Led by Alcindor and Robertson, the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks brought roundball excellence to a football-crazed state
A flip of a coin. An outstretched arm. A flick of the wrist. A lean across the tape. An inch.
In sports, these are often the things upon which fate hinges. Such was the case in 1969 when a coin toss sent Lew Alcindor*, the great UCLA center who brought home to Westwood three national titles, to Milwaukee and not Phoenix.
But even though the coin landed in the Bucks’ favor, it did not mean Alcindor’s arrival in Milwaukee was automatic. First, Alcindor had to agree to sign, and there were many suitors who would have been happy to have his services. Ultimately Milwaukee, with the financial help of other NBA franchises who felt it behooved them to have a star like Alcindor in the league, cobbled together enough for a five-year contract worth $250,000 per year. Alcindor accepted and gave his word he was coming to Milwaukee.
Larry Costello, a former NBA All-Star, had been named the first head coach of the Milwaukee expansion team in 1968 and was the lucky benefactor of the Alcindor sweepstakes as the center made an immediate impact for him and the Bucks. In his rookie season, Alcindor averaged 28 points per game and hauled down 14 ½ boards. The team went 56-26 and made it all the way to the Eastern Division Finals only to be bounced by the New York Knicks, 4 games to 1.
In the offseason, Milwaukee maneuvered to add more talent to the roster. The Bucks’ front office hoped the addition of legendary guard Oscar Robertson, who was traded to Milwaukee by the Cincinnati Royals, was enough to put Costello’s squad over the hump. They calculated correctly.
Robertson joined a Bucks roster that included Alcindor, Bob Dandridge (13.2 ppg), Jon McGlocklin (17.6 ppg), and Greg Smith (9.8 ppg).
In his second season, Alcindor upped his numbers from his rookie year, averaging 31.7 ppg and 16 rebounds per contest. Dandridge, Smith, and McGlocklin’s numbers improved, too, as the veteran Robertson’s infectious play made others better. “Oscar could really be the floor leader and didn’t have to score all the time,” Dandridge said. “It was a perfect marriage.”
Milwaukee’s high-powered offense was tops in the league. Robertson chipped in a 19/8/5 slash line, and Alcindor performed spectacularly. On Nov. 4 at Cleveland, Alcindor got 53—a season high—in a 110-108 win. But he reserved his best play for Boston. One week after his 53-point performance, he went for 44 and 15 against a Celtics team with John Havlicek and Dave Cowens. In five games versus the Celtics that year, Alcindor averaged 41.4 points and 18.8 rebounds per game.
The Bucks charged out to a 17-1 record, winning 16 in a row after dropping their second game of the season to the Detroit Pistons. From Feb. 6 to March 8, the Bucks won 20 in a row and finished the year 66-16.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Bucks faced the San Francisco Warriors with Nate Thurmond and Jerry Lucas. Milwaukee made quick work of the Warriors in five games.
Then the Bucks turned their attention to Joe Mullaney’s Los Angeles Lakers, who’d finished first in the Pacific Division and boasted the terrific trio of Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, and Elgin Baylor. Because West and Baylor were not available in the series due to injury, the Lakers were a shell of their previous selves, and the Bucks dispatched them in only five games as well.
The Baltimore Bullets ousted the New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference Finals to set up the Finals matchup with Milwaukee. The Bullets, who had Wes Unseld, Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, and Fred “Mad Dog” Carter, hobbled into the playoffs and were simply overmatched by the balanced threat of Alcindor and Robertson. The Bucks swept the series and brought home the franchise’s only NBA championship in its 50-year history.
They weren’t the beloved Green Bay Packers, whom Vince Lombardi left in 1969, but Alcindor was evidence that God still loved Wisconsin. H&A
*Alcindor changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after the 1971 season.