•Lew, I road someplace where you're much more relaxed about interviews this year, but you still get a little aggravated when you're asked a lot of Stupid questions.
•O.K. Let's get all the stupid questions out of the way first. How's the weather up there? Gee, ain't it raining up there? Do you still get questions like that?
Yeah, the same old stuff.
April 19, 1971
•What else do they ask you?
They ask me what kind of gum I chew during the games.
•All the time?
•You don't have a special come-from-behind gum, a gum with a little extra on it?
Yeah, Juicy Fruit. When we're behind, I just chew faster.
•All right, now we've covered all the dumb questions that other people ask you. Now I have some dumb questions of my own. Lew, what kind of shape are yon in?
Physically, I've been in good shape since the beginning of this season, knock wood. I've been very lucky.
Well, let's say I've recuperated. For a while there, I wasn't in such great shape mentally, but we had a couple of days off at the end of the regular season and now I feel better. I went home to Los Angeles and fooled around for a couple of days.
•Wasn't there a week or so between the end of the season and the first playoff game?
There was, but [Coach Larry] Costello made us come back to Milwaukee for four and a half days of practice.
•He works your tails off, doesn't he?
Yeah, he's tough. But it's a job, you get paid good money, you ought to be willing to work a little. You gotta work! The only way you can do it is to develop a professional attitude.
•Have you got one?
Yep. I do now. I didn't last year. I mean, I had to find one last year. Through experience. Now I've got it. Now I think I'm a pro.
•You had to get used to a lot of things when you went from UCLA to the NBA. This must be the first time in your life that you've ever been in a situation where you might lose two or three games in a row once in a while. Did that get you down at first?
No, because it was like coming hack to reality, the reality that I learned as a little kid in New York City. In my last six years of amateur basketball, my team lost three games. That was unreality, that was not a real life situation. Losing two or three or four games in a row, that's real, normal, average. I don't like to do it, but I can stand it.
•There's a rumor around the league that the only thing that can beat you—I mean beat Lew Alcindor personally—is muscle, pure physical combat. Did you find yourself getting shoved around this year much?
Yeah, but I was ready for it this year. I'm stronger than I was.
•You mean you just muscle 'em back?
No, no! That's the last thing I'll do! That's not my game. I mean I've learned the correct moves against the musclemen. When I feel the pressure, I roll on it, roll on the pressure point. That way I just spin off.
•So it never comes to a real muscle-to-muscle situation, or elbow-to-elbow?
No, because that would defeat me. That's not my game. I'm not interested in tag-team wrestling; I'm a basketball player. I'm not overpoweringly strong, but I'm strong enough to do my thing. I'll settle for being Sugar Ray. Let somebody else be Rocky Marciano.
•What else have you learned to do this year, besides avoiding open warfare?
I can rebound. I mean I can rebound professionally. Consistently. Last year there'd be periods when my timing was messed up. I didn't always know when to go to the boards. Now I've learned.
•Is your dribbling any better?
I always could dribble, but I didn't always know when to dribble. That's something else I think I've learned this year.
•The commonest question that's asked about you—and maybe it's a dumb question, too—is: What's the best way to use you? A lot of people say all you've got to do is to get the ball to Lew and he'll score. And when the Bucks aren't getting the ball to you, the fans think it's stupid and shortsighted. What about it?
Well, the whole thing's a big oversimplification. I can be very effective, sure, but my effectiveness isn't self-perpetuating unless it's used correctly. It becomes futile to keep passing the ball to me and expecting me to stuff it. Then the other team starts climbing all over me and I'm useless. I don't care whether I'm on your team or who's on your team, you've got to play as a team, got to do all your different things and mix 'em up, keep the opponent guessing.
•Like your team at UCLA?
Right. When all live guys are out there win king, then the big guy's effective and he stays effective. That's one of the problems Wilt has had. They expected him to do it all. Power, power, power. But after a while they ground him down. You can't power everybody, and the other teams begin getting to you.
•Have the Bucks become a little lazier on defense, with you in there to back them up?
Not at all. They've hustled on defense. Defense has won a lot of games for us this year.
