When the Milwaukee Bucks and the Phoenix Suns flipped a coin for first choice in the NBA draft last March, Lew Alcindor was the obvious prize. The Suns called heads, the flip came up tails, and in Milwaukee where Wes Pavalon, the principal owner of the Bucks, and John Erickson, the vice-president and general manager, were listening to the result by telephone Pavalon embraced Erickson so exuberantly that he jammed his lighted cigarette into Erickson's ear.
"It stung a little, but I didn't notice it," Erickson said recently. "I didn't care, once we had Lew."
His enthusiasm is understandable. The Bucks, with no Alcindor, finished in the cellar last season; this year they are in second place. With six home games to go in the regular-season schedule as of last week, gate receipts were $1.2 million—more than twice the $546,537 total for the entire 1968-69 season. And this year there will be playoff money, too. Milwaukee attendance is about 3,000 more per game than last year, despite the fact that the top price for tickets was raised from $5 to $7. The Bucks' receipts are the NBA's third highest, behind only New York and Los Angeles, both of which have far more seats than the Milwaukee Arena's 10,746.
Stock in the Bucks—traded over the counter—has gone from $5 to somewhere between $12 and $13 a share. In the bars in Milwaukee, during the sere months from January to September, talk used to turn on how the Green Bay Packers would do in the year to come. Last week bartenders and customers alike were more concerned with whether or not the Bucks could 1) catch the Knicks before the season ends or 2) win the playoffs in any case. The rise in receipts, the jump in the stock, the shift in the talk—all have been caused by the presence of one man.
Lew Alcindor is not the first of the magnificent giants of basketball, but he is easily the best today and will soon be the best ever. He will not change the style of the pro game, because Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell have already done that with similar though lesser physical endowments. But he dominates it (see cover)—every game in which he plays—and the thoughts of rivals before and after they meet him.
Long before Alcindor graduated from UCLA last year, pro basketball had made the rule changes dictated by the size of Chamberlain and the virtuosity of Russell. The restraining line under the basket had been widened and offensive goaltending was forbidden. Lew himself had changed college basketball, taking away its most spectacular offensive weapon; the NCAA made it illegal to dunk the ball, since Alcindor could dunk without leaving his feet. Still, there are no rules which can effectively inhibit a man like Alcindor.
"He may be the first of the 7-foot backcourt men," says his teammate, Fred Crawford. "He can dribble and make moves that no big man ever made before. Russell could dribble straight down the floor, but Lew can bring the ball down and handle it and give you fakes, and no one his size could ever do that.
"If all Lew had to do was play defense, he could do it as well as Russell. He has all Bill's quickness and he's much taller. Offensively, he's a better shot than Chamberlain and he moves. Wilt used to go into the post and lean on people, and when he leaned you couldn't do much about it. Lew's not that strong, but he can put the ball down and beat you with speed and agility, and Chamberlain couldn't do that. And he has more shots than Wilt. I think that banning the dunk when he was in college may have been the best thing that happened to him. It took away an easy shot for him, but it made him learn other shots, and now he's a versatile shooter. And in the pros he can still dunk the ball."
Guy Rodgers, who played six seasons with Chamberlain and 11 against Russell, and who, at 34, is playing out his string with Milwaukee, feels that Alcindor is unfortunate in not competing against the other giants. (Russell is retired, Chamberlain has been out most of the year because of a knee operation and Nate Thurmond, also injured, has said he may never play again.) "Lew would have learned a lot against the Goliaths," says Rodgers, "and the fans would have seen some great old pros and the heir apparent. Lew would have looked even better against great centers. He still has competition from a center like Willis Reed—a guy who is all fire and brimstone. But I would have liked to see him with Russell and Chamberlain, too.
"He's agile and flexible, and he can play a low or a high post, so we have patterns both ways. And he's great at setting up a play from a defensive rebound. He can lead you with a pass to start a break as well as anyone.