Fridays with Fred: When Beloit hosted the Chicago Bulls
Tongue poking out, basketball pounding the hardwood floor, the 6-foot-6-inch shooting guard weaves past outstretched hands, dribbles the ball around an even taller man, and then races down the court, launches into the air, and drives the basketball down—a slam-dunk through the net.
Michael Jordan. Oct. 2, 1985. The Chicago Bulls at the Beloit College Field House.
Eighteen players and four coaches stepped off the team bus on Friday, Sept. 27, searching for a touch of magic. The Bulls had finished third the previous year with a 38-44 record, despite the stellar play of their sensational rookie, Michael Jordan. Now, during preseason, their new head coach, Stan Albeck, wanted the Bulls to train far away from the bright lights and distractions of hometown Chicago. Beloit College appealed because the bucolic campus was only 90 miles away, its basketball court featured a springy, flexible floor, and Albeck was an old friend of Buccaneer men’s basketball coach, Bill Knapton. The Bulls paid $100 a day for use of college facilities and in return held two open practice sessions and one intrasquad game for state line fans, also providing a major publicity boost for college and city. The Bulls practiced twice daily and allowed Beloit’s basketball players a close-up view from the sidelines. Local fans paid $1 a ticket for an open practice session and ponied up $4 for the intrasquad game. Five dollars would get you a pass for all three events.
Coach Stan Albeck was excited about coming to Beloit. “The training camp in Beloit provides us with absolute total concentration under a new environment,” he told the press. “Taking the club outside the city of Chicago insures a total basketball atmosphere which is what we’re trying to create because the team will be under a new system both offensively and defensively.”
Although not yet a great team, the Bulls were most definitely up and coming, featuring a couple of bona fide stars in Orlando Woolridge, the 12th-leading scorer in the NBA the previous season, and the recently drafted Charles Oakley, who would later become a core player for the New York Knicks.
Michael Jordan was the star attraction, however, and during the team’s initial press conference in Beloit, he hunkered down on a far-too-small Field House chair before attentive media. About basketball, Jordan told one reporter, simply, “This is a game that I love to play.” After an outstanding college career at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he had starred on the gold medal-winning Olympic basketball team and then as NBA Rookie of the Year, finished third in scoring, posting a 28.2 points-per-game average during his first season for the Bulls. His knack for taking to the air with an astounding, graceful leap toward the hoop, earned him the nickname, “Air Jordan.” His new coach referred to him as “the most exciting player in the NBA at the present time.”
That ability was on display before a capacity crowd of 2,600 at the Field House on Oct. 2, when the Chicago Bulls tested their new system of play, treating Beloiters to an exciting intrasquad contest. Earlier that day, Michael Jordan served as an honorary official at the Beloit-Cornell football game, in charge of the coin toss, which the Bucs won. After a few more days in Beloit, the Bulls broke camp and played a few exhibition games before returning to their home training camp in Chicago. Coach Albeck remarked that the Bulls “were really pleased by the hospitality and the treatment we received by the school.”
While Beloit fans enjoyed the thrill of preseason NBA basketball in a small college setting, the Bulls’ fortunes did not improve during the regular season. Michael Jordan broke his foot three games into the season and did not return until March. Bulls’ management fired Coach Albeck after the team finished fourth with a 30-52 record. However, with “his airness” Michael Jordan leading the way, within a couple of years the Bulls would begin a streak of 11 winning seasons in a row, also winning the NBA finals championship six times.
The Chicago Bulls made one more appearance in Beloit, returning for an intrasquad scrimmage game on Oct. 8, 1986.