O’Donnell: Chet Walker was first Bull to hint at coming championship change

THE LIST MAY NOT BE RIFE with champions. But it rolls off a dated Chicago sports fan's noggin like so many sweet words of youth:

Banks, Santo, Jenkins, Billy Williams, Mikita, Hull, Sayers, Butkus, Dick Allen and … Chet Walker.

When the death of Walker, at age 84, was announced over the weekend, there was a major lament. That was that the Bulls don't have a full-service historian capable of properly explaining the man's importance to the progressive establishment and eventual business flourishing of the franchise.

Nothing but the truth: The five most important players in the history of the Bulls — in order of appearance on the roster — are: Jerry Sloan (April 1966), Guy Rodgers (September 1966), Walker (1969), Michael Jordan (1984) and Scottie Pippen (1987).

Sloan was the sandblaster and Rodgers was the flair in establishing an expansion beachhead in a city once notorious for not supporting pro basketball. Jordan and Pippen were the moon orbiters who conquered the cosmos.

IN BETWEEN WAS Walker. He came in a winner, a key member of the fabulous 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers (68-13). He hoisted Sloan, Dick Motta, Bob Love and all on his slithery shoulders and made a town and a team believe.

“I don't think Chet ever walked on to a basketball court thinking that his team wasn't going to win,” the late Norm Van Lier once said. “He was about as far from a rah-rah guy as you can get. But he always seemed to do the right thing, be moving toward the right place and always making the big payoff shots.”

He also harbored somewhat of a lifelong, quiet-moments melancholy. Some, like the brilliant Bob Logan, attributed it to his youngest years immersed in the staggering racism of 1940s Mississippi. Others said it was because of some personal matters he preferred to keep far from the limelight.

A DISLIKE AND WARINESS of Jerry Krause extended back to their days at Bradley University. The 6-foot-7 Walker — whose mother had moved her family to Benton Harbor, Mich. — was an instant All-American from the time he stepped on to the Robertson Memorial Fieldhouse varsity court in December 1959.

Krause was a gadfly around the Bradley basketball and baseball programs with a penchant for rubbing many the wrong way. He desperately wanted to be one of the “in crowd.” Part of that crowding included racing to sit with Walker and other players after practices at dormitory dinners.

Walker and mates like Al Saunders and Bobby Joe Mason found Krause's pushiness uncomfortable and inappropriate. They didn't want to spend a rare window of winter downtime listening to chatter about basketball. So Walker was designated to go to coach Chuck “Ozzy” Orsborn and ask that he tell the de facto little team manager to back off.

ORSBORN DID AND KRAUSE never forgot. More than three decades later, on the night that Jordan led the Bulls to their once-unimaginable championship No. 1. over the Lakers, Krause, according to Walker, saw to it that Walker was not admitted to the team's victory party in L.A.

After his 13-year NBA career ended with the Bulls' flameout vs. Golden State in the 1975 Western Conference Finals, Walker turned to film production. His mentor was Zev Braun, a successful North Shore businessman and father of Ben Braun (New Trier '71), who would later serve as head men's coach at Eastern Michigan, Cal and Rice.

Under the tutelage of Braun the father, Walker got out of the Hollywood gate well. He received producer's credits for the made-for-TVers “Freedom Road” (1979) — starring Muhammad Ali — plus a biopic of Isiah Thomas's mother Mary Thomas that won an Emmy in 1988.

BUT BY THE MID-1990s, Walker's filmmaking hit the doldrums. He was also showing a propensity for letting enthusiasm and advance fundraising outpace fulfillment of proposed cinematic projects.

A steady health decline due to kidney issues and high blood pressure didn't help. His failure to show at a ceremony honoring Bradley's All-Century team in November 2003 was attributed to multiple streams of festering bad blood in Peoria. He also didn't attend the Bulls' poorly managed inaugural Ring of Honor events last winter.

But Chet Walker's brilliance as a basketball player and his absolute landmark role on the organization's long and balky advance from uncertain expansion team to six-times world champions can never be wiped away.

HE WAS INSTANT HOPE for Bulls fans. His public basketball persona was gracious and dignified. On Motta teams of floor burners and knee bangers, he was the magically floating crunchtime money man

During Walker's six years in Chicago (1969-75), the major pro sports teams won no championships.

But boy, did he and the other stars hint that some day, a'change was gonna come.

Jim O'Donnell's Sports and Media column appears each week on Sunday and Wednesday. Reach him at All communications may be considered for publication.

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