"No. I never considered suicide, but a lot of people were suggesting it," Edward Badger, the coach of the Chicago Bulls was saying yesterday, recalling those dreary, dismal days last fall when his basketball team lost 14 of its first 16 games.
What a terrible way to start a head coaching career in the NBA. The fans were snarling. The Press was growling and the players were wondering how long their bad luck would last.
In that awful stretch, the Bulls suffered an overtime loss to Portland, a two-point defeat by Seattle, another overtime setback against the Celtics and then finally, a last-second heart-breaker to Golden State. They also were plagued with injury and illness.
"Actually, we were playing then almost as well as we are now," said Badger. "Yes, I was concerned, who wouldn't be? The owners were a lot more patient than the writers. But I always had a feeling we could turn it around.
Since Dec. 4, the Bulls have won 37 games, more victories than any team in the league over the same stretch. Prior to last night's loss to Philadelphia they won eight in a row and 16, and moving ahead of Kansas City in the race for the final playoff berth in the Western Conference.
The Bulls have accomplished that remarkable turnaround with seven new bodies on the roster, a rookie starting at one forward, a free agent pick-up starting at guard and a first-year coach - Badger who says, "What I'd really love is for us to meet the Bullets in the finals."
Badger served as Dick Motta's assistant for three years in Chicago, and his team still plays the same hard-nosed, bowl-em-over, kick-'em-in-the-shins defense Motta insisted upon then and now.
The Bulls now lead the NBA in team defense, allowing an average of 98 points a game. And last week, they finally began scoring more points - 98.5 - on offense than they gave to the other team.
The major difference in the Bulls these days in the dominating play of center Artis Gilmore, an early target of the boo-birds, and the Bulls newly discovered fast break.
It used to be the Bulls ran only at the mouth. If Bob Love wasn't squawking about getting his shots, then Chet Walker was complaining about shabby treatment from management.And Norm Van Lier, make that "Stormin' Norman," yelled at everybody, particularly the referees.
But Badger has them whooshing downcourt whenever the opportunity arises. "If we've got the break," he said, we'll be gone. Because of the personnel we had here, Dick couldn't do that. Right now, I'd say 50 per cent of our set plays are Motta's plays. The man's a great coach. Why change things that work.?".
Still, says Badger, Gilmore has made it all work. The other night against Cleveland, he had 23 points, pulled down 21 rebounds and had eight assists. He is averaging 18 points and 13 rebounds, outscoring opposing centers by 10 points a game, with seven more rebounds, has olready set team records for scoring by a center, offensive rebounds and blocked shots and will probably set another for shooting percentage.
"I have mixed emotions about all this (this winning streak)," he said the other day. "I remember what is was like before we were wining, but everybody's happy now, so I guess I am, too."
The happiest Bull of them all, surely, must be guard Wilbur Holland. He was cut in training camp by Atlanta, picked up by the Bulls three games into the season and came in one night to score 27 points against Portland. He started the next night, hit for 30 against Seattle and has been starting ever since.
Holland has averaged 19 points over the last 27 games with 52 per cent shooting accuracy, and also has given Van Lier some relief bringing up the ball.
Van Lier is enjoying one of his best seasons ever. One of the game's great penetrators, he is averaging almost eight assists a game, continues to guard opponents' best-scoring guard and also find time average 10 points a game.
Rookie Scott May has recovered from an early about with mononucleosis, the same illness that sidelined forward colleague, Mickey Johnson, contributes 17 points and 10 rebounds a game.
"Chicago can win it all." Motta said the other day, "Artis is really starting to play well now and May is some kind of player. The only problem they may have is that they don't have any depth at guard."
What the Bulls do have, however, is drawing power. Their last six home games have pulled in a total of 113,000 paying customers and last Tuesday's game against the Lakers set an all-time one-game record of 21,046.