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At last the Milwaukee board of directors held its final series of meetings for this fiscal year, a time-consuming, two-week schedule clearly out of tempo with the board's usual brisk efficiency. But that was not the members' fault; they were working under an agenda composed by somebody else. The last four formal sessions were dominated by Mr. Costello, the head of research and development; Mr. Robertson, the experienced director of operations in the field (see cover); and Mr. Alcindor, the group's young chairman. When the members had finished hammering out decisions, there was no doubt that the three-year-old enterprise had ascended to the top of its field and could remain there for years to come. As the board broke for a brief summer vacation, during which its three leaders will safari in Africa lending technical expertise to six underdeveloped nations, Mr. Robertson reflected the overall mood of restrained satisfaction by describing his role in the firm's latest triumphs as "an important phase of my professional career."
Thus did Oscar Robertson, after 11 frustrating seasons in the National Basketball Association, celebrate the world championship won by the Milwaukee Bucks last week. It was certainly not surprising that the Bucks defeated the Baltimore Bullets in the playoff finals nor was it too startling, considering the crippled state of the Bullets, that Milwaukee became the second NBA team—Boston, in 1959, was the other—ever to sweep the championship round in four straight games. In fact, it was no shock to observe that the Bucks, whose strength mounted steadily during the season while most of their rivals teetered along with rosters depleted by expansion and injuries, won their title with more ease than any former champion. Milwaukee lost fewer playoff games (two) and out-scored its opponents by wider margins than any of its predecessors.
Throughout the series and particularly after the Bucks easily won the second game, played in Baltimore, where the Bullets had terrorized the New York Knickerbockers, only one question lingered: would a glimmer of flamboyance or a peep of exuberance escape the Milwaukee machine when it finally won the title? Certainly no team with Robertson and Lew Alcindor can be called faceless, simply because they are two of the best-known athletes in America. But both are players and personalities of a singular type. Each regards his game as a business, a complex occupation to be attacked with the precision and coolness with which an accountant surveys a ledger. Both deal in basketball's essentials only, avoiding waste motion and creating spectacle only by the uncluttered purity of their styles. Despite their divergent personal interests, Robertson and Alcindor are basically alike in that they are unemotional and humorless off the court.
Any team on which Alcindor and Robertson played would surely evolve into an extension of their attitudes, but the Bucks' transformation was nearly immediate. Coach Larry Costello's perspective matches that of his superstars, and the new champions are at least as much a product of Costello's insistent ways as they are a reflection of his two best players.
Costello came to Milwaukee when the franchise was formed three years ago, fresh from 12 seasons as a guard in the NBA. As a player he gained a reputation for toughness and thoroughness which has carried over into his coaching. Buck practices are the hardest, most precisely mapped out in the league, much more like college workouts than those run by other professional teams. The time to be spent on specific drills is allocated in advance, and Milwaukee does not run through its exercises sloppily and at half speed. Costello and his aggressive assistant Tom Nissalke—the Bucks are one of the few NBA teams with a full-time assistant coach who has only minor scouting responsibilities—looked at motion picture films of each of their playoff opponents eight or 10 times to prepare for Milwaukee's run to the championship.
Costello would probably now be uniformly hailed as one of the two or three best coaches in the NBA, which he is, if he had not had the good fortune to get Alcindor. Instead, there are people all around the league who derive considerable pleasure from debunking his role in the Bucks' success. "Anyone could be a winner with the players he's got" is their motto. They ridicule Costello for the yellow legal pad that is always at his side during games and practices and upon which he constantly improvises new tactics for his team. They deplore his lack of color and ostentation, just the opposite of the criticism leveled against Red Auerbach when Boston was champion.
"Larry, Oscar and I have the same ways about us," says Alcindor. "We agree that being as efficient as possible cuts down our chances for errors. Larry has a very professional attitude. There's no nonsense, because he's a man dedicated wholly to basketball. He simply wants to get the job done, which makes it a lot easier for me. I know what he demands and I have no worry about working around any idiosyncrasies he might have."
"If a coach is disorganized he can't expect his players to go by the rules," Costello says of his system. "You're never going to execute unless you execute hard in practice. It's the only way to get your timing down. And I know it works. Last year we won 56 games without Oscar. We had a rookie center, a rookie forward, a second-year forward and an expansion player in our starting lineup."
The emphasis on mechanical skills gave the Bucks the best offense in the NBA this year and, by the close of the season, perhaps its best defense. Milwaukee was 12th in field goals attempted and 16th in free throws tried, yet it finished first in points scored. The Bucks set a record for shooting accuracy, becoming the first team in NBA history to average over 50% for a season as the offense designed by Costello and executed by Robertson, Alcindor and their teammates consistently led to shots close to the basket.
Perhaps because they had forgotten who the Bullets were—the two teams had not played in three months, thanks to the complexities of the league schedule—the Bucks made it known before the opening game that they did not much care for the opposition the NBA had lined up for the finals. Except for Oscar, they said that Baltimore was nice, but they would rather have the Knicks—to grab by the scruff of the neck and drag down Wisconsin Avenue. In a column entitled " Knicks Will Be Missed in Final Playoff," The Milwaukee Journal's Terry Bledsoe wrote: "It is as though Muhammad Ali had stumbled somewhere earlier in his comeback attempt and Joe Frazier had been forced to conduct his fight of the century against Oscar Bonavena."