The results of early polls from selected precincts in Chicago, San Diego, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Denver, not to mention the entire great state of Wisconsin, indicate that Milwaukee is a serious candidate to be on the league's championship slate in May.
With five wins on the road and five more at home, the Bucks had a 10-2 record at week's end. Despite that considerable success, Milwaukee doesn't have unanimous support in the polls. There's a conservative view that so many things can and will happen during the long primary season that the Bucks could be a dim memory when the serious campaigning gets under way next spring. The bold opinion says that Milwaukee—with 2.58 years of experience per man, the second-youngest team (Detroit is the youngest) in the NBA—is hungry enough, deep enough and versatile enough to burst from the pack the way Phoenix, Portland and Seattle have in the recent past.
The first big endorsement came from Los Angeles Coach Jack McKinney after the Bucks beat their former standard-bearer, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and the Lakers 110-106 last Wednesday. Was McKinney stunned to see L.A.'s five-game winning streak snapped? Not at all. "The Bucks are one of the five best teams in the league," he said. "Besides us, Philadelphia, Portland, Phoenix and Boston. Make that six."
Was it a mere slip that McKinney left out Seattle, the league's defending champion? In the NBA, as in presidential politics, incumbency seems to be a curse these days. Indeed, last Saturday, as Sonic Assistant Coach Les Habegger watched the Bucks gut out their 10th straight victory in Chicago Stadium, 136-134 in overtime, he had to whistle at what he saw. "The Bucks look like we looked last year," said Habegger. "They have that desire and confidence. And they get help all the way down to the end of their bench." Is there something wrong with the Sonics, who have gotten off to a 7-5 start? It was hard to tell Sunday night when Seattle ended the Bucks' streak with a 114-101 victory.
The Milwaukee Arena—with 10,938 seats, one of the NBA's smallest—is SRO every time the Bucks play. And why not? They have the league's only healthy Walton (Reserve Guard Lloyd); Ann Meyers' brother Dave, who was a pretty fair player at UCLA, too; and the NBA's best and most exciting non-center, Forward Marques Johnson.
It seems the Bucks must be giving out free gasoline the way people are lining up outside their ticket office. On bumper stickers and T shirts, on 'the streets and in the bars where Milwaukee's beer drinkers take their basketball very seriously, the slogan seen and heard is "Green and Growing." But the Bucks' youth is offset by their depth and talent, and the fact that they made a strong playoff run two years ago when they were even greener. Three members of the Bucks remain from the 1975 trade that sent Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers. Guard Brian Winters (18.5 points a game) and Forward Meyers (14.3) are Milwaukee's third- and fourth-leading scorers. Junior Bridgeman, the No. 2 point producer at 20.8, comes off the bench, plays forward or guard, shoots 54% and is one of the most productive sixth men in the league.
The 1976 draft brought Lead Guard Quinn Buckner, a veteran of Olympic and NCAA championship teams, from Indiana. And in 1977 came Johnson, now 23 and the Bucks' leading scorer with a 23.5 average, and Center Kent Benson.
Though Johnson showed Coach Don Nelson that "he was better than we ever thought he would be on his first day of training camp," Benson was another story. Being brutally punched in the face by Abdul-Jabbar in his first NBA game didn't help, but Benson had gotten off on the wrong foot with Nelson earlier by refusing to play summer-league basketball. "Nellie couldn't understand that Bennie cared more about God and fishing than basketball," says one of Benson's friends, "and he has never forgiven him for it." Nor did it bolster Benson's confidence to ride the bench behind John Gianelli and then hear that Nelson couldn't find a team willing to take Benson in a trade. Forced to stick with him, Nelson finally moved Benson ahead of Gianelli in the second half of last season. Benson's confidence gradually grew, as did Nelson's estimation of him.
"Knowing that everyone had me tabbed as a major disappointment had me very down," says Benson. "But I knew all I had to do was hang in until I could get the playing time I needed. Now I'm much more confident. I know I can play in the NBA and do the things it takes to win." Benson still isn't a dominant center, and he'll never be, but at 6'10", 235 pounds, he sets as good a pick as Wes Unseld, rebounds nearly as well as Alvan Adams and scores as well as Clifford Ray. All three have been effective but non-dominating centers on teams that made it to the playoff finals.
Against Abdul-Jabbar last week Benson had 19 points and nine rebounds, and he hooked up with Meyers on a series of flawlessly executed give-and-go baskets in the last two minutes that put the game away. Asked if it was Benson's best performance yet, Nelson hesitated, then surprised even himself by saying, "No. You know, Bennie plays every night now. That's not how he used to be."
Benson's steady play has been only one of the Bucks' blessings. Another has been Meyers' recovery from a back injury—a ruptured disk rubbing against his sciatic nerve—that forced him to miss all of last season. Surgery was recommended by some doctors, but Meyers declined. Being a Jehovah's Witness, he is forbidden to take blood transfusions. "I could only hope that he could come back," says Nelson. Meanwhile the coach protected himself at the power forward spot by trading Ernie Grunfeld for Richard Washington. That move has paid off doubly because, while Washington has been a useful sub, Meyers has been starting and playing with all his old abandon, wearing football-style pads to protect his back.
The jubilation over Meyers' return was tempered somewhat by Johnson's preseason holdout, which received soap-opera coverage in the Milwaukee press. Would owner Jim Fitzgerald renegotiate Johnson's contract, which had four years to run, at what Johnson perceived to be the non-superstar salary of $200,000 per year? Would Johnson actually sit out, force a trade and leave Milwaukee? The happy ending: Johnson got more money, in the form of a $100,000 bonus, though Fitzgerald stuck to his guns and didn't renegotiate. The Bucks had their big gun, and Meyers, too. And a slimmed-down Buckner and rookie Guard Sidney Moncrief, a prospective star who barely gets any playing time. And the extra ingredient that makes them so potent—Bridgeman.
"I'm watching Junior like I watched Marques last year," says Buckner. "J.B.'s doing things you can't believe."
"What makes us a good team is that we don't have to have a big night from any one guy," says Meyers. "Last year it had to be Marques or Brian. Now all of a sudden, I'm back, there's Junior, Bennie. We come from everywhere."
The question is, will they be going anywhere come May?