Phil Pash's Simply Sports: Rockford native controlled Buck's first No. 1

Is the NBA over yet? Has the truth been told so I can start sleeping nights?

Now that Michael Jordan (the greatest pro basketball player ever) is gone, you won’t catch me writing about the NBA more than once a decade. This is that time, so pay attention.

What caught my eye was the Milwaukee Bucks winning the No. 1 choice in the NBA draft at the end of June. This is only the fourth time the Bucks get to select first. Their other choices were Glenn Robinson (1994), Kent Benson (1977) and Lew Alcindor (1969).

We’re going to focus on Alcindor, who as any basketball fan worth his/her salt knows, became Kareem Abdul Jabbar. After his rookie NBA season in 1970, he changed his name and professed his membership in the Hanafi Muslim sect of the Islamic religion.

He led the Bucks to the 1971 NBA championship, and stayed in Milwaukee until the 1975 trade to Los Angeles, where he led the Lakers to five championships. But we’re jumping ahead too much.

I covered the 1969 NCAA Final Four in Louisville, Ky., for the Rockford Morning Star and Rockford Register-Republic, forerunners of today’s local daily. It was Alcindor’s final NCAA tourney, and he led the UCLA Bruins to a 92-72 championship game victory over Rick Mount and Purdue (Drake and North Carolina were the other teams in the Final Four).

It was John Wooden’s third straight crown with Alcindor (he couldn’t play his freshman year, no freshman could), and the fifth crown in six years for the “Wizard of Westwood” who moved ahead of Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp (former Freeport High coach) in the number of national titles, five to four.

The NCAA had a Thursday-Saturday format back then instead of the Saturday-Monday schedule used today, and much of the talk before the semifinals centered on Alcindor’s upcoming pro career.

There even was a report Alcindor already had a deal with the Bucks. But that promptly was denied by Bucks general manager John Erickson, as upstanding of a person as there was. If John Erickson said it wasn’t true, it wasn’t.

Stories like that seemed to follow Alcindor around back then. After the 1967 season, he reportedly turned down a $1 million offer to sign with the Harlem Globetrotters.

The Bucks became an NBA team on Jan. 22, 1968. Larry Costello was the first head coach, and Rockford native Erickson was the first GM.

Erickson played basketball and tennis at Rockford East High, and then was on the great Dolph Stanley-coached basketball teams at Beloit College. Graduating in 1949, John began his coaching career in Wisconsin at Stevens Point High School and then moved on to Beloit Memorial High. Both schools advanced to the state playoffs during his tenure.

After Army service, he was basketball and tennis coach at Lake Forest College, and in 1958, accepted the head basketball position at the University of Wisconsin. While at Wisconsin, his Badgers beat Ohio State 86-67 in the old Fieldhouse on March 3, 1962, to end the Buckeyes’ 47-game winning streak.

He was appointed Bucks GM in 1968 and within three years—with Alcindor—they were NBA champions. Erickson resigned his Milwaukee position, ran for the U.S. Senate and lost, and then was appointed president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a position he held for 15 years. In 1988, he went to work for the Big Eight Conference (now Big 12) as director of basketball, and in 1991, was promoted to assistant commissioner. He retired in 1996.

Also part of Erickson’s Milwaukee legacy was the Bucks’ first logo.

More than 14,000 fans participated in a team-naming contest. According to the 1969-70 Bucks yearbook (which now is referred to as a media guide), R.D. Trebilcox of Whitefish Bay, Wis., was one of 45 people who suggested the name “Bucks.” He won a new car for his efforts.

The majority of the task of developing a logo and colors fell to Erickson, who commissioned Milwaukee commercial artist Matt Kastelic to do the actual work. The original logo featured a caricature of a buck wearing a sweater emblazoned with the letter “B” and spinning a basketball on one hoof while sitting on top the words “Milwaukee Bucks.”

That logo stayed until the 1993-94 NBA season when the Bucks changed their logo and uniforms.

Erickson is in at least four halls of fame, and here’s a little tidbit on which to chew: According to the then Milwaukee Journal, after Erickson resigned to become Bucks GM in 1968, none other than Bobby Knight interviewed for the Badger job (and Bo Schembechler interviewed at Wisconsin in 1966 after Badger football coach Milt Bruhn had resigned under pressure).

If I’m still around in 2010 or later, you can expect another column mentioning the NBA in detail.

From the June 1-7, 2005, issue

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