“The whole country has waited for it.”
It’s a line taken from the broadcast of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s first game in the NBA on Oct. 18, 1969 — an event approaching its 50th anniversary. Then known as Lew Alcindor, the superstar out of UCLA scored 29 points with 12 rebounds, six assists, four steals and three blocks in a 119-110 victory over Detroit.
You would have been hard pressed to pick up a newspaper in the first months of 1969 without seeing the name “Lew Alcindor” written somewhere therein. He was the talk of the country and certainly Milwaukee as the team anxiously waited to see if it would win the coin flip that would net the Bucks the rights to draft the generational talent, followed by the wide-eyed thrill of landing him.
The first basket: an early turnaround jumper on his first shot that marked the first two points of his 38,387, still the most in NBA history. He helped bring Milwaukee its only NBA title two years later.
This is what the Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Sentinel were reporting in the months leading into Kareem’s arrival.
February 12, 1969 — From the Sentinel’s Lou Chapman:
“For those of a mathematical bent, the magic number is 12 as far as the Milwaukee Bucks’ chances of getting into a coin-flipping contest for Lew Alcindor. In view of its current five-game win streak, though, the local expansion club could be playing Russian roulette with its chances.
“Any combination of Milwaukee losses and Detroit Piston victories equaling 12 will assure the Bucks of a crack at the 7 foot 2 UCLA All-American.”
The last-place teams in each division would square off in a coin flip for the top pick in the 1969 NBA draft. The expansion Bucks were about to finish 27-55, quite a bit better than Western Division doormat Phoenix (16-66), but the format wasn’t to just award it to the team with the worst record. Milwaukee shifted to the Western Conference two years later.
The players on the Bucks were not trying to sound like a team playing for last place.
Said Bucks star Flynn Robinson: “We might not even win the flip.”
General manager John Erickson said he’d never been involved in such an unfortunate situation, where in order to receive a reward you have to lose.
“But then Alcindor has got to be the most publicized athlete perhaps in sports history,” Erickson told the Journal. “So it’s only natural for him to be a topic of conversation among the fans. But we’re professionals, and our job is to win every game we can.”
February 28 — Alcindor was chosen as an All-American and the Associated Press player of the year, joining Calvin Murphy (Niagara), Rick Mount (Purdue), Pete Maravich (Louisiana State) and Spencer Haywood (Detroit) on the first team. He was chosen on 334 of 339 ballots
March 6 — An interview with Marquette men’s basketball coach Al McGuire:
“Time will prove that he’s the greatest ballplayer of all time. His first two years in the pros may be rocky. He’ll be injured a lot and he will have to toughen up physically and maybe mentally, but it’s inevitable that he will be the greatest. He combines the best of Chamberlain and Russell and shoots better than both of them.”
March 9 — USC ended UCLA’s 41-game winning streak when Ernie Powell made a jump shot with 7 seconds to play, lifting USC to a 46-44 victory. The rest of the country suddenly had hope of competing in the upcoming NCAA Tournament (though Bruins coach John Wooden opined that the loss would help his team). UCLA had barely survived USC one night earlier in another game, needing double overtime to prevail and getting a huge shot from Lynn Schackelford to force the second OT.
March 14 — Alcindor sprained his ankle in an NCAA game, and his availability was up in the air after a win over New Mexico State. He would ultimately play against Santa Clara in a 90-52 regional final win.
March 18 — It’s official, the Bucks had clinched last place with a Detroit win over Phoenix the night before. Bucks board chairman Wes Pavalon was assigned as the one to call heads or tails if the Bucks got that option; commissioner Walter Kennedy would first make a draw to determine who calls. The flip was set to take place at the New York office of the NBA commissioner, with the Bucks and Suns in their home cities on a conference call.
March 19— The Kennedy half-dollar lands on tails, favoring the Milwaukee Bucks.
From the Journal’s Cleon Walfoort:
” ‘The coin has come up tails,’ ” said the voice of Walter Kennedy, commissioner of the National Basketball Association, in New York over a multiple telephone connection that included a public address system of the Milwaukee Bucks here.
“Since Phoenix, on the other end of the connection, had called ‘Heads,’ the Bucks had won the right to bid for Lew Alcindor of UCLA, or more specifically, to take their pick of this year’s crop of college seniors by choosing first in the NBA Draft.
“Wes Pavalon, the bearded chairman of the Milwaukee Bucks board, emitted a whoop, leaped form his seat before a microphone at a table and embraced General Manager John Erickson.
” ‘I don’t remember what he said, but he burned my hear with his cigarette,’ Erickson said when some of the confusion had abated.”
Now the storyline shifted. Would the Bucks definitively be able to sign Alcindor if they drafted him, given that the rival ABA would also be in pursuit? It sounded as if the ABA might be willing to let Alcindor choose his team; would the NBA do the same?
“The NBA has proved to be the acme and the zenith of pro basketball because it doesn’t alter its draft to meet special circumstances,” Pavalon said. “I can’t foresee the league making any alterations now in favor of one club at the expense of others.”
March 20 — The Journal asked current Bucks players what they thought
Dick Cunningham: “He’s great. He will definitely help. But when training opens, you can bet I’ll break my neck to keep the job.”
Jon McGlocklin: “He can take some of the pressure off Flynn Robinson and me, and we, in turn, can take some off him. The defenses won’t be able to sag on him very much.”
McGuire was again quoted in a separate article about the ABA vs. NBA stakes.
