Where's the party? How Milwaukee and Wisconsin reacted to the Bucks' championship

Jim Owczarski
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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The 1970-’71 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks: Seated, left to right: Bob Boozer, Greg Smith, Bob Dandridge, Oscar Robertson, Lew Alcindor, Jon McGlocklin, Lucius Allen, coach Larry Costello. Standing, left to right: Trainer Arnie Garber, Jeff Webb, Marvin Winkler, Dick Cunningham, Bob Greacen, McCoy McLemore, assistant coach Tom Nissalke.

NOTE: This story was updated on Jan. 18, 2022, to make it free for all readers.

They owe us a party. Let them know they owe us a party. A big one. Yeah.

Greg Smith kind of laughed before hanging up the phone from his home in Oregon, but it wasn’t entirely playful. It wasn’t the only aside during a conversation on how his Milwaukee Bucks didn’t ride down Wisconsin Avenue to properly celebrate the 1970-71 NBA championship.

It’s the 50-year-old papercut under the fingernail for others, too.

“I really resented it as time went on,” Jon McGlocklin said.

Not every player felt as strongly as their teammates, but most remain curious as to why. And they aren’t the only ones, which has left theories to marinate.

It was just the third season of the team’s existence, so perhaps it happened too fast for unfamiliar city leaders to process and a still-developing fan base to clamor for. Perhaps, as some feel, Milwaukee politicians didn’t want to so publicly acknowledge a team led by Black players or encourage a mixing of races downtown after years of marches and protests.

Five decades later, the lack of pageantry has shadowed some memories of one of the greatest seasons in NBA history.

“Maybe it didn’t mean that much to them. The higher-ups,” Oscar Robertson said. “Who knows? But it’s over the hill now, we won and we enjoyed it.”

A lukewarm level of interest

In the spring of 1971, Milwaukee was due for a party.

Or at the very least, a reason to weave even a thread of connectivity. The open housing and civil Rights marches, police and welfare protests and counter-protests that spanned from 1967 through 1970 left the city raw.

The sports landscape had been laid bare, too.

The Braves left after 1965 and the Brewers were a year old. Vince Lombardi was gone, too, and the Green Bay Packers had two losing seasons in their past three.

And Bucks fans were new.

The city embraced high school basketball in the late 1950s and early 1960s thanks to the success of the North Division and Lincoln high school programs in the state tournament. And then Al McGuire arrived at Marquette in 1964 and his team won the 1970 National Invitation Tournament.

But the NBA maintained a niche audience in Milwaukee. Most games were broadcast on delay, on Saturdays, and heavily featured the Boston Celtics, New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers.

“A lot of people didn’t watch a lot of basketball, period, unless there was nothing else to do,” recalled Rev. Joseph Baring, who worked at Nordberg Manufacturing in 1971.

Martin J. Schreiber was a ball boy for the Milwaukee Hawks, the city’s first NBA team. He didn’t remember too many fans attending from 1951-55 but could easily recall the excitement around the Harlem Globetrotters' annual New Year’s Eve appearances. Even Steve Patterson, the son of Bucks president and general manager Ray Patterson, would try to convince his friends that the Bucks were a better team than the Globetrotters.

“Professional basketball was new and young,” Schreiber said. “Professional basketball at that time in Milwaukee was an emerging sport.”

After a lackluster opening season in 1968, Bucks interest swelled when UCLA superstar Lew Alcindor was drafted No. 1 overall in 1969 and the team won 56 games. It bubbled further with the arrival of Robertson in 1970.

“I never knew much about basketball, but I knew those guys were superstars,” said Ron San Felippo, who was on the Milwaukee Public Schools board in 1970. “Everybody gets excited about winners.”

And that season the Bucks not only won, they put together one of the most dominant seasons in the 25-year history of the league. They had a record 20-game winning streak and scoring differential (plus-12.3 points per game). They finished with the second-most regular-season wins (66) and had the second-highest margins of victory in a regular season (52) and playoff game (50). Their 12-2 postseason record was best in NBA history.

The Bucks sold out 17 straight regular-season games at the Milwaukee Arena at one point.

“Well, of course Lew Alcindor was the talk, Oscar Robertson was the talk,” said Max Walker, a former Lincoln High School standout who taught and coached at Rufus King High School in 1971. “It kind of caught everybody by surprise. We weren’t like a New York Knicks team or a Boston Celtics team where they knew how to support their team.”

Most of the games were not televised and there weren’t people walking the city with their jerseys, but the players said they felt appreciated as they marched toward the title. But Robertson noticed one person’s absence from the burgeoning fan base.

In an undated memo, the Bucks star said he sat next to Milwaukee Mayor Henry Maier on a plane and asked Maier why he had not yet attended a game. Robertson then approached one of the mayor’s aides with the same question.

“Your boss seemed very interested in the team and we would really like to see him at one of our games,” Robertson said.

The aide told Robertson the mayor would likely attend a playoff game and, in the memo, he recommended Maier make a stop in the locker room to say a few words.

