When the name George Steinbrenner is brought up, it’s easy to go to one topic: the New York Yankees. For decades, Steinbrenner was the most well-known owner in sports, leading the Yanks to seven World Series titles in his 37 years in the Bronx. But (in my best “30 for 30” voice) what if I told you that before George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees, he was a part-owner of the Chicago Bulls? Yes, that’s actually true and he was actually still a part of the team when Michael Jordan came to the Windy City in 1984.
George Steinbrenner’s early days in professional sports were terrible
George Steinbrenner was always a big sports guy. He was wealthy growing up, the son of an owner of a successful shipping company. He was a good athlete, playing football and running track in high school. He furthered his track career in college and was an athletic coordinator in the Air Force. After his time in the armed forces, he coached basketball and football at the high-school level and later joined the Northwestern and Purdue football programs as a coordinator. But he just wasn’t happy and returned to his father’s company in 1957 and helped rebuild it, making it bigger than it had ever been.
By 1960, George Steinbrenner had made enough money on his own and wanted to buy into professional sports. He purchased the Cleveland Pipers of the National Industrial Basketball League, who joined the American Basketball League the following year. Despite success on the court, things were disastrous off of it. It was estimated that the team lost $170,000 in one season and despite an attempt to merge with the NBA, the entire league folded in 1962. Steinbrenner went back to the business world and that’s when things really changed for him.
With a group of investors alongside him, Steinbrenner purchased the American Ship Building Co. and later became the CEO. The company was bringing in more than $100 million per year in revenue and he once again got the itch to get back into sports.
Steinbrenner bought into the Chicago Bulls in 1972
After a failed attempt to buy the Cleveland Indians in 1971, George Steinbrenner began to look elsewhere.
In 1966, the Chicago Bulls were introduced as the NBA’s newest franchise. The Windy City had two previous NBA teams, the Chicago Stags from 1946-1950 and the Chicago Packers/Zephyrs from 1961-1963, who are known today as the Washington Wizards. The team found some early success and crowds were solid with often more than 10,000 people in the stands on any given night.
George Steinbrenner noticed this and wanted in. In 1972, he had gotten his foot in the door in the sport of horse racing and he now had the opportunity to get back into professional basketball and bought a 10% stake in the Chicago Bulls.
He couldn’t wait to get rid of his stake in the Bulls in the 1980s
Not long after George Steinbrenner bought into the Chicago Bulls, he and a group of investors bought the New York Yankees in early 1973. Looking back, it’s hilarious that he initially said that he wouldn’t be a part of day-to-day operations. But that would obviously soon change as he would become one of the most hands-on owners in sports.
Meanwhile, the success that the Chicago Bulls had seen in their early years had diminished as the 1980s rolled around. The team had been sold to the Wirtz family years prior, who also owned the Chicago Blackhawks. The Bulls were struggling. Attendance was awful and just about everybody, including George Steinbrenner, was looking for a way out.
In the summer of 1984, Steinbrenner was at a dinner with Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and was complaining about his ownership stake with the Bulls. Reinsdorf recounted the story to NBA.com ahead of his Basketball Hall of Fame induction in 2016.
“He’s moaning and groaning he’s got to write checks every year for the Bulls. I told him, ‘George, the reason you’re not making money is your [primary] owners are not personally invested in the operation.’ These were giants of industry, they didn’t have time for the Bulls.’
“About a week later, one of his partners called and said, ‘Do you want to buy everybody out?’ There were two partners who wanted to stay in, but everybody else wanted out.”Jerry Reinsdorf discussing ownership of the Chicago Bulls with George Steinbrenner
Bulls ownership at the time obviously had no idea what was about to happen. Talks with Jerry Reinsdorf and his group began and the deal was finalized in February 1985. Reinsdorf bought a 56.8% stake in the team. 26% came from the Arthur Wirtz estate and the remaining portion came from three of the minority owners, including George Steinbrenner.
Well, even with all of George Steinbrenner’s success and money, he could have had so much more. 1984-1985 was obviously the year that Michael Jordan joined the Chicago Bulls and he turned around the franchise very quickly and made Jerry Reinsdorf a billionaire. Steinbrenner obviously didn’t suffer as he became a billionaire himself as the owner of the New York Yankees.
But seriously, can you imagine a world in which Michael Jordan and George Steinbrenner were part of the same franchise?