As WGN TV celebrates 75 years, we’re looking back with a series of stories on the history and the memories.
The Chicago Bulls of the 1990s were a worldwide 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 Vorwald, who oversaw WGN Sports as the director of production. “You just had to watch WGN to see Michael and the Bulls.”
It was the pinnacle of a partnership between the Bulls and WGN that spanned over parts of six decades. WGN broadcasted Bulls games beginning in the team’s expansion season in 1966. Jack Brickhouse served as the play-by-play announcer.
In 1979, Bob Costas, who became a household name as the host of NBC’s Olympics coverage, and an announcer who handled network baseball games, Super Bowls, and the NBA Finals (including calling Michael Jordan’s final shot as a Bulls player), was the play-by-play for the Bulls on WGN.
“WGN and the Bulls had sort of an on-again, off-again relationship,” Vorwald said.
After a stint on WFLD-Channel 32, the Bulls came back to WGN – just in time for the 1989 season.
The team was emerging as a title contender with a young superstar named Michael Jordan.
“Michael Jordan was the most famous person in the world,” said Bob Jordan, a longtime WGN News anchor.
“We wanted to differentiate ourselves, when we got the Bulls in 1989,” said Joe Pausback, a camera operator for WGN’s Bulls coverage for nearly three decades.
There was something different about a WGN broadcast. It had more character than the NBA’s neutral national network, NBC. It also had more of a “big game” feel than a typical regional cable channel’s coverage.
“There was a vibe to those broadcasts that other networks just didn’t have,” said Jim Tianis, a WGN Sports cameraman for nearly four decades. “With WGN, we had the reach of a network, but we were a hometown station. We were just unafraid to show the whole scope of the event as opposed to just between the lines.”
The games themselves had the same DNA as WGN’s beloved Cubs telecasts. The director was Arne Harris, the maestro who directed Cubs’ broadcasts with a distinct style that brought the fans to the ballpark through the magic of television for 40 years.
“Baseball, to me, is almost like doing a symphony,” Harris said in a 1997 interview about directing Cubs games. Harris called the camera shots and controlled the replays and graphics, while constantly in the ear of Harry Caray.
“Do the ball game, but let’s have a little more fun if we can,” he said.
More from WGN’s 75th Anniversary Coverage:
- The people of WGN: For 75 years, memorable personalities shaped the station
- ‘Chicago’s Very Own’ goes national: The rise and fall of the superstation
- For 75 years, WGN News has documented Chicago history — one story at a time
“I think it [Bulls telecast] carried over from the way he did the Cubs,” said Dan Roan, the legendary WGN sportscaster who retired in 2022. “Everything was similar in that regard. His production style. His style really carried through. And I think that was the big difference between us and SportsChannel, NBC Sports Chicago, or whatever the entity was on the other side.”
The broadcasts shared one more similarity with Cubs’ telecasts.
The announcers Wayne Larrivee and Johnny “Red” Kerr projected a classic “straight man-funny man” dynamic.
“One was just really buttoned up and the other was opposite, similar vibe to Steve [Stone] and Harry [Caray] had doing the Cubs games – and it worked. It worked famously,” Tianis said.
While they never quite matched 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.”
In the meantime WGN’s stamp was all over the coverage – with puns and double entendre. Like the ‘Lead-off Man’ on its baseball telecasts, WGN’s Bulls-Eye was a pregame program with personality.
“Get a play on words, and have it mean something wink, wink, nod nod,” Vorwald said.
Similarly, instead of just calling Phil Jackson’s program the generic “coaches show,” it was named “Know Bull with Phil Jackson.”
“Phil is the guy who came up with that name himself,” Roan said. “So, I will give him some credit on that one.”
It had the effect of imbuing WGN’s broadcasts with the playful spirit that charmed viewers.
“Because of that, we had our own personality, whereas the other shows just felt cookie-cutter,” Tianis said.
WGN also had a familiar roster of broadcasters: Roan, Rich King, Wayne Larrivee and Kerr were there, season after season, which meant the broadcast team developed a sense of trust with the players and coaches, who ended up being more candid and open with Channel 9 than with other outlets.
“The Bulls kept that core together, we kept our core together,” Vorwald said. “So you went through a lot together and they would see you at the NBA finals in Utah, and also a January game in Toronto. So those relationships built for a long time and we and our viewers were the beneficiaries of those great times.”
In one instance, Roan recalled, Jackson talked openly about the ending his tenure with the Bulls on “Bulls-Eye,” in a way he hadn’t done anywhere publicly.
“When you have a partnership in broadcast like we did with the Bulls – they trust you a little bit more, they know you’re not trying to tear anybody down,” Roan said. “You’re going to be honest, straight forward and tell what you see, but you’re not going to go out of your way to rip somebody.”
WGN has a 20-person production crew for Bulls games.
“Everyone has their responsibility in a broadcast,” Tianis said. “There’s cameramen, there’s replay operators, there’s a producer, there’s a director, and together, we all make the show.”
By 1991 Jordan was in his prime of his illustrious career, and the Bulls began their march to the first of two NBA championship three-peats.
Jordan’s popularity was so vast, he was as recognizable around the world as the President, the Pope and Princess Diana.
Throngs of fans and of media were around every corner, at every hour.
“We got in a 3 o’clock in the morning and there were 400 people standing out in front of the hotel,” Roan said. “Just to watch him get off the bus at 3 a.m.”
WGN’s status as a superstation seen on cable and satellite around the country (and beyond), only added to the Bulls soaring popularity.
“We all know the impact ‘GN had on the Cubs,” Roan said. “If you ask somebody with the Bulls running it at that time, I think they’d say exactly the same thing [happened with the Bulls]. The chance to watch Jordan and watch this team that’s winning all the championships on cable TV anywhere in the country and half of North America, really, it was pretty spectacular.”
In the early 1990s, WGN’s Bulls telecasts were available to 33 million households across the country. The ratings showed viewers in other cities were watching the Bulls on WGN instead of the telecasts of their own hometown teams.
“As I traveled all over the country,” said Fred Mitchell, a former reporter for the Chicago Tribune, “All over the world for that matter, people would know about the bulls through WGN.”
While the Bulls and WGN saw a smashing success, the other NBA owners saw a single team – and its broadcast partner — taking viewers and money away from everyone else.
“This is a very clear memory for me,” Roan said. “Commissioner David Stern and I were talking, and he goes, ‘WGB is my favorite local station, and my least favorite cable station!’”
The NBA attempted to limit the number of games that could be shown nationally on a superstation. WGN and the Bulls took the league to court.
The league argued it had to protect its lucrative national TV deal, and the other 26 teams in the league. In court documents the league argued that by broadcasting the Bulls nationwide, WGN was engaged in an “attempt to steal NBA national television revenues.”
“It’s not often that you have an owner in Jerry Reinsdorf, who is partnering with the TV station against the league,” Vorwald said. “But that’s exactly what happened in the lawsuit.”
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the Bulls and WGN, saying the NBA’s attempt to impose limits was an “illegal restraint on trade.” WGN’s right had been established and Bulls games on the superstation showcase continued.
During the dynasty, WGN produced the pool coverage of what became one of Chicago’s favorite summertime events – the six Bulls championship rallies.
“Because we do so many remote events,” Vorwald said, “Every time a team wins a championship, WGN runs the pool and we broadcast the rally and the parade.”
Photojournalist Kevin Doellman contributed to this report