Poor Milwaukee. They always seem to be near the top of all those lists of tortured sports cities. It's tough to blame the pundits and prognosticators for being so tough on the place, too. The basketball team is middling. The baseball team flat out sucks, except occasionally when it doesn't. They have one hell of a football team, but it isn't technically theirs. The city is too whitebread and milquetoast to attract the desirable free agents, unless they're aging superstars who are looking for a place to settle. Similar situation in Buffalo, actually. We have a competitive hockey team that can never close, a shitty football team, and the best baseball team one could ever hope to inherit, but it isn't technically ours.
Images of deer usually don't inspire opponents with dread, although Milwaukee's NBA team, the Bucks, does have one of the best slogans in all of professional sports: Fear the Deer! They're one of the oddest teams in the league. They've managed to haul in one Championship and two Conference Championships, and have fielded some very notable names. But still…. One Championship. Two Conference Championships. That about does it for their success.
The Bucks were an expansion team created in January 1968. That October, they took to the hardwood for the first time ever against the Chicago Bulls, who were also very recent creations. As is typical of expansion teams tossed the league leftovers, the Bucks could have easily been nicknamed the Sucks, because that 1969 season was hell for them. It was six games before the team notched its first victory, a 134-118 fight against the Detroit Pistons. Wins were sporadic that year, and the Bucks only managed to earn 26 more of them. It earned them a coin flip against the other expansion team of the year, the Phoenix Suns, over the rights to the first pick of the draft. The draft prize that year was a projected superstar from UCLA named Lew Alcindor, which made the coin toss a high-stake event. After winning it, the Bucks then had to win a bidding war against the ABA's New York Nets, who wanted Alcindor in the worst way. Alcindor said he would only consider one bid from each league, and the Nets bid too low. That was a damn shame, because Alcindor had wanted to play for the Nets, his hometown team. Yes, that's right: The (other) New York Team blew an offer that really should have been in the bag, and Alcindor headed to Milwaukee. (Well, at least Chicago wasn't far down the road.)
When Alcindor arrived in Milwaukee, he totally lived up to his hype. His presence was expected to pave the road toward respectability for the Bucks, where he would be the keystone of one of those annual five-year rebuilding plans teams have to go through every so often. Instead, the Bucks pulled an about-face. Their second season ended with a 56-26 record, an almost exact reversal of what their record was the previous year. Only the New York Knicks had a better record in the entire league. They even got to the Eastern Conference Finals, where their dream season was put down by the Knicks themselves, who eventually won the Championship. The next season, the suddenly spoiled Bucks managed to haul in Oscar Robertson in a trade with the Cincinnati Royals. So, in their third season, the Milwaukee Bucks were suddenly 66-16, which was not just the best record in the league, but the second-best in the league history at the time. It's still the franchise record. In the playoffs, they dominated, posting an incredible 12-2 playoff record on the season and winning the Championship against the Baltimore Bullets. For the first half of the 70's the Bucks were arguably the best team in the league. They won four straight division titles and won at least 60 games for three years in a row. They even went back to the Finals in 1974, where they engaged the Boston Celtics in a fight to the finish which went the full seven. They lost, though.
Things went south the next season after Alcindor broke his hand. With him out for a giant chunk of the season, the team slipped back into the spot it was created to occupy in the first place: The division basement, with a 38-44 record. After the season, Alcindor did something no one expected of him. He learned about the origins of his name and didn't like what he found out. Since his name was given to his family by a group of French planters who came to America from Trinidad who owned them as property, you can't blame him. So to get back in touch with the culture his family was forcibly removed from, Alcindor converted to Islam and changed his name to the one he's been commonly known by ever since: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. This didn't play very well in milquetoastville, which suddenly wasn't meeting his cultural needs. Kareem never said anything bad about Milwaukee or the people who lived there, but he needed to get out and back to a big city. He announced that he would only accept a trade to New York City or Los Angeles, and in June 1975, the front office made his wish a reality. He was sent to the Los Angeles Lakers, who formed a dynasty around his mighty Sky Hook. None of the players they got in return were very good, but in that situation, they could only take what they could get. The Kareem trade was so big that it led to a series of disruptive events through which the Bucks actually changed ownership.
