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Steve Aschburner

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In Sidney Moncrief's 10 seasons in Milwaukee, the Bucks were 522-298 (.637) with seven division titles.
Dick Raphael/NBAE/Getty Images

Moncrief, most aristocratic Buck, back on Milwaukee bench


Posted Sep 4 2011 11:49PM

Sidney Moncrief slipped back into Milwaukee Bucks basketball a few weeks ago with about as much fanfare as he got the first time around.

Folks in Milwaukee noticed certainly, even against the backdrop of the MLB Brewers' torrid August. But Moncrief, in joining head coach Scott Skiles' staff, created barely a ripple elsewhere, not all that different from the national attention paid to his 10 remarkable seasons there as a player, in what seems now like some previous lifetime.

"It's always amazing that fans up there remember," said Moncrief, talking by phone from Dallas while prepping for his return to Wisconsin. "You would think that after 20 -- wait, I can't make myself that young -- after 30 years they wouldn't, but when I go back, they talk as if you were playing five years ago."

That's how special Moncrief's run with the Bucks was from 1979 to 1989. For folks in other markets, amid a sports glut that makes it hard to remember just who won what title when, those Milwaukee teams of Moncrief, Marques Johnson, Bob Lanier, Junior Bridgeman, Terry Cummings, Ricky Pierce, coach Don Nelson and dozens of others are easily forgotten.

They didn't win an NBA championship. They never reached The Finals. Out East, the NBA was all about the Celtics (five conference titles), the 76ers (three) and the Pistons (two) during Moncrief's 10-year stint there. The Bucks, by comparison, were usually finishing second or third to one of them, falling short, missing out. In prominence and staying power, they were in the '80s what the Sacramento Kings became in the '00s. Only without satellite or Internet.

In Milwaukee, of course, it's different. Those were the best of times, exciting and sustained enough to rival or surpass the 1971 championship and 1974 Finals seasons, given the NBA's lower wattage back then and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's prickly exit in 1975. Under Nelson and coinciding with Moncrief's arrival in the 1979 draft (he came at No. 5, after Nelson convinced Detroit he would take Michigan State's Greg Kelser, then extracted a reported $100,000 to land the guy he preferred), the Bucks won seven consecutive division titles.

Marques Johnson was a smooth scorer and leading man. Lanier, though hobbling on bum knees, brought bulk and guile that Milwaukee craved in the middle. Nelson was in his early prime as a mad scientist, exploiting illegal-defense rules, putting the ball in the hands of his "point forward." But Moncrief was the spindly star, not so much for his dominance in any one area but for his impact overall, in the seams, at both ends.

All knobby knees, pointy elbows and veins rising on his brow, the sinewy, slender Moncrief could torment his man on either side of midcourt. It's not quite accurate to say that the NBA created its Defensive Player of the Year award with him in mind, but Moncrief did win the first two in 1983 and 1984.

He guarded like Michael Cooper but, with 11,931 points and a .502 shooting percentage, scored like James Worthy. His outside game grew dangerous but he stayed springy enough to attack, recreating numerous times for Milwaukee his famous 1978 Sports Illustrated college cover shot. Five times each, Moncrief was an all-NBA pick, an all-defense selection and an All-Star.

The Bucks' record in his 10 seasons there: 522-298 (.637), with 10 postseason appearances and those seven division titles. In terms of "win shares per 48 minutes," Moncrief ranks 30th in NBA/ABA history, which means little until you frame it this way: The 19 players ahead of him on that list who are eligible for the Hall of Fame are in the Hall of Fame. And so are the next nine.

But Moncrief never won a ring. Neither did Lanier, Johnson or, for that matter, Nelson as a coach.

"It wasn't that we didn't have a good team," said Moncrief, now 53. "It wasn't that we couldn't compete. It wasn't that Don Nelson wasn't a good coach in big games. It's just that they were just a little better than what we were. Their talent level was a little better, they competed, they were smart players and timing was not perfect for us."

The "they" were Boston and Philadelphia primarily and "they" always stood between Milwaukee and a Finals trip. Even when the Bucks could handle one -- they swept the Celtics in the 1983 Eastern Conference semifinals -- they couldn't handle the other, managing only to stick the 76ers with their lone defeat in Moses Malone's near-"fo', fo', fo'" championship run.

"The purists know [how good those Bucks teams were]," Moncrief said. "Certainly we were overshadowed and, had we broken through to win a championship, more people would remember. But when you look at those teams in the '80s -- the Lakers, the Celtics, the 76ers -- it was very easy to get overshadowed.

"What I don't think people realize is how great those teams were. You start looking at the old games on NBA TV and you see, 'Gol, they had this player and this player and this player? You start looking at the personnel, it was scary."

The Eastern Conference is frightening enough again, what with Miami, Chicago, Boston, Orlando, Atlanta and New York flexing superstars, depth or both. Moncrief, who replaces assistant Kelvin Sampson (to Houston), won't focus on any one area, instead working alongside Jim Boylan, Joe Wolf, Bill Peterson and Anthony Goldwire doing whatever Skiles assigns.

Back in 1979, Bridgeman was the veteran who mentored Moncrief into the NBA. Seven years later, Moncrief did the same for Skiles, a hard-headed point guard from Michigan State.

"The most important year in my career was my rookie year," Skiles told reporters when Moncrief's hiring was announced. "To be around that group of guys -- Sid, Cummings, Pierce, [Craig] Hodges, [Paul] Pressey, Jack Sikma ... [Paul] Mokeski. I learned an awful lot. Sidney was the leader of that group."

It has been hard in recent years to even count Moncrief's groups: After retiring from the Bucks in 1989, he got the itch and returned for the 1990-91 season with Atlanta. He got involved with car dealerships in Arkansas and Arizona. He spent one year as head coach at the University of Arkansas-Little Rock in his hometown. He was at Nelson's side as an assistant in Dallas (2000-03) and Golden State (2006-07). In between, he coached the NBA D-League's Fort Worth Flyers in 2006-07.

In 2009, he taught the game in Beijing, China for 18 months. This month, he is releasing a self-help book, Your Passport to Reinventing You, that draws on his basketball and post-NBA experiences. He did some fill-in broadcast work last season for the Bucks and will be back on the scene now if that Hall in Springfield, Mass., cares to do what sports halls in Wisconsin and Arkansas already have done.

"As a player, you have that thought," Moncrief said. "Unfortunately, they often look at the number of points you score and how many championships you won. They don't always take into account the total game.

"The even better news is, it's great if you do [make it] and even if you don't, life goes on and you know you've had a good career."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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