Ask any serious fan of the Chicago Bulls who Bill Wennington is, and you might get a few different answers, but I guarantee you that none of those answers will be a puzzled reply asking, “Bill who?” hey might tell you that he played an important role in the three consecutive championships enjoyed by the Chicago Bulls mid-90’s dynasty. They might also tell you that he is the radio voice for Chicago fans. They might even tell you that this seven-foot center hails from the Canadian city of Montreal.
While Steve Nash, Jamal Magloire, and the upcoming Juan Mendez are names that fly across conversations about accomplished Canadian basketball players, this nation that loves to celebrate our successes – especially abroad – is widely unaware of this legend in our midst.
It was at the age of 12 that this oddly tall young boy got his start in the game he would grow to love. Bill smiles about that time, and notes, “I was actually a hockey player.” He recalls being at a local swimming pool when Doug Alexander, a Montreal sports journalist, approached him about joining the local youth basketball league.
After discussing it with his mother, he joined the league. As to how he performed, in the new sport, Bill is candid: “I wasn’t good, but I liked it a lot, and it was fun.” He adds to this story, noting, “That’s what I tell kids today. In my first year playing, I was absolutely terrible. I enjoyed playing, it was a lot of fun, and I stuck with it.”
By the age of 14, his skills had drastically improved, leading to a spot on the Quebec junior team. While this led to a deeper involvement in the game, he still was not fully committed to the sport.
“It wasn’t until I moved to New York, I was in high school and Bob Mackillop sat me down and said, ‘Do you want to take this seriously? Do you want to be as good as you can be?’ That’s when it started to become very serious.” It would be in high school that Bill would make his mark. His play actually led him to the McDonald’s All-American high school game of 1981, where he played with Michael Jordan, Chris Mullin, and Patrick Ewing, among others.
His high school success began to open a whole new world for him. He was given the chance to play under the coaching of Jack Donohue for Canada’s National team, while also receiving over 200 university scholarship offers.
During his international play, Wennington recalls a number of life shaping experiences. One particular story he recalls was playing against Russia and being matched with Kovalchenko. “He had to be about 40 years old and I’m about 19 years old. I’m 7 feet tall and he’s 7 foot 5 – it was an eye opening experience.” He cites this time of his life as having altered, for the better, the direction his career in basketball would take. “It was a great help for me mentally, I was getting a lot of pressure situations in some very big games, and you are playing against guys who have taken the sport very seriously.”
At the same time, Canada’s National team was seeing greater international success than the program had previously attained.Eventually, Bill had narrowed down the hundreds of choices to just three: Duke, Virginia, and St. John’s. As to why he came to choose St. John’s, Bill lists a number of reasons, which he summarizes with a fond recollection: “New York was a basketball Mecca at that time.”
After a fourth place Olympic finish in the 1984 games and four years at St. John’s alongside future Golden State Warriors alumni Chris Mullin, Bill would enter the 1985 NBA draft. He would go in the first round to the Dallas Mavericks, as the 16th pick, which places him as the second earliest Canadian selection in the NBA draft – the first being Steve Nash.
Being selected in the first round led to five years in Dallas and one year in Sacramento, before things would take a surprising twist. As a free agent, Bill was facing a choice between a contract with the New York Knicks and the opportunity to play basketball overseas in Italy. With his wife pregnant, and the reality sinking in that he would not be able to play basketball forever, Bill chose the more lucrative offer in Italy.
Having signed a two year contract, this decision to play in Europe would come to reinvigorate his basketball career, and more importantly, his love for the game. “The whole experience was very good because, in the NBA, I wasn’t playing a lot. It had become a job, it was still basketball, it was still fun, but it became more work than fun”. After winning a championship in his second year in Italy, Bill took an offer which was more promising than anyone could have imagined.
He came back to the United States for a two month training camp contract to give starting center Bill Cartwright a rest. In this contract was the slight chance of finding his way into the fibers of the team, a possibility which had him competing with Greg Foster for the same position. “I decided that the best way to make the team was to be a coachable player – to do what the coach asked me,” Bill explains. “In training camp, I was passing the ball, running the offence, setting picks. Greg was shooting the ball every time he got it and he got a lot more points than I did in camp. I’m thinking to myself, ‘this is not good, he’s scoring all of the points’”. While he was worried, his approach worked and he ended up making the team. With a tone of humor and delight in his voice, Bill laughs saying, “somehow I managed to stretch 2 months into 6 years.” On a more serious note, he reflects, “It made me realize that it was the little things that made me make the team. I was being a coachable player, and that kept me around long enough to get a chance to shoot the ball and they got the chance to see what else I could do”
Having made the Bulls roster, he would embark on what would become a sporting dynasty. Slipping into the memory of it all, Bill testifies, “That team was so good!” He continues, saying, “Obviously we had talented players like Jordan, Pippen, and Rodman. But we also had Phil Jackson as our coach who made everybody understand what their role was, and, that when they played, to execute their role all of the time”.
Bill goes further to suggest that, “Phil really understands the human ego and how to mold everyone for the common goal and was able to keep Michael Jordan on the same level as me, Bill Wennington or Steve Kerr, and also pull us up to his level.”
The result was a domination of the 1995-96 regular season with a record of 72-10, which would lead into a 2nd championship three-peat with a 6 game series defeat of Seattle and back-to-back victories over Utah.
“It’s still one of my best memories in basketball, that first championship,” Bill reminisces. “At the end of the game, being there in the United Center and finally winning a championship, you realize that this is what you’ve been playing for. It’s a great feeling, all of your goals have been realized…I’m getting goosebumps now thinking about it.”
While the accomplishment was great, as well as one that is realized in very few NBA careers, Bill goes on to mention that on “the first day of training camp, Phil is like ‘it’s a new season, what’s done is done, and we’re starting over”.
It was that attitude of the team that Bill also notes as the most valuable experience he gained from playing with Michael Jordan. “In sports and life you find a lot of very talented people. Michael is a very gifted athlete, but what makes him so much better is that he understands he had to work at his gift and his craft. He didn’t rest on his ability, he pushed himself every single day in practice to get better and by him pushing himself, he pushed us. Here you have the best player in basketball working harder than anyone else in practice and in games, and if you don’t keep up, you’re gonna get embarrassed – he would embarrass you in practice!”
On May 26th, 2005, Bill Wennington and Gerald Kazanowski will celebrate their inductions into the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame at the award gala to be held at Toronto’s York Event Theatre. For Bill, “It’s surreal, because I’ve just done what I do. I worked hard at my game, tried to be the best possible basketball player that I could be, and I’ve had a lot of fun. To be honoured for having fun, it’s like what did I do?”.
So this little known Canadian legend’s list of accomplishments points out that he is one of the few players who have been able to do what they love and see such great success on so many levels. Due to the fact that the game has given him so much, Bill intends to continue to give to the game by passing on the wealth of knowledge that he has gained to future generations: “If it touches one person and that person realizes that, ‘Hey, I wanna do that’ and they put forth the effort and maybe they’re the next Michael Jordan”, adding a healthy chuckle, “or the next Bill Wennington, to be a part of that…”. Having seen the globe, the ups and downs of the NBA, and enjoying a post-NBA career in a broadcasting position he loves, Bill is assured in the wisdom of his experience that, “whatever you do, if you enjoy doing it, you will be good at it”.
Look out for the upcoming “We Recognize” feature on another Canadian Basketball Hall of Famer, Gerald Kazanowski.