Now that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has returned, his right hand healed and his soulful left eye safe behind great goggles, the Milwaukee Bucks are settling in to play some powerful basketball, and they probably will. Along about next March. Oh, sure, they have won a few since Abdul-Jabbar came back and they'll win a lot more between now and spring. But if things fall as they expect, come March the team the Bucks will have become would be able to spot this unpolished bunch 15 points and still win in a laugher. "All I can see ahead is a lot of hard work," growled Coach Larry Costello, who drilled his troops hard for two hours on Thanksgiving morning before giving them the rest of the day off.
It may come as a surprise to those who still believe that the Bucks could win with Abdul-Jabbar and four midgets, but Milwaukee of the moment, even with the big man, is not the same club that came within a game of winning it all last season. In May, Jim Price was with the Lakers and George Thompson was still in the ABA. Steve Kuberski and Walt Wesley, the new back-up center, were both playing part time with their NBA clubs. And Kevin Restani and Gary Brokaw were in college. It is a long ton of new talent, but the Bucks' offense is only slightly less complicated than that, say, of the Dallas Cowboys, and no one learns it overnight. Or in a couple of months.
Still, in the preseason there were Abdul-Jabbar and Bobby Dandridge and Lucius Allen, and there would have been Oscar Robertson, only he retired in a huff when the Bucks tried to rewrite his $250,000-a-year contract. The stinger was that the team wanted to take the no-cut clause out of the contract in order to put him on next season's expansion list—if there is one—and Robertson elected instead to expand to CBS as a color analyst. Robertson was not all that quick anymore, but he was the guy who had shifted the offensive gears, and when he retired the Bucks found themselves, for the moment, in reverse.
Then, during an exhibition game, Abdul-Jabbar went up for a ball and came down with a severely scratched left eyeball. Outraged at that, he slugged the backboard post and broke his right hand. Bucks Trainer Bill Bates winced.
"How could I have done anything so stupid?" Abdul-Jabbar asked him.
"Why do 10 million people kick waste baskets?" replied Bates.
Suddenly not only were the Bucks without the greatest center in basketball, they were without any at all. Dick Cunningham, who was supposed to be Abdul-Jabbar's back-up, was injured himself. And, as General Manager Wayne Embry found out, good centers were simply not available. (It wasn't until last week that he found Wesley, who had been put on waivers by Philadelphia.)
The Bucks decided to go in other directions. They moved Cornell Warner, a 6'9" power forward, into the pivot. Restani, a 6'10" rookie forward, became his back-up. They got Kuberski, another forward, from New Orleans. And as the losses piled up, the Bucks found that although they had a lot of fine guards, they had none who could bring the ball up-court. Lucius Allen wasn't doing the old Robertson job, and that left only the shooters—Thompson, veteran Jon McGlocklin and the rookie Brokaw, who was faster on his feet than in development. "We needed someone like a Robertson, and we were giving up too many points at guard," Costello admitted, and early in November the Bucks shocked a lot of people by trading Allen straight-up to Los Angeles for Price. "He's amazing," said Costello of Price. "As a play-maker, he's not a Dave Bing or a Nate Archibald, but he did a great job last year when he had to step in after Jerry West was injured. He's totally involved with playing and winning. He wants to know everything about the game. This kid can talk basketball intelligently for hours."
While Price has been working at locating the gearshift lever, Costello has had other problems. "We got so many new people around here it's like starting an expansion team," he said. "Guys come, guys go. Can't seem to get a team together, to get anything established, and here we are a quarter of the way through the season."
The Bucks lost their first two, beat Chicago and then lost their next 11. At the end of the losing streak Dandridge, who was coming on strongly as the team's leader, responded bitterly to Costello's suggestion that perhaps some booing from the crowds would bring the Bucks back to "reality."