•Yeah, but not against the Knicks. You're 1 and 4 against the Knicks this year, and you're something like 4 and 18 lifetime. What happens to you guys when you play the Knicks?
I don't know. Man, I just don't know! Like the Knicks bring out the worst in us. They really do. The first two times we played 'em this year, we had both games won, and then we stopped playing in the last four or five minutes. Weird!
No, it isn't! I mean, they don't psych us! When you're psyched, you're scared. Either you're scared you're gonna lose, or you're scared you're gonna look bad and get shown up and be embarrassed. That's not what happens to us.
•You don't get that tight, dry feeling in the throat, like your toothbrush is stuck down there?
No, it isn't that at all. It's more mysterious than that. Maybe it's voodoo.
•Don't you hear those drums coming from the Knicks' dressing room?
Drums, or something!
•In one of your games with the Knicks this year, you were way ahead and the Knicks had to take Willis Reed out and put Phil Jackson in, and you ought to be able to handle Phil Jackson easy. Only nobody passed the ball to you.
Right. I got one shot in the last five minutes. And we lost.
•Why? I've got a 12-year-old son who would've known to get the ball to you under those conditions.
I don't know. It's part of the weird thing we've got against the Knicks. Maybe it's just inexperience. Maybe they rattle us.
•Well, the Knicks are known for that. They produce a lot of tension, a lot of movement, in the last five minutes. It's like playing against five Waring blenders out there.
Right. They put the heat on you. Zone presses and everything. And they try to throw the other team out of its game. They've done that against us real well.
•Do you talk about it with your teammates? Do you try to figure out how New York puts the whammy on you?
We don't know what to talk about! We don't know how to explain it. So we don't talk about it.
•Well, how'd you beat 'em in that one game in Milwaukee?
We just went out there and did our thing and beat 'em easy, playing our own game. Oscar [Robertson] made a lot of difference.
•Yeah, that's the understatement of the year. You guys racked up the second-best season record in NBA history, so it looks like Oscar might have helped you a little.
Funny about Oscar. I used to think he's such a hard guy, a very hard guy, grumpy and all. First time I ever met Oscar was a couple of years ago in an exhibition game in the Catskills, and Oscar and I got put on the same team.
He got the ball and he drove, and I cut the wrong way. Man, he yelled at me! He said, "Listen, you got to do it this way!"
•What'd you do?
What'd I do? I listened, man, that's what I did! When Oscar Robertson talks, you listen! And it helped me. The next time he drove, I cut the right way, and he got the ball to me and I scored. And I said to myself, "Well, well! You've just met Oscar Robertson, and already he's taught you something!" So I've got to like him. Another good thing about Oscar: he wants that championship! Me, I've got some time, but Oscar wants it right now. Right this year! And he's got us all feeling that way.
•What does Oscar do for you, and you for Oscar?
The main thing we've done is change our attitudes. Oscar knows he doesn't have to do it all, and vice versa—I know I don't have to do it all. I know that Oscar's gonna be consistently proficient in bringing the ball up and setting up plays and making the outside shots. I know I'm gonna get him the ball, and he knows that I'm gonna put the ball in the hoop when he gets it to me.
•Last year you were a lot less relaxed, you were a little grouchy and truculent yourself. I'm not so sure you and Oscar would have worked last year.
Oh, yes, we would! Oscar respects people that can perform. Sometimes I think that's all Oscar respects. If you don't put out, you lose Oscar's respect fast.
•He must put the fear of God into you out there.
He does! He curses guys out right on the floor! For not putting out. For acting flaky. He tells 'em. And that's good. Because a team has to have somebody like that. I won't do it, myself. I'm a little too humanitarian. But Oscar doesn't have that problem.
•Well, the big question in sports right now is, can the Milwaukee Bucks with grumpy Oscar and sweet-natured Lew beat the New York Knicks?
That's no big question. The answer is yes. We can, and we will.
•Well, why didn't you beat them more in the regular season?
They got up for us, that's all.
•The Knicks seem to get higher against you than anybody else.
Yes, they do. They have more energy against us than they have against the whole rest of the league.
