Bucking the Trend
With Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, it’s no surprise that the Bucks won the 1971 Finals. What’s surprising is Milwaukee was in only its third NBA season
His name wasn’t pulled from a hat, nor was his triumph and place in Milwaukee Bucks history the result of a famous coin flip.
R.D. Trebilcox of Whitefish, Wis., was one of 45 fans who suggested the name “Bucks” for the NBA’s newest expansion franchise in 1968. More than 14,000 fans had participated in the search to find a suitable nickname. What won Trebilcox the car was the reasoning behind his choice: “Bucks are spirited, good jumpers, fast and agile,” he said.
The famous coin flip actually came a year later when the Bucks, after winning 27 games during the inaugural1968-69 season, won the rights to draft Lew Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Suddenly, Trebilcox’s vision for the Bucks began to take shape.
In the spring of 1970, the Bucks traded for Oscar Robertson, forming the “KO Combination,” a tag coined by Eddie Doucette, the team’s colorful radio broadcaster. Robertson had already logged 10 brilliant seasons in the NBA without attaining his ultimate goal of winning a championship. Though not as “fast and agile” as he once was, he still owned the game’s highest I.Q. and a burning desire to be a champion.
Through the expansion draft in 1968, trades and the college draft, the team secured the rights to Jon McGlocklin, Greg Smith, Bobby Dandridge, Bob Boozer, Lucius Allen and Dick Cunningham. Smith and Dandridge were the “good jumpers,” able to run the floor and give the team opportunity baskets. McGlocklin, in addition to owning an accurate outside stroke, played the game with “spirit” and passion. Boozer, Allen and Cunningham provided outside shooting and depth. Head coach Larry Costello was brought in straight from his playing days in Philadelphia to give the team direction in 1968. In only two years, all the pieces had been assembled to make a run at a championship.
After winning 56 games in 1969-70 and losing to the New York Knicks in the Eastern Division Finals in five games, the Bucks, now with Robertson in the fold, had the look of a championship team in 1970-71. And they didn’t disappoint.
The Bucks won 66 games during the regular season, which included streaks of 20 and 16. They marched through the first two rounds of the playoffs with an 8-2 record, dispatching the San Francisco Warriors and Los Angeles Lakers in five games to advance to the Finals against the injury-riddled Baltimore Bullets. The Bucks completed the sweep of the Bullets on April 30, 1971, in Baltimore behind 30 points from Robertson and 27 points from Abdul-Jabbar, who was named Finals MVP.
“We were the team of destiny,” said McGlocklin, who retired in 1976 and has served as the analyst on Bucks’ broadcasts since. “The way the year went, the way we played, the lack of injuries, everything about the year, you could tell it was our year. And you felt that all year long.”
In the exhibition season, the Bucks were a perfect 10-0, as Robertson was starting to get a feel for his new teammates. It was understood that Robertson wasn’t brought in to merely blend in; he was brought in to take control and provide leadership. With Abdul-Jabbar manning the middle, the Bucks had a young star who could score and rebound. With Robertson now guiding the ship and the rest of his mates falling in line, the bar was raised even higher.
“Here was somebody you dreamed about, and now he was a part of the mix,” said Dandridge, who was drafted in 1969 along with Abdul-Jabbar. “Oscar could really be the floor leader and didn’t have to score all the time. It was a perfect marriage.”
Robertson’s scoring average, often above 30 points during his years in Cincinnati, dipped to 19.4 as he spent his time getting the ball to Abdul-Jabbar, who led the league in scoring (31.7) and was named the league MVP.
The team gave new meaning to the word efficiency and the emphasis on execution made Milwaukee one of the greatest offensive teams in league history. The Bucks led the league in scoring, yet were only 12th in field goals attempted. And they were the first team in league history to average better than 50 percent from the field. Abdul-Jabbar was the go-to guy, but there was more than enough to go around as Dandridge (18.4) and McGlocklin (15.8) also put up respectable numbers.
“It was the most complementary team that I’ve been around,” said Doucette, a 32-year veteran of the basketball airwaves. “Man per man, it wasn’t the most talented group, but when you put them on the floor together, they all had a specific role and played it beautifully. They proved that if you had a team of role players with a couple of stars, you could win.”
While they performed flawlessly together on the court, the players weren’t particularly close off of it. Abdul-Jabbar was very private by nature and kept to himself. Robertson was the old-school veteran who didn’t shy away from being vocal. Some of the younger players, such as Dandridge and Smith, gravitated to Robertson and looked to him for guidance. Allen and Abdul-Jabbar had gone to school together at UCLA. McGlocklin and Robertson were both from Indiana, played together in Cincinnati and were only four years apart in age. In all, it was a blend of players at different points in their careers, but they knew how to get the job done as one unit.
