Q&A: From playing with legends to working in the stands, former NBA player Dick Garrett enjoys unique perspective

Teammate of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and other Hall of Famers now works at Fiserv Forum

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

MILWAUKEE – In terms of sightlines and proximity to the action, when it comes to watching one of the NBA’s rising teams in a dazzling new building, it’s hard to beat Dick Garrett’s seat.

He has a prime spot just behind the first couple rows at Fiserv Forum, new home of the Milwaukee Bucks. He’s responsible in his game night job as a security staffer, or “usher,” for a section of fans in the pricey seats directly opposite the visitors’ bench. He knows many of the season-ticket holders, as well as players’ friends and family members who drop by.

During timeouts, between quarters and before and after the games, he stands and tends to his usherly duties. But when the game’s being played, Garrett, 71, catches most of the plays from his folding chair down low.

In fact, the only way Garrett could have a better seat would be to plant himself on the Bucks’ or their opponents’ bench. Or even step on the court as a participant.

Which Garrett did.

For five seasons – from 1969-70 through 1973-74 – this lean, gregarious gentleman averaged double figures as an NBA shooting guard while playing alongside a bushel of the game’s legends. With the Lakers in his first season, Garrett averaged 11.6 ppg, 3.2 rpg and 31.8 mpg starting with Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain for a club that would go to The Finals. At season’s end, the 6-foot-3, 185-pound guard was an all-Rookie selection with the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bobby Dandridge and Jo Jo White.

Proud of his shooting stroke, Garrett spent three seasons with Buffalo, then split 1973-74 between the defending champion New York Knicks and the Finals-bound Bucks. In 339 games, he averaged 10.3 points and 10.0 field-goal attempts.

After being squeezed out at age 27 of a competitive league with fewer available jobs – 17 teams, 12 roster spots each – Garrett never looked back. He went to work in sales for companies in Milwaukee and Detroit before landing with Miller Brands beer distributorship, where he spent 30 years.

He and his wife of 50 years, LaRisa a.k.a. “Penny,” raised four children in Milwaukee – Tomeka, Jermia, Damon and Diante, who spent two seasons in the NBA and still is playing overseas. Before Garrett retired from his day job, he added his Bucks gig as a way to get close again to the NBA.

Most of the fans he assists have no idea that he once played for their favorite team, two buildings removed (at the MECCA when it was simply Milwaukee Arena). But a few friends around the league know – they visit before games when they’re in town – and so does Garrett, who has stayed plugged in to the Bucks and the game for nearly a half century. He recently spoke about his bookend NBA experiences with NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner:

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Steve Aschburner: You’re as good an authority as anyone, given the number of Milwaukee games you’ve worked over the past 17 or 18 years. How does this new arena, Fiserv Forum, compare to Bradley Center?

Dick Garrett: There’s no comparison. This is a beautiful place, absolutely beautiful. They laid this place out really nice. But for a half a billion dollars and some change, they should, right? [laughs] The Bradley Center was actually not a bad place to play. But you’ve got to keep up with the Joneses in the NBA.

SA: How did you become an usher at Bucks games?

DG: Before I retired from Miller Brands distributorship eight years ago, I had a friend who was on the security staff at the Bradley Center. He knew my basketball background and knew I was always watching the games at home, and he was like, “Why don’t you come down and work the games, if you’re going to watch ’em anyway?” For three or four years, I told him my boys were growing up and playing, and I didn’t want to take the time away from them. But finally one day I said, “Sure.”

I was always as much a basketball fan as I was a player. So I kind of liked it. I enjoyed the games. I work with a bunch of good people. It seemed like fun. Physically I’m not killing myself. They give me a good seat, where I can see an NBA game, and they give me a few dollars for it. Now that I’m retired, I enjoy it because I need something to do in the winter. Here in Milwaukee, you’re not going to do too much.

SA: Do you work every game?

DG: I try to, unless something comes up with the family. I work Marquette games also. I usually miss a week or two and, with my son playing overseas now, we try to take a week or two to get to wherever he is to support him.

