Tom Boerwinkle passed away on Wednesday. The former Chicago Bulls center had been suffering from a rare form of leukemia for over a decade, and he succumbed to the illness at age 67. This is a website about basketball, though, and our love for a game we’ve devoted our lives to. And Tom Boerwinkle, unheralded center during the golden age of NBA centers, was a devoted master of the all-around craft of pivot play. Boerwinkle thrived at a position that used be relevant, loving a gig that used to value passing and screening and spacing in a five-man offense as much as it did the de rigueur big man options like rebounding and block shots.
Though the greatest rebounder of all time, Dennis Rodman, played for the Bulls between 1995 and 1998, Boerwinkle still holds the team record for most boards collected in a game (37) while working in a Bulls uniform. And though excellent passers like Luc Longley, Brad Miller and Joakim Noah have tossed the pill around with ease through their Chicago careers, Boerwinkle remains the gold standard when it comes to finding the open man in an offense that isn’t tailored to meet the needs of the big man that can score and defend.
NBA.com’s Sam Smith asked around, in the wake of Boerwinkle’s passing, and absolutely nailed it in his remembrance of the big man’s work. The best summation comes from former Bulls teammate Jerry Sloan:
Yet with their forward oriented offense and tough guards, the Bulls evolved into one of the premier teams of the era winning 51, 57, 51 and 54 games in consecutive seasons. And this was when the Lakers were winning 33 straight, when the Bucks were becoming one of the great teams just up the road and the Knicks were setting a standard still admired in New York.
Boerwinkle quietly averaged a double-double two seasons and was among the league’s top rebounders in 1970 and had himself a 37-rebound game on a snowy January night that season in 35 minutes. His teammates tried to get him to go back in as there was ample time left for more stats. He declined. Boerwinkle was the ultimate team guy, as he was as a friend and colleague, always sacrificing for the group to be better, to succeed as well as it could.
“He was one of the best teammates you could have,” said Sloan. “Humble, hard working, a great person, fun to be around every day. Sometimes the talent is not enough. But we were guys who were as good as we could be and good for Chicago, and Tom was one of those guys.”
Boerwinkle was Chicago’s first significant first round selection, the fourth overall pick in a 1968 draft that was lacking in star-power.
(Though it was a draft that featured Shaler Halimon, the man who single-handedly erased a six-point lead for Chicago in eight seconds with three quick shots at the end of regulation to force overtime against a Milwaukee Bucks team the Bulls would eventually down in overtime. Halimon, without the help of the three-point line, hit three jumpers on a night that Boerwinkle held Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to 7-25 shooting from the field as the Bulls prevailed by a 132-130 score.)
For those that were unaware of Boerwinkle’s gifts, this video may help:
Pivot play, with touch and smarts and savvy and intelligence guided by experience. Rest in peace, Tom Boerwinkle. Thank you for holding down the middle.