls, it is a step on the road to cardiac arrest.” Behold, the leading candidate for the most cynical description of the Bulls 1966-67 season. This is followed by a number of close seconds featuring variations of “Bulls trying hard again,” “winning the hard way,” and “all effort but one more defeat.” Amazingly, one could transplant any one of these quotes into a blog post about the Chicago Bulls of the last three seasons and fans would be none the wiser. During the last few seasons of unrealized expectations, some fans have emphasized a Bulls culture of passion, perseverance, toughness, heart, hustle, and grit while others add a cynicism that infects everything from the front office failure to acquire free agents, the level of faith put in Derrick Rose’s knees, and draft picks. It can be argued that some Bulls fans justifiably expect failure, a tendency that can naturally be traced to the roller coaster-like path the Bulls have taken over the last sixteen years. This research does not dispute that, but hypothisizes that to truly understand the culture that surrounds the Chicago Bulls, its players, and fans, one must go back to the beginning. As my book proposal to tell the story of the first Chicago Bulls lingers in the approval process, I thought it appropriate to provide a condensed version of just one of the reasons why understanding the Bulls’ origin story is important.
Historians are pre-programmed to start at the beginning of whatever story they are telling. The desire to fully understand the team that has been the source of my elation and frustration for over twenty years is what attracted me to the 1966-67 Chicago Bulls’ season. When I wrote about Guy Rodgers’ the research revealed the same grit, toughness, hustle, and “try hard” mentality emphasized today and factored into everything from drafting college players to signing free agents. The team played with an attitude, embraced the characterization as a bunch of “castoffs”, and played as though they were proving, not only the teams that left them unprotected, but the whole world, wrong. For the last three seasons, Chicago has returned to those roots as they fought an uphill battle and at times overachieved against a ton of misfortune.
In October of 1966 the Chicago Bulls, according to Robert Logan in the Chicago Tribune, were the “last chance” for a city that was getting its third professional franchise in twenty years. Previously, the Chicago Stags, who played four years in the Basketball Association of America, folded in 1950 after playing one season in the new NBA that formed with the merger of the BAA and NBL in 1949. In 1961 the NBA established its first new franchise in Chicago, but the Packers, who later became the Zephyrs, were in Baltimore as the Bullets for the 1963-64 NBA season. The Stags never enjoyed widespread support in Chicago and the Packers suffered from low attendance all of which led to the conclusion that, despite its rich sports history, Chicago was simply not a place for professional basketball.
Evidence of Chicago’s hostile pro environment had been mounting since 1925 as the corpses of failed basketball teams piled on one another. First came the Chicago Bruins who entered the ABL in 1925 and went down with the entire league in 1931. The Bruins were revived in 1939 for the National Basketball League, but folded after the 1941-42 season. However, thanks to the local Studebaker plant that had converted to war production, the Chicago Studebaker Flyers represented the city in the NBL until 1944. World War II was winding down as the 1944-45 NBL season commenced with the new Chicago American Gears as the city’s newest addition to the professional basketball ranks. The Gears represented Chicago in the NBL until 1947 when the team left to establish Professional Basketball League of America, where it collapsed with the entire league after one season. Years passed with no professional basketball in Chicago until the Chicago Majors joined the revived American Basketball League in 1961, which eventually ended in 1963.
Granted not all of these failures were evidence that the city could not support professional basketball. For example, the Chicago Bruins collapsed with the ABL as the Great Depression worsened in 1931 and World War II’s call for military service contributed directly to the downfall of the Bruins and the Studebaker Flyers, a phenomenon that plagued multiple teams in the NBL after 1941. Of course, while the Second World War directly contributed to the downfall of the Bruins and the Studebaker Flyers, it did place a Chicago team among the first profressional teams to integrate as the Flyers replaced white servicemen with black players. It has been argued that racial strife is what brought down the Chicago teams during World War II, but players and coaches, as noted by Robert W. Peterson in Cages to Jump Shots, disputed these claims.
The establishment of the Bulls’ franchise carried with it the burden of four decades of failure, which magnified every loss and exaggerated every win. In 1966, players, coaches, and the front office set out to make history by reversing tradition, not carrying it, and if depressions, wars, and racial strife had brought down other professional teams in Chicago, the turbulence of 1960s could no doubt do the same and it was easier to expect failure than to count on success. One conclusion most certainly is that the environment in which the Chicago Bulls were established combined with the specific players to establish an underdog mentality, a toughness, and an understandable assumption, that failure, not success was around the corner.
If one starts studying Bulls’ history in the 1990s the perception of the franchise is profoundly different, while venturing back almost a century reveals more failure than success and places the 1990s, the era that has and continues to defined Bulls basketball, as the exception rather than the norm. The finished product of this research will not tell cynical fans definitively why they are pessimistic about the future nor will it completely explain the “heart and hustle” culture surrounding the Chicago Bulls. However, a journey to the beginning will inevitably broaden understanding of the present and help answer, or at least think about, questions as to why, when optimism seems appropriate, Bulls fans are cynical, why the front office does or does not sign or draft certain players, and probably most importantly how did the Bulls succeed in the “graveyard” of professional basketball.
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