Few days ago I had a chance to talk with 5-time NBA champion, 1980 NBA All-Star, former Chicago Bulls player and head coach, Bill Cartwright.
Let’s start with your youth in California. Who was your basketball idol back then?
I grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, so there was this team that was good, the Lakers. That’s when they had Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain. At that time that was kind of my favorite. But I had always been attracted to big guys, because I am tall. I loved Kareem; I used to have Kareem’s poster on my wall.
Then you became 3-time WCC Player of the Year, which has not been done before and after. How much did it build your confidence?
Well, I was really fortunate because I played with some really good players – James Hardy, Winford Boynes, Marlon Redmond, Chubby Cox – all those guys became NBA players. So we had really good teams. I was really fortunate to get a lot of attention when I was a sophomore in our school, University of San Francisco, when we were the number one team in the country. I was fortunate to be a part of a good team and good system, our coach was Bob Gaillard.
New York Knicks
Knicks drafted you with 3rd pick in 1979. Were you surprised with having such a big role on the team almost immediately?
Once again, I was fortunate, because it was unfortunate that our starting center, Marvin Webster, got sick that year and did not play. I ended up playing a lot, I was second in the league in minutes played. We had a young team, and a great coach, Red Holzman. Red coached with Phil Jackson and used some of his philosophies. I was in a situation where I could play a lot and learn a lot. I was a good offensive player, not very good defensive player, when I came into the league.
Then the Knicks changed front office and brought Dave DeBusschere and Hubie Brown. Did you think that this could make the team much better?
We were better, and then I got hurt, and we had a bunch of players, besides myself, get hurt. It started out really good, and ended not too good. During my time in New York, we had a lot of coaches; Red, we had Hubie Brown, Bob Hill, and Rick Pitino. So in those nine years, we had four different coaches. That’s not too stable and that’s not a winning formula.
You had a chance to play with Bernard King during his prime years. What was the ceiling for him if it was not for this terrible injury?
Bernard was great. I really learned a lot from watching Bernard, because he was a great professional, he took care of his body really well. He was really worried about his diet; his preparation for the game was great, he was so focused mentally every game it made everybody else focused. It was a great lesson to play with him, and a great lesson to watch him, and how he prepared.
Injury and comeback
At the same time, you were sidelined with foot injury. Were you worried about your career, knowing how Bill Walton’s career stopped due to similar issues?
Being injured was really frustrating, because I have never been injured before. The injury took place because I was working out during the summer and stepped on a rock, and instead of taking time off, I kept running at it. It developed into a stress fracture. I tried to play on it, and I could not. The next year it would not heal and it broke, so I really missed a year and a half. Luckily, I had support from my family, spent a lot of time in the swimming pool. I was able to come back and get past it.
After your comeback, you got the chance to play alongside Patrick Ewing. How was it like to play with him on a daily basis?
Patrick was terrific. We ended up getting Patrick, and guys like Mark Jackson, and Kenny Walker, who was the Slam Dunk champ. At that point I played with him, and that’s when Rick Pitino was there, and our system changed again. It was great to play with Patrick, but personally, I was frustrated, because I was not able to play very much.
Trade to Chicago
In the following season you got benched, and later traded for Charles Oakley. Was it difficult for you to deal with such situation?
No, because I was going to be able to play. That is all I wanted to do. I was still young, I was 31, so I felt pretty confident about what I could do. So, I was not worried about that. After being in New York with all the media, and all that hype, nothing was going to bother me. Being traded was great – I went to another team, they wanted me, wanted to play me, so I was very happy.
Many people talk about Michael Jordan putting more pressure on his teammates. Was it really like that in your case?
No. Not for me. I spent nine years in New York. Nobody is going to question your character more than playing in New York. All of that stuff that you read about how tough Michael was on his teammates – I never saw it. But I guess it makes for a nice story (laugh).
In the next years you played against the Pistons in the playoffs. How physically demanding was it to play against the “Bad Boys”?
The Pistons were just good. Everybody talks how good they were defensively, but those guys could score. It took a couple of years for us to pass them. Frankly, they were just better than us. They were more experienced, they had a better bench. I was gonna give credit to the Pistons, because after we were able to overcome them, we won three championships in a row. So it was a good lesson to learn about being able to persevere, move forward, take a challenge. We owe them, I believe, for making us the team that we became.
