On February 17, 1978, fans at Chicago Stadium witnessed a first.
After 12 years of existence, the Chicago Bulls retired their first uniform number, that of “Mr. Bull,” Jerry Sloan.
The Madhouse on Madison would have plenty of time to calm down after that excitement, as it took 16 years—and a change of venue to the United Center—before the Bulls would hoist another jersey to the rafters.
Eventually, Bob Love, Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson, Jerry Krause and Scottie Pippen all joined Sloan above the court. But for a franchise boasting six NBA titles and countless other highlights, six retired jerseys—actually four, as Jackson was honored for coaching and Krause as a general manager—is a dolefully droll number.
There are a number of other figures who should be so immortalized in the future, with five coming to the fore.
In his fifth season, Chet the Jet won his first and only championship as a starting forward on the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers. But while that season proved to be his best of Walker’s seven seasons with the 76ers, the Class of 2102 Hall of Famer found his greatest sustained success in Chicago.
Walker was a six-year member of the black-and-blue Bulls of the early 1970s. Over six seasons with the Bulls, Walker never failed to lead Chicago to the postseason. His career Player Efficiency Rating of 19.6 ties fellow Hall-of-Famer Scottie Pippen for fifth in Bulls history.
One difference between the otherwise similar pair of forwards? Pip’s No. 33 hangs from the United Center rafters, while Walker’s No. 25 does not.
Sure, “Red” Kerr’s NBA career falls just short of Hall of Fame worthiness despite neither failing to make the playoffs in his 12 seasons and nor missing a single game due to injury.
But when it comes to undeniable value to a single NBA franchise, Kerr and the Bulls had a relationship like few others ever did. From his retirement as a player in 1966 until his death in 2009, Kerr spent 39 of 43 years working for the Bulls. He was the club’s first head coach, where he led the baby Bulls to the playoffs in their first NBA season—still a unique achievement in history.
After brief stops coaching the Phoenix Suns and running the Virginia Squires of the ABA (where he discovered and signed Julius Erving), Kerr returned to Chicago to resume his lifelong love affair with his hometown.
Bulls fans adored Kerr’s color and candor on broadcasts for more than three decades. The Hall of Fame offered Kerr a modest nod for his contributions to the game in 2009, and the Bulls erected a bust of the beloved announcer in the concourse of the United Center.
But a retired microphone up in the rafters—overlooking the court where he never missed a single second of Michael Jordan’s career—is an even more appropriate honor.
From the moment Jerry Sloan’s jersey was raised, plans should have been afoot to reunite the famous Bulls bruiser backcourt of Sloan and Van Lier in the rafters. Van Lier was still playing for the Bulls at the time of Sloan’s honor, but in the three decades between Van Lier’s retirement and his death in 2009, somehow, the no-brainer decision to retire No. 2 never happened.
Van Lier was a fixture in Chicago as a radio personality and Bulls analyst for many years after his retirement, so it wasn’t a case of out-of-sight, out-of-mind The fiery guard—earning All-Defensive honors in eight of his nine full NBA seasons—was outspoken and surely rubbed some in Chicago’s front office the wrong way.
Teammates and honorees like Sloan and Bob Love are dumbfounded that Van Lier doesn't have his Bulls number retired. Norm himself was deeply hurt by being ignored by the team he so loved.
But sentiment aside, Van Lier left enough blood on the Chicago Stadium hardwood to be immortalized. No longer should the Bulls ignore the man who was the heart of their first great squads.
Gilmore's HOF honor was late, but still he waits on the Bulls.
Back before his Hall of Fame enshrinement as a member of the Class of 2011, Gilmore matter-of-factly told me why he felt such honors had thus far eluded him.
“Look at my career,” he said, without a hint of bitterness. “None of the teams I played for [the Bulls, Kentucky Colonels, and San Antonio Spurs accounted for all but 47 of his 1,329 pro games] ever retired my number. Why, then, would I be good enough to be in the Hall of Fame?”
The fact that Gilmore—easily among the best dozen centers in basketball history—had to wait more than 20 years to crack the Hall is embarrassment enough. That the gentle giant, with a 21.7 PER that ranks behind only Michael Jordan in Bulls history, has not seen his No. 53 retired speaks poorly of the club.
One MVP down, No. 1 in the rafters to come?
Of course, it will be many years before Rose sees his No. 1 jersey hanging from the United Center rafters. But the 23-year-old has already stitched together four stellar seasons in his hometown and is locked up for at least another five.
With a 19.9 PER, Rose already ranks fourth in team history and should finish his career in Chicago second only to Michael Jordan. His last two Bulls clubs finished with the most wins in the NBA, and in 2010-11, Rose became the youngest MVP in NBA history, so in some ways, he's even got a leg up on MJ, the legend he grew up watching.
One day, Rose’s jersey should sit alongside MJ’s, atop the UC.