Lining the walls outside the Bulls’ United Center locker room are large action photos of some of the team’s legendary players. On one side are the modern heroes born from six NBA titles. Michael Jordan is there, of course. And Scottie Pippen too. Dennis Rodman, Toni Kukoc and John Paxson.

On the other side are greats from a more distant past: Norm Van Lier, Jerry Sloan, Bob Love and Chet Walker. Smack in the middle — how appropriate — is Artis Gilmore, arguably the greatest center the franchise has known.

Each time current Bulls center Robin Lopez heads to the court he passes Gilmore.

“(Chicago fans) love the hard-working players—that’s something they really appreciate,” Lopez said. “That’s kind of what I pride my game on.”

Lopez has joined a fraternity of Bulls centers that includes Gilmore, Tom Boerwinkle, Dave Corzine, Bill Cartwright and others who patrolled the paint here. Bulls fans have held a bond with the men in the middle — most of it positive, some not — throughout the history of the organization.

“The role of the center is kind of hard-working, banging and there’s nothing real fancy,” said Bill Wennington, who helped the Bulls win three championships during his six seasons here (1993-99). “Big guys aren’t high flyers. It’s something that most people can relate to, guys who are setting screens and rebounding. The bring-a-lunch-pail-type of guy who goes to work every day.”

Added Cartwright, who played a significant role in the Bulls’ first three-peat from ’91-93 and later coached the team: “People in Chicago are hard-working people, they enjoy effort. They want to see somebody who could play that position that could hold their own.”

The early years

Before Lopez, Pau Gasol and Joakim Noah and before Wennington, Cartwright, Luc Longley and Will Perdue were the likes of Boerwinkle, Gilmore, Corzine.

And Len Chappell.

Not only was Chappell the first Bulls center, he scored the first basket in franchise history on Oct. 15, 1966, against the St. Louis Hawks.

But it was Boerwinkle who was the first big man to capture fans’ hearts. Drafted with the fourth overall pick in 1968, the 7-footer out of Tennessee spent his entire 10-year career with the Bulls and was a rebounding machine.

Of Boerwinkle’s 5,745 career rebounds (second only in team history to Jordan’s 5,836), 37 came in one game as the Bulls trounced the Suns 152-123 on Jan. 8, 1970.

“The Bulls in the ’70s had guys like Sloan, Boerwinkle, Love, Walker and Van Lier, and they were my idols,” said Corzine, who attended Hersey High School and DePaul before playing for the Bulls from 1982-89. “When I was at DePaul we got a chance to play in some three-on-three pickup games with those guys in the offseason at Angel Guardian Gym. Boerwinkle was a massive dude. I remember thinking, ‘If this is what the NBA is going to be like, it’s going to be rough.’

“Tom was the kind of guy who was a glue guy who clogged up the middle and passed the ball,” Corzine continued. “He was just a great fit for (coach) Dick Motta’s team. He got the ball to the right people and rebounded and set screens.”

After his retirement from the NBA, Boerwinkle became a radio analyst for the Bulls. He died in March of 2013 at 67 —but his legacy lives on.

“Tom was a big body and a smart, smart player,” said Gilmore, who joined the Bulls after being the top selection in the 1976 dispersal draft. “He really had a great understanding of the game. He understood the centers and he understood his abilities and his contributions. He was fully engaged to the max. … He had a really nice, illustrious career.”

So did the 7-foot-2 Gilmore, who was nicknamed “The A-Train.” He was a six-time NBA All-Star, including four appearances as a Bull in 1978-79 and ’81-82. The Basketball Hall of Famer was intimidating at both ends of the court and averaged 18.8 points, 12.3 rebounds and a .582 field-goal percentage during his career.

“You couldn’t move him,” said Wennington, who faced Gilmore when he later played for the Spurs. “Artis was so big and strong and his hands were just huge. He’d just hold you and you weren’t going anywhere. And if he wanted to go somewhere he went somewhere. People talk about (Shaquille O’Neal) and how big and strong he was and how he was the immovable object, but Artis was right there with Shaq.”

Despite five solid seasons with the Spurs and finishing his career with the Celtics, Gilmore said he considers himself a Bull at heart and cherished his time in Chicago.

“It’s a great city — I thoroughly enjoyed it,” Gilmore said. “The fans there really love their Chicago Bulls and support them.”

The misfits

Perdue had some difficulties of his own — courtesy of Jordan — after the Bulls selected him in the first round (11th overall) out of Vanderbilt to back up Cartwright. Jordan called Perdue “Will Vanderbilt” because he didn’t believe the center was good enough to play in the Big Ten.

“I caught a little flak because of MJ’s comment,” Perdue said. “He was trying to be funny and I kind of felt like I had an uphill battle after that, but I also felt I was embraced a bit by fans (over the years). It wasn’t like I was a fan favorite by any means, but I thought that they really came to appreciate what it was that I did for the team.”

Perdue helped the Bulls win three championships before being dealt to the Spurs (where he won a fourth title) for Dennis Rodman.

The perfect fits


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