“It wasn’t the kind of team where we all went out together and did that kind of thing,” McGlocklin said. “We all had our own lives, but when we came together on the court, everything was checked at the door and we took care of business and were unified on the court.”
In their playing days, McGlocklin and Dandridge considered themselves to be polar opposites. Today, they enjoy a warm friendship.
“Everybody had their individual personalities,” said Dandridge. “But at no time was there any bickering about who had the ball, or who should score because we basically knew that between Oscar and Kareem that they were the foundation of the offense and defense. But they were unselfish and made good passes and they shared the ball and I think everyone understood the importance of all players involved.”
It also helped that Costello and Robertson were on the same page as to how the team should play.
“Costello had the best center in the game at the time, he has the best guard and he took advantage of it,” Doucette said. “Unlike a lot of coaches who have a tendency to over-coach and try and get too cute, Costello took advantage of the pieces he was given.”
The Bucks had figured their greatest challenge in 1971 would again come from the Knicks, who’d won the championship in 1970. When Baltimore upset New York in a grueling seven-game series in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Bucks’ Finals opponent was the Bullets, who had little left in their tank.
Wes Unseld had sprained his ankle badly at season’s end and was supposed to be out for the season. Somehow, he hobbled back for the playoffs. Forward Gus Johnson had sore knees and missed two games in the Finals. Earl “The Pearl” Monroe was also forced to sit out two games with an assortment of injuries.
In the first game of the series, Robertson was able to set the tone, thanks in part to the actions of an overzealous Baltimore rookie named Fred Carter. The youngster had just completed a fine rookie season with the Bullets and he drew the initial defensive assignment on Robertson. Nicknamed “Mad Dog,” Carter was able to block one of Robertson’s first shot attempts and became a little too proud of his accomplishment.
“When Mad Dog blocked it, he started running off at the mouth and Oscar’s eyes started to get big and the true essence of the Big O surfaced,” Dandridge recalled. “He made the mistake of firing Oscar up.”
Robertson finished the game with 22 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. Carter managed only six points, four assists and no rebounds. By the time the fourth game rolled around, Baltimore was a beaten bunch.
“In Game 4, Earl Monroe and I kind of got into it a little bit, just a pushing, shoving thing,” McGlocklin said. “Leading up to that, his frustration was so obvious. You could tell the whole team was frustrated because they couldn’t get it together after a tough series with New York.”
Baltimore shot better than 40 percent in only one game of the series, and in only two quarters did they score more than 30 points. After Game 4 and the championship securely in hand, Robertson called it “a great team effort. I felt confident the whole game. It was just a great year.”
The Bucks had come further, faster than any expansion team in the history of major pro sports. In fact, they were so good so fast that the city of Milwaukee was caught by surprise.
“It all kind of happened so quickly,” remembered Jim Foley, who was Milwaukee’s publicity director at the time and now is the radio voice for the Houston Rockets. “There was genuine excitement when Kareem came on board, but I don’t think anyone expected us to win so soon.”
The Bucks weren’t an automatic sellout in Milwaukee Arena. The team’s traveling party consisted of eight people during the Finals. To fill out the celebration party after they won Game 4 in Baltimore, the Bucks invited Bullets personnel to join them. The media coverage at the time was scant. Milwaukee had two major papers, the Journal and the Sentinel, and each sent one beat writer. There wasn’t much evidence to prove that the city had embraced the Bucks. But the next day, the team flew back to Milwaukee and was welcomed by an enormous crowd at Mitchell Field. That’s when it started to sink in. It wasn’t that the people didn’t care; the Bucks had caught the city off guard.
“It snuck up on the city,” McGlocklin recalled. “They weren’t ready for it and probably didn’t appreciate it for what it was until years later.”
The city may have been a little slow in its reception, but what the 1971 championship did was to solidify the Bucks’ place in the NBA and Milwaukee as a legitimate sports town.
“It gave the people of Milwaukee a little identity in the sports world,” said Robertson, who retired after the 1973-74 season. “Usually the big city tickets like Chicago, L.A., New York or Philly get all the recognition.”
The Bucks won 63 games the following season, then 60 in 1972-73. Abdul-Jabbar asked for a trade and was swapped to the Lakers in 1975. Still, the Bucks had already laid a solid foundation that resulted in 17 trips to the playoffs in the 20 seasons following the championship.
“That was a pretty darn good team,” said Jerry Sloan, who played with Chicago at the time and now coaches the Utah Jazz. “Everybody knew Kareem and Oscar. But it was also McGlocklin, guys like that. Dandridge was a great player. I don’t know if they got the credit they deserved. Like any team, it was the other guys, too.”
Including one R.D. Trebilcox, who was the first to predict the Bucks’ greatness.
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