The return of the King

Kareem: The return of the King
Abdul-Jabbar revisits Milwaukee, championship memories
by Truman Reed / special to Bucks.com

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was instrumental in Milwaukee's instant success as a young franchise, leading them to the 1971 NBA Championship in only their third season. (Getty)
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November 21, 2007

MILWAUKEE -- You can check the encyclopedia, the dictionary and the Internet and not find definitive information about the origin of coin-flipping.

Since that method of settling an issue began, though, one thing has been documented: one of the most influential coin flips of all time was won by the Milwaukee Bucks.

In 1969, the Bucks and the Phoenix Suns, as the last-place finishers in their respective conferences of the National Basketball Association, flipped a coin to determine who would pick first in that year's NBA Draft. Phoenix called "heads," the coin came up "tails," and the rest became history.

That history was revisited, coincidentally during Thanksgiving week, when the Bucks welcomed their 1969 No. 1 overall draft pick back to Milwaukee. They'll honor Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, known back in the day as Lew Alcindor, by rededicating his retired jersey No. 33 during their game against the Los Angeles Lakers tonight, Nov. 21.

Milwaukee's expansion team of 1968-69 was one of the most successful in professional sports history. The original Bucks went 27-55. Upon his arrival the next year, though, Abdul-Jabbar became the centerpiece of one of the greatest quantum leaps in pro sports annuals, winning NBA Rookie-of-the-Year honors in leading the Bucks to a 29-win improvement over their first season.

The following year, Kareem and the Bucks took yet another giant step. He averaged 31.7 points and 16 rebounds and won his first of three most valuable player awards. The Bucks posted a 66-16 regular-season record and blazed through the NBA Playoffs to a 12-2 record to win the only world championship in franchise history.

Abdul-Jabbar, a New York native, spent six seasons in Milwaukee, but longed for a return to big-city life and was granted a trade to the Lakers, with whom he played 14 more seasons before retiring as the NBA's all-time leading scorer, a position he still holds.

Kareem was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1995, two years after the Bucks retired his jersey No. 33.

Fourteen years have passed since then, but Abdul-Jabbar still has many fond memories of the foundation he helped construct in Milwaukee.

He remembers some of the mentors who helped him -- a 22-year-old New York native and a collegiate All-American at UCLA -- make the transition into professional basketball.

"I think one guy who really helped me a lot in my early career was Willie Naulls, who had played for the Knicks and Celtics," Abdul-Jabbar said during a Milwaukee press conference Nov. 20. "I got to know him when I went to UCLA. He told me I had to be patient and do my job. That being a basketball player meant I had to go to places that were far away, and play the game in places I wasn't familiar with.

"And then two guys who played in the NBA but didn't play for the Bucks, kind of took me under their wings. One was Archie Clark, who played for the 76ers, and the other was Woody Sauldsberry. They kind of took me under their wings.

"When we'd play the 76ers, Archie would take me over to his house and we'd just talk and relax. They were like uncles to me and really helped me make the adjustment. In a perfect world, I would have gone back home to New York to play professional basketball. They helped me understand that's not how it works, and that I had a great opportunity to play in Milwaukee. That enabled me to make the adjustment."

Kareem revealed in his Milwaukee homecoming that, at 7 feet-2 inches, he was not only the tallest and most celebrated player on the Milwaukee roster; he was also the swiftest. All of the Bucks were timed in the 300-meter dash back then, and Abdul-Jabbar emerged with the fastest time, outrunning the likes of Bob "The Greyhound" Dandridge and Lucius "The Jackrabbit" Allen.

"We didn't have a lot of bruiser-type guys on that team," Abdul-Jabbar recalled. "I certainly wasn't a bruiser. Look at the pictures of me on these walls (in the Bradley Center's Courtside Club). I'm the skinny guy. But I was also the fastest guy at my position."

Abdul-Jabbar recalled how the Bucks used their mobility to their advantage. Their championship team didn't average 118.4 points per game by playing a walk-it-up, half-court game.

The arrival of perennial NBA All-Star guard Oscar Robertson, obtained in a trade for Flynn Robinson and Charlie Paulk in April of 1970, picked up an already rapid pace.

"Oscar could run a fast break," Abdul-Jabbar said. "And that was our trade mark, I think -- speed. We used our speed to our advantage. Our frontline was probably the fastest in the league, with myself, Bob Dandridge and Greg Smith.

"That created problems for the other teams. And Oscar knew how to take advantage of that and exploit that."

There was no celebration when the big trade for Robertson was made. There was no grandiose goal-setting. The dynamic duo did not spend much time at all discussing their team's potential. Instead, they went about fulfilling it in workmanlike fashion.

"I just remember training camp, and seeing how efficient Oscar was," Abdul-Jabbar said. "I had known about him. I had seen him play since I was in high school. I knew how great he was. But I didn't have the personal experience of being on the court with him until then.

"The ball always arrived at the right time so you could do the right thing with it. That's what I remember most."

Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson were far and away the icons of Milwaukee's world championship team, and their presence in the Hall of Fame attests to that. But by no means did the Bucks win the title playing a two-man game.

All five of the Bucks' starters (Abdul-Jabbar, Robertson, Jon McGlocklin, Bob Dandridge and Greg Smith) averaged in double figures, and Bob Boozer, Lucius Allen and Dick Cunningham were all valuable reserves, particularly in the playoffs. Coach Larry Costello put all the pieces of the puzzle together.

Abdul-Jabbar fondly remembers his Bucks teammates and their vital contributions.

"Well, I thought that the way we beat teams in those days ... we really dominated the opposition," Abdul-Jabbar said. "We had one player, Greg Smith, that was totally underappreciated. Because he was not a prototype power forward (at just 6-4 and 200 pounds), nobody really appreciated what he could do. But Greg ran the court like a deer, and could rebound with guys four or five inches taller than him. He was a great defensive player, and he played his heart out in every game. He was really special, especially for the camaraderie. He was just a wonderful guy to be around and play with. I thought he was vastly underappreciated.

"And the guys we had on the bench were important, too ... especially Bob Boozer. The guy could shoot. We were able to go to our second team and still be able to keep the offensive pressure on the teams that we played.

"My backup was Dick Cunningham, 'The Cement Mixer.' Dick was able to beat on me a little bit in practice. It was a great group. It was fun playing with those guys. 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."

The world championship, Abdul-Jabbar said, was the pinnacle of his Bucks career.

"Of course, beating the Bullets in '71 was tops," he said. "You can't do any better than that.

"I think even more memorable, in some ways, was the close call we had in '74, when we had some injuries and lost to the Celtics in seven games in the Finals. That's the one I most remember as the one that got away. I always thought that, if we had all stayed healthy and stayed together, we could have gone down as one of the best teams in NBA history. But it didn't work out that way."

The championship Bucks set six NBA records, beat the San Francisco Warriors by 50 points in one game during their 12-2 domination of the playoffs, and became only the second team in NBA history to make a clean sweep of the championship round.

"That happened so long ago that I guess that the great teams that have been around since then have kind of overshadowed that team," Abdul-Jabbar said. "And unfortunately, that team was only together for a year. But that was a great team -- one of my favorites."

With their title conquest, the Bucks went farther faster, from expansion status to the championship, than any team in professional sports history.

"I think that was really great," Abdul-Jabbar said. "We won the world championship in the Bucks' third year of existence. I think that's still the quickest ever. That's something that I'll be proud of all of my life."

And thanks to the Bucks organization, which will recognize the all-time greats whose jersey numbers have been retired throughout their 40th anniversary season, the fans are getting the opportunity to express their pride as well.