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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2014

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In Sports

Legendary point guard Oscar Robertson was the glue that held Milwaukee's last professional sports championship team together. (PHOTO: Milwaukee Bucks)

The glue that held Milwaukee's last championship together


In the time since Milwaukee last had a major professional sports championship; there have been eight U.S. Presidents and just as many Packers head coaches. Back then gas cost 40 cents per gallon and it cost eight cents to mail a letter (and people still actually mailed letters).

1971 was the year "All in the Family" debuted, the "Ed Sullivan Show" signed off, AMTRAK began passenger service, and Disney World opened its doors for the first time just outside of Orlando.

1971 was also the year that the Milwaukee Bucks, led by second-year superstar Lew Alcindor (who wouldn't change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar until after the 1970-71 season) and newcomer Oscar Robertson became one of the most potent teams the NBA had seen until that point.

The Bucks won their only NBA title despite having been established as an expansion franchise just two years prior, a record that still stands in major North American professional sports. In 1970-71 they surged out of the gates, winning 17 of their first 18 games, and boasted winning streaks of 10, 16 and a then-NBA record 20 games.

While Alcindor was certainly the superstar he was advertised to be coming out of UCLA, the glue was Robertson, who would have never come to Milwaukee had it not been for an ugly, bitter divorce with his previous team, the Cincinnati Royals.

The first player selected in the 1960 NBA Draft out of the University of Cincinnati, Robertson was nothing short of a local icon. Having averaged 33.8 points per game in three seasons with the Bearcats, two of which ended at the Final Four, he was the NCAA's all-time leading scorer when he turned professional.

During his 10-seasons with the Cincinnati Royals, Robertson averaged 29.3 points per game, and was named to the All-Star team all 10 years he played there. During 1961-62, just his second year in the league, Robertson became the only player in NBA history to average a triple-double: 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds and 11.4 assists per game.

But during what would be his final year in Cincinnati, he became embroiled in an acrid dispute with Royals coach Bob Cousy that spilled over through the media. Vowing to never play for the Royals again, he sought out a team that would not only respect his talent, but one that was close enough to winning that he could be the final piece to the puzzle.

After Bucks co-owner Wes Pavalon agreed to Robertson's initial contract request, a trade was quickly arranged with Cincinnati. On April 21, 1970, the Royals received Flynn Robinson and Charlie Paulk; the Bucks got the final piece to their championship puzzle.

"They were a community looking for something," Robertson says today. "They had baseball, and everyone enjoyed the Packers a couple hours away, but they knew what sports were all about. I thought that the fans were just waiting for basketball to get there in a big way, and they really were."

Basketball arrived in that big way with Alcindor in 1969. In 1968-69, the Bucks inaugural season, the Bucks were an understandable, but still dismal 27-55. In Alcindor's first season their win total jumped to 56, but the Bucks were eliminated by the New York Knicks in the second round of the playoffs.

After Robertson's arrival, however, everything came together.

"When I came to Milwaukee, it was a very special occasion to get something together like that," Robertson remembers. "I think it was only because when I left Cincinnati, they brought in Bob Cousy (to be head coach), who wanted me out of there. I'm glad it happened.

"At the time I came to Milwaukee, the Bucks were learning, the Bucks didn't know what to expect," he continued. "They hadn't been in existence for very long, and to go out and win a championship so soon, I really think it took them by surprise. It was very, very well welcomed by the entire community, though."

With Robertson running the point and Alcindor in the middle, the Bucks dominated opponents at every turn, at one point boasting a 17-1 record before suffering back-to-back losses to the Knicks in late November.

Today's record books (reflecting his name change) indicate that Abdul-Jabbar was the superstar of the 1970-71 Bucks, but the unquestioned leader was the seasoned veteran, Robertson. Playing with "The Big O" was something Abdul-Jabbar looks upon as one of the highlights of his Hall-of-Fame career.

"I got to play with Oscar Robertson, who is one of the greatest to ever step on the court," says Abdul-Jabbar today. "You can't give him enough credit for what he achieved at every level, high school, college, and professional."

While Abdul-Jabbar was named the league's Most Valuable Player (his first of six MVP Awards) Robertson averaged 19.4 points and 8.2 assists per game, earning All-NBA Second Team honors. For Robertson, despite playing in his 11th professional season, he finally had what would be his only NBA championship.

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