Wednesday’s passing of Tom Boerwinkle coinciding with the arrival of the streaking Miami Heat brought to mind intersecting challenges of Bulls teams past and present.
Back in the early 70’s, as a kid growing up listening to and watching those teams through the likes of Jack Brickhouse, Jim Durham, and Andy Musser, the obstacle in the Bulls’ way was always the Los Angeles Lakers – in 1971, `72, and `73. And it seemed the big difference in the Bulls’ Chicago grit versus the loaded Lakers was in the middle, where Wilt Chamberlain tormented an opponent that couldn’t quite match up in the middle. One of those Lakers teams is still holding the NBA record winning streak of 33 games that the Heat’s trying to chase down. Like those L.A. teams then, Miami stood in the way of the Bulls’ title hopes two years ago, but we can only guess whether they would’ve done the same with a healthy Derrick Rose last spring, or this year. Different scenarios, yes, but playoff roadblocks nonetheless.
Even when the Bulls finally avoided the Lakers in 1974, it was another big man in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Milwaukee who helped knock them out in the Western Conference Finals. Depth was another huge issue on those Bulls teams, but more times than not, much of the blame turned to Dick Motta’s men in the middle: Boerwinkle, Cliff Ray, Dennis Awtrey. And even when the Bulls got Nate Thurmond from Golden State the following season, Ray, Rick Barry and the Warriors denied them a trip to NBA Finals in a cruel twist.
While I never got to know Boerwinkle personally as my access to the team grew professionally, I’d always been told what a quality person he was. What got lost in who Boerwinkle wasn’t as a player, is who he was – even if the matchups in those playoff series weren’t kind. He was the best passing big man of his time, often throwing blind, behind-the-back feeds to teammates streaking backdoor to the bucket. So good at it that he’s still eighth in franchise history in assists, despite playing only 10 years. He’s also still second on the all-time rebounding list, despite some talented power forwards who’ve come through town since. Even when Dennis Rodman came aboard for the Bulls’ second three-peat, he couldn’t beat Boerwinkle’s single-game record of 37 rebounds in a 1970 game versus Phoenix.
It’s probably good Boerwinkle didn’t play in the modern day. While Twitter, other social media, and radio and television sports talk shows can serve a lot of positive (and venting) purposes, Boerwinkle unfortunately would probably find himself in the epicenter of criticism if it all existed during his time. That’s unfortunate, so he’s actually fortunate to have played when he did. Yeah, those Bulls teams were among several Chicago sports teams in that decade that sucked me in, then broke my heart. It actually helped me become less emotionally involved with them after awhile, and maybe sped up my pursuit of neutral-thinking journalism.
But for all the strictly-box-score analysts, there were columns where Boerwinkle impressed, others not so much. And there were plenty of centers around the NBA back then who had trouble with the likes of Jabbar and Chamberlain, much less Lanier, or Cowens, or Reed. He still wound up making the four guys around him better in his unique way, and would’ve had a place in the modern-day NBA, too.