Fifty years ago this week, the Milwaukee Bucks won not only their first championship, but just the second among the major professional sports teams that Milwaukee could call its own.
There has not been another banner to hang since.
The Bucks’ lone title was won in four games in the NBA Finals against the Baltimore Bullets and clinched on April 30, 1971. To commemorate that historic season, the Journal Sentinel spoke to more than a dozen surviving players, staff and family members from both teams and distilled it down to several of its most memorable people and events.
In this oral history, the people who lived it tell the tale of the 1970-71 Bucks championship campaign.
1968: The Birth of the Milwaukee Bucks
Olivia Reiner, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Prelude to a special season
The Milwaukee Bucks, in only their second year of existence, ended the 1969-70 season with a 56-26 record in the regular season and lost to the eventual champion New York Knicks in five games in the Eastern Division finals. Lew Alcindor, the No. 1 overall pick out of UCLA, won the Rookie of the Year Award.
With Alcindor, who would change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the conclusion of the 1970-71 campaign, the Bucks knew they were title contenders. But in the offseason, two things happened that helped set a course to history.
The first was out of the Bucks’ control. With the NBA expanding by three teams, including teams in Buffalo and Cleveland, the league pushed the Bucks out of the East and into the Midwest Division of the Western Conference. That got the Knicks out of their way regarding the playoffs.
And in Cincinnati, a boiling conflict between a star player and star coach had caught the attention of Milwaukee president and general manager Ray Patterson.
The trade for Oscar Robertson
Steve Patterson, Ray’s son: “Oscar, that was amazing. We flew out of Madison on (owner) Wes Pavalon’s Learjet, for a little kid was kind of an amazing experience. There weren’t that many people that had private jets. It’s not like today. We flew to Fort Lauderdale or Miami, I forget. The pilot was supposed to turn around and fly to Cincinnati and pick up Oscar and his agent, Ron Grinker. And between the time we landed and he was supposed to take off and fly back to Cincinnati, he had a heart attack and died. Yeah. So everyone was a little freaked out. You’re trying to do this deal and if it had been a few hours either way, it would’ve killed us or killed Oscar and his agent. That would’ve changed things a little bit. I think they wound up flying commercial and they came down and did the deal and sign Oscar. They had been working on it since the previous season.”
Oscar Robertson, Bucks point guard: "Actually I don’t understand why they didn’t read my contract, to be honest. Because their attorney, the attorney for the basketball team, put (a no-trade clause) in there because he wanted me to finish my career out with Cincinnati and never leave the team. They put it in and then (Royals coach Bob) Cousy comes in town. There’s a big thing in the papers about how I hadn’t done anything and all these things. It’s truly amazing when you make all-pro, the first-five team for 10 straight years, then all of a sudden because someone come in who did play basketball (Cousy) and they had the press. You know, Blacks didn’t have the press. All of a sudden he comes in and they know everything about the game and no one else knows anything at all."
Bob Cousy, via ESPN: “It wasn’t an ego thing. I could continue with, you know, simply letting Oscar get whatever number of points he wanted to get. He was still capable of doing that at the time. But in the long-range planning, this wasn’t the way we wanted to go.”
Jon McGlocklin, Bucks guard who played with Robertson in Cincinnati and Milwaukee: “I knew he was great. See, I describe Oscar this way: Oscar as a basketball player was perfect. He was perfect. He did everything around a basketball game, being a player, perfectly. The way he warmed up. The way he practiced. The way he played the game. The way he saw the game. He was perfect. If he had a flaw, I don’t know what it was.”
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, via Minority of One: “The point guard position really was a position that we needed to improve. After my rookie year, the people in the Bucks organization said we’re going to try to get Oscar. I said, well, geez, he’s kind of old isn’t he?”
Greg Smith, Bucks forward: “Oscar was the cat’s meow at that time.”
Eddie Doucette, Bucks radio play-by-play broadcaster: “He chose to come to Milwaukee to play with the greatest, at that time, center in the game, and the focal point of everybody's basketball conversation. What would this do for the game, to have a third-year team evolve to the point where they were now a threat for the championship? People were excited, there was a lot of conversation.”
Robertson: "I never thought of a championship whatsoever. It didn’t even cross my mind. I was in a situation, I had three daughters, and my wife and I were talking about the school situation and the type of place where she’d like to go live and she picked Milwaukee. We were very lucky, we moved right next to George Priester on Kenboern Drive (in Glendale) and it was wonderful."
Jim Foley, Bucks public relations director: “Oscar was like the pre-Magic, the pre-Michael. Believe me Oscar was as good as anybody. I hesitate to rank players in the league, but Oscar matches up with them all. Not only because of Oscar’s talent, but because of his knowledge of the game. It was like adding another coach.”
Bob Greacen, Bucks forward: “At the time the deal was made, I’m pretty sure I was in the National Guard. I was on active duty in the National Guard, so any information I got about the team I got from reading the sports page. To take this Hall of Fame player and add him to the mix, wow. It generated great optimism.”
Bob Dandridge, Bucks forward: “Championship had not – the significance of one – had not really dawned on me. I think for me it was just the thought of playing with the ‘Big O,’ who was the greatest player in the game at that particular time as far as a guy who could control a team and have tremendous numbers. So when I heard he was coming, I was more excited about playing with Oscar Robertson than my thoughts were of a championship team.”
Steve Patterson: “By far and away the most intimidating guy I’ve ever met. Of all the billionaires I’ve known and coaches and players. But he wanted to win a championship and you put him together with Kareem and Bobby Dandridge, another guy who should be in the Hall of Fame. When you look at that team when he showed up, he was so dominant. He was so, so dominant both as a player and as a personality. He told everybody what to do. And you better listen or it’s going to be one hell of a tongue-lashing.”
Bill Zopf, Bucks guard: “He was all in. He was all in. When players get older sometimes, they get cranky. Sometimes they get cranky. They don’t think they foul. But he was all in. I will say this, if we were in a game where maybe the standard stuff wasn’t working or whatever, I think (head coach) Larry (Costello) may bounce something off Oscar. There was definitely a mutual respect. Larry was strong-willed, but I also think that he was open. And Oscar, again, his knowledge, his experience in being around, obviously his talent speaks for itself, he would insert himself when necessary. That would be the best way to put it. In a way that was not vindictive. A teaching moment would maybe be the best way to say.”