“If it’s money it takes to get him, the Bucks will get him. Wes Pavalon will work something out. But that New York team in the ABA is the sticker. They’re talking about a new arena out on Long Island – maybe they’ve started it for all I know – and they’re in the market for an identity. Lewie’d give it to them. … Alcindor’s from New York and that could be a factor. It’ll take months to work it out. But I still bet on Wes Pavalon.
March 23— Alcindor scored 37 points and UCLA throttled Purdue for a third straight NCAA title, 92-72.
March 28— The Journal’s Bob Wolf quoted top NBA official Carl Scheer saying there was little chance of a rules change that would allow the Bucks to trade their draft rights to the New York Knicks or anyone else. Reports had circulated that because Alcindor was from New York and would like to play there, the NBA might repeal its ban on trading first-round draft choices and pave the way for a deal. The article pointed out that clubs would be allowed to trade their first-round picks as of 1970.
“I’m confident that Alcindor will play in the NBA,” Scheer said. “It is conceivable that Milwaukee will be the sports capital of the world again next year. When I was in Milwaukee recently, they drew 8,200 on a Monday night, and I was very much impressed. I found myself being caught up int he enthusiasm of the fans.”
March 29 — Alcindor said he’d play for the Bucks, according to Erickson.
In a taped interview, Alcindor said, “The NBA seemed more solid and sound. My decision was based mainly on the fact that it was the best situation for me financially. With all things being equal, it would have been easier playing in New York. It would have been different if the ABA had made a better offer, but things being not the same, I went to the NBA.”
April 3— Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor Jr. signed with the Milwaukee Bucks at a press conference in Beverly Hills, California, with the contract reportedly more than a million dollars over a period of five years. Alcindor was able to sign even though the draft was four days away.
April 6 — The Journal’s Avery Wittenberger wrote: “The prospect of getting private money to help finance construction of a sports arena near the Stadium has rekindled interest in a project that was proposed more than two years ago.”
The article suggested that the addition of Alcindor to the franchise offered some oomph to the possibility of a new structure.
April 14 — Alcindor made his first appearance in Milwaukee during a press conference at the Pfister Hotel. Bob Wolf published a transcript of the conference on the front of the sports section, leading with an accidental self-inflicted razor-blade cut to Alcindor’s knee as he tried to pare a corn off his foot after arriving in Milwaukee. A fun exchange:
Q: “Are you looking forward to dunking after being unable to do it your last two years in college?”
A: “It will be good playing the game the way it was meant to be played.”
Q: “Do you feel the rule (banning dunking by the NCAA) constituted legislation against you?”
A: “I would have to believe so.”
April 25 — By Chuck Johnson of the Journal: “The Milwaukee Bucks, with 7 foot Lew Alcindor as the principal attraction, already have had requests for 6,000 season tickets for the 1969-70 NBA, more than half the tickets available in the 10,746 seat arena.
” ‘Can you imagine – a year ago at this time, we didn’t even have a player,’ Erickson said. ‘Oh, we had drafted Charlie Paulk (now in the army), but we hadn’t signed him. And we were trying to sell season tickets. The demand for tickets this year has been terrific. We had to get into the ticket business two weeks early because of it.’ “
June 9 — Alcindor apologized for breaking a rival player’s jaw in a pickup game in Los Angeles. “I was provoked,” Alcindor said of Dennis Grey of the Los Angeles Stars. “I regret very much that I reacted the way I did. I am sorry for what happened.”
June 23— More than 10,400 fans turned out for Milwaukee’s intrasquad scrimmage, featuring Alcindor, despite thunderstorms in the area.
July 9— Alcindor appeared on “The Tonight Show” on NBC and “displayed a heretofore unrevealed talent on the conga drums.”
September 23— The preseason preview highlighted a matchup between Alcindor and Connie Hawkins, making his long-awaited NBA debut at age 27, in a battle at the Arena. Hawkins had been associated with a 1961 college basketball scandal that got him blacklisted, but it seemed Alcindor saying Hawkins was “as good as any player I’ve seen in the NBA” played a role in getting him back in the NBA’s good graces. The Suns got the rights to Hawkins in a coin flip, so they essentially came away with a consolation prize after losing out on the 1969 top draft pick.
September 28— Alcindor scored 24 points with 23 rebounds and 11 blocks in an 87-86 win over Phoenix in the exhibition opener.
September 29— Alcindor sprained his right ankle in an exhibition loss to the Bulls. He would miss the next game as well.
October 9 — Though ABC wasn’t set to begin regular weekly broadcasts until Christmas, a full crew was assigned to cover the Oct. 18 game in Milwaukee against Detroit on “Wide World of Sports.” The show was typically a 90-minute special but agreed to carry the game in its entirety.
October 14 — Alcindor scored 26 points in his team’s final exhibition game, a win over the 76ers in Green Bay. He finished the exhibition season averaging 21.4 points and 14.7 rebounds.
October 18 — Opening night was set, with Alcindor ready to go against Walt Bellamy. Wrote Wolf, “It has been said of Bellamy, a former Indiana star, that he plays his best only when he feels like it. But as Coach Larry Costello of the Bucks said Thursday, ‘I’m sure he will rise to the challenge against Alcindor, especially with the game on national television.’ “
October 19— The headline read: “Lew’s debut success as Bucks win”
“I didn’t care too much for my play,” Alcindor said after the 119-110 victory. A crowd of 7,782 plus the national television audience saw it all and surely had a different opinion.
Bellamy scored 25 points, “but got most of them after the Bucks had a safe lead” and he “didn’t take Alcindor inside very often after incurring four early fouls.”
The next night, the Bucks took down Seattle, 130-106, with the Bucks setting a club record with 41 points in the first quarter and 79 in the first half.