ESPN’s new documentary The Last Dance has thrown the spotlight on one of the greatest teams in basketball history: the ’90s-era Chicago Bulls. Led by charismatic superstar Michael Jordan, the Bulls took home six championships in eight years. As one writer put it: “They were equal parts a superteam and a rock band, and it never got old.”
The Bulls are still iconic, largely because of Jordan’s dominance in the ’90s, but also because of the team’s easily identifiable branding—it is reportedly the only NBA team to still use its original logo. But the story behind the 54-year-old logo proves to be something of a mystery (and no, we’re not talking about that mystery). While there are plenty of anecdotes and theories behind the team’s name and design, no one I spoke to was 100% confident of the origin story, with two different designers publicly credited with the logo.
So who came up with the Bulls branding that’s managed to withstand the test of time? And what, exactly, gives it such incredible staying power? I set out to unravel the mystery.
A tale of two designers
When Dick Klein founded the Bulls in 1966, the team was associated with a Chicago legacy that some people may forget today. According to Peter T. Alter, the chief historian at the Chicago History Museum, the name was a nod to Chicago’s meatpacking industry—the city was once known as the “hog butcher of the world.” Though the industry was waning in Chicago by the 1960s, the Bulls played their first season at International Amphitheater, which was in the meatpacking district and bumped up against the Union Stock Yards.
Klein was also reportedly considering the “Matadors,” or “Toreadors” for a name, but wanted something shorter and punchier. According to the Bulls website (“whether true or not,” says Alter), Klein discussed those names with his family, but his son wasn’t too fond them, saying, “Dad, that’s a lot of bull.” And a dynastic name was born. Alter says Klein also could have drawn the name from the Chicago Packers, a one-season team in the early ’60s that also had a bull logo. (The Chicago Packers eventually morphed into the Washington Wizards.)
Once Klein had a name, he needed a logo. And according to a 2004 obituary in the Chicago Tribune, he turned to commercial designer Dean Wessel, a fellow Little League coach and neighbor in Kenilworth, just north of Chicago. In this telling, Wessel designed the now-famous frowning red bull as a favor to his friend in exchange for some free tickets. “Right after I first submitted it to Klein . . . Dick looked it over and sent it back to me, saying, ‘I want blood on the horns. Blood!'” Wessel told the Tribune in 1993. “I, of course, obliged him.”
But a competing obituary gives credit for the Bulls’ logo to another designer: Ted Drake, who died in 2000. Both the Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune said he had created the Bulls logo (as well as Notre Dame’s leprechaun) while working for Wilson Sporting Goods. How could such an iconic design be attributed to two different people? As Alter puts it: “Things that are common often have mysterious origins.”
For its part, the Bulls confirmed that they still use the original 1966 logo, but declined to otherwise participate in this story or provide further details. Alter, who focuses on Chicago sports history, was able to provide context about the team’s early days, but when I ask him if he knew who designed the logo, I hit another dead end. “I don’t,” he says.
I pose the question to Jack Silverstein, Chicago sports historian and author of the upcoming book 6 Rings: The Bulls, The City, and the Dynasty that Changed the Game. Silverstein points to a few stories that attributed the design to Wessel, along with a 1998 Tribune article that seemed to credit Drake. But the latter article said the logo he designed was for a Milwaukee team that was moving to Chicago. The Bulls were an expansion team—they would be brand-new to the Windy City.
“So that doesn’t add up,” Silverstein says.
I wondered if the article was referring to the aforementioned Chicago Packers. But Alter dismisses that idea too. “They were an expansion team, which means they didn’t move from anywhere else.” Ultimately, he concludes, “It’s possible that some of the information in this article isn’t completely accurate.”
And even though he references the article, Silverstein tells me he tended to credit Wessel for the original logo. “I think Wessel is the designer, and Drake is a mystery. That’s my read.”
Alter, for his part, says it’s possible both stories are true. “Sometimes conflicting stories actually may not be conflicting. Maybe Drake and Dean Wessel somehow worked together. [Maybe the accounts] are overlapping in certain ways.”
A winning brand
The origin story of that iconic bull still has an asterisk of uncertainty. But one thing for certain is that the Bulls, as a visual brand, have stood the test of time. Why?
The people I spoke to said it really has nothing to do with the design itself. It’s all about Jordan.
Prior to the mid-’80s, the Bulls were a middle-of-the-road NBA franchise. They had some wins but didn’t make waves. That all changed when Jordan joined the team in 1984. “Once we hit the dynasty years, the logo became synonymous with the franchise, MJ, and the winning brand. Changing it would be foolish both economically and culturally,” Silverstein says.
“The mark that Michael Jordan had on that team, that culture, that city—he really changed the direction of sports. To rebrand would be to rewrite the legend,” says Ced Funches, who is a creative director and consultant for the NBA and a former art director for the Minnesota Timberwolves. He gave the Yankees pinstripe as another example of branding he thinks will never change. Why would you want to get rid of the brand association with the greatest of all time?
When it comes to the Bulls’ logo, maybe Wessel and Drake did cross paths. No one designs in a vacuum. Alter says the unfortunate truth is that most of the designers behind Chicago’s sports logos are unknown. In the end, both Alter and Silverstein leaned toward Wessel being the designer, since his creation story is much more detailed and he had a direct connection to Dick Klein.
However murky the backstory is, the logo itself is here to stay. “In my opinion, the Bulls logo is not really all that great,” says Funches. “It’s not modern—even that bull looks kind of nostalgic in its own right—but, it’s synonymous with winning. And at the end of the day, that’s really all that unites the fabric of sports. If you do anything to change or take away from that, you better have a really good reason.”