Jeff Webb, Bucks guard: “It’s hard to describe playing with somebody like Oscar. He was head and heels over. Built like steel. You just bounced off the guy. He was a professor on the floor. He got everyone in the right place at the right time. He directed traffic. He did everything that needed to be done and everyone else complemented him and Kareem, and obviously the results showed.”
Greacen: “Instant gravitas. He was a Hall of Fame player of the future. The best. The best. Take the best guard in the NBA and put him on this young team with the best center, look out.”
McGlocklin: “He had command, but he didn’t do it with an iron fist. He’d jump on some guys. But, he just did it by saying a few things and by action. I didn’t know how it would work out between Oscar and Kareem. They were two different worlds, two different eras, but I knew that they both knew hey, this is a chance to win a ring. And they’re both professional. And they were both guys who did what they were supposed to do. So I knew it would work out in that regard.”
Dandridge: “He probably saw a vision that we didn’t see as youngsters. He probably saw this as an opportunity to have some young guys who could run, who could play defense and I’m quite sure the opportunity at last to play with an outstanding big man. Which all the other top guards in the league had had that opportunity to do with. And that was the only thing that was missing from his resume, never playing with a big man. And here was an opportunity to play with the greatest big man to ever play that position. Oscar knew what he had when he came to Milwaukee. He came on in and just led us.”
Larry Costello and his playbook
The Bucks were coached by just two men, head coach Larry Costello and assistant Tom Nissalke, a Madison native who began his coaching career at Wayland Academy in Beaver Dam. Costello was just 39 years old and only two years removed from his last season playing for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Doucette: “Larry Costello, he was a winner. When we talk about this team, we don't talk too much or hear too much about Larry Costello. He was the architect that put together the offense and brought together two of the greatest players of all time; that could have been a clash and never was.”
Pat McBride, Bucks ball boy and assistant trainer: “He was so intense. And he was always drawing plays. It was always this intense focus. That year, there was this pause. He always let Oscar be the quarterback on the floor and would say something in the huddle, and then Larry would step up and do his typical thing where he’d say ‘we’ve got to do this better’ or ‘rebound better’ or ‘stop the penetration’ or whatever. He’d bark out one thing and then he’d start drawing out plays. He always had these yellow pads, yellow pad, yellow pad, everywhere he went. On the bus, on the plane. And if you sat next to him, he was going to talk to you about basketball and plays endlessly. But he would draw up these plays on this yellow pad until he finally got a grease board. But that’s what he did.”
Foley: “Larry could probably go through every play of the game. I know we played 82 games but I bet I heard a game replayed about 160 times, particularly if we lost. Larry would just love to talk about the game and what happened here and what happened there, what we didn’t do and what we did do. He had a remarkable way of just remembering almost every play of every game. In the locker room Larry was strictly business.”
Zopf: “I was nominated for Rhodes Scholar in college. I applied myself but I had like a 3.9 GPA. I get this book and I’m looking at it and there’s all these plays. And I can tell you, all these plays and all this diversification on how the ball rotated and where it went, it always ended up with Kareem. And it didn’t matter if you started the ball on the left side of the court and somehow or other it ended up on the right side of the court and he would come across, it ended up with him. I thought to myself, you know, this is unbelievable. There were so many different ways, different angles, different passing routes, different cuts. But the ball – I would say, and I don’t think I’m exaggerating, 85% of the time it ended up with Kareem some way, shape or form. The best part about it is when we got there they gave us a test on it! They gave us a written test!”
McGlocklin: “We actually went up in the classrooms and had tests on the plays. We had called plays. They had names. By the time the season ended, we had 82. Now, in fairness, you didn’t use all 82. You might have five, seven or eight you use a lot. As the season went on, those went away and you used other ones. A lot of them went to Kareem. That was fine and that’s how he was designed.”
Dr. Pam (Costello) Helbling, daughter: “I found the playbook from the Bucks. That was really pretty cool. The stuff that he expected all the players to memorize. This thick book of plays and all the dos and don’ts about everything that they had to do or not do. It was pretty intense. It was very detailed.”
Dandridge: “One thing I remember was Coach Costello lining us up across halfcourt and each day there would be questions about the plays. But either by the time he got to Kareem, he had finished with all his questions. Maybe a couple of years ago I asked Kareem how did Larry manage to not have any questions left by the time he got his chance to answer, and he simply said 'the guy ran out of questions, Dandridge.' Everybody knew where our winning was to come to, but also there was plenty of room in there for the Big O to do what the Big O did. You just had to be able to interpret the plays and figure out where you fit in to be able to get your shots in the offense. I thought that throughout that playbook, you just had to look. You knew the playbook because you wanted to find out where you fit in.”
Smith: “Costello sat with each one of us, he said ‘How many minutes can you give me hard? How many minutes can you give me in a quarter?’ I said I can give you 10 to 12 hard. He said, no, really, really hard minutes because this is what we’re planning to do. He had that conversation with each one of us. He was able to put together that type of expectation of each player.”
Dr. Lesley (Costello) Kirby, daughter: “He definitely made sure that everybody was expected to give 100% effort. You don’t come into that organization and give 80%. It was 100% or more. He was giving 100% so he wanted to make sure that his players met him where he was at with the passion and the drive to make that time the best that it could be.”
Greacen: “I remember at that training camp in Hawaii, before one of the practices Larry was going around from player to player with a yellow legal pad and he came up to everybody and he said ‘How many minutes do you want to play?’ Or ‘How many hard minutes can you give me?’ And I was thinking to myself, is this a trick? I’m happy to be on the team. I’ll sweep the floor if you want me to. I was thinking maybe you’re supposed to say 48 minutes and if you don’t say 48 minutes you’re not all in. So, I didn’t know how to answer that question. I was just happy to be on the team.”
Smith: “We practiced hard. Larry Costello was a hard-nosed, no-frills kind of a guy. He paid you a compliment, let me tell you, you better believe you deserved it.”
