Sunday, May 15, 2011

When the Bucks Didn't Stop

With the exception of the folks who live there, most people don't seem to be paying much attention to the 40th anniversary of Milwaukee's only NBA championship.

But it's worth thinking about as the NBA careens toward what would have been thought to be an unlikely championship series when the season began — no matter what the pairing may eventually turn out to be.

Later today, the Dallas Mavericks, who have had all week to savor a four–game sweep of the two–time defending champion Lakers in the second round, will learn whether they will face Oklahoma City (formerly the Seattle SuperSonics) or Memphis (originally a 1995 expansion team) in the Western finals.

Those three franchises have precisely one title between them — and, if Memphis defeats Oklahoma City today, it will be certain that the representative of the Lakers' conference will be seeking its first league championship.

The same can't be said of the championship series in the East that is slated to begin tonight after the Oklahoma City–Memphis game concludes. Both of the teams in that series — Miami and Chicago — have won NBA titles. Miami beat Dallas five years ago, and, as for Chicago, well, surely you remember the Bulls' dominance of the 1990s.

(I don't really have to recite the story of Michael Jordan for you, do I?)

I'm not a devoted follower of the NBA. In fact, I seldom get interested in professional basketball until things get to this stage. So I could be all wrong about this. But my guess is that the winner of the East is going to be the favorite heading into the championship series, no matter who wins the West.

To mildly misquote a phrase from Bob Dylan, though, I would not feel so overwhelmed. There might be some good karma for the winner of the West — especially if it turns out to be Dallas.

Forty years ago this spring, the Milwaukee Bucks (who had only been in existence for three years) won their first and only NBA title.

Many things were different then. The NBA, like all professional sports leagues, was much smaller; so, too, was its playoff field.

Kareem Abdul–Jabbar was on that Milwaukee team. But, although practically no one ever mentions it anymore, that wasn't his name at the time.

In the 1970–1971 season, he had not yet converted to Islam — and he was still known by the name he played under at UCLA — Lew Alcindor. He was definitely a dominant player, just as he had been in college, and he won Rookie of the Year the season before when he led the Bucks to a 29–win turnaround (the most impressive in league history to that point) and nearly took them to the NBA Finals.

The Bucks won it all the following season, but I always felt they did so not because of Alcindor but because they acquired Oscar Robertson — and took some of the pressure off Alcindor.

I was in elementary school that spring. There were few hockey or basketball teams in my part of the country in those days. Baseball (particularly the St. Louis Cardinals) usually grabbed everyone's attention until the football teams began their conditioning drills for the fall.

That spring, though, all eyes in my little town were on the NBA and Lew Alcindor. My memory of that time is that he drew most of the attention — and that was as it should be, I suppose. He did win the MVP award for the championship series.

But what so many people forget is how Robertson — long before the three–point shot — piled up more than 20 points in the first half of Game 4 and staked Milwaukee to a lead over Baltimore that it never relinquished.

Afterward, the Milwaukee coach said Robertson had been "unbelievable" on that day, and he had been.

No one could have matched Willis Reed's gutsy performance in Game 7 of the previous year's final series — but Robertson came close, clearly finishing off the Bullets that day.

The game, as I remember, was all but over by halftime. The second half was a mere formality.

Remember what I said about that karma stuff and the Dallas Mavericks? Well, I was thinking about the fact that, 40 years ago, the Bucks had to beat the Lakers to get to the NBA Finals.

Dallas has already topped the '71 Bucks with its victory over L.A. The Mavericks swept the Lakers in four games; the Bucks went 4–1 against the Lakers (but they did have to face Wilt Chamberlain).

In those days, the Lakers hadn't won an NBA title since long before they left Minneapolis in the early 1960s. They were considered competitive but hardly formidable, always a bridesmaid but never a bride.

They certainly didn't carry the aura of a two–time defending champion.

Perhaps their victory over the Lakers will propel the Mavs to their first NBA title — just as it did for the Bucks 40 years ago.

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