SA: That’s part of this story – your son Diante, a 6-foot-4 guard, went to Iowa State and then got into 19 games with Phoenix in 2012-13. The next year, he played in 71 with Utah. What has he been up to?

DG: He’s in Turkey this year. Last year he was in Torino, Italy. The year before that, Tokyo. The year before that, in Tel Aviv, Israel. … It’s a business, and he kind of caught the business end of it. His first year out of school, Diante wasn’t drafted. He ended up overseas that first year playing in Croatia and France.

After that, he took a chance. Phoenix invited him to camp and he made that squad. Played well enough, but they fired the coach and went a different direction. [The next year] Utah called him and he worked himself up to being the backup point guard. He was playing [15] minutes a game. So he looked forward to the following season. Put in a lot of work in the offseason, was going to play for their summer league team. And the day before he left, he actually got traded to Toronto. [The Raptors cut Garrett nine days later.]

That’s when he went to Israel to play in the winter league there. It wound up being a good thing for him. He made the All-Star team in that league, he made the All-Star team in Tokyo.

SA: He’s obviously making more money than he would make knocking around the G League. Diante just turned 30. Has he made peace with the possibility he might not get another sniff from the NBA?

DG: He’s bounced around some, but he’s doing real well. After a while, if you chase your dream and it doesn’t come to fruition, you make an adjustment. … Playing basketball for a living, when that’s what you love to do? It doesn’t get any better than that. If I could still play, I would. My brain tells me that sometime but my body asks, “What the hell are you thinking about?”

SA: You had a good run, at an awfully great time for the NBA. In 1969, out of Southern Illinois, you were the second player picked by the Lakers at a time when they were ready to take over for Boston as a championship dynasty.

DG: I’m fortunate that I was from a little town in southern Illinois, Centralia, which is kind of a hotbed of high school basketball. At SIU, I ended up playing my sophomore year with Walt Frazier. That year, we beat Marquette for the NIT championship and Walt was the MVP. The NIT was actually as big as the NCAA back then and of the 16 teams that were in New York that year, I think seven of them were ranked in the Top 20.

SA: So you and Frazier were Salukis together?

DG: Walt was actually going to leave school because he had some run-in with a coach, even though he’d been an all-American. So he stopped going to class. That made him academically ineligible. The athletic director talked him into coming back to school, but he had to sit out my freshman year (1965-66). So he would play with us when we’d scrimmage against the varsity. And even though they were ranked high nationally, we would give ‘em a little bit of hell. Sometimes [Coach] Jack Hartman would say “Walt Frazier, sit down,” if we were getting the best of the varsity.

My sophomore year, we beat the Texas Western team that had beat Kentucky in the championship – beat ‘em on their home court. We played Louisville, which had Wes Unseld and Butch Beard and was ranked No. 2 behind UCLA. We played them home and away – they won in overtime in Louisville but when they came to Carbondale, we beat them in regulation.

SA: After your senior season, you were the 27th overall pick in 1969. Were you excited to go to that Lakers team?

DG: I had a chance to make my way into the starting lineup playing alongside Jerry West. That’s the team that lost to Walt and them from the Knicks, when Willis Reed walked out there for that seventh game.

SA: So you were there for West’s famous halfcourt shot to force overtime in Game 1 of those 1970 Finals. If only the league had a 3-point line then, eh?

DG: That’s right, that’s actually a game we lost in overtime. Then we got to the seventh game. I had played Walt head-up for much of the series. But that last game, I couldn’t do anything with him.

SA: Willis Reed came out of the tunnel limping with a hamstring injury, and legend has it you Laker players stopped and gawked, and maybe got intimidated right there.

DG: Willis had those two baskets early. But there was a lot of literary commentary going on that night. We didn’t turn around and watch Willis come onto the floor. It makes for good reading. But he did lift them up, I’ll give him that, hitting those shots and dragging that leg.

After that, it was Dick Barnett and [Dave] DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, seemed like nobody could miss. And Walt went a little wild on us. He scored 36 points and they said he had 19 assists, but I’ve got a film of that. Walt didn’t have 19 assists – Walt had seven assists. Watching that game on ESPN or NBA TV one time, even at the end of the game the announcer said, “Where’s Frazier’s 19 assists?” I still don’t know. Walt and I talk about that to this day when he comes to town as color commentator with the Knicks.