Greacen: “He was very authoritarian. Very old school. I don’t think it would work today, but I think what made it work then was how coachable Kareem and Oscar were. They were really coachable guys. So, Larry would have us work on those 80 plays of getting the ball to Kareem. I don’t think Oscar was really used to that. But he did it.”
McGlocklin: “Think about Larry and think about how tricky it was. He had a legend in Oscar and he had a coming legend in Kareem who was already somewhat of a legend at UCLA and he’s giving these guys tests. I mean! But see, Larry was kind of a drill sergeant kind of guy. He looked like one. And he was a hard-nosed guy and he played that way. He was a good player. He was very honest. But he just expected you – here’s what we’re going to do and let’s do it. And fortunately Kareem and Oscar did.”
Kirby: “He would get angry a couple of times at some of his players not showing up on time for practices. He was a stickler when it came to that. When you were supposed to be there, you were supposed to be there. This is your job, this is your occupation, this is expected of you and it is not OK to show up late for practice. I remember how angry he would be and how he had to get on some of the team players for not getting there on time. He kind of told us about that because he wanted to instill that life lesson in us, in his daughters growing up. I remember him saying about all that and how he had to fine a couple of them for being late to practices.”
Doucette: George Korkus, the team physician, told Larry to relax and said ‘I'm afraid if they open up your brain, a thousand little basketballs will fall out on the table.’ That was Larry, that was his life. He was all about the game and putting something together to beat the other guy and to win, win, win."
The preseason and trip to Hawaii
The Bucks held their rookie tryouts and training camps in college gyms, and this is where new acquisitions Oscar Robertson, Lucius Allen and Bob Boozer, and rookies Bill Zopf, Jeff Webb and Marv Winkler worked with the holdovers from the year before.
Dandridge: “During that particular time, there were probably only two positions that were really secured on the team and that was Oscar and Kareem. Although I had made the all-rookie team, they brought in Boozer, Lucius came in. Bob Greacen and I were both coming into our second year and the way Larry was, he was going to try to keep it as competitive as he could at every position. It still hasn’t kicked in yet to me that championship is the expectation. It just still hasn’t kicked in. What has kicked in is, oh, we’ve got the Big O and Kareem, we’re going to be really good.”
McGlocklin: “You got guys fighting for jobs but there was a real esprit de corps, there was a real feeling of ‘this is our year, man.’ I remember standing out in the parking lot with I think Boozer, Oscar, Dick Cunningham, a bunch of guys. Greg. We were talking about hey, man, this is it. I kind of feel like there was a bond early on.”
McBride: “What I noticed was in camp when Oscar was organizing things and moving people around, I thought, you know, this is what you need. The ball was going to be in Oscar’s hands and everybody would yell ‘Work the show, O! Work the show!’ and then he was going to run the plays. Everybody had a role. It was really clear. Everybody had a clear role.”
Abdul-Jabbar, via Minority of One: “Oscar is one of the best guards to ever play the game, but I didn’t know if Oscar would be able to rise to the occasion.”
Zopf: “There was no doubt Larry was the boss. Everybody was coachable. Everybody was on the same page. Larry, he was a man of few words in the sense that it was all business. So when you see these veterans taking it as seriously as they were, it made you work harder. These practices, you worked. There was no taking it easy.”
Webb: “I was teaching school. I had already started. During the day I’d teach school in Racine and then drive to Carroll College in Waukesha for the night-time practice. I could only go to the night-time practice because they had two-a-days, so I thought my odds were pretty low if I was only playing once. The Journal would come out every morning and that’s how I’d find out how I did the previous day. Nobody would tell (me). I was just a rookie so they’re not going share anything with me. I’d find out I beat out so-and-so, I’m still on the team. And finally when they informed me and said they were getting ready to leave for Hawaii, they said well, you better go notify the school that you’re no longer there. I didn’t know if they would let me out of my contract. Well, they were obviously happy for me and there was no problem there.”
The long exhibition season began uniquely as the NBA sent the Bucks to Hawaii for a trio of round-robin exhibition games against the Los Angeles Lakers and San Diego Rockets at the Honolulu International Center, held September 24-26.
Zopf: “We were doing two-a-days there, and we did them on an Air Force base. One of those deals where the court’s outside but you’re under a roof. As a young guy, as a young person, you did those two-a-days, you didn’t want to do anything. It was pretty much all business. You were tired. Somebody said, ‘How was Hawaii?’ I said, 'I don’t know, I didn’t see it.' ”
Greacen: “I couldn’t help but think this was one of those good-news, bad-news things – you’re going to spend two weeks in Hawaii, but you’re going to have two-a-day practices. We would practice in the mornings. Nobody went to the beach. You went back to the hotel and slept and got some food and slept and got ready for the second practice. It was a grind.”
McGlocklin: “Hawaii was both good and demanding. We were at the Hawaiian Village hotel and we went to Pearl Harbor to practice and we were doing it twice a day, and I think after the second or third day, we all went to Larry and said, Larry, we’re spending five hours in the car or the bus, let’s have one long practice like three hours or something so we don’t have to spend so much time driving. We’d have enough time to eat, sleep, get in the car and go back. He agreed to it. That kind of schedule brought you together.”
Robertson, via NBATV: “I had no thought that we were going to win until we started playing. That’s when we started in the exhibition season. Then the guys on the bench picked up and we got the chemistry going.”
Smith: “After we had won it, later that evening, we were out at a restaurant and (Rockets guard) Stu Lantz came up to me, we were having a bite to eat, and he said 'Greg, do you guys think you’ll lose a game this year?' I thought that was a bizarre question. I said yeah, we will. But he said you guys are just tough. We went into that exhibition down there in Hawaii and just blew it apart. And it showed the strength of the ballclub in the early stages.”
Webb: “That’s kind of when it all started coming together, when I’m sure Larry and the front office at that time realized what they had. I think it didn’t take long for all of us to see what we had. It was happening fast. Really fast. You could see it.”