There is no record he did.

Milwaukee's Lew Alcindor is congratulated by Baltimore's Jack Marin after the Bucks won the 1971 NBA championship.

History made in Baltimore

The Bucks won the championship on Friday, April 30, 1971, in the Baltimore Civic Center and only about 20 people from the organization – including players – were on site to celebrate. So, the Bucks invited anyone from the Baltimore Bullets who wanted to drink champagne.

“The league was a little bit like that then,” Bucks public relations director Jim Foley chuckled. “There just wasn’t a big throng to help celebrate the Bucks win.”

In Milwaukee, some fans took to Wisconsin Avenue on foot and held small transistor radios to their ears. Some spilled off the sidewalk, yet displeased motorists honked for them to get out of the way. The Time Out bar on Kilbourn Avenue treated patrons to champagne on the house.

From Wauwatosa to Wausau and Eau Claire, from the Bucks’ adopted second home of Madison down to individual aldermanic districts of Milwaukee, fans watched the clincher on small televisions – some in black and white – on ABC. There was a joy, a pride in having a champion to call your own, but it did not tie together generations and ethnicities. There had not been time for those threads to be woven.

Frankly, it wasn’t a party.

“There was clearly city pride but it was not demonstrable on the streets,” said Dr. Pat McBride, then a 17-year-old Bucks ball boy from Wauwatosa who watched the clincher from home. “People didn’t run out like they do now. It definitely did not have the same level of city excitement (as) that Braves series did, which is why I think the parade was lacking. It just happened so fast.”

Seeing Robertson throw his hands into the air as he walked off the Civic Center court perhaps carried more weight for what it represented.

“It was a motivator for us for excellence, that’s the best way to put it,” said then-Marquette sophomore forward and Racine native Jim Chones. “It was a motivating force, that it could be done. We were so happy that it happened because then we could relate to the winning and we could relate to the visibility and the appreciation from the fans for our basketball excellence. That was something to work towards.”

Rev. Baring watched the Bucks win from his Milwaukee home.

He was part of the NAACP Youth Council Commandos and had an active role in the open housing marches of 1967-68. Looking back, he compared the Bucks' title to what the New Orleans Saints’ Super Bowl meant to that city following Hurricane Katrina.

The lift – the beaming smiles of Robertson and Alcindor in the victorious locker room – was sorely needed.

“It was something that Milwaukee could brag about because we did have a team that stood out and made Milwaukee stand out,” Rev. Baring said. “I would just say it was a breath of fresh air when they won for many of us that were struggling with the issues of society. It was a breath of fresh air to see African-Americans that were champions.”

The next morning, the Bucks would fly back to Milwaukee.

“I remember getting on the radio and exhorting then-Mayor Henry Maier to put down his pipe and grab a car and come on out to the airport with a bunch of people and greet this team,” Bucks radio play-by-play man Eddie Doucette said. “I don’t know, maybe I was a little full of myself at that point of time and euphoric over the win.”

Returning home to appreciative crowd

The champions deplaned May 1 at Mitchell Field, reveling. The smell of champagne was pungent, and bottles were carried off the plane. The fans heard Doucette’s challenge, read about the team’s arrival time in the Milwaukee Journal and showed up in force for a 1:30 p.m. scheduled arrival. A 45-minute delay only built the fervor.

“It felt pretty good,” Robertson said. “I don’t know how many people were there, to be honest. But they met us there and were very happy. I don’t even know how we got downtown.”

Doucette estimated a few thousand people showed. An account in the Journal cited guesses between 10,000 and 20,000. Foley put it around 20,000. The players soaked it in.

“We won the championship, we came back, there were fans at the airport and I guess we thought that was it,” Bob Dandridge said.

But some people weren’t there.

Alcindor stayed behind on the East Coast and announced he had changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And in Milwaukee, the people at the airport, lining the streets and following players out of the parking lot were not entirely indicative of the entire fan base.

“That’s something we didn’t do,” Rev. Baring said. “One of the issues with that, even with open housing, most African-Americans stayed off the south side of Milwaukee unless you worked there. I don’t think they would have gone to Mitchell Field even if they would have had a bigger celebration. I don’t think they would have involved themselves in that because, basically, we just had the impression that we weren’t wanted there anyway.”

Walker laughed knowingly.

“Could you imagine, though?” the longtime Milwaukee Public Schools teacher said. “You know how they get the big fanfare when they get off the airplane, to have as many Blacks out there? We didn’t go to the south side as readily. And hang out on the south side? We didn’t do that. We just didn’t do it.”

As for any official recognition by the city, a handwritten note was added to the bottom of the memo advising Maier to visit the team: Mayor and Mrs. Maier met them at the airport.

There were no speeches or special guests.

That night, Bucks co-owner Wes Pavalon rented out a hotel space for the players, staff their significant others and families to celebrate.

“That was it,” Smith said.

He laughed.


