How WGN TV is celebrating 75 yearswe look back with a series of stories about history and memories.
The Chicago Bulls of the 1990s were a global phenomenon, a source of civic pride and the highest-rated show on WGN-TV at the time.
“You want to talk about ‘Must-see TV?'” said Bob Forwald, who ran WGN Sports as director of production. “You just had to watch WGN to see Michael and the Bulls.”
It was the culmination of a partnership between the Bulls and WGN that spanned six decades. WGN has broadcast Bulls games since the team’s 1966 expansion season. Jack Brickhouse served as play announcer.
In 1979, Bob Costas, who rose to prominence as the anchor of NBC’s Olympics coverage and the play-by-play announcer for the network’s baseball games, Super Bowls and NBA Finals (including calling Michael Jordan’s final shot as a Bulls player), was play-by-play for Bulls on WGN.
“WGN and the Bulls had kind of an on-again, off-again relationship,” Forwald said.
After a stint on WFLD Channel 32, the Bulls returned to WGN – just in time for the 1989 season.
The team was a title contender with a young superstar named Michael Jordan.
“Michael Jordan was the most famous man in the world,” said Bob Jordan, longtime WGN News anchor.
“We wanted to differentiate ourselves when we had the Bulls in 1989,” said Joe Pausback, a WGN broadcaster who covered the Bulls for nearly three decades.
There was something different about the WGN broadcast. It had more character than the NBA’s neutral national network, NBC. It also felt more like “The Big Game” than a typical regional cable channel.
“There was an atmosphere to those broadcasts that the other networks just didn’t have,” said Jim Tianis, WGN Sports anchor for nearly four decades. “With WGN, we had network reach, but we were a hometown station. We just weren’t afraid to show the whole scale of the event, not just between the lines.”
The games themselves shared the same DNA as WGN’s beloved Cubs telecasts. Directed by Arne Harris, the maestro who directed Cubs broadcasts with a distinct style that has drawn fans to the field for 40 years with the magic of television.
“To me, baseball is almost like a symphony,” Harris said in a 1997 interview about directing Cubs games. Harris took camera shots and monitored replays and graphics, all the while within earshot Harry Caray.
“Play ball, but let’s have some fun if we can,” he said.
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“I think so [Bulls telecast] carried over from how he did Cubs,” said Dan Roan, legendary WGN sports anchor, retiring in 2022. “In this regard, everything was similar. His production style. His style really came through. And I think that was the big difference between us and SportsChannel, NBC Sports Chicago, or whatever organization was on the other side.”
The broadcasts had another similarity to Cubs telecasts.
Announcers Wayne Larrivee and Johnny “Red” Kerr engineered the classic straight man-funny man dynamic.
“One was very buttoned up and the other was opposite, similar to Steve [Stone] and Harry [Caray] had to do Cubs games – and it worked. It worked gloriously,” said Thianis.
Although they never achieved the popularity of the Bulls anthem “Only the Bulls”, Channel 9 promoted the Bulls with memorable original theme songs “Get on up with those Bulls” and “The Chicago Bulls Boogie”.
Meanwhile, WGN’s stamp was all over the coverage – with a pun and a double entendre. Like the “Lead Off Man” of baseball telecasts, WGN’s Bulls-Eye was a pregame program with personality.
“Play on words to make it mean something, wink, wink, nod, nod,” Forwald said.
Likewise, instead of calling Phil Jackson’s program a generic “coaching show,” it was called “Know the Bull with Phil Jackson.”
“Phil is the guy who came up with the name himself,” Roan said. “So I’ll give him some credit for that.”
This had the effect of infusing WGN’s broadcasts with a playful spirit that captivated viewers.
“It gave us our own personality, whereas other shows just felt cookie-cutter,” Thianis said.
WGN also had a familiar roster of broadcasters, with Roan, Rich King, Wayne Larrivee and Kerr present season after season, which meant the broadcast team developed a sense of trust with the players and coaches, who ended up being more honest and open with Channel 9 than others. exits
“The bulls held that core together, we held our core together,” Forwald said. “So you’ve been through a lot together and they saw you in the NBA Finals in Utah and also in the January game in Toronto. So that relationship has been built for a long time, and we and our viewers have benefited from those great times.”
In one instance, Roan recalled, Jackson spoke openly about ending his tenure with the Bulls at “Bulls-Eye,” in a way he had not done anywhere else publicly.
“When you have a broadcast partnership like we have with the Bulls, they trust you a little bit more, they know you’re not trying to take anybody down,” Roan said. “You’re going to be honest and direct and tell what you see, but you’re not going to go out of your way to rip somebody off.”
WGN has a 20-person team to produce Bulls games.
“Everyone has their own responsibility in broadcasting,” said Thianis. “There are operators, there are repeat operators, there is a producer, there is a director, and we all make the show together.”
In 1991, Jordan was in the prime of his storied career, and the Bulls began their march to the first of two three-time NBA championships.
Jordan’s popularity was so huge that he was as famous around the world as the president, the Pope and Princess Diana.
The crowds of fans and media were around every corner, every hour.
“We arrived at 3 a.m. and there were 400 people lined up outside the hotel,” Roan said. “Just watch him get off the bus at 3am”
WGN’s status as a superstation seen on cable and satellite channels across the country (and beyond), which only added to the Bulls’ popularity.
“We all know the impact GN has had on the Cubs,” Roan said. “If you ask anybody who was managing the Bulls at the time, I think they’d say exactly the same thing [happened with the Bulls]. Being able to watch Jordan and this championship-winning team on cable anywhere in the country and half of North America was really exciting.”
In the early 1990s, WGN Bulls telecasts were available to 33 million households nationwide. The ratings showed that viewers in other cities were watching the Bulls on WGN instead of telecasts of their own teams.
“When I traveled around the country,” said Fred Mitchell, a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, “all over the world, through WGN, people learned about bulls.”
While the Bulls and WGN have enjoyed stunning success, other NBA owners have seen one team — and its broadcast partner — take viewers and money away from everyone else.
“It’s a very clear memory for me,” Roan said. “Commissioner David Stern and I were talking and he said, ‘WGB is my favorite local station and my least favorite cable station!'”
The NBA has tried to limit the number of games that can be shown domestically on super stations. WGN and the Bulls sued the league.
The league argued that it had to protect its lucrative national television deal and the remaining 26 teams in the league. In court documents, the league alleged that by broadcasting the Bulls nationally, WGN was engaged in an “attempt to steal the NBA’s national television revenues.”
“It’s not very often that you have an owner like Jerry Reinsdorf working with a TV channel against the league,” Forwald said. “But that’s exactly what happened in the trial.”
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Bulls and WGN, saying the NBA’s attempt to impose the restrictions was an “unlawful restraint of trade.” The WGN franchise was installed and Bulls games on the superstation’s showcase continued.
During the dynasty, WGN produced pool coverage of what has become one of Chicago’s favorite summer events, the Bulls’ six championship rallies.
“Because we do so many distance events,” Forwald said, “whenever a team wins a championship, WGN runs the pool and we broadcast the rally and parade.”
Photojournalist Kevin Dolman contributed to this report
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