The Bucks concluded their preseason schedule on Oct. 11 playing the Cleveland Cavaliers at Bowling Green University, which was the fifth preseason game the team played in college towns. The regular season began Oct. 17 in Atlanta. They finished 10-0 in the exhibition season.
Smith: “It was crazy. Guys think they have it tough now, go back and look at our preseason games. They were just crazy. We were building the NBA at that time, too. We were building. So you had to go out and shake some hands and kiss the babies and all that kind of stuff to get the respondence to the NBA because we didn’t have it the way it is today.”
Greacen: “Maybe you have Kareem on your team and Oscar on your team, you’re supposed to win. But I don’t know if that’s the way most guys thought. I think most guys thought this is a really young team, we were good last year, we’re going to be better this year. I don’t know if there was pressure on the team to win a championship. I think there was pressure on the team to advance more than the previous year.”
Dandridge: “The championship team never really dawned on me until we went to training camp that year. All the media and everybody was focusing on championship, especially for a team that was only going into its third season of being in the league.’
Foley: “I never thought we were going to lose a game. And we rarely did lose a game.”
Winning big and winning often
The regular season began Oct. 17 on the road in Atlanta, a 107-98 victory that saw Lew Alcindor open with 32 points and 17 rebounds, and Bob Dandridge with 21 and 10. Oscar Robertson had 15 points, five rebounds and four assists in his debut. The team lost in its second game, 115-114, on Oct. 20 in Detroit, as the Pistons scored 34 points in the fourth quarter.
Greacen: “We lost a game early on and I remember Oscar was on a local TV sports show … he made a comment like, well, it’s a long season and the cream will rise to the top. So, it certainly did. There were stretches of that season where, yeah, it really looked like nobody could beat us. Except the Knicks.”
The Bucks beat the Baltimore Bullets, 122-120, in double-overtime in their home opener at the Milwaukee Arena on Oct. 24. It started a 16-game winning streak in which they swept a five-game road trip including four games out West.
Zopf: “I remember Oscar Robertson saying as long as he’d been in the league, he had never gone to the West Coast and swept the teams.”
Webb: "The excitement that was building, we all saw it. And Oscar knew it, too. He knew he finally had an opportunity. He had already been in the league 10 years so he knew his chances were getting limited. That’s why his focus on that team and his leadership skills at that point were so fine. What he did was like a maestro in an orchestra, the way he got everyone in the right place at the right time. He was really at the top of his game.”
And as the Bucks continued to win, they felt more and more comfortable with Robertson running the show and the point guard was finding his space on the team as well.
Robertson: “Well, my scoring (was sacrificed). Looking to get them in the game and keep some unity on the floor. Running our offense, keeping things under control."
Abdul-Jabbar, via ESPN: “Early on in the season, Oscar realized that the pick and roll wasn’t going to work with me and him because I did not have the bulk that Wayne Embry had had (in Cincinnati), but it was very easy to get me the ball when I was moving.”
Lucius Allen, Bucks guard, via ESPN: “Oscar, being the person that he was, kept Kareem in his place just like he kept all the rest of us in our places. If Kareem was missing a defensive assignment, his eyes get about this big and he’d let Kareem know, ‘Big fella! Fall in line!’ ”
Smith: "(Oscar) made the difference in the sense that if it was a 3-on-2 fast break, your chance of getting the ball was very good. He wasn’t going to look you off or take the shot himself unless he had to. You knew that if you screwed up defensively on the court, he would let you know rather than Costello having to look at it. You knew that when Kareem was coming across the key and leaving his man on the backside, Oscar would go and tell him I want you stop right here and I’ll get you the ball. He was constantly looking. He had vision. He could see things before the rest of us could see it. Oscar would score in different facets of the game, when we needed scoring, when Kareem wasn’t particularly ready to score or ready to get into the game offensively, he was the man who was taking it over and getting the offense going.”
They went on another win streak from Jan. 2-20 in which they strung together 10 straight. Then from Feb. 6 through March 8, they won 20 consecutive games, an NBA record.
Zopf: I don’t know the percentage of time we played from behind – I would say not that often – that you were actually playing behind in a game. But, in those cases where you may have been playing from behind, you just had this sense of, well, we’re going to come back. We’re going to come back, we’re going to win. That permeated throughout the team. The expectation as the season wore on is ‘we’re going to win.’ ”
Smith: “The late Bob Boozer said to me when we talked about our ballclub that same year – we were business-like in taking care of our business. We went out and played the team. We didn’t lollygag around. We went hard every night to get the lead, keep the lead and everything like that.”
Through the first 76 games, the Bucks stood at 65-11. Of those 11 losses, five came on the second of back-to-backs and nine came on the road.
What’s interesting is that in five rematches after a loss, the Bucks won by an average of 27.5 points the next time they saw that team.
Helbling, Costello's daughter: “In the office, he would have two games going on at the same time scouting. Now they’ve got people that do all that for them, but back then he did it himself, watching all the different games and trying to figure out the plays. He had this yellow clipboard and this magnetic (board) with magnets that were like the players for the two different teams to show the plays. He started all that and people started using it after him. He was so organized.”
Kirby, Costello's daughter: “I do remember how passionate he was and involved he was prepping for the games. He had his office upstairs in our house and he would literally sit down and watch reels and reels, films he would watch of the other teams and try to dissect their plays. Just the preparedness. He was always prepared. You did not have to worry about him not knowing what was going on or what was going to be coming into the arena. He knew everything about that other team.”
Dandridge: “We were just exceptionally prepared for each game we played. We were sitting in film sessions. Although we hated it, other teams hadn’t even started that yet. We joked about the playbook, well it paid off as we got deeper into the season because we were able to make adjustments with our plays. Although the ball may have continually gone into Kareem, but we had enough other strategies in our arsenal that we could pull on. I think that was a big plus going down the season.”
Robertson, via NBATV: “What Milwaukee did, which I think was great, we worked on situations quite a bit. One point down, a minute go, or 30 seconds to go, try to get the ball back, try to get the ball inbounded to certain spots on the floor. This is what you worked on.”
