One amazing Guy

Original Buck Rodgers ranked among NBA’s premier playmakers

What former member of the Milwaukee Bucks who is not enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame most deserves the honor?

This vote goes to one of the Bucks’ originals. It is not a totally unbiased one, since its recipient was the first professional basketball player with whom this voter shared a personal connection. But it certainly carries legitimacy, too.

A number of my boyhood friends claimed they would never forget the first National Basketball Association game they ever attended, but an educated guess would be that most of them did, before that season – or maybe even that week – was over.

I still remember mine, though, in part because of my aforementioned brush with one of that game’s participants.

Leaning over a railing as the Bucks were preparing to take the court at the Milwaukee Arena, my attention was captured by the most diminutive player on the team, who was spinning a basketball on his finger. I had never seen anyone master that skill like he did.

Suddenly, the player walked over and extended the ball toward me.

“Here, kid,” he said, telling me to hold up my index finger. He placed the ball on my finger and, chuckling, proceeded to keep it spinning until he and his teammates got the green light to take the floor.

“Gotta go,” he said, and go he did – non-stop.

This was one of several extraordinary feats I was privileged to see Guy Rodgers perform with a basketball during the 152- games he played for the Bucks spanning 1968 through 1970. And those games were the last ones he played during a 938-game NBA career.

Eddie Doucette, the original radio voice of the Bucks, called Rodgers “The Magician,” and fittingly so.

Rodgers had not one, but several signatures – a behind-the-head pass, one of the last textbook set shots in NBA history and an under-handed free throw. His behind-the-back passes rarely missed their mark, and I’ve never witnessed anyone before or since who could, on the dead run, routinely thread the needle with jackhammered bounce passes covering 40 feet or more.

Rodgers’ career is a compelling study.

He was born and raised in North Philadelphia, where his boyhood friends and playground basketball teammates included Bill Cosby, who would go on to earn considerable fame of his own in other arenas; and John Chaney, whose 741 coaching victories earned induction into the Hall of Fame in 2001.

Rodgers’ speed, agility, toughess and innovative mind set him apart from his hoops contemporaries at an early age. He was known first and foremost for his playmaking prowess, but prior to his senior season at Philly’s Northeast High School, his coach looked to him to compensate for the graduation of the team’s leading scorer.

Rodgers not only complied, but averaged 35 points per game and was named Philadelphia Public League Player of the Year over a fellow by the name of Wilt Chamberlain.

Rodgers earned a full scholarship to Philly’s Temple University. Following a mandatory season on the freshman level, he emerged as an instant impact player, running the team masterfully and averaging 18.5 points per outing. He and All-American sharpshooter Hal Lear helped lead the Owls to a 27-4 record – they reached the NCAA Final Four before falling to Iowa 83-76.

In that era, the NCAA still held a third-place game at the Final Four. In that contest, Rodgers dished out 20 assists and Lear scored 48 points as Temple defeated SMU 90-81.

Rodgers established a single-season school record with 185 assists in his junior year, when Temple lost to Bradley in the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament despite Rodgers’ 23.3 ppg during the tourney. Guy was named a consensus second-team All-American.

Rodgers closed out his collegiate career with his best season in 1957-58. He was named most valuable player of the Holiday Festival after leading Temple to the championship, went on to average 20.1 ppg and led Temple back to the Final Four, where the Owls were clipped by Kentucky despite his 22 points. Temple defeated Kansas State – and Rodgers’ future Bucks teammate Bob Boozer, in the third-place game 67-57.

The Owls finished 27-3, and Rodgers was named a consensus first-team All-American, joining Don Hennon and future Hall-of-Famers Chamberlain, Boozer, Elgin Baylor and Oscar Robertson. He left the Temple program as its all-time leader in points and assists, and he also received the Temple U Award, presented to the senior who best combined academic and extracurricular excellence.

Rodgers was a territorial pick by the Philadelphia Warriors in the 1958 NBA Draft, and he wasted no time bursting onto the NBA scene. He collected 24 points and nine assists in his first game against Bob Cousy and the Boston Celtics.

Rodgers’ rookie season was shortened by a United States military service stint, but he still finished second on his team in assists. Rodgers’ numbers – and the Warriors’ record -- shot up in his second season with the arrival of Chamberlain as his teammate.

Their most notable game together came March 2, 1962, at the Hershey Sports Arena in Hershey, Pa. On that night, Chamberlain set the NBA’s single-game, individual scoring record of 100 points in a 169-147 victory over the New York Knicks, thanks in large part to Rodgers’ game-high 20 assists.

On March 14 of that season, Rodgers tied Cousy’s record of 28 assists in a single NBA game. That mark stood until 1978 before being broken by Kevin Porter of the New Jersey Nets (Porter’s mark of 29, incidentally, was eclipsed by current Milwaukee Bucks head coach Scott Skiles when he dropped 30 dimes in a Dec. 30, 2005 game for the Orlando Magic against the Denver Nuggets.)

Rodgers led the NBA in assists during the 1962-63 campaign with an average of 10.4 apg. He spent the first eight season of his NBA career with the Warriors – four in Philly and four in San Francisco – and ranked among the league’s assist leaders throughout that span. But he wasn’t a one-dimensional player.

In 1965-66, Rodgers’ eighth NBA season, he averaged a career-best 18.6 ppg – along with 10.7 apg -- and played in his third of four NBA All-Star Games.

Rodgers spent two seasons with the Chicago Bulls, establishing an NBA season record with 908 assists in 1966-67, and one with the Cincinnati Royals before being selected by the Bucks in the 1968 NBA Expansion Draft.
“The Magician” was the Bucks’ high scorer in the first two games they ever played, totaling 16 against Chicago and 25 against Atlanta. He led the expansion team with 561 assists and contributed 10.3 ppg in 81 contests.

Rodgers helped Milwaukee earn the first playoff berth in franchise history during the 1969-70 campaign. With rookie center Lew Alcindor (who would become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) in the fold, the Bucks bettered their 27 expansion season victories by 29 the following year. Rodgers averaged 3.2 points and 3.3 assists in 64 games during his last NBA season.

At the time of Rodgers’ retirement, he ranked third in the NBA in career assists with 6,917. He totaled 10,415 points, earning career averages of 11.7 ppg and 7.8 apg.

Rodgers passed away at the age of 65 on Feb. 22, 2001, after suffering a heart attack while attending a movie in Los Angeles.

Someday, his greatness ought to be permanently commemorated in Springfield, Mass., alongside such former teammates as Chamberlain, Robertson and Abdul-Jabbar.