•Did it shake you up to lose to them last year?
I wouldn't say it shook me up, but I didn't like it one bit, either. But the truth is they should have beaten us. They had the better team. This year is another story. What's to stop us?
•Well, Willis Reed, for one. Didn't Willis push you around last year in the playoffs, or try to?
Sure. He tried to. And he's been trying it again this year. Like he'll take an occasional swing at me. Trying to intimidate me.
•If Willis Reed took an occasional swing at me, he'd intimidate me all the way into the Central Alps.
Yeah, but you can't let it bother you, man. He keeps on trying to do it, and I keep on slipping away. Basketball is not a contact sport.
•Well, somebody wrote that he gave you a pretty good elbow in the play-offs last year, and you've been scared of him ever since.
You know me better.
•But most people think you were shoved around, and that's one reason the Bucks lost in five games.
Well, I was shoved around a little bit, but I also averaged 35 points a game. So he couldn't have been shoving me around too much.
•People go around saying, "Well, Willis handled Big Lew last year, and he'll handle him again this year."
Right. They do say that.
•I think the legend is firm by now, Lewis, and there's nothing you can do to change it.
•The legend that Willis mauled you last year and that's why you lost.
Yeah, maybe you're right. I know one thing: that legend bothers my teammates, you know. They didn't like it when they read how Willis had handled me, because they knew it just wasn't true. Your own magazine said it wasn't true.
•Yeah, Frank Deford wrote it. He said the action didn't turn on a simple duel of Reed vs. Alcindor. He said it was the Knicks vs. Alcindor.
And he said that the press kept writing I Samuel 17. I liked that! I Samuel 17! David and Goliath!
•Well, if the Bucks-Knicks games can't be explained by Biblical references, what does explain them?
Match-ups. The match-ups are very had.
•What do you mean?
Their forwards are the most difficult in the league for our forwards. They usually have DeBusschere on Greg Smith or DeBusschere on Bob Dandridge and Bradley on Greg Smith. DeBusschere can overpower Dandridge on offense and defense, and it usually ends up that DeBusschere's the one that cost us the game. He puts 'em in from the outside, and he drives on us.
•Is it that simple?
No, it isn't. New York just gets way up against us. They make all kinds of shots against us. They make 25-footers like lay-ups. No team should be able to shoot like that consistently, but they seem to do it every time we play.
•And that includes Willis, doesn't it? I remember him last year making that dainty little one-hander from the top of the key, over and over and over again. He'd miss your fingertips by about a thousandth of an inch. Impossible!
Yeah, but he made it possible.
•What are you gonna do about it?
Well, I don't know. See, I can't go out on Willis. I'm needed around the basket, because when I'm away from the basket New York's got Walt Frazier coming in on the boards, and DcBusschere and Bradley, or sometimes Dave Stallworth. So if I leave the boards, that gives New York a definite advantage on us. But if I don't leave the boards, Willis makes that shot from the foul line, and if I go out and play him and make him miss, he passes off to DeBusschere or Bradley for one of those open 20-footers that they never seem to miss.
•Well, there surely has to be some solution.
No, there surely doesn't. Except maybe I can grind Willis down a little. He's five years older than me. Maybe I can run him a little, test his legs.
•What's your overall team plan for the finals?
Well, we're just gonna have to count on me and Oscar doing more than our usual. The Knicks seem to take the attitude that they'll hold me and Oscar to our averages and then beat our other players head-to-head, and that's pretty much the way it's been.
•They'll neutralize you and Oscar and beat Jon McGlocklin, Smith and Dandridge?
Right. So Oscar and I will have to do more than our averages, and that'll take some of the pressure off the other guys, open things for them so they can do then thing. And if they can just do their thing the way they've been doing it all season, we'll beat New York easy.
•Somehow you've got to equalize the situation at forward.
Right. If our forwards will just go out and do their thing, we can beat New York to death. Their forwards are slow, and ours are very fast. Bradley and DeBusschere can't run; everybody knows that. But before now, they've always been able to offset our speed advantage.
•Yeah, because they're strong and they're great outside shooters. What about the situation at guard?