McBride: “Oscar would get so upset with a loss. Kareem, too. Kareem was very competitive. He didn’t like losing. He only lost twice in college. They would just come back and stomp the next team, and when that other team that beat them came back, it was just annihilation. It was just this quiet intensity. They knew it. They clearly learned from it. Costello and Nissalke, mostly Costello of course, but he was so intense. Chalk would break in his hand when he was writing on the board. He would scribble so hard on his yellow pad that he would sometimes rip the pages. He led with this intensity and Oscar’s language in the huddles and everything was – I’m telling ya – he got right up into people’s faces if they took any time off. There was nothing said in the locker room like, look, we lost by 20 to these guys last time, but they would go over what happened in the prior game. … You could tell that there was no way that this team was going to beat them again.”
Abdul-Jabbar, via NBATV: “Well, in Oscar we have somebody that can do the job all the time. We have consistency. We have excellent consistency, which is what we need in the backcourt.”
Smith: “We were on a mission to win a title.”
During the season, Patterson made one trade. In early February, he sent Gary Freeman and a draft pick to Cleveland for McCoy McLemore. But later in the month, a young player had his season cut short. After a West Coast trip in Seattle and Phoenix, Bill Zopf came home on Feb. 22, 1971, to some shocking news.
Zopf: “Everybody had a number, and I had a low enlistment number. I had to go do my active duty. I already had one deferment, so with 18 games left in the season I had to go to Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and go do my active duty. So I missed the last 18 games, the playoffs. What was so discouraging was I was getting an opportunity to play on that trip because Lucius had hurt his back. In those days, it was a seven-, eight-man rotation for the most part so I was all excited, fired up and said I was getting an opportunity to play. Then I come back and that was in my mailbox. That was … that was just heartbreaking.”
Webb: “I remember one day he was there and the next day he was gone.”
The New York Knicks
The Bucks lost 16 times that season and the defending NBA champion New York Knicks were responsible for four of them. The Knicks won a home-and-home, back-to-back set 103-94 in Milwaukee on Nov. 27 and 100-99 the next night at Madison Square Garden. They won again in Milwaukee, 116-106, on Jan. 7, and 107-98 in New York on Jan. 26.
Dandridge: “Oh yeah, New York basically with Willis (Reed) being able to be physical with Kareem. Especially Kareem being young at that particular time. That was an era of enforcement in the league where every team had physical players and a guy like Willis was physical. Then Greg Smith and I, neither of us weighed over 200 pounds, and we had to play against Dave DeBusschere, who was as physical as Willis was. New York still had guys, henchmen like Phil Jackson, coming in off the bench. Greg and I, on most nights we had to alternate who was going to play the power forward and who was going to play the small forward because he and I probably on consecutive nights could not play against a DeBusschere, a Gus Johnson, a Bill Bridges and Paul Silas, Happy Hairston. New York was a challenge for us because they were physical and then they were an experienced team. Experience and physicality played a big part in their ability to offset our speed and youth.”
Kevin Loughery, Bullets guard: “Willis had an outside shot. Willis had the good 17-footer, which would bring Kareem away from the basket a little bit. Then they had pretty good shooters in (Bill) Bradley, DeBusschere could shoot it from outside. They had a good shooting team. The Knicks played more of a controlled game. The ability for Willis to draw Kareem away from the hoop was a big plus for them.”
McGlocklin: “We had a hard time with them. They played us well because they had a great team and they were deep. And they had veteran players that knew how to play. Willis could play Kareem as good as anybody. He didn’t stop him, but he played him well. Then you got DeBusschere and Bradley and (Walt) Frazier and (Dick) Barnett and (Phil) Jackson. They were just tough.”
McBride: “Kareem could never cover centers that shot from the free throw line. He never did that well. … Kareem hated going out there and covering these shooting centers. He wanted to go mano-a-mano underneath. He matched up better against Nate Thurmond, Wilt Chamberlain and Wes Unseld. He could muscle with any of those guys. But he hated those centers that went out there and shot left-handed. Drove him insane.”
Foley: “The Knicks won it the year before the Bucks and I think they won it two years after the Bucks. That was one of the greatest teams ever put together.”
The Knicks would finish the year 52-30 overall, and many players and basketball fans felt they and the Bucks would be on a crash course for an epic finals round.
No run for 70 wins
The Chicago Bulls snapped the Bucks’ 20-game winning streak with a 110-103 overtime victory at Chicago Stadium on March 9. The Bucks were 65-12 then, far and away the best team in league with home-court advantage locked up.
Then something odd happened – they went on a losing streak of three games and eventually lost five of six to end the season with a record of 66-16.
Costello had played for the 1966-67 Philadelphia 76ers that set the league record for victories at 68-13. The Los Angeles Lakers would break that record in 1971-72 with a 69-13 mark, which was later broken by the 1995-96 Bulls (72-10) and 2015-16 Golden State Warriors (73-9).
Webb: “Larry Costello played with the 76ers when they won (68) with Wilt and I’m wondering if he ever felt he didn’t want to (break it).”
Greacen: “Costello could have beaten that record or rested his starters. He chose the latter. I wondered about Costello’s thinking in all that. The team that held the record he was on. But certainly as a coach you might want to break that record on your own. But you also want to have fresh guys for the playoffs. That was an interesting decision.”
McGlocklin: “We could’ve won 75 probably, but we didn’t try. Larry rested guys. You know when that hit me? I was doing the game on Bucks TV when the Bulls won their 70th against the Bucks. And I’m doing the game and I’m like, wait a minute, we could’ve done this. But in our era, you didn’t go for records. You didn’t do that. So we didn’t try to win 70. It wasn’t important. Winning the championship was.”
Dandridge: “One of the advantages was Larry’s experiences. With the squad that the 76ers had over a two or three-year period, they only won it one year. I’m quite sure he learned as a player or had observed what could they have done differently – other than not have to play against Bill Russell – what else could the 76ers have done with all the talent they had to win a championship. It was his experience with the 76ers that was a big factor, along with us being so talented, that contributed to that championship”
McBride: “They knew; I think they were trying to rest up for the playoffs, really. Larry would never want to lose. Ever. He wouldn’t lose at ping-pong. There’s no way. I would never see Larry Costello’s personality do that, at all. I don’t see that at all. I honestly can’t explain the five out of the last six games. I honestly think they knew they won and were sort of coasting and I think they were resting for the playoffs.”