SA: The number of Hall of Fame players you teamed with in five NBA seasons is remarkable: West, Elgin Baylor, Wilt Chamberlain in L.A., Bob McAdoo in Buffalo, Frazier, Reed, Bradley, DeBusschere, Jerry Lucas and Earl Monroe in New York and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson in Milwaukee. Have you ever thought about what the great players have in common?

DG: I think they put in the work they had to, to get to that level, and I don’t think it’s any different now. Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, those were the first guys at the arena when they were playing. If you watch now, with Giannis [Antetokounmpo], he comes out early and he’s not just throwing up shots. He’s working, he’s sweating, he’s going at it before a game like it’s a practice.

When I played with Walt, that’s when I noticed guys would go in to hit the weight room. That was kind of taboo back then – you didn’t want to be “muscle-bound” – but we’d lift and do a lot of stretching after. After a while, found, “Wow, I can dunk easily now.” That’s what all great players have done.

SA: There was a lot more physical play in the ‘60s and ‘70s, as well as players pushing themselves to play through pain.

DG: I don’t think it just happens. Jerry and these guys would play hurt, no matter what. My rookie year, I saw Jerry come down, hit the floor and cut his eye open. He went and got stitches, then came back and finished with 35 points. I thought, “I don’t know if I could have done that.” Then I hit heads with Rick Adelman, my tooth went through my top lip. I went in, they stitched me up, and I said, “If Jerry can play with stitches over his eye, I can play with stitches in my mouth.” I only got 25 that night, though, not 35.

I’d see a guy we looked up to like Elgin with a groin pull, he’d get that taped up and have to get a shot before playing. Then I’d see Wilt, who tore his knee up my rookie year. Wasn’t supposed to come back at all but came back [for the last 12 games] in the season. [Chamberlain then averaged 47.3 minutes in the Lakers’ 18 playoff games, with 22.1 ppg and 22.2 rpg.] That’s just the mindset of some of the greats. I think you have to have that mental edge as well as the physical.

SA: You earn all-rookie status, yet you wind up shipping off to Buffalo in the expansion draft. How’d that happen?

DG: The league had expanded to Cleveland, Portland and Buffalo. The Lakers decided to get Gail Goodrich back from Phoenix and were going to trade Mel Counts. Their plan was to leave me unprotected, assuming the new teams would go for size first. Fortunately or unfortunately, the Braves took me.

SA: We can fast-forward through those years – Buffalo was 65-181 in your three seasons there.

DG: My contract finally was up – I think myself and Bob Kauffman were the only ones left from the expansion group – and I wanted to go somewhere where they were winning. The Knicks picked me up, and they had won a championship the [spring] before. They still had Walt and Bradley, and now Monroe and Dean Meminger. Earl got hurt, so the Knicks signed me and I played a good part of the season there. But when he came back, that left me as low man on the totem pole again. [New York waived Garrett the day after Christmas, 1973.]

Then Milwaukee picked me up [two weeks later]. That’s how I wound up losing in the seventh game again in the Finals. This time, it was against Boston. We lost this one after Kareem hit that hook shot to win [Game 6] in Boston. I thought we’d beat ‘em, but they had Don Chaney play Oscar full court. Oscar could still get you 17, 18, still get you eight or nine assists, but he was 35 at the time. They jumped on us that first quarter and, before you knew it, they had us down 17, 18 points.

SA: Larry Costello coached that Bucks team. You also played for men such as Dolph Schayes, Jack Ramsay and Red Holzman.

DG: What I remember about Dolph was, he still could shoot the ball. He’d take that little two-handed set shot. Then I really wanted to play for Jack Ramsay – he was a hard-nosed coach, he knew what he was doing, we had a lot of respect for him. Then you could see that Buffalo team with McAdoo and Randy Smith coming on. They made the playoffs and got Jim McMillian and a couple other players.

SA: And Holzman?

