Even though he was 7 feet tall, Tom Boerwinkle never thought he’d play college basketball. The NBA? A pipe dream.
Yet Mr. Boerwinkle did both and did them well.
Likely the biggest man ever to wear a Tennessee basketball uniform, Mr. Boerwinkle died Tuesday in Illinois at 67 after a lengthy bout with MDS, a form of leukemia.
The Ohio native was a lightly regarded high school player at tiny Millersburg Military Institute in Kentucky, but coach Ray Mears thought his height was worth a gamble. Mr. Boerwinkle arrived at Tennessee in 1964, became a two-time All-SEC first-teamer, a Helms Foundation All-American in 1968 and a first-round draft choice of the Chicago Bulls.
He played 10 years with the Bulls, then became a member of the club’s radio broadcast team.
“Tom was a once-in-a-lifetime guy,’’ UT teammate Billy Justus said in a university release.
“Despite his sheer size and presence, he was as genuine and loyal as can be. ... What a gentle giant we’ve lost.’’
At 7 feet, 260 pounds, Mr. Boerwinkle developed from an awkward project into a player who averaged double figures in both points and rebounds his final two years at UT.
Mears once said ofMr. Boerwinkle, “I’ve very definitely gotten more satisfaction out of watching him develop than any boy I’ve coached.’’
By the time Mears was through developing Mr. Boerwinkle, the Bulls took him with the No. 4 pick of the 1968 draft.
He was a popular Bull and a productive one, averaging 7.2 points, 9.0 rebounds and accumulating 2,007 career assists. His 37 rebounds from 1970 still is a single-game Bulls record.
“He made guys like myself look good because he’d be the one making the passes for us to score,” Jerry Sloan, who was Mr. Boerwinkle’s closest friend as a teammate, told Bulls.com, the team’s website. “He’s the only guy I ever knew other than (John) Stockton who would ask you where you wanted the ball (on a pass); on the outside, the inside. He had a great knack for passing the ball and making just the right pass, the simple play.
“Everyone wanted him to be Russell, Thurmond, Chamberlain. That was an unfair comparison. He was instrumental in helping us win. He was who he was. His strengths complemented his teammates very well.”
Mr. Boerwinkle was a successful businessman following his career and remained in the Chicago area.