CHICAGO – To a lot of Chicago Bulls fans, Tom Boerwinkle wasn’t just an alumnus and early big man of their favorite team. He was a litmus test, the guy who could separate the longtime diehards from the bandwagon set. If you followed the Bulls when Boerwinkle played for them – pre-Derrick Rose, pre-Michael Jordan, essentially pre-Artis Gilmore – you were the real deal.
Boerwinkle, the 7-footer from Cleveland by way of the University of Tennessee, died Wednesday at age 67. Drafted by Chicago with the fourth pick in 1968 – Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld went 1-2 that year – Boerwinkle played all 10 of his NBA seasons with Chicago, averaging 7.2 points and 9.0 rebounds.
He took up space and banged inside against the behemoths who roamed NBA courts back in the day, from Wilt Chamberlain, Hayes and Unseld to Willis Reed, Bob Lanier and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Offensively, he was what the old announcers and sportswriters referred to as a “pivot man,” working in the high post as cutters moved around him, dishing bounce passes or handing off to perimeter shooters.
Most of what you’d want to know about Boerwinkle can be found here, via longtime Chicago Tribune sportswriter Sam Smith‘s piece for the team’s Web site. The bottom line for so many Chicago fans, though, was that Boerwinkle represented the team’s early adopters and hardcore faithful, the ones who followed Bob Love, Chet Walker, Norm Van Lier, Jerry Sloan and coach Dick Motta as they played underdogs to the Lakers, the Knicks, the Celtics and the Bucks, among others.
It was easy to root for the Bulls once Jordan arrived and went supernova. Hanging in there in the Boerwinkle years required a little more stamina and faith, despite the Bulls’ run of six straight playoff appearances and seven in the big man’s tenure there.
In spite of Boerwinkle’s steady play and facilitating presence, many felt the roster required an elite center. So the Bulls went searching for one, trading for broken-down Nate Thurmond a couple years too late. Only when Gilmore arrived via the ABA dispersal draft in 1976 did Chicago have its answer for Abdul-Jabbar or Lanier. Yet the Bulls never broke through with Gilmore, either.
The other memory of Boerwinkle that stands out for a kid who grew up in Chicago in the 1960s and ’70s actually came from his college days. In November 1967, he was a senior at Tennessee when the Volunteers coach Ray Mears participated in an experiment for Sports Illustrated. To address the concerns that some in the game had about the dominance of the big man, the magazine explored the possibility of raising the rims to 12 feet.
All of a sudden, for this one trial intrasquad game, Boerwinkle’s reference point to the basket was that of a man about five feet tall.
What surprised many was that the biggest man, Boerwinkle, who is fairly agile and quick, had the most difficulty. While he had 15 rebounds, a little above his average, he had trouble getting them, although most of the missed shots fell within a 12-foot radius of the basket. He had no chance at all to get the shots that hit the front of the rim. The rebounds usually caromed over his head and were taken by one of the smaller men. On many shots the ball took longer to come down, giving the other players time to crowd into the lane and fight Boerwinkle for the ball. Several times he had the ball stolen away when he came down with it. He failed to block a single shot and did not score on a tip-in. He made only one basket in 16 tries, a jump shot from the foul line.
Boerwinkle never had to play on jacked-up rims again. He settled into a long career with the Bulls and remained popular later as a broadcaster and team alumnus. His place in their history is secure, wheeling and dealing out of the high post.