The Rides of March. … And Beyond

Jim Cleamons, the Milwaukee Bucks’ ‘Lord of the Rings,’ revisits his first of 11 banner years
by Truman Reed
Bucks.com Writer

The National Basketball Association will crown its 48th champion sometime next month.

No matter what team claims the 2014 Larry O’Brien Trophy, none of its players or coaches will match the distinction held by Jim Cleamons, whose NBA championship rings outnumber his fingers and toes.

NBA fans of the past 25 years will associate Cleamons with the 10 rings he earned as an assistant coach with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers spanning the years 1991 through 2011.

Cleamons, though, won his very first NBA championship ring 17 seasons before making his coaching debut on Phil Jackson’s Bulls staff in 1989. And that experience, which came during Cleamons’ rookie season as an NBA player, has several connections to the Milwaukee Bucks.

Cleamons, who completed his first season as a Milwaukee assistant coach last month, shared his story from a seat on the Bucks bench while observing a late-season pregame warmup session.

“The only championship ring I carry with me now is the one I won as a player, because I lost Flynn Robinson last year and I lost Coach (Bill) Sharman at the beginning of this season,” Cleamons said. “I carry their memories with me.”

Robinson, who died last May 23 at the age of 72, averaged 21.1 points per game during 146 games with the Bucks spanning 1968 through 1970 and joined Lew Alcindor (who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971) as Milwaukee representatives in the 1970 NBA All-Star Game.

Sharman, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, passed away Oct. 25, 2013. The former Boston Celtics great coached Cleamons and Robinson when they were teammates on the NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers team of 1971-72, which won a professional sports record 33 consecutive games.

That winning streak was snapped Jan. 9, 1972, when the Bucks defeated the Lakers 120-104 at the Milwaukee Arena.

Cleamons’ path into the NBA history books began on Sept. 13, 1949, when he was born in Lincolnton, N.C., then took him to Columbus, Ohio, when he developed into a college basketball prospect while starring at Linden McKinley High School.

Cleamons earned a scholarship to The Ohio State University, where he averaged 19.6 points per game over three seasons. He became an All-Big Ten Conference selection in 1971 and was chosen with the 13th overall pick in the 1971 NBA Draft by the Lakers.

No one could have blamed Cleamons for being awestruck when he reported to the Lakers for his first professional camp. Their roster and coaching staff included no less than seven individuals who would be inducted into the Hall of Fame.

When Cleamons arrived in Los Angeles, he was a long way from home for the first time in his life, but he considers himself fortunate that someone helped show him the ropes of pro basketball.

“When I got to L.A., my mom told me I'd be on my own because I was single and most of the Lakers veterans had families,” Cleamons recalled. “Flynn Robinson was single. He'd sometimes say, 'I've got a date who has a friend. Do you want to join us?'

“Just the thought that they cared about me enough that they asked me to go made the relationships at practice so much better. There was a synergy there and you felt as if you belonged. They opened up their inner sanctum and showed me what NBA life was like.”

Cleamons wasn’t intimidated, despite the fact that he was surrounded by the likes of Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor.

“I had a good preseason,” Cleamons said. “My stats were pretty good. That's why I was surprised when Coach Sharman told me I wasn't going to play. But that was OK, because I also think as an athlete that I was very coachable. I wanted to do the right things.

“When he said I wasn't going to play much, I asked, 'OK, well what do I have to do to play?' He was focusing on the next year, because Jerry West had said that my rookie season was probably going to be his last year. Anything I did in my rookie year was laying the foundation for years to come.”

The Lakers welcomed the 6-foot-3-inch, 185-pound rookie guard.

“I'm not going to paint the picture that we were buddy-tight off the floor, but I was like the little brother,” Cleamons said. “We'd go into towns and the veterans would tell me what restaurants to go to, or where I could go to buy clothes wholesale. I always appreciated them asking me if I wanted to go with them.”

The Lakers posted a 6-3 record during October before Baylor, beset by nagging knee problems, announced his retirement. L.A. began its record tear with a 110-106 victory over the Baltimore Bullets on Nov. 5, 1971, then proceeded to go 14-0 during November, 16-0 in December and won its first three games of January.

