In Memoriam: Special Reserves
The late Guy Rodgers, profiled recently on Bucks.com, helped lay the foundation of the Milwaukee Bucks franchise, arriving in the 1968 National Basketball Association Expansion Draft and spending the final two seasons of a stellar career in the Brew City.
The Bucks family lost Rodgers in 2001 when he died of a heart attack.
During the past three years, that family lost two other men who helped take Milwaukee to the pinnacle of the professional basketball world in 1971.
Neither McCoy McLemore nor Bob Boozer may appear prominently in the footage of the Bucks’ 1971 NBA championship conquest that airs on ESPN Classic from time to time. Their vital contributions to the title run, however, won’t be forgotten by Hall-of-Fame Bucks teammates Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
“I really think the key to us winning the championship was our subs,” Robertson said. “We had McCoy McLemore and Bob Boozer and big Dick Cunningham, who was my roommate. Lucius Allen came along. Once we all got together and started playing a few exhibition games, we just blew everybody out of the water. At that point, I thought, ‘We’ve got something special.’”
McLemore didn’t become a Buck until midway through the 1907-71 season.
The 6 foot-8 inch, 215-pound Boozer, whom the Bucks acquired along with guard Lucius Allen on Sept. 15, 1970 from the Seattle SuperSonics in exchange for forward Don Smith, had an extensive and successful association with Robertson that dated back beyond their pro careers.
The two players were teammates on the gold medalist 1960 United States Olympic team, which went 8-0 during the Games in Rome, Italy. Robertson and Jerry Lucas were the leading scorers for Team USA, averaging 17 points per game, and Boozer contributed 6.8 points per outing.
Boozer and Robertson became rookie teammates with the Cincinnati Royals in the fall of 1960, and Lucas would join them in 1963.
Boozer, who had been the top pick in the 1959 NBA Draft, delayed his entry into the NBA for one season so he could play in the Olympics. He averaged 8.4 points and 6.2 rebounds in his rookie campaign, then won a starting spot in his second season and averaged a double-double of 13.7 ppg and 10.2 rpg.
The former Kansas State University All-American upped his numbers to 14.3 ppg and 11.1 rpg several months into his third pro campaign, and the Royals appeared destined to finally overtake their nemeses, the Boston Celtics. Then Boozer, 32 games into his third season with Cincinnati, was sold to the New York Knicks.
Robertson has bitter memories of that transaction.
“We had them (the Celtics) beat,” Robertson recalled. “Before the playoffs, we beat them eight out of 12 times, or something like that. Then lo and behold,Cincinnati sent Bob Boozer to New York. I could never figure out why they did it.”
Boozer spent one and one-half seasons with the Knicks and one with the Los Angeles Lakers before being chosen by the Chicago Bulls in the 1966 NBA Expansion Draft. He played three seasons with Chicago, making the NBA All-Star Game in 1967-68, then averaging a career-best 21. in 1968-69.
The Bulls traded Boozer to Seattle, where he spent one season before being dealt to Milwaukee. He averaged 9.1 ppg and 5.4 rpg in 22.2 minutes per outing during the 1970-71 regular season. Then he contributed 7.4 ppg and 5.3 rpg in 20.2 mpg during in 14 playoff appearances and was rewarded with a championship ring in his last season as a pro.
"The guys we had on the bench were so important, especially Bob Boozer,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “The guy could shoot. He really made a difference coming off the bench as a guy who could really shoot it and help maintain the offensive pressure on the other team.”
The Bucks, looking to bolster their defense and rebounding, made a midseason trade with the Cleveland Cavaliers that brought them McCoy McLemore in exchange for forward Gary Freeman and a second-round draft pick.
McLemore, 6-7 and 235, had starred at Drake University before being selected in the third round of the 1964 NBA Draft by the San Francisco Warriors.
He averaged 8.3 ppg and 6.4 rpg as a rookie for the Warriors before He spent two seasons with San Francisco become becoming a teammate of Boozer’s with the expansion Chicago Bulls in 1966. He averaged a career-high 12.7 ppg and 57 rpg for the Bulls during the 1967-68 campaign before splitting the 1968-69 season between Phoenix and Detroit.
Following one more year with the Pistons, McLemore was taken in the 1970 Expansion Draft by Cleveland. He was averaging 11.7 ppg and 8 rpg through 28 games with the Cavaliers before being traded to Milwaukee.
McLemore averaged 4.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg in 14.7 mpg in 28 regular-season outings with Bucks. He played in 10 playoff games during the team’s championship run, averaging 0.7 ppg and 1.6 rpg in 5.2 mpg.
Remarkably, all five starters on Milwaukee’s championship team – Abdul-Jabbar, Robertson, Jon McGlocklin, Bob Dandridge and Greg Smith -- ranked among the NBA’s top 10 in field-goal shooting percentage. But Abdul-Jabbar is quick to point out what a valuable role the team’s reserves played in the title conquest.
“We were able to go to our second team and still be able to keep the offensive pressure on the teams that we played,” he said. “We were a pretty deep team that had a good defensive element to the way we played. That’s why we won that world championship.
“That was so long ago that I guess that the great teams that have been around since then have kind of overshadowed that team. And unfortunately, that team was only together for a year. But that was a great team -- one of my favorites.”
Robertson would ironically bid farewell to Boozer after just one season together for the second time in their NBA careers when Boozer retired. McLemore played 10 games for Milwaukee during the 1971-72 season before being released and signing with the Houston Rockets as a free agent.
Robertson wonders what the Bucks could have accomplished if they had kept their title team together for another season or two.
“I could never figure out why the Bucks broke our team up after we won the championship,” Robertson said. “If they wanted to go big, they could have brought Boozer in, they could have brought McCoy McLemore in, they could have brought Dick Cunningham in.
“I remember telling people we’d continue to win games, but we’d never win the championship again because they hurt the core of our team. When you win as a team, you should be allowed to play out until somebody beats you. We beat ourselves. I will always believe that.”
Boozer, upon retiring from the NBA, returned to Omaha, Neb., where he had been a high school basketball star. He worked as an executive for the telephone company, was appointed to the Nebraska Parole Board in the 1990s and volunteered at Boys Town, the home for troubled youth.
Until the day he died of a of a brain aneurysm May 19, 2012, Boozer maintained a strong commitment to helping inner-city youth of North Omaha. He is remembered as an icon in both Omaha and the state of Nebraska.
McLemore spent the final season of his NBA career playing for the Houston Rockets in the city in which he was born. He worked as a television analyst for Rockets games in the 1980s. He died of cancer in 2009 at the age of 67.