The Bucks Have Big-Time Supporters: Kareem and Oscar Robertson

The Milwaukee Bucks’ only title came in 1971, when they swept the Baltimore Bullets.

It was the third year of the franchise, a potential signal of a new powerhouse to be reckoned with besides the Boston Celtics, who had dominated the N.B.A. for much of the previous decade.

Now, 50 years later, the Bucks are still in search of their second title. They are in the finals for just the second time since then, and down two games to none to the Phoenix Suns. Game 3 is on Sunday in Milwaukee.

The Bucks of 1971 were led by two players still considered to be among the best in league history: Oscar Robertson and Lew Alcindor, who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the day after Milwaukee won the championship.

Abdul-Jabbar, then 24, was in his second year in the league and already one of the most dominant players. He averaged 31.7 points a game to lead the N.B.A., en route to the first of his six Most Valuable Player Awards. Meanwhile, the 32-year-old Robertson was on the back end of his career and was transitioning to more of a supporting role — while still putting up All-Star numbers. Robertson, the M.V.P. in 1964, had just finished a 10-year run with the Cincinnati Royals and had become the first player to average a triple-double for a season.

Both had special skills — Abdul-Jabbar with his sky hook, Robertson because of his versatility. That 1970-71 Bucks team, coached by Larry Costello, won 20 games in a row during the regular season, then the longest-ever winning streak.

In an email to The New York Times, Abdul-Jabbar said that the championship gave him confidence there would be many more to come for Milwaukee.

“I thought we had a good shot because of the nucleus we put together,” Abdul-Jabbar said, citing Robertson and Bob Dandridge as “amazing teammates.” Dandridge, then also in his second year in the N.B.A., was the team’s third-leading scorer. He would go on to make four All-Star teams and was selected for the Basketball Hall of Fame’s 2021 class through a veterans committee.

Robertson, in a phone interview, said he didn’t think much about future championships, because “people didn’t think of those things during those days.”

Robertson pointed to roster upheaval to explain why those Bucks didn’t win again. The starting forward Greg Smith and the reserve center Dick Cunningham were soon traded, and the reserve forwards Bob Boozer and McCoy McLemore left. (Cunningham returned one season later but played sparingly in his last three seasons.) The Bucks didn’t find enough quality supporting pieces to help Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson.

“It killed us!” Robertson said.

Fifty years later, Abdul-Jabbar and Robertson are rooting for the Bucks again. Milwaukee has another generational player in Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has some of the versatility of Robertson with his passing and rebounding, and the unusual physical tools that help him to be a top scorer like Abdul-Jabbar. And like the two former Bucks, Antetokounmpo is having trouble finding help from his teammates.

Antetokounmpo put up a remarkable performance in Game 2 against Phoenix — 42 points and 12 rebounds — the latest strong postseason game for the two-time M.V.P. But the Bucks’ supporting cast offered little support, and the Suns pulled away in the second half.

“He’s so unusual,” Abdul-Jabbar said of Antetokounmpo. “He can play all five positions. Seeing how he’s developed as a player made me think that when I was in high school and college that the game was overcoached. He just went to the court and figured it all out for himself. Instead of being forced to specialize, he developed his versatility without being told about limitations.”

Added Robertson: “I’ll tell you a story: One year, Wilt Chamberlain scored 50 points a game and they didn’t win anything at all. I think that Giannis has got to have some help.”

During the Bucks’ semifinal series against the Nets, Abdul-Jabbar said on ESPN that he did not think they could win a championship. But on Thursday, ahead of Game 2 against the Suns, he posted a video of himself on Twitter flipping a coin and confidently saying, “Bucks in six.” The coin flip was a reference to 1969, when the Suns and the Bucks flipped a coin to see who would have the first pick in the N.B.A. draft. The Bucks won and took Abdul-Jabbar; Phoenix used the No. 2 pick on Neal Walk, who had a forgettable career.

Abdul-Jabbar said that if Phoenix had drafted him, his career would have gone “a lot differently.”

“Phoenix is so close to where I went to college and where my wife was from that I might have stayed there and never moved to Los Angeles,” said Abdul-Jabbar, who went to college at U.C.L.A.

Instead, Abdul-Jabbar asked the Bucks for a trade in 1974, wanting to be in a big city. Robertson had retired after the Bucks lost in the 1974 finals in seven games to the Celtics, leaving behind an aging core. Abdul-Jabbar was traded to the Lakers, where he won five more championships.

“Phoenix has a tradition of playing really well but not being able to win a championship. Maybe I would have changed that,” Abdul-Jabbar said.

Both Robertson and Abdul-Jabbar said they had fond memories of being in Milwaukee.

“I thought, even without Kareem, we could’ve won,” Robertson said, adding, “I thought Kareem was great for us, no doubt about it, but we had total contributions in our games that we won.”

Abdul-Jabbar said he never expected to spend his whole career with the Bucks.

“It wasn’t a reflection on the team or the city but more because I was still in my early 20s and unsure what I wanted to do with my career or even after basketball,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I just had a feeling that I wanted to be someplace where I had more options in both my personal and professional lives.”

Abdul-Jabbar said he remembered Milwaukee’s fans as “great, enthusiastic and loyal,” particularly during his rookie year. After losing to the Knicks in the playoffs in 1970, the Bucks returned home to Milwaukee.

“We finally arrived at 1 a.m. and stepped out of the plane to several hundred screaming fans shouting, ‘Next year is ours!’” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I was feeling pretty disappointed on the trip home. I was so impressed and grateful. I think that might have lit a fire under us to win the championship the next season.”

But Abdul-Jabbar also recalled a more painful event.

“I had an incident at a small restaurant in Milwaukee where I was denied service because I was Black,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “It only happened once in six years, so I didn’t blame Milwaukee, but that was a low moment.”

Robertson stayed with the Bucks from 1970 to 1974, before retiring at 35 years old. His best year there was the championship season, when he averaged 19.4 points, 8.2 assists and 5.7 rebounds per game.

But his biggest impact on basketball might have been his 1970 lawsuit against the N.B.A., when the league was trying to merge with the A.B.A. Robertson was fighting the N.B.A.’s “option clause,” which restricted player movement. Six years later, the suit was settled and opened the door to modern-day free agency.

Without Robertson, Antetokounmpo might not have had the option of the so-called supermax extension that he agreed to in December, worth almost a quarter of a billion dollars.

“I’m happy for it because I think it’s going to create a situation that some people, both Black and white, will make enough money so they don’t have to worry about anything in the future for their families,” Robertson said.


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