Foley: “I don’t think Larry gave a hoot about the Sixers record. It’s hard to explain what happened. Could’ve just been human nature on the part of the guys that maybe they did let up a little the last couple of weeks.”
The much-traveled playoffs road
A favorite to win the championship from the moment they traded for Oscar Robertson, the Bucks expected no problems in the Western Conference playoffs. They “hosted” the San Francisco Warriors in the first round but had to play their three home games in Madison. And while the Bucks had played five regular-season “home” games in Madison, they had to change venues for the Warriors series from the Dane County Coliseum to the University of Wisconsin Field House.
McBride: “In retrospect, it’s ridiculous. But in those days, the Milwaukee Sports Show and the fishing show were big deals in Milwaukee. So they were booked. Here we are in this championship run. But NBA players were used to getting in buses and going places. So we all just hopped on the bus. You take 12 NBA players and the coaching staff and the ball boys and the scoring guys, all the scoring guys, we all got on the same bus and we head up there. So the bus was quite crowded. Kareem went straight to the back and sat in that middle, back seat so he could stretch out his legs. Kareem and Lucius almost always played chess on the way up. Or people had headphones on and zoned out to music. It was just crazy.”
Steve Patterson: “We’d get kicked out for the boat show for the playoffs. Oh God, Ray had a few choice words about that every year.”
Foley: “It was kind of unusual that we had played five games in the Dane County Coliseum and then we had to switch for the UW Field House. As I recall, we had to load the 24-second clocks on the bus because UW didn’t have a shot clock then. As far as PR staff, I had to haul the mimeograph machines and things like that, and paper. It was different.”
Webb: “It was kind of bizarre. It shows you where the NBA ... how far we had to come. The arena was booked! They weren’t thinking ahead in those days that we were going to be playing in the playoffs.”
Greacen: “I don’t know what people thought. That was what we had to do, so we did it.”
After dispatching the Warriors in five games, they welcomed in a wounded Los Angeles Lakers team into the Western Conference finals. Future Hall of Famers Elgin Baylor and Jerry West were injured, leaving 34-year-old Wilt Chamberlain as the only significant line of defense between the Bucks and their first trip to the NBA Finals. Chamberlain averaged 44.4 minutes per game and 22 points and 18.8 rebounds. He had 24 points and 24 rebounds in the only game the Lakers won.
Steve Patterson: “At that time, you were starting to realize. Like, oh God, we beat the Lakers, we’re playing in the championship and we can win this. It was a heroic effort by Chamberlain. I still get choked up thinking about it. At the end, it was obvious we were winning and (Joe Mullaney) was the coach and took Wilt out with like a minute to go or 30 seconds to go or something, and the whole place, in unison, just got up and cheered him. Every bit as loud as they had cheered for the Bucks. You don’t see that as much as you used to. It really was a recognition of his greatness. Because it really was Wilt against everybody and he was phenomenal. It was the passing of the torch to Kareem as the greatest center in the game.”
McBride: “What I was worried about was the Knicks. We just couldn’t get past the Knicks.”
Zopf: “I was in basic training and I would just try to go up to the PX and get the papers the next day to see what happened.”
Over in the Eastern Conference, Baltimore beat Philadelphia in seven games and then had to play New York in another grueling, seven-game series. The Knicks had taken a 2-0 series lead before the Bullets began to fight back. They would advance to the finals with a 93-91 victory in game seven in New York on April 19, 1971.
Jack Marin, Bullets forward: “It was probably the most memorable game I was in in the league. We win 93-91. It was a real joy.”
Fred “Mad Dog” Carter, Bullets guard: “That was our championship. As a matter of fact, I remember (head coach) Gene Shue saying during that last timeout, he looked up to the sky and to the heavens and said, ‘Please let us win this one.’ So, his prayers were answered.”
Loughery: “For us to beat the Knicks in Madison Square Garden 93-91 was quite an accomplishment. That really was our championship game. It really was.”
Greacen: “I know myself, there was relief that it wasn’t the Knicks that we had to play. There was great optimism.”
Dandridge: “Personally I was elated. In fact, I watched Game 7 when Baltimore beat New York in New York. I was elated that we didn’t have to play the Knicks. I would have rather played against Baltimore because they played a similar style game like we did, which was a fastbreak-type game. New York played a deliberate, physical game.”
The NBA Finals
Unfortunately for the Bullets, the finals would begin in Milwaukee two days after they dispatched the Knicks in New York, on April 21. The Bucks had finished off the Lakers on April 18, but they had cruised to blowout victories in Games 4 and 5.
Loughery: “We played that game (in New York) and the next day we had to travel back to Baltimore to get our stuff to go to Milwaukee, go to Milwaukee and then play the next day. They wouldn’t do that today. Times have changed. Not that we would’ve beaten Milwaukee anyway.”
Marin: “We had at best 48 hours to prepare to play the Bucks and we hadn’t done very well against them in the regular season, so we would need to come up with something. We had injuries. We would have needed to be at full strength and play as well as we could paly and they would have had to play down a little bit I think.”
Carter: “There was no time for us go down and come back up. But in reality, we would not have beat the Bucks, but we would not have been swept. Not having the chance to go down and come back up, because it was euphoric, us winning Game 7 at Maison Square Garden. I mean, that doesn’t happen. We were able to get by them but before you know, we’re flying back home Tuesday morning. Tuesday night we’re getting a bus to take us from Baltimore to Dulles (airport) to fly to into maybe Detroit and then over to Milwaukee. And we’re still wide awake because we didn’t have a chance … as it turned out, we didn’t have a chance.”
Smith: “We would have beat them anyway, but they did go through a heck of a series against New York. Wes Unseld told me how happy his ownership of the club was at that time, when they beat New York. I think they even gave them some extra bonus money for beating New York because the Knicks were the pre-eminent team in the East at that time.”
