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
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.”
Not every Bulls center had an extended love affair with Bulls fans. Corzine got a rough ride from the faithful merely because he wasn’t Gilmore, whom he replaced to start the ’82-83 season.
“I wasn’t the most popular center we ever had,” Corzine said. “It was tough following Artis. He was a Hall of Fame-type player, so those were tough shoes to fill. And we just had a different style of play.”
Corzine spent seven seasons patrolling the lane for his hometown team with his best season coming in his first with the Bulls in ’82-83 when he averaged 14.0 points and 8.7 rebounds. He was dealt to the Magic in the summer of ’89.
“I like to think I was more popular toward the end,” Corzine said of his Bulls years. “The more we won and the team was getting better and better I think I left on fairly on decent terms.”
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
Cartwright overcame the pressure of being acquired for Charles Oakley, a fan favorite and close friend of Jordan, to become a beloved member of the Bulls. The former Knicks standout was the perfect puzzle piece to run Phil Jackson’s triangle offense alongside Jordan and Pippen.
“I’m fortunate because when I came there I had already played for the Knicks for nine years so I didn’t have to score a ton of points and I didn’t have to establish myself in the league — all that stuff that young guys do,” Cartwright said. “If I had an opportunity to score I took it, but basically be a defender and be a stabilizing force on that team.
“I’ve always felt very, very fortunate to be part of that team,” he added. “Guys go their whole career without winning one championship and I was part of the first three and close on the last two teams.”
Wennington took home rings as a valuable member of the second three-peat and is now a radio analyst for the team.
“I felt the love of this team and the fans,” he said. “They liked what I brought to the table. I was not your traditional center. We ran a lot more high-screen rolls and things where I could pop and hit 15- to 18-foot jump shots and roll to the basket and get a couple of tip-dunks here and there.”
The later years
Post-championship runs saw Tyson Chandler, Brad Miller, Eddy Curry and Ben Wallace, among others, man the middle for the Bulls before they hit pay dirt with Noah, their top pick (ninth overall) in 2007.
Noah went on to play nine seasons during which he was named to two All-Star Games before signing as a free agent with his hometown Knicks last summer. Gasol had a successful turn as the Bulls’ top center before he also headed out of town by signing with the Spurs.
Now, it is Lopez’s turn to take the spotlight as “The Man in the Middle” during pregame introductions.
Perhaps Cartwright put it best when explaining why Chicago fans love those big men who sacrifice their bodies under the basket.
“They can relate to them because that’s who Chicago is,” Cartwright said. “You’re supposed to be a tough, grinding type of center where you come to work and give your best effort. Everybody appreciates that, win lose or draw — preferably win. Your effort means everything.”