Cleamons helped keep the streak alive.

“Jerry West got hurt about a month into the season,” Cleamons said. “He only missed a couple of games that year. My number got called, and I stepped up and got 10 points. So I got some ink along the way.”

Cleamons has vivid memories of the weekend on which the streak was snapped.

“On a Friday night (Jan. 7), we won in Atlanta,” Cleamons remembered. “Then we flew into Milwaukee for a Sunday game and the Bucks were waiting on us. I've told people they beat us like we stole something from them. It was like they were waiting with baseball bats behind their backs and saying, 'Y'all think you got somethin'? You ain’t seen nothin' yet.'”

Abdul-Jabbar scored 39 points, Lucius Allen had 18 and Oscar Robertson and John Block added 17 apiece in the Bucks’ 120-104 victory.

The Lakers recovered quickly and went on to post a 69-13 regular-season record, which stood as the league’s best for 24 years. Cleamons averaged 2.6 points and 5.3 minutes per game in 38 regular-season appearances.

The Lakers opened the playoffs with a four-game sweep of the Chicago Bulls, then ousted the Bucks four games to two in the Western Conference Finals.

“We had very few team meetings,” Cleamons said. “I can only remember one. Wilt Chamberlain called that one the night before we clinched the Western Conference title. He said, 'We have a better team than Milwaukee, but Kareem, at this stage of his career, is a little better player than I am.'

“I thought that was interesting. Wilt used the analogy of himself playing against (Bill) Russell, with the idea that he was a better offensive player than Russell, but Russell had better all-around players around him. The media had always built it up like it was him against Russell, when it was his Philadelphia team against Russell's Celtics team. But Boston had better players around Russell than the Sixers had around Wilt, and that's why he came up short all the time. It wasn't about his matchup with Russell.

“Wilt said,'At this point in time, Kareem is a better player than I am individually, but we have a better supporting cast, so let's knock these guys off and get a little bit of rest before we go to the Finals and win the world championship.’”

The Lakers lost 114-92 to the New York Knicks in the first game of the 1972 NBA Finals, but showed great resilience, winning the next four games – three by double digits – to claim the franchise’s first championship since moving from Minneapolis to Los Angeles.

Cleamons and his fellow Lakers reserves contributed to the quick turnaround after Knicks forward Jerry Lucas had scorched L.A. for 26 points in the series opener.

“Our second unit used to beat our starters all the time using the same formula the Knicks used,”Cleamons said. “Wilt would run down into the paint on defense, and in our second unit, we had LeRoy Ellis, who would stop in transition at the free-throw line because he wasn't going to work down low against Wilt.

“I think that helped our team make an adjustment for the rest of the series, because the Knicks had Jerry Lucas, who was setting up outside and playing like he was allergic to the paint. That set us up. They beat us in that first game, but we won the next four. That was quite a learning experience.”

Cleamons’ appearance in the Lakers’ championship-clinching victory was his last as a Los Angeles player. He was traded the following August to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Playing for Cleveland also gave me a foundation,” Cleamons said. “I was the third guard behind Lenny Wilkens and Austin Carr. I wasn't a quintessential point guard. I went from playing behind Jerry as a rookie to playing behind Lenny Wilkens for the next three years, and he taught me how to deal the cards to be a point guard.

“So there is a silver lining in every cloud. And if you don't go around feeling sorry for yourself, you'll find a greater plan and reach that higher ground where things have a way of working themselves out.”

Cleamons has enjoyed the many years he has spent on that higher ground.

“It's been a great ride for me,” he said. “I just hope I have a few more years of coaching left in me. I hope there are still things I can pass on from sports in general and this sport in particular to the players of today.

“If you understand the spirit of competition and camaraderie, what we bring to the workplace and the community, it's a source of pride and validation. We're so blessed to have the spotlight and a platform to talk about social issues, to show people the human side of what we do, and it is emotionally-based.

“That's the spirit of competition. I know I get paid to perform and win, but also, in the spirit of competition, if you do your best, the winning and losing take care of themselves. It's not so much wanting to win; it's wanting to do the very best that you can. If you do that, winning is a byproduct of the standard you set for yourself.”