A Championship in the Making

PART I: Laying the Foundation

By Truman Reed
02/10/11

Larry Costello

The Bucks first head coach Larry Costello. Costello had been a six-time NBA All-Star during 12 seasons as a sharp-shooting guard with the Philadelphia Warriors.

"Know from whence you came. If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go."

James Arthur Baldwin, the supposed originator of this quote, never played a minute in the National Basketball Association.

But several individuals who worked for the Milwaukee Bucks during their fledgling years obviously took stock in his words, because they helped the franchise climb from the NBA's ground floor to its zenith in what was, at the time, record-setting speed.

As the Bucks begin celebrating the 40th anniversary of their 1971 NBA championship, it is only appropriate to return to their foundation.

The NBA originally awarded the franchise to a group of Milwaukee investors called Milwaukee Professional Sports and Services, Inc., on Jan. 22, 1968. Wesley D. Pavalon and Marvin L. Fishman were named president and executive vice president, respectively, of the group as the franchise was incorporated Feb. 5, 1968.

In the coming months, the basketball side of the Milwaukee management team was formed with the appointment of Ray Patterson as team president, John Erickson as general manager and Larry Costello as head coach.

Erickson was a familiar figure on the state's basketball landscape, having served as head coach at the University of Wisconsin from 1960 through '68. The sequence of his hiring was unusual by professional sports standards because the team actually hired Larry Costello as its head coach before hiring Erickson as GM.

Erickson, though, embraced his opportunity and immediately became an integral component of what would rapidly prove to be a history-making management team.

"It was a little strange," Erickson said. "The Bucks actually hired Larry before they hired me. We were announced at the same time. It was only a matter of a day or so. They actually had tried to get Al McGuire to be the general manager, but Marquette wouldn't release him.

"They were very high on Alex Hannum, who was the coach of the 76ers. He didn't want to move or change, and he suggested Larry Costello. The Bucks weren't even named yet, but they had an executive board, headed by Wes Pavalon. They approached Larry to coach the expansion team, whatever the name would be, and he accepted the offer.

"Just about the same time, I accepted the offer to be general manager. I didn't meet Larry until the day we were announced. I knew of him, of course. I didn't have any problem with that, and I had a great relationship with him in the years I was there."

Costello had been a six-time NBA All-Star during 12 seasons as a sharp-shooting guard with the Philadelphia Warriors, Syracuse Nationals and Philadelphia 76ers. One of the NBA's last two-handed set shooters, he twice led the league in free-throw shooting, finishing at .841 for his career. He was a member of the 1966-67 76ers team that won a then-NBA record 68 games and captured the league championship.

"He was really a bulwark of that championship 76ers team," Erickson said. "During his early years as our coach, after practice some of the players would hang around and play, and Larry would play, too. If I remember, one of his legs was a little bad. He was still plenty quick, though, and he'd shoot that two-hander on them. He loved to compete."

One of the first orders of business for Patterson, Erickson and Costello was the expansion draft, which was held May 6, 1968.

"I think what I really enjoyed was the building of the franchise," Erickson said. "We had an expansion draft and a player draft to get going. Tom Nissalke had been hired as an assistant coach by Ray Patterson, our team president. Tom was scouting college players. Larry was very much involved in the expansion draft. Each team put up three players, and Phoenix and Milwaukee made their picks.

"Larry picked some good ones. We had some veterans who were really good. I have to give credit to Wayne Embry. He was really a great captain for an expansion team. His playing days were pretty well behind him, but boy, he still played hard. He was a leader, and as he's shown, he went on to be a leader. We had some others who were very, very good. One of them was Len Chappell."

Jon McGlocklin, Guy Rodgers, Fred Hetzel and Bob Love were a few of the other veterans chosen by the Bucks in the expansion draft. McGlocklin, Rodgers and, indirectly, Love, would prove to be invaluable assets as the team took shape.

Milwaukee's first collegiate draft netted Charlie Paulk in the first round with the seventh overall pick, Sam Williams in the third round and Greg Smith in the fourth round, among others.

Paulk wound up playing just 17 games for the Bucks as a rookie, but would be involved in one of the most significant trades in team history.

Williams, a sharpshooter out of the University of Iowa who was the 1968 Big Ten Conference Most Valuable Player, and Smith, 6-5 jumping jack out of Western Kentucky University, became prominent figures in the launch of the Milwaukee franchise and its dramatic rise to NBA prominence.

Jon McGlocklin

Jon McGlocklin was chosen by the Bucks in the expansion draft.

McGlocklin, who had spent the first two years of his NBA career with the Cincinnati Royals before playing one season with the expansion San Diego Rockets, remembers the early days of his second expansion experience.

"It was a very good expansion team," he said. "I played on two expansion teams. They're really important. You've got young guys, older guys and mid-level guys that first day, and they all have different agendas. The younger guys want to make their mark; the older guys just want to hang in there. It really becomes a free-for-all, hand-to-hand combat. They all want to make the team.

"For me, Milwaukee was the second one. I had asked to be made available for the expansion draft. We wound up having a nice blend of youth and mid-level guys."

McGlocklin had crossed paths with Costello as an opposing player, but didn't know him personally until he went through his first camp in Milwaukee.

"He was very intense and organized," McGlocklin said of Costello. "Our first year, with the players we had, I think that played to our strengths.

"He put all the game plans on the board. He was very focused -- almost myopic. He always had legal pads and was designing plays. He put a lot of time into that."