DG: If you got in with Red and could make that top eight guys, you played a lot. But he knew what he was doing – that always my impression of Red, Jack Ramsay, Joe Mullaney and especially my college coach Jack Hartman. Those guys were all task-masters, but if you paid attention and bought into what they wanted you to do – they’d let you know what your role was – then you’d be successful. I think that’s why guys like Gregg Popovich and Pat Riley, K.C. Jones, Lenny Wilkens and those others were great coaches — they were role players. They have the attention to detail. Guys like Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, a lot of star players never enjoyed the coaching aspect of it. But someone like Popovich, he doesn’t care who he gets in there. Anyone who buys into that philosophy with the group ends up playing well.

SA: So you went from playing with Frazier in college to playing against him when you were a rookie to playing with him again in your fifth NBA season.

DG: He had turned into “Clyde” by the time I played with him with the Knicks. I stayed with Walt while playing there, for about three months or so. And when you talk about the stars in those days – Walt and Joe Namath, that was New York then. That was big-time.

I was a married man and I still didn’t know if I wanted to stay in New York. Walt offered me the opportunity to stay with him – I kept my family at my place in Buffalo until we found a place. Then Earl came back.

SA: Wait, you were sharing an apartment with Clyde when he was at the height of his fame and bachelorhood in New York?

DG: Yep. [laughs] But they actually embellished that a little bit. He had his times, but Walt still got his rest. He was still a health nut, and he still put his work in. So they might have exaggerated the lifestyle a little bit.

SA: You came in as a rookie with Kareem and wound up going to The Finals in 1974 on his team. With him and with so many others you played against or with, what’s your take on the greatest player ever debates?

DG: Aw, it’s kind of tough to say. This is just my opinion, but the best player to me is Michael Jordan. Now, that’s not to say that other players … honestly, you could take Wilt, you could take Kareem as your top player. You could take Bill Russell because he won more championships. But Bill Russell was nowhere up to Wilt or Kareem individually. Then you’ve got the new guys coming on – LeBron, Kobe. Don’t forget Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, Hakeem Olajuwon and Karl Malone, Steph Curry. You could argue and make a case for any of these guys – Oscar! How do you say anybody was a better guard than Oscar Robertson?

SA: Another one you played with and against.

DG: When I was coming out of school, he was the one guy we all looked up to. I still tell my son the story of the first time I played against Oscar. I thought I was a pretty good defensive player when it came to boxing out and all that stuff, and he reached around me once on a box-out, threw an arm around my neck and kind of slammed me down. I said, “Well, anybody else do that to me, we’ve got a fight.” But I just got up and ran down the court – I just couldn’t see myself fighting Oscar Robertson. I must have been doing pretty well, and he just gave me that look.

SA: What do you remember about going against Tiny Archibald? [Archibald led the NBA in scoring and assists in 1972-73.]

DG: He’d drive inside and ball up into this little knot, and you’d never know which way he was going to come out. A game in Buffalo, we beat ‘em and the next day I’m reading the article and it says, “Garrett Holds Archibald to 23.” [laughs] I would have thought that meant he ate me up, scoring 23. But you couldn’t push up on him, and if you backed off, he made [his jump shot]. And I’ve always had a little problem with lefthanders, too. I hated my rookie year having to play against Lenny Wilkens – Lenny would go left on you all the time. I’d play him for that and he’d get that shoulder on me and I’d go for it every time. I actually would have rather played against Earl or Walt or Jerry then to have to play Lenny Wilkens.

SA: Pete Maravich?

DG: I played against Pete a bunch of times. He was fascinating. I don’t remember him ever scoring big against any team I was on. He wasn’t getting 35 or 40. He might get 30. But he was fun to watch.

SA: Finally, what stands out for you as your best game as an NBA player?

DG: I dunno. … I always talk about when Walt hit us in that seventh game. In the sixth game, I hit six or seven buckets on him [9-of-11 for 18 points with six assists]. But nobody remembers that one. Wilt had 45 points and 27 rebounds in that game with Willis sitting out, but nobody remembers that either. They do all remember the two buckets Willis scored in the seventh game.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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