A Need for Speed

May 2, 2011
by Dale Hofmann

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
During Embry’s eight-year term as GM, the Bucks made four trips to the playoffs including one in 1974 that ended in the Finals.
  • Championship Anniversary Index
  • Sometimes the shortest distance between two points isn’t a straight line at all, and the Bucks’ journey to their only NBA championship is evidence of that.

    The late Wes Pavalon was in the driver’s seat when the team’s trip started in Milwaukee and ended in Baltimore, making stops in Boston and Cincinnati to pick up a pair of future Hall of Fame members along the way. One of the Hall of Famers was Oscar Robertson. The other was Wayne Embry.

    Four decades ago, Pavalon was a man in a hurry. The Bucks’ 36-year-old millionaire chairman had just seen Kareem Abdul-Jabbar turn his 27-55 expansion strugglers into 56-26 title contenders, but things weren’t happening fast enough. He wanted a championship right now, and he’d decided that Robertson was the man he needed to get it.

    A 10-time NBA All-Star, Robertson had the skills, the experience and the desire the Bucks required, but he had something else, too. He had a no-trade clause in his contact, a rarity in those days, and he’d already used it to veto a deal between his Cincinnati Royals and the Baltimore Bullets.

    Robertson would have to waive the clause before Pavalon could pry him loose from the Royals, which is where Embry came in. A 6-8, 240-pound center nicknamed “The Wall,” in his playing days, Embry had spent six seasons sharing Robertson’s frustration while the mighty Boston Celtics frustrated the Royals’ title hopes. He got lucky in 1966 when Cincinnati sent him to Boston where he won a championship before the Celtics let him go in the expansion draft to Milwaukee.

    He spent a season as the Bucks’ starting center and first captain before retiring and moving back to Boston. Now in his quest for Robertson, Pavalon went to the Wall.

    “Wes was very adamant about winning a championship with Kareem,” Embry recalls. “Kareem in himself was enough to get them to 50 wins, but not good enough to win a championship at a time when New York and Baltimore were very strong.

    “Wes came to Boston for a tennis tournament. I was director of recreation there at the time, and he came by my house where we had a long visit. During that visit, he asked me if I’d be interested in coming back to Milwaukee in the front office. I didn’t have to think about that very long before accepting the opportunity. Toward the end of the conversation, he kind of casually mentioned that he had a chance of making a trade for Oscar Robertson, and what did I think? I didn’t hesitate. I said, ‘If you get Oscar Robertson, you win a championship.’ And he said, ‘Could you give him a call?’”

    It wasn’t a difficult conversation. Embry and Robertson had been roommates with the Royals, and their wives were very close. He believed his friend was ready to make a move as long as it was in the direction of the NBA’s throne room.  As the game’s longest reigning superstar at the time, he deserved no less.

    “I just told him there was a possibility of me going back, and it would be nice if he would be traded to Milwaukee,” Embry said. “After all those years when we tried and didn’t quite get there, it was only fitting that he have an opportunity to win a championship. It was a nice move for both families.”

    No one will ever know whether Robertson would have eventually made it to Milwaukee without that call, but it was the Bucks’ good fortune not to have to find out. Embry joined the team as assistant to the president, and two years later the organization made him the first African American general manager in the history of sports. He’d go on to become a two-time NBA Executive of the Year and a 1999 Basketball Hall of Fame inductee.

    During Embry’s eight-year term as GM, the Bucks made four trips to the playoffs including one in 1974 that ended in the Finals.  He made the best of a grim situation in 1975 when Abdul-Jabbar demanded to be traded by acquiring Junior Bridgeman, Brian Winters and David Meyers from Los Angeles to lay the foundation for a string of seven division crowns in the eighties.

    Nothing compared, though, to the championship run. At the ripe old basketball age of 31, Robertson shared Pavalon’s need for speed, and it showed when he directed his new team to a 66-16 regular season record.

    Asked when he knew these Bucks were something special, Embry said, “Right at the beginning of training camp. Oscar was on his game, and he just came in and took control. He still had a lot left. He was like a coach on the court.

    “We had what you could argue was the best center in the game, and we had the best player of all time. Oscar was that then, and I think he still is.”

    Embry believes that like most champions the Bucks’ whole was greater than the sum of their parts, but he also thinks one of the parts was a good deal better than most people knew. Bobby Dandridge a 6-6, second-year forward, averaged a quiet 18.4 points a game that season, and he matched that average in the playoffs.

    He’d come to the Bucks in the fourth round of the draft from Norfolk State in 1969 when nobody knew who he was, or for that matter, where Norfolk State was.

    “When you go back and look at that team, the one name that’s hardly ever mentioned – and it blows my mind – is Bobby Dandridge,” Embry said. “Bobby Dandridge was a great basketball player, and I think he’s been underappreciated in this whole thing.

    “His offensive numbers speak loudly, and he made the clutch baskets. But when you look at his defense, he was the guy who could shut down Dr. J (Julius Erving) or Chet Walker. None of those guys liked him because he could just shut them down. He played more minutes in a Bucks uniform than anyone in the history of the franchise, and for the life of me I can’t understand why his number hasn’t been retired.”

    Dandridge was also generally acknowledged as the Bucks’ leading locker room jester, the man who kept a closely knit group loose. Embry said anybody was fair game, when Dandridge had mischief on his mind, and that included Robertson and Abdul-Jabbar.

    He was only grumpy at contract time when the general manager dubbed him “Bobby Renegotiate.”

    “I had breakfast with him and Bob Lanier recently,” Embry said, “and he got on me for not paying him. I said, ‘Bobby, you held out every year. You’d sign a five-year contract, and the next year you’d be holding out again.’ The truth was he was probably better than we were paying him.

    “This team did have personality. You had the greatness of Kareem and Oscar and Dandridge, but all the players got along terrifically. People say Kareem was aloof, but he got along great with his teammates. It was just a great year. A fun year for everybody.”

    The fun culminated in the playoffs when the Bucks brushed aside Golden State and Los Angeles in the first two rounds and then buried Baltimore by an average margin of more than 12 points in Games One, Two and Three of the final series.  

    Game Four was almost a foregone conclusion, even among Bullets fans, who failed to fill their arena for the contest. Robertson scored 30 points and Abdul-Jabbar added 27 to a 118-106 victory that vindicated the judgment of the people who stayed home.

    “When you get to the Finals, you don’t expect to sweep,” said Embry. “Well actually we did, but the world didn’t expect us to. But that’s just how good we were. I mean no disrespect to Baltimore -- they were very good -- but they just weren’t any competition for us. It would have been a shock if we’d lost.”

    The Bucks made it look so easy in fact that plenty of people thought they’d do it again. Maybe three or four times. Embry was one who believed it could be the start of a dynasty, but it would be three years before they got back to the Finals, and then never again.

    Still, no expansion team in any sport had ever won a championship after only three seasons, and no expansion team has done it since. Wes Pavalon knew where he was going 40 years, and he got there faster than anyone else.

    The Bucks welcome former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel sports writer Dale Hofmann to Bucks.com. We hope to bring more of his award winning work to bucks.com in the future.

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