As they head into the NBA playoffs, the Milwaukee Bucks seem resigned to the notion that any glory they win will be unexpected and unappreciated. Buried in the hinterland and esteemed by few outside Wisconsin, the Bucks are something of a mystery team, in spite of a dazzling late-season surge. Even the manner in which they clinched the Midwest Division crown last week seemed in character—a Kansas City loss to Golden State eliminated the Kings on a night when the Bucks were idle. By backing into the title, its first since 1976, Milwaukee managed to maintain its customary low profile.
On Sunday afternoon the Bucks ended their season with a 107-91 win over Utah before yet another sellout home crowd—their 38th straight—to wind up 49-33. That record looks unimposing beside those of the league powerhouses, Los Angeles, Boston and Philadelphia, but it is a lot more impressive when one considers that only the Pacific Division champion Lakers (23-6) had a better record after the All-Star break.
It was then that the Bucks got Center Bob Lanier, trading Kent Benson and their 1980 first-round draft pick to Detroit, and Lanier proved to be the anchor that stopped the team's drifting. With the 6'11" 250-pounder on court, Milwaukee has demonstrated that it can compete with the best—even world champion Seattle, its probable opponent in the Western Conference semifinals. After Lanier arrived, the Bucks closed with a 20-6 rush, and the losses were by a total of only 16 points.
"We can play with anyone," says Milwaukee Coach Don Nelson. And perhaps he's right. Marques Johnson, his sky-walking forward, is considered by some to be the best all-round player in the league, and Junior Bridgeman is the best sixth man—are you listening, M. L. Carr?—never mind his lack of pub. "We're not media stars," says Nelson.
Without L.A.'s glamour, Boston's tradition or Philadelphia's flamboyance, the Bucks rest their case for recognition on an eloquent defense, with Dave (Crash) Meyers, the former UCLA star, inflicting cuts and bruises on one wing while Lanier bumps and grinds in the middle. After a season of diving for loose balls, Meyers looks like an open wound at this time of the year.
But it is Guard Quinn Buckner who epitomizes what the Bucks are about. His reputation is good field, no hit, a defensive player without an outside shot, but last summer he worked assiduously on his marksmanship, with the result that he scored 10.9 points a game this season versus 7.2 in 1978-79. Early in the season, after winning 10 straight, the Bucks went into a slump, and it was no coincidence that it came when Buckner was sidelined with a hamstring pull. "You don't realize the importance of Quinn Buckner until you play with him," says Lanier. "You see presence and leadership, always making the big plays. He's an important cog in the wheel."
So is Assistant Coach John Killilea, who ran the team for about two weeks in midseason, when Nelson had back surgery. Killilea, considered a master with the Xs and Os, also is noted for his Lon Chaney array of faces; he studied at the Tom Heinsohn Sideline Theater of the Absurd when he was a Boston assistant. When Killilea sneers at a referee, one look is worth a thousand expletives.
Nelson says Milwaukee could have won 62 games if Lanier had been with the team from the start, which the big fellow would have welcomed. Over the years, during the good times—the Pistons won 52 games in 1973-74—and the more recent bad ones, Lanier was Detroit's workhorse, a 22.8 career scorer and 11.9 rebounder. With the Bucks he isn't expected to carry the team on his broad back. "I don't have the emotional burden," he says. "Here I help on defense, set picks and pass the ball, things I do well anyway. It makes life easier. My playing time has gone down but the Ws are up."
"I'm happy for him," says Dave Bing, Lanier's former teammate. "It gives him a chance to go out a winner. He would have died in Detroit." Bing was a candidate for the Pistons' coaching job when Dick Vitale was fired earlier this season, and Lanier supported his candidacy, but Richie Adubato was given the position. It was the straw that broke Lanier's back. He told management he wanted out.
The deal with Milwaukee would have been made six weeks earlier except that Lanier broke the little finger on his left hand, and while recuperating he worried about his reputation as a loser who was injury prone. He previously had had two knee operations, a broken right hand, a bad toe, a sore back and a chronic shoulder problem. Lanier, who is from Buffalo, also fretted because Kent Benson, for whom it was rumored he would be traded, was Milwaukee's kind of guy: a hard-working, diligent Midwesterner. At the All-Star Game, Lanier approached Marques Johnson and asked him how the Bucks would view him. "Come on aboard," Johnson said.
With Lanier aboard, the floor looks a little bigger and less congested to Marques. Says Buckner, "Before, we would go to our guns down the stretch, and Marques was being forced so far from the basket that everything was long distance." Johnson points out, "When we take the floor now, you can just see the respect in the opposing center's eyes."
Lanier's importance was demonstrated in his very first game with the Bucks on Feb. 6. That night, Brian Winters made a game-ending 20-foot jump shot for a 111-109 win over Cleveland. Later Winters explained how he had gotten free: "Everybody was going to Bob as if he were a magnet." And at first Lanier thought Winters had missed; he was so conditioned to losing he had forgotten all about game-winning shots.
When Lanier joined up, Milwaukee trailed Kansas City by five games; it won 11 of its next 13. On March 16 the Bucks beat the Kings 128-121 and took the division lead for good. They had defeated Seattle twice, including a two-point victory in The Kingdome. The Bucks began calling Lanier "Coach" in deference to his age, 31, and stature. Because there weren't so many hands in their faces anymore, they began shooting better; at the All-Star break Milwaukee was shooting 47%; since then it has been 51%.
Still, people are surprised at the turnaround—not that Lanier has helped, but that the transition has been so smooth. "Yep, yep and yep," says Lanier, asked if this team can win it all. "It might be destiny. I don't know what the inherent substance is, but you know when it's there. It kind of envelops the squad until the belief is overpowering. I feel it here."
So does owner Jim Fitzgerald. He had blanched when he first considered assuming Lanier's $400,000 annual salary. "These guys don't come cheap," he said at the time. Now Fitzgerald goes around chirping, "Our time is now."
Last Thursday night, Lanier was surrounded by newsmen as the Bucks finally got to celebrate winning the division title. They had had to play a no-account game against Denver, which they won 143-95, and now they could sip champagne. Big Bob said it was the first time since college that he had drunk the stuff, and after so many years it tasted pretty good. Gone was that loser's tag, and now, he said, he would do his best to give Milwaukee a new image as well.
In lean years Lanier never threw in the towel.