McGlocklin: “There was no doubt had we met them (the Knicks) in the finals, it would not have been the cakewalk it was with Baltimore. The Knicks were deeper. I think a better team than Baltimore. But Baltimore got ‘em. When Baltimore got to us, they had nothing in their tank, and we had a full tank. If we would have gotten the Knicks, there is no question it would have been a huge challenge because they played us well. In fairness, it would have been tough, but I think we would’ve prevailed because, at the end of the day, Reed was obviously a great player, but he wasn’t Kareem.”
During the regular season, the Bullets did beat the Bucks once 127-97 and played them close on two other occasions, losing 122-120 in double overtime and 120-116 another time. They lost two other games by 15 and 52 points, though. The Bullets were led by future Hall of Famers Wes Unseld, Earl Monroe and two-time all-star Jack Marin. But future Hall of Famer Gus Johnson was injured for the series.
Loughery: “We had a pretty good basketball team. I really felt that before the series started that we thought we could beat them. I really do. As we seen the results of the first couple games and how beat up we were, then it just diminished. But I don’t think we were afraid to open the series against them. We just beat a heck of a team in the Knicks in seven games, so I wouldn’t think that we were saying ‘we’re not going to beat them.’ But we were banged up, guys were hurt, the results from the Knicks series took its toll.”
Carter: “We would not have beaten them anyway. They had Kareem, Oscar and Bob Dandridge. Even though we had Unseld and Monroe and Gus Johnson, but still I don’t think we could’ve beaten them in seven.”
Marin: “It was a sh----y four games, yeah.”
Webb: “You’re never overconfident. You can’t take anything away from them. Look who they had. They had some guys that were damn good players, and for them to beat the Knicks, they must have been something.”
Smith: “We knew they were big, but we knew they didn’t have the speed that we had.”
Dandridge: “Although I would have preferred (Baltimore), by the time the Knicks and Bullets finished that Eastern Conference playoffs, they both were walking wounded. I mean, that was such a tough series that I didn’t think it didn’t matter who we played for the championship. We would’ve beat ‘em.”
McGlocklin: “We were a much better, dominant team than Baltimore because of our stars. But the Knicks series made it a lot easier for us in our series with Baltimore. Earl Monroe and I guarded each other and I would look in his eyes – that Game 4 we beat them there and he went off on me and that’s when I pushed him away and we had like a scuffle – his eyes were like glazed over. They were tired. And we were champing for bear, man. We were ready.”
The Bucks took a 50-42 lead at halftime of Game 1 at the Milwaukee Arena and eventually won 98-88, which basically ended the series. Lew Alcindor scored 31 points and had 17 rebounds, while Bob Dandridge put up 15 and 12. In his finals debut, Oscar Robertson was just 7 for 18 from the field but scored 22 points.
Loughery: “Our best chance, really I thought in that series, was the first game. But they were just too good for us. … If we were rested, that first game was gettable. We had a pop at that one.”
McBride: “There was just a high level of confidence in the locker room. It’s kind of that determined confidence, quiet confidence. A team on a mission. You can feel it. And the word I always went back to that season, it just resonated with me over and over, there was this clear hunger. Oscar wanted it so badly.”
Smith: “They might have been tired because I know that they did play hard to beat the Knicks, and we kind of breezed through the whole entire process. And we should’ve, because we were that good and we were that young and we had that much energy. And, my gosh, we had Kareem, he was incredible, and Oscar as a leader on the court. We were a good ballclub, and young.”
Dandridge: “Fred Carter may have blocked one of Oscar’s early shots. And he talked trash at a time that nobody really talked trash. He said to Oscar, ‘You’re not that good.’ Oscar just went on and just dominated the rest of that game. That I think sort of set the tone. This just increased Oscar’s intensity for seeing that championship trophy. That motivated him more so to win the championship. As if Oscar wasn’t already motivated and could feel himself raising the trophy. That was it That was the one moment.”
Carter: “Oh yes. I was always going to talk trash. I got a piece of it. I don’t know what I said but I said something to him, ‘not on my watch’ or whatever. O didn’t say anything. Go to Game 4. Every player has a memory. And all players remember what you did or said to them. And in Game 4, he chose his time and that was it.”
Robertson: "Guys are going to say a lot of things now about what happened. I don’t remember any of them guys from Baltimore blocking any of my shots. If they did so, so be it. But there was a lot of talk on the floor. I don’t want to get into that. It meant nothing to me then and it means nothing to me now."
For those who played in the series, Games 2 and 3 were somewhat elementary. Milwaukee won Game 2 by 19 points and then traveled back home and won by eight in Game 3.
That set up the clincher in Game 4 in Baltimore on April 30, 1971.
There was little doubt on both teams what would happen, but that was illustrated even further by Oscar Robertson.
Foley: “Sometime that day of the final game, I remember running into Oscar and how determined, how confident he was that that was going to be it.”
Carter: “He definitely had the death stare in his eyes. You knew on the toss of the ball, game on. You knew that in Oscar’s eyes. You could tell he was a little bit quicker. A little bit sharper. His concentration and focus was there. And I said to myself, Dog, you’ve got your hands full. And I certainly did.”
Webb: “You were not going to deny Oscar the chance to win a championship. He knew it. We had ‘em down 3-0. So when you got somebody down, that’s the time to finish them off.”
With that elusive championship in front of him, Oscar Robertson went 11 for 15 from the field to score a game-high 30 points. He also had nine assists as the Bucks took a 60-47 lead at halftime and held steady from there in a 118-106 victory.
Robertson: "I just remember that in the game we went up, and guys were so happy. We had a timeout and said ‘It’s not over yet. The games still underway. Let’s put them away and get the game and get on out of here.’ You can’t cheer too soon, basketball and sports has a way of coming back around and kicking you right in the rear end."
Greacen: “Oscar was just a man on a mission. He was unstoppable. This was one of his great talents, he got the ball and he got to where he wanted to be on the floor with it. I can still picture Freddy ‘Mad Dog’ Carter hanging all over him, but Oscar just took him to school. Took him to where he wanted him on the floor, gave him that hip bump, the fall-away jump shot. Aw, it was artistry. It was great.”