Somehow, the trade managed to produce for the Bucks anyway. Most of the players did play good and hard, and despite the next several transitional years, the Bucks pulled in division titles in 1976 and 1980. They weren't dominant and feared like they were before, so building again took a little bit of time, but the team finally had their shit together in the 80's. They began the decade by winning the 1980 division title. They immediately followed that up with another straight six. It is still unclear how much Kareem resented or regretted leaving Milwaukee when they were winning these division titles. After all, they were constantly among the favorites to win their conference, but were always getting clocked in the playoffs by the Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers. Meanwhile, poor Kareem was left to languish in Los Angeles as Magic Johnson's wingman, where he only won five Championships. The Bucks' most noteworthy accomplishment was once sweeping the Celtics from the playoffs, and they're still the only team that can lay claim to that bragging right.
Milwaukee languished after that. At the turn of the 90's, the Bucks had reverted to their original, rookie season form as the Sucks. In 1994, they had the first overall draft pick again, and they used it on Glenn Robinson. Lightning didn't strike that time the way it first had with Kareem. But in 1996, the Bucks made a draft day trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves for their pick, Ray Allen. Both players took big roles in getting Milwaukee respectable again. In 1998, they brought in veteran coach George Karl, somewhat fresh off an NBA Finals appearance he had led the Seattle Supersonics to. With other additional talent like Sam Cassell, the Bucks were once again one of the toughest teams in the Eastern Conference. In the 2001 season, the Bucks took another division title with 52 wins and ran away in the playoffs all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they were dispatched by Philadelphia.
After that, of course, bigger and better was expected. The Bucks picked up Anthony Mason, and that suddenly made them tops in the East. That's how it looked on paper, anyway. In person, players don't need to be so much good as they do right for the position and the team. If they're not, it can disrupt otherwise great chemistry and team play. That's what the addition of Mason did for the 2002 season, and for a point of reference, it's also exactly what's happening to the New York Knicks right now with Carmelo Anthony. The Bucks were able to overcome that through sheer force of talent, keeping the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. At the season's halfway point, though, they free fell and finally lost their playoff spot to Detroit in the very last game of the season.
The next season, someone found some kind of weird excuse to trade Ray Allen to Seattle. In all fairness, they were getting Gary Payton in return, and it would allow them to play their newest emerging star, Michael Redd, a little bit more. Not so bad, really, and hey, the Bucks did go 42-40 and sneak into the playoffs, where they managed to take the fight against the eventual Conference Champion New Jersey Nets to six games. After that, though, someone got the brilliant idea of trading Sam Cassell and Ervin Johnson. Both of those guys were team leaders. Payton became a free agent after playing only 28 games for the Bucks. He fled to the Lakers in his last-ditch effort to win a ring. Karl's tenure ended, and thus went everyone important to Milwaukee's resurgence.
Michael Redd became the team face everyone hoped he could be, and the Bucks used another first draft selection in 2005 on Andrew Bogut, who struggled with injuries for four years before finally finding his niche. Despite this, the Bucks have really been struggling. Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis seem to be the ones leading the team now, and they've been another up and down form-shifter in the NBA.
Oscar Robertson, Dave Cowens, Moses Malone, and of course the mighty Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are among the first-tier basketball stars who have shined in Milwaukee. Nine Hall of Famers played there altogether, and the Bucks also drafted Dr. J in 1972, but he was gone before he ever played a single game. Oscar Robertson, Junior Bridgeman, Sidney Moncrief, Jon McGlockin, Bob Lanier, Brian Winters, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have all had their numbers retired by the team. Kareem dominates a lot of the individual accolades. In fact, he's the only noteworthy player to have received a good number of them.
Of all the teams in the NBA to have been successful on a basis that's at least fairly consistent, the Milwaukee Bucks are probably the least likely. Who goes to Milwaukee? These guys must have a hell of a management crew at the helm, because trying to sell good players on a middling team from the Rust Belt isn't something that works very often. On the other hand, the Bucks do consistently produce winning records, with competitive teams. Frequently they're getting more and more into that first playoff round purgatory, where they get into the playoffs only to lose. It seems like they should have done better over the latter part of their history, considering everything they accomplished early on. But then again, the sport and league have both evolved, and there are a lot more teams now than there were when the Bucks first showed up.
I'm rating the Milwaukee Bucks higher than I expected to. As it turns out, they've been pretty prominent in the history of the NBA, even if that hasn't been quite the case lately, and they're still doing everything they can to be competitive. It still must feel like hell to be a Bucks fan, though, because despite everything, there are still a lot of Bucks fans wondering if they'll ever get to see their beloved team win another Championship to follow up that legendary 1971 team that won it all.
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About the reviewer
Nicholas Croston (BaronSamedi3)
Hi! I'm here in part to plug my writing and let everyone know that I'm trying to take my work commercial. Now, what about me? Well, obviously I like to write. I'm … more
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