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Longtime Bulls center Tom Boerwinkle dies at 67, known as gentle giant

Center Tom Boerwinkle shows his hook Feb. 1 1970. Boerwinkle played 10 years with Bulls. Only Michael Jordan Scottie Pippen

Center Tom Boerwinkle shows his hook on Feb. 1, 1970. Boerwinkle played 10 years with the Bulls. Only Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen played more. (Photo by Jack Lenahan.)

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Updated: April 29, 2013 12:16PM



Lew Alcindor was just as imposing as LeBron James is today and the Milwaukee Bucks were even more dominant than the Miami Heat when the Bucks brought an NBA-record 20-game winning streak to the Chicago Stadium on March 9, 1971.

And Tom Boerwinkle helped put an end to it.

One day after Joe Frazier took down Muhammad Ali in the ‘‘Fight of the Century,’’ Boerwinkle and the Bulls took down Alcindor, Oscar Robertson and the mighty Bucks. Going head-to-head with the great Alcindor — who at 22 was averaging 31 points a game and well on his way to his first MVP award and NBA championship — Boerwinkle grabbed 33 rebounds and scored 21 points to lead the Bulls to a 110-103 overtime victory that ended the longest single-season winning streak in NBA history.

Boerwinkle’s yeoman performance typified the gritty, gutty effort that turned Dick Motta’s Bulls into championship contenders in the 1970s. Alcindor scored 39 points in that 1971 game. But the 7-foot, 270-pound Boerwinkle made him earn every point with a determined effort that prevented the Bucks from taking the lead.

Boerwinkle, a ‘‘gentle giant’’ who played all 10 of his NBA seasons with the Bulls (1968-77), died Tuesday at age 67 after a long battle with Myelodysplastic syndromes, a form of leukemia.

‘‘We were all heartbroken to learn of the passing of Tom Boerwinkle,’’ Bulls executive vice-president Steve Schanwald said in a statement. ‘‘In addition to being one of the Bulls’ all-time great players, Tom was one of the kindest men you would ever want to meet with the gentlest of souls. A true gentle giant who made great contributions to the Chicago Bulls organization on and off the court.

‘‘We will miss him greatly and our condolences go out to his wife, Linda, his son, Jeff and his daughter, Gretchen.’’

Boerwinkle came from a humble basketball background in Independence, Ohio. He didn’t play high school basketball until his senior year. And he struggled early at Tennessee. But he made steady progress as an old-school ‘‘pivot man’’ under coach Ray Mears, averaged 15.3 points per game as a senior and came to the Bulls at the right time as the fourth overall pick in 1968.

When the Bulls were in their formative years in the late 1960s, they had enough gumption with guards Sloan and Guy Rodgers, but had a huge hole in the middle, where 6-6 Jim Washington was outmanned by the reigning big men of the NBA — Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell and Nate Thurmond.

Boerwinkle filled that hole admirably for most of his 10 seasons with the Bulls — not by going toe-to-toe with the giants of the game inside, but by rebounding, defending and becoming the perfect passing/pick-setting facilitator of Motta’s half-court offense.

In 1970-71, Boerwinkle averaged 10.8 points, 13.8 rebounds and a team-best 4.8 assists per game. He still holds the Bulls’ single-game record with 37 rebounds against the Phoenix Suns in 1970. He ranks second on the franchise’s all-time list in career rebounds (5,745, 9.0 per game), fifth in games played (635) and eighth in assists (2,007).

Boerwinkle averaged in double figures only twice in his career — 1969-70 (10.4) and 1970-71 (10.8). As his career progressed, the Bulls were always looking for more in the middle. From Dennis Awtrey to Clifford Ray to Nate Thurmond. But the Motta Bulls rarely were better than when Tom Boerwinkle started at center.



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