This year we've got 'em at the guards. Oscar Robertson and any other guard in the league would be too tough for New York's guards. Oscar Robertson and you would be too tough. McGlocklin and Lucius Allen have been doing a great job. And we've got another advantage on the Knicks this year. Consistency. We've been much more consistent than they have. They've been able to get up for us every month or so, but they haven't been able to stay up. In the playoffs they're gonna have to be up for all their games, and I don't think they can do it—I think it's gonna wear 'em out. Attrition should get them. They're not the team they were last year. We're a young team growing into maturity. They're an older team getting older. Age has got to take a lot out of them. And when their age starts to show, that's when we'll begin to chop away at their inner action.
•Their inner action?
Yeah, the Knicks have a very delicate balance in there. Like if they start getting hurt on the inside a lot, it throws their whole thing off. They play a little inside zone, you know? Everybody tries to play an inside zone, but the Knicks play it the best. So we've got to do things to open up the inside, throw off their zone and their timing, get me inside, pull things in a little bit too tight for them to make their zone work. We've got to disrupt their coolness. We can't give 'cm time to be so methodical. We've got to spread a little anarchy out there, shake 'em up, move 'em around.
•Yes, but what're you planning to do about their fast hands? They still have the fastest hands in the game.
No, they don't. They used to have the fastest hands in the game. Last year you never knew whose hand was gonna come snaking out and take that ball oil' you, but this year Walt Frazier is the only Knick making steals. The others are getting too old. Great players like Dick Harnett—he's getting old and tired.
•What about the money? Does all that money motivate you to go out and win the playoffs?
It may motivate some of us. But I never had a big thing about money. When I didn't have it, I didn't worry about it. Now that I have a little, I don't have to worry about it. Money has never been important to me.
•What are you doing with your money these days, Lewis?
Nothing much. I don't spend much. I went out and bought a Cadillac because I needed plenty of legroom, and now I've got a Mercedes 300 SEL with a 6.3 engine. It's mean! But I don't get to drive it much.... How'd we get off on this? We're supposed to be talking basketball. Jock stuff.
•Right. Here's a nick question: Who's the best center you play against?
That's a dumb question. I get asked that same question every week and every week I say "Nate Thurmond," and every week somebody asks me again.
•Yeah, but you seemed to have a pretty easy time against Nate and the Warriors in the playoffs.
We beat 'em, yes, but I wouldn't say we had an easy time. At least I didn't have an easy time against Nate. Nobody has an easy time against Nate.
•Do you still try to get up higher for Wilt than for any other center?
I don't know if I try. But I do know that you have to gel up against Wilt, or he'll kill you out there. I'm not out to prove anything against Wilt. I'm just out to survive against him. And to do that you have to be up. You have to play at the top of your game just to come out even against him.
•You're the Most Valuable Player, in the other players' opinion. Who's the MVP in your opinion?
I voted for Dave Bing. He's—wow!—he's a hell of a player.
•If you had to pick a team to play the best team on Mars, an All-Earth team, who would you pick?
Oscar and Jerry West, Dave Bing, Gus Johnson, Connie Hawkins, Nate Thurmond and Willis Reed. John Havlicek.
•You have three years left on your contract, the one where they gave you the entire eastern half of Wisconsin plus the Strategic Air Command. What then?
It's up in the air.
•With all the money that the other league is throwing around, have you thought of jumping your contract?
•What if I told you about a league where you can get 5,000 a game? Would you jump?
•Italy. They'll pay 5,000 lire a game.
How much is that?
•I don't know; $8, $10.
Don't tempt me!
•Lew, if you and the Bucks go all the way this year, won't that be kind of early for you to peak? I mean, what will you do for an encore at age 24?
I'll worry about the encore later. Just let us win it! That would put me on the very top, you know, and even if we didn't repeal it'd be all right. We've been all the way up the mountain!
•Lew, somebody told me you've developed a good Bogart impression.
Play it again, Sham.
•Is that it? Is that the whole impression?
•It needs work, Lew. Did I ask you everything?
•What'd I forget?
You forgot to ask how high is up?
•Lew, how high is up?