Carter: “Costello had the reins on Oscar the whole time. But in Game 4, ‘O’ he said to me, come on young boy, come with me. And he’d take me down to the corner and pump fake me and I’d get up in the air and foul him and he’d knock it down. He just went to the woodshed. Oscar told me in no word, but in his game, ‘I’m the Big O.’ It was an interesting lesson.”
McGlocklin: “With the history I had with him growing up and then in Cincinnati, I wanted this for him as much as me and all of us. Game 4, he was magnificent. Freddy Carter had a hell of a game and Oscar drilled him into the ground a few times. He put fakes on Freddy and Freddy actually stumbled a few times. I think Freddy had (28 points) in the game but Oscar was magnificent.”
Greacen: “In that Game 4, when he just went to work, that’s when it became evident of how important that was to him. Because there was not going to be a Game 5.”
Foley: “Poor Freddy Carter. He bore the brunt of Oscar’s determination, that’s for sure.”
Carter: “It was a definite mismatch between Kareem and Unseld, even though Wes played him better than most people played him. I guarded Oscar and Game 4 he took me to the woodshed. But they were just an overall better team.”
Robertson, via NBATV: “My job was to run the team, set the offense, get us into position to win a championship. I did that. We beat everybody, we beat them soundly, we took a back seat to nobody. I played with a group of guys who achieved the ultimate in their careers. They improved more than I did when I went to the Bucks.”
The Bucks became the fastest expansion team to become a champion in any of the four major North American sports. Larry Costello became the fifth man to win an NBA championship as a player and head coach. Lew Alcindor was the named the finals Most Valuable Player and the weight of expectation was fulfilled. And, Oscar Robertson finally got his championship.
Robertson: "It was a happy occasion, I must say, for all the guys. The year before they didn’t finish very good. So going from losing to the Knicks to winning the championship was a big event."
Abdul-Jabbar, via Minority of One: “For me to win the world championship was what I’d always hoped for.”
Carter: “I talked to Oscar at the end of that game and he and I walked over and shook hands and he grabbed my arm and we both had mutual respect for one another. Which is pleasing to me because I’m just ‘Mad Dog.’ I’m nobody and that’s the ‘O.’”
Robertson, postgame: “It’s great. It’s great. Finally. Finally got it, finally got it.”
Smith: “I know how emotional he got when we won the title. We were coming up on the elevator together and he was just elated that he finally won an NBA title. He never had that ring. The emotion he showed on that elevator that night had me crying. It was incredible. I think that’s the marriage, that union, we were able to bring together at that time. We were that team that year.”
McGlocklin: “He wasn’t going to let his opportunity pass. We had a moment. In ’71, we weren’t going to be denied and Oscar wasn’t going to let us be denied.”
Robertson: "I wouldn’t think less of my career but a lot of people would. So many writers used to say, ‘Oscar Robertson, he’s a great player but he hasn’t won a championship.’ And I was involved in the Oscar Robertson clause about free agency and I was not well-liked by basketball people. They felt something bad was going to happen to basketball and all of a sudden all of those things we were trying to get them to do was just going to ruin basketball. But lo and behold, look what it’s done for basketball. Look what it’s done for the owners. Look what it’s done for television. And the international market."
Abdul-Jabbar, via Minority of One: “The fact that I got to play with Oscar, one of the great players in the game who had never won a world championship, and by partnering up with him we were both able to be successful.”
Doucette: “For Oscar Robertson to really prove to people who follow the game of basketball about what a quality player he was ... he was not only just a talent, he was a smart talent, and this was his opportunity to leave his stamp. His legacy was going to be left by what he did in Milwaukee, not by what people heard he did when he was in Cincinnati. I think everyone was equally happy for Oscar Robertson as they were for the Bucks by that championship.”
Foley: “The only people from the Bucks other than the players and the coaches who were at the championship game were Ray Patterson, the general manager, and Dr. George Korkos, the team physician. Eddie Doucette was there broadcasting the games. There just wasn’t a big throng to help celebrate the Bucks win. When we had a postgame celebration at our Baltimore hotel, we invited as many people from the Baltimore Bullets staff as could make it. The league was a little bit like that, then.”
Zopf: “Jeff Webb was a friend of mine on the team and I recall I talked to him on a payphone after they clinched the championship game. That was about it. It was pretty frustrating to say the least.”
Webb: “Billy and I were close and it was a shame he couldn’t be there. It was unbelievable. I’m watching everyone else, the other teammates after the game, you’re in the locker room and you’re drinking the champagne and Howard Cosell and the TV people are all walking around.”
Doucette: “This was a special collection of players, and you know what made it even better? It was like the old baseball players who used to pitch 300 innings and go 30 complete games, which you don't see anymore ... In that team we had, I remember specifically Kareem played 82 games. Bob Boozer, first guy off the bench, 80 games, and he was at the end of his career. Dandridge, 79 of the 82 games. McGlocklin, 82 games. Greg Smith, 82 games. Oscar Robertson at the end of his career, 81 games that year. You tell me where you can get that kind of performance over a period of games, the kind of travel we used to do, play late-night games on the first flight out of the city to get to the city the next day where we had to play, sometimes four games in six days, five games in eight days, and have that kind of performance.
“The greatest measurement of superiority and outstanding excellence in whatever it is you do is consistency. Were these players consistent? I guess they were. We may never see that again because of the era of specialists.”
Foley: “The Bucks were the second team in NBA history to go over the million mark in total attendance. I think the first one was the Knicks the year before. That counts home, road and playoff games. The Knicks the year before I think they played 19 playoff games whereas the Bucks only played a dozen. So, the Bucks were really taking off that year as far as attendance.”
Zopf: “I had made a lot of friends on the team, I think pretty well accepted, so they did vote me in for a piece of the championship money. Which was good. It’s sort of funny. Back in those days, money was not the issue. You play. You like to play.”
Webb: “At the time, you had to pinch yourself to be able to say I was a hometown kid from Milwaukee, the first to play with the Bucks and then to be able to say you win a championship, wear that ring and 50 years later they still haven’t won it. Who knows if they ever will. I hope they do. But that’s how difficult it is to win a championship.”