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."
"We don't have anybody who's a regular center," he snapped. "What are we supposed to do? I think all the guys should be commended for busting their butts to win without a real center. We can't play any harder than we've been playing.
None too soon, Abdul-Jabbar returned. "We knew the hand would heal," said Bates. "Bones mend, no matter what. It was the eye we were worried about. And so was he. The doctor said there was some scarring already in the white of the eyeball because of repeated injuries. Between us, we decided he should wear protective goggles."
The goggles are made of shatter-proof Plexiglas, and the first pair have proved less than satisfactory. Not wide enough, they block the big center's peripheral vision. New ones, with harder-coated lenses and three inches wider, have been ordered.
On the road trip during which he was supposed to return to action, Abdul-Jab-bar got as far as Kansas City and discovered that he had forgotten to pack the goggles. Back in Milwaukee, Bucks public-relations director John Steinmiller was dispatched to the center's apartment to find them. A building superintendent let Steinmiller into Abdul-Jabbar's apartment. No glasses. Steinmiller called the press table at the arena in Kansas City and asked for Bates.
"Is this a joke? We're playing a game," said Bates after being called to the phone.
"Hell, no," said Steinmiller. "It's me—John. I'm in Kareem's apartment. Hey, does he have any dogs in here?"
"Has anything bitten you?"
"Then there aren't any dogs. What's up?"
Steinmiller said he couldn't find the goggles. "Hey, Kareem," Bates yelled down to the bench, "where did you leave the goggles?" Abdul-Jabbar hollered back helpful advice. The coffee table? No. The couch? No. The closet? No. His bedroom? No. Finally Abdul-Jabbar got on the phone himself and eventually Steinmiller located the goggles in the center's black Mercedes. "It was unreal," said Bates. "Here a game is going on and we're yelling back and forth for a full quarter trying to find the goggles."
Suitably goggled, Abdul-Jabbar made his first start in New York. Costello hadn't expected to use him quite so quickly, but after the Knicks' center, John Gianelli, scored five quick points against Warner he made the decision. In went Abdul-Jabbar to hold Gianelli to just four more points, to score 17 himself, to haul down 10 rebounds and block four shots. The Bucks won 90-72.
"My legs were great but I got winded," said Kareem. "I asked Larry to take me out at the end. I played scared. I just wanted to get through without any incident. Am I going to continue to wear the goggles? Of course. I'm down to my last pair of eyeballs."
Milwaukee returned home to lose to Los Angeles 105-102, and then beat divisional rivals Kansas City-Omaha 102-99 and Chicago 101-99 in double overtime. That lifted the Bucks' record to 6-14, which is not as bad as it might seem, for no one else in their division is playing much better. Through last Sunday, Kansas City-Omaha was 12-10, Detroit 11-10 and Chicago 10-11.
"With Kareem playing the last seven weeks we'd be sitting up there nice and loose," said Costello. "We've been lucky no one else is running away from us. Now we have to go to work."
Costello never stops working, and usually when he isn't adding something new to his offense, he is thinking of adding something new. He puts in new plays and then demands execution. It is tough on the players, especially the new ones.
"It's not complex," says Costello.
"It's complex all right," says Dandridge.
Like Abdul-Jabbar, Dandridge has been with the Bucks since 1969. "What seems easy to Costello is very difficult to a lot of players," he says. "If we lose, he switches us up—calls it simplifying the offense. In my five years the basic offense has never changed. It's just that there are so many options. A guy just coming in, seeing a new offense every third day, he gets confused."
Dandridge was standing beside the court in Milwaukee watching some of his teammates take extra shooting practice. Cornell Warner came into the arena.
"What are you doing here?" Dandridge asked.
"I'm just making sure they don't put in any new plays while I'm not looking," Warner said.
Dandridge shook his head. "It's like being in a math class. You have to keep up with the developments every day. What happens today is the key to four or five new plays a few days from now. I can see if a guy isn't sound fundamentally he'd be in a lot of trouble with Larry's system."
There are other adjustments for new men. "The problem when Kareem plays is that 75% of our offense goes to him," said Dandridge. "You know that when the ball goes in the middle he's usually going to hook or take some kind of a shot. Then everybody isn't totally involved in the offense. It tends to make guys not enthusiastic. It's difficult to ask a guy to go 28 minutes on defense, knowing he probably won't be in on the offense. It can get you down. It's difficult for a new guy to accept, a guy like Thompson. Before Kareem came back he got 25 shots. No more. Now the only way he can get that many is to run the fast break. I know I'll get my 20 shots. We need a third guy to get 20. We need a guard who'll push the ball up the floor and make his own opportunities. But the blend will come. I'm sure we'll have enough practices to see that it does."
Warner agreed that it sometimes is hard to play basketball Milwaukee style. "Everyone wants to feel they are contributing to the success of the Bucks," he said. "I can go a whole quarter without a shot. If I touch the ball it's O.K. But if I'm running up and down the court and never get the ball, just to pass off, it's tough. When you learn all that offense you want to be a part of it. But this season has been hard on everyone. We all have played good enough to win. But we'd get down to the end and there would be a spell when no one could hit a basket and when it was over we'd look up and see another loss. But with Kareem back we'll all be more comfortable. When we hit one of those bad spans we'll just get the ball into him, he'll hit three or four of those hooks and we'll be out of it."
As Costello has said, anyone who has a 7'2" center has to be stupid not to be aware of him. Anybody want today's Bucks and 15 points? For a game next March?