When during the 1990-91 season you realized that this can be the year to win it all?
We had a great opportunity, we were going to play the Lakers, we had just overcome the Pistons, and swept them. It was another challenge, and I just give credit to our team – we played great. We ended up losing the first game in Chicago, won the second game, and came back to LA for three straight games. Our coaching staff made great adjustments as far as being able to guard them, and we ended up winning our first championship.
Which of the three NBA Finals were the most difficult in your opinion?
They were all a challenge, but the one you remember the most, is your first one, against the Lakers, because it changed everything. Winning a championship was a goal, and it took me many years to get there as a player, so I was really happy. It set the foundation for what would become the Bulls being the team of the 1990s. So I think that the first one was the most important.
In 1994 you faced the Knicks in the ECSF, and played against Ewing, Oakley, or Mason at the age of 36. How do you recall the series?
Well, we had that game. It came down to Game 7 which was in New York, and it really came down to a couple of plays, that could have sent us to the Conference Finals and to play for the championship. That was of course without Michael, he was doing whatever he was doing. But our team played extraordinarily hard, we represented the city really, really well. It was something to be proud of.
Beginnings in coaching
After one year with the Sonics you retired, and later became assistant coach for Phil Jackson. Did your approach to his style of coaching change a lot when you joined his staff?
I was not going to coach. Jerry Krause talked me into coaching. I really owe Jerry Krause a lot, I owe him for trading for me, and I owe him for my coaching career, because I had other ideas. But Phil was great, it was a great situation to go in. It was such a great type of environment, we already had our system established, what we were going to do offensively, defensively. Everything was really well-orchestrated. It was a great lesson for me how to mentally be a coach. Because it is really time-consuming. And understanding basic questions – why you do what you do. For me it was great, because it made coaching make sense, because being a coach is being a teacher.
It was not only Phil, also guys like Jimmy Rodgers, Frank Hamblen. But the guy I spent probably the most time with was Tex [Winter]. He mentored me really well, as far as having everything make sense. I really appreciated my time with them.
Did some of the younger frontcourt players ask you for help, or advice during the 1997 and 1998 Playoffs?
I would work with the big guys for the most part. Everybody has their own routine, and the best you can get for the players is not only about how they should act, and how they should play, or handle situations, but your opponent. That is a big part of it. Knowing your opponent, knowing teams tendencies, coaching staff is really important. We did a great job that way, and as far as taking advantage of situation basketball, especially the mismatches. That is just playing smart.
How impressed were you with MJ’s heroics, especially during the 1993 and 1998 Finals? You had a chance to be either on the court, or very close to it.
Michael was a special player, special talent. But what made Michael a better player, and what makes anybody a better player, is not their skills, but how their skills allow other people to be better. When he developed into that type of a player, we became a championship team. We will see what happens this year in Brooklyn with Harden; one of the reasons why he has not been successful is because he has not been making anybody else better. And that is what your best player does, he makes others around you better, puts others in situations where they can score easily. When Michael became that type of a player, it became more easier.
Later you became the head coach of the Bulls. Was such job more difficult than playing?
Coaching is very tiring, because when you play, you focus on yourself. When you are coaching, you worry about everybody. It is a great challenge, I enjoyed the time when I was the head coach. We had the youngest team in the league, and also my boss who hired me, Jerry Krause, got fired, and we had a new GM. So that did not help, and I ended up getting fired.
Shortly after that, Bulls rookie, Jay Williams, had his motorcycle accident. When you got the news, were you more angry or sad?
Like everybody sad. The guy made ridiculous mistake, and basically ended his career. That is something you cannot get back, obviously he did not want that to happen. But you had to deal with it.
“The Bill Cartwright Show”
Few months ago, you started your podcast, The Bill Cartwright Show. Who convinced you to do?
Well, a friend of mine, Steve Cohen, has been bothering me for months about doing this podcast, and I refused. Really out of sheer boredom I decided to do it, and it has been fun. I have been able to talk to a lot of my former teammates, from NBA or college. It is something that got to continue, because I really like it, and it just helps me do what I really like.
It is really funny, because you think you know your teammates. You think you really know your friends. Then you ask them: “how did you end up at USF?”, or “how did you end up playing for the Knicks?”, because you think you know their story, but you don’t. Once you find out, it is always something else. That depth, and finding out more about the people you know, is just terrific. It has been a fun time.