Fifty-five years ago this month, as the Chicago Bulls prepared to take the court as the NBA’s newest expansion team, Tribune sportswriter Robert Logan was skeptical that professional basketball would ever catch on in this town. Twice, the National Basketball Association had tried to plant a team in Chicago. Twice, the league had failed.
“So for the third time in its roller-coaster existence, the N.B.A. will attempt to put major league basketball in Chicago,” Logan wrote. “As a stronghold of big league baseball, football, and hockey, Chicago has proven that it will pay handsomely to see the pros. Basketball? That’s another story…Chicago, it has been said, just isn’t a basketball town. The N.B.A., on its record here and in other places, has proved to be somewhat less stable than the Rock of Gibraltar.”
At the time, Michael Jordan was a three-year-old toddler living in Brooklyn, N.Y. Logan had no way of knowing that a quarter-century after his deadline, the Bulls would captivate not only the city of Chicago, but the entire world.
You couldn’t blame Logan for being a Doubting Thomas. Up to that point, professional basketball had flopped repeatedly in Illinois. The Chicago Bruins, founded by George Halas, played in the Broadway Armory and competed in the American Basketball League from 1926 to 1930. (Bruins forward Blair “Barney” Varnes was the first to shoot a basketball with one hand.) In 1946, the state had three teams in the two leagues that would later merge to form the NBA. All would either fold or move on to greater success in new cities.
That year, the most exciting player in the National Basketball League was rookie George Mikan of the Chicago American Gears, who played in the Universal Amphitheatre. Mikan, a 6-foot-10 inch center, had graduated from DePaul University that spring. Basketball’s first superstar big man, Mikan led the American Gears with 16.5 points a game — and then he led them to the league championship, defeating the Indianapolis Katuskys, the Oshkosh All-Stars, and the Rochester Royals in the playoffs. It was Chicago’s first pro basketball title, and its last until the Bulls won the NBA Finals in 1991. After that season, the Gears left the NBL to join the new Professional Basketball League of America. They were off to an 8-0 start when the PBLA collapsed, after just one month in existence. With the American Gears defunct, Mikan ended up with the Minneapolis Lakers, a team he led to four NBA championships.
The NBL began its 1946-47 season with a franchise in Buffalo. After just 13 games, though, the Buffalo Bisons decided that Western New York wasn’t working out. So they left the 14th largest city in the U.S. and decamped to…Moline, a little town of 30,000 people on the banks of the Mississippi River. The team was rechristened the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, after the Sauk warrior who was also the namesake of Chicago’s hockey team, and moved into Wharton Fieldhouse, a 6,000-seat arena.
Moline was not as esoteric a choice as it might seem. Pro basketball was still a niche sport. As in the early days of the NFL, most of the NBL’s franchises were in second- or third-tier Midwestern factory towns. Besides the aforementioned Indianapolis Katuskys and Oshkosh All-Stars, the league also included the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, the Toledo Jeeps, and the Anderson Duffey Packers.
The Blackhawks lasted a little longer in Moline than the American Gears did in Chicago, and left a more enduring legacy. In 1949, they hired Red Auerbach as their head coach. The Blackhawks went 29-35, though, and a frustrated Auerbach quit after the team traded his favorite player. The next year, Red was hired to coach the Boston Celtics. You know the rest of that story. The Blackhawks gave up on Moline after the 1950-51 season, in which they went 25-43, finishing last in the Western Division. They moved to Milwaukee for four seasons, then to St. Louis, where they won the 1958 NBA championship. They are now the Atlanta Hawks, making them the only professional sports team to have played in five cities.
The Basketball Association of America was formed in 1946 to challenge the NBL. A charter member: the Chicago Stags, who played in the old Stadium. The Stags’ star player was Max Zaslofsky, one of the era’s great Jewish basketball players. They made it to the finals in their first season, and, like the Blackhawks, were part of the 1949 BAA-NBL merger that formed the NBA. However, that 17-team league offered the public more pro basketball than it was willing to support. In 1950, the NBA reduced its roster to 11. Moline made the cut; Chicago didn’t. The Stags folded before the season started.
After the Stags collapsed, the NBA would not return to Chicago for 11 years. The replacement franchise was named the Packers. That nickname only lasted a year. Even though the stockyards were still operating, making Chicago the meatpacking capital of America, it really wasn’t appropriate for one of our sports teams to share a handle with Green Bay’s football team. So in 1962, the Packers became the Zephyrs. In 1963, they left Chicago altogether, and became the Baltimore Bullets. The club’s president, Dave Trager, “blamed the lack of a proper ‘civic attitude’ in Chicago as a major reason for the team to move,” the Tribune reported. “The Zephyrs have been in the red financially since they entered the association with a new franchise two years ago. Total losses were estimated at $400,000. The team finished last a year ago and next to last this season.” The Packers/Zephyrs are now the Washington Wizards, a three-city franchise.
We’ve mentioned so many failed Illinois basketball teams that we ought to mention a success. The oldest pro basketball team in America got its start here. That would be the Harlem Globetrotters. Despite their name, they were from the South Side of Chicago: many of the original players graduated from Wendell Phillips High School. The American Basketball League was all white, so a barnstorming team was the only showcase for Black talent. Promoter Abe Saperstein named them the Harlem Globetrotters so audiences wouldn’t be shocked by their complexions. The Globetrotters played their first road game on January 7, 1927, in Hinckley, Illinois, a DeKalb County farm town. They lost, 43-34, to the Hinckley Merchants, a local pickup team. The Globetrotters have fared better against the Washington Generals.
As Robert Logan put it in 1966, the Bulls were Chicago’s “third — and doubtless final — chance for success in the N.B.A.” The Bulls succeeded all right. They succeeded more spectacularly than any Chicago sports team ever has. And they made everyone forget about the Bruins, the Blackhawks, the Stags, the American Gears, the Packers, and the Zephyrs.