- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 29, 2008

“You look up there and see Alcindor’s Afro by the rim, and you just don’t just don’t know what to do about it. It’s like taking a golf shot through a tree. I’ll tell you, it ain’t easy out there.”

Jack Marin, Baltimore Bullets

Nothing was easy in the 1971 NBA Finals for the franchise that would become the Washington Wizards. The Baltimore Bullets were swept in four games by a powerful Milwaukee Bucks team built around 7-foot-2 center Lew Alcindor and marvelous guard Oscar Robertson — two of the league’s all-time all-stars.

Coach Larry Costello’s Bucks, a third-year expansion outfit, went 66-16 with winning streaks of 20 and 16 during the regular season and 12-2 during the playoffs. In the finals, they won the first three games by 10, 19 and eight points, then finished off the Bullets with a 118-106 victory at Baltimore Civic Center on April 30.

This was the first of four trips to the finals in the 1970s for the Bullets, who moved to the Capital Centre in Landover 2½ years later. They were swept again by the Golden State Warriors in 1975, defeated the Seattle SuperSonics in seven games in 1978 and lost to the Sonics in five the following year.

And they were far more successful during that decade than the Bucks, who appeared ready to establish a dynasty after crushing the Bullets. Though Milwaukee made the playoffs in 17 of the next 20 seasons, its only subsequent appearance in the finals was a seven-game loss to the Boston Celtics in 1974.

The key move in the Bucks’ surge to the top came in the spring of 1970, when they obtained Robertson in a trade with the Cincinnati Royals. The “Big O” had never come close to a title in his 10-year NBA career, but he and Alcindor quickly formed an unbeatable duo in Milwaukee.

“Here was something you dreamed about,” said Bucks swingman Bobby Dandridge, later an important part of the Bullets’ 1978 championship. “Oscar could really be the floor leader and didn’t have to score all the time. It was a perfect marriage. They made good passes and shared the ball, and I think everybody understood the importance of getting all the players involved.”

At 32, Robertson might have lost a step, but he made up for it with outstanding leadership and court intelligence. While Alcindor led the league in scoring (31.7) and was fourth in rebounding (16.0), Robertson chipped in with 19.4 points and 8.2 assists.

The final game of the finals was typical. Robertson had 30 points and Alcindor 27 points and 12 rebounds as the Bucks bolted to an 89-77 lead after three quarters and coasted home.

For Alcindor, who converted from Catholicism to Islam after the season and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the victory came fittingly enough in the state where he had suffered his most galling defeat. Six years earlier, his Power Memorial (N.Y.) prep team had a 71-game winning streak ended by DeMatha 46-43 at the University of Maryland’s Cole Field House — a justly famous triumph that helped establish the Stags and coach Morgan Wootten on the national scene.

It was the only high school loss for Alcindor, who then led UCLA to three NCAA championships before being drafted by the Bucks in 1969. When he retired at age 42 in 1989, he was the NBA’s career scoring leader with 38,387 points. But on the last night of April 1971 in downtown Baltimore, the 24-year-old superstar was savoring one of his most significant victories.

“We were a team of destiny,” insisted guard Jon McGlocklin, now a broadcast analyst for the Bucks. “The way we played, the lack of injuries, you could tell it was our year. And we felt that way all year long.”

The Bucks also got a break because the Bullets were hurting after ousting the NBA defending champion New York Knicks in the Eastern Conference finals. Center Wes Unseld was hobbling on a badly sprained ankle, forward Gus Johnson had sore knees and guard Earl “The Pearl” Monroe had an assortment of injuries. Baltimore shot better than 40 percent in only one of the four games.

It’s unlikely, however, that even a healthy Bullets team could have beaten McGlocklin’s “team of destiny.” So briefly dominant was Milwaukee in this short-pants era that a disgruntled Bullets fan offered an understandably bitter suggestion after Game 4: “Those Bucks ought to be disbanded.”

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