That original Bucks camp was a memorable experience as well for Embry, who thought he had seen everything during his 10 prior seasons in the NBA.

Nicknamed "The Wall" for his bone-rattling picks, the 6-8, 255-pound strongman had averaged a double-double in points and rebounds for the Cincinnati Royals for five consecutive seasons spanning 1961 through '65. He received first-team all-NBA honors following each of those years, and in 1968, he was a member of Boston's NBA championship team.

Embry wasn't sure he was ready to go through an expansion season, but once he made the decision to go for it, he never looked back.

"I had played 10 years in the league and didn't know quite what playing for an expansion team would be like, coming off a championship season with the Celtics," Embry said. "I had held out that year, for all of $40,000. But I reported, and it was quite an experience for me."

Embry's first official workout in Milwaukee was an eye-opener.

"After our first practice, a couple of my teammates asked me for an autograph," Embry said with a chuckle. "Greg Smith was one of them. I thought, 'Oh my goodness, this must be a sign of age, or something!'"

Embry became the Bucks' first team captain, and his team-high 30 points led Milwaukee to its first victory in franchise history, a 134-118 decision over the Detroit Pistons at the Milwaukee Arena on Oct. 31, 1968. He either held or shared the team scoring lead in 11 contests that season.

With Embry patrolling the paint for the majority of the time, the '68-69 Bucks grabbed 4,727 rebounds, which still stands as a team record.

Embry, who became the Bucks general manager - and the NBA's first African American general manager -- in 1972, held the position for eight years, leading the team to two seasons of 59 or more wins and four playoff appearances, including the 1974 Finals.

Looking back, Embry is glad he chose to show up for that one last training camp in 1968.

"What really stood out was the way we came together," Embry recalled. "We really dignified ourselves. We had myself, Guy Rodgers, Jon McGlocklin, Sam Williams and some pretty good rookies. We were competitive."

The Bucks would wind up 27-55, which at the time ranked as the second-best expansion record in NBA history. They also averaged 110.2 points per game, which required shooting prowess, chemistry and a steady hand at the controls.

Rodgers, who was in his 11th NBA season, is still considered by some ex-players the best passer the league has ever seen. The 6-foot, 185-pound product of Philadelphia's mean streets was also renowned as one of the league's toughest players.

Rodgers, who had four NBA All-Star Games on his resume and shared the NBA record for most assists in a game (28) for 15 years, did not start a game during Milwaukee's 1968-69 campaign. But his 567 assists earned him the Bucks team leadership by an impressive margin of 241.

Chappell, a chiseled 6-8, 240 pound power forward, brought six years of NBA experience to the table and was another productive performer for the expansion Bucks, averaging 14.6 points and nearly eight rebounds per game.

McGlocklin's first year in Milwaukee was a breakout season for him. He scored at a 19.6 clip over 80 games, was named the team's first NBA All-Star and became one of the faces of the franchise during an association that is still going strong after 42 years.

Erickson remembered McGlocklin from their years as Big Ten Conference rivals when Erickson was coaching UW and McGlocklin was playing center - yes, center - for Indiana University. The Hoosier State native obviously made a seamless transition to playing guard in the NBA.

"We didn't have the 3-point line," Erickson said. "If we had, Jon (McGlocklin) might have scored 100 points in a game. He would have tried to, anyway!"

The Bucks made their first significant trade on Nov. 23, 1968 - 16 games into their expansion season. They dealt Bob Love and Bob Weiss to the Chicago Bulls for guard Flynn Robinson.

Robinson, a 6-1 guard and a third-year pro out of the University of Wyoming, was averaging 19 points per game at the time of the deal. Shortly after his arrival in Milwaukee, Robinson was nicknamed "The Electric Eye" by Eddie Doucette, the Bucks' iconic original radio announcer, for his uncanny long-range shooting prowess.

As an expansion team, the Bucks spent most of their first season flying below the national radar, but Robinson and McGlocklin formed one of the premier backcourt shooting tandems the NBA has ever seen. Robinson averaged 20.3 points in 65 games as a Buck and McGlocklin was close behind at 19.6.

Robinson had one downright amazing streak during Milwaukee's expansion season, putting up 41, 43 and 45 points in consecutive games, leading the team to victories over Los Angeles, Atlanta and Detroit. Those three wins were part of a season-long six-game winning streak.

Smith attested to what an impact Robinson made after his arrival in Milwaukee.

"Every time he picked up the ball, something magical was going to happen," Smith said. "If they'd had the 3-point shot in that era, he might still be in the game.

"He was a great player who was very popular with the community because he worked hard every night offensively and defensively. He was a great teammate and I really respected his game."

Smith earned his share of respect around the league, too. He not only averaged 8.1 points per outing, but grabbed a team-leading 804 rebounds despite not starting a single game in his rookie year.

Smith, too, is proud that he was with the Milwaukee Bucks starting at ground zero, where they etched themselves a place in expansion team history.

"There was a book written about that," Smith said. "The whole entire salary for the team back then was $150,000. You go, 'My goodness!' I don't think they pay that much for sponsorship these days!

"But it was a neat team. It was a neat organization and still is. That was a time when everybody on the ballclub, from the expansion players to the high-drafted players, bought into what Pavalon wanted his team to be a part of. The city accepted us. We accepted the city. We worked hard every night. And we won a reasonable number of games."

And they were just getting started.