Milwaukee Bucks fans reach for Oscar Robertson as he searches for his luggage at the airport in Milwaukee on May 1, 1971. Some 20,000 people came to the airport to welcome the NBA champions.

No plan for a parade ... unlike for Braves

On Sept. 13, 1956, the Milwaukee Braves held a two-game lead in the National League pennant race with 13 games to go. The World Series was within reach, and Mayor Frank Zeidler got to work. The city had to be ready should the Braves and the city host America’s greatest team sporting championship.

The Brooklyn Dodgers would run them down, but the next year the Braves would leave no doubt that a pennant was in the offing. Zeidler created a commission to get the city ready and the planning paid off. The Braves were champions, and on Oct. 11, 1957, an estimated 60,000 participated in a ticker-tape parade in downtown Milwaukee.

“The town went crazy,” San Felippo said.

On Oct. 14, 1957, the parade was the cover of LIFE magazine.

“Gosh they had people down on Wisconsin Avenue,” said Schreiber, who was elected Lieutenant Governor in 1971. “That was something. I don’t remember anything like that at all with the Bucks championship.”

But it wasn’t even the first parade the Braves received – an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 welcomed the team to the city in 1953.

“I remember as a kid when the Braves won the world series in ’57, they at least had a parade,” West Milwaukee native and then-Bucks rookie Jeff Webb said. “But they never did anything for the Bucks. I never quite understood that.”

Like the champion Braves, it was clear early in 1970-71 that the Bucks were a juggernaut. While an NBA Finals trip or a title were not guaranteed, it would not have been a stretch for city and team leaders to prepare a celebration.

“I don’t remember being much talk about it,” Foley said.

Archive searches from the Wisconsin Historical Society, Milwaukee County Historical Society and the Milwaukee Public Library for official documents regarding a Bucks parade plan turned up empty.

The city would eventually organize a parade, just not for a champion.

On Oct. 15, 1982, the day of Game 3 of the World Series between the Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals, a “Brewer win or lose parade” plan was drafted. Included were instructions on the number of vehicles and its route, and called for radio announcer Bob Uecker to introduce Gov. Lee Dreyfus, Mayor Maier and County Executive William O’Donnell.

The Brewers would lose in seven games, and the parade was held on Oct. 21 with an estimated 100,000 people on Wisconsin Avenue and another 10,000 in County Stadium.

By then, the principals from the Bucks championship team had moved on, save one.

“You know when it really hit me was when the Brewers in ’82 go to the World Series, there’s a parade for them, a big deal, and we had nothing,” said McGlocklin, who remained in the city as a Bucks broadcaster and co-founded the Milwaukee Athletes Against Childhood Cancer (MACC) Fund. “It really struck me down, then. I’m like what the you-know-what?”

Understanding the era

When the players went their separate ways on May 2, 1971, they knew they had not been formally recognized by the city. Some felt the greeting at the airport was enough and haven’t harbored strong feelings one way or the other. Some do.

“I’d see other celebrations in other cities and what our city and state didn’t do for us,” McGlocklin said. “It was really upsetting. It’s upsetting today. We’ve had nothing. I think that’s kind of disrespectful.”

Most just don’t know why. And with no archived records, it is unknown if there was even a discussion among city leaders.

For some, there was nothing intentional about it. Rather, they chalked it up to the sport and team’s relative newness.

“The city was probably still learning to like basketball,” San Felippo surmised.

Even the Packers hadn’t had much by way of formal celebrations to that point. They were thrown a parade in Green Bay in 1939 after winning the NFL championship at State Fair Park in Milwaukee, but their ensuing championships and Super Bowls through the 1960s were feted with homecomings at Austin Straubel Field.

“Maybe we were just pre-parade?” Foley wondered. “It seems like the parade thing came much later for the NBA .”

Foley, who left the Bucks in 1972 and then spent 36 years working for the Houston Rockets, nearly had it pegged. Boston had its first parade for the Celtics in 1969, which was their 11th championship – and it may have been the first in league history.

Neither the 1970 champion New York Knicks nor the 1972 champion Los Angeles Lakers had parades.

“We’re talking about a whole different era as it pertains to professional basketball,” said Dr. Howard Fuller, who played basketball at North Division and Carroll University in the late 1950s and early 1960s. After leaving Wisconsin, he would become a noted civil rights activist in Ohio, Illinois and North Carolina and later became the superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools from 1991-95.

“It’s lightyears. To the extent that professional sports was a thing in Milwaukee, it was the baseball town and the Packers. At least my memory (of it). Basketball just wasn’t at the level that it is today.”

New York would have a parade for the Knicks in 1973, and sandwiched between more parades in Boston in 1974 and 1976 the Golden State Warriors had a celebration inside their arena and one in Union Square in San Francisco in 1975.

But it was the city of Portland in 1977 and its massive parade for the Trail Blazers that set the template NBA cities would follow regarding the celebration of champions. Smith saw this first-hand as a member of Portland’s alumni organization.

“They closed down the city almost in ’77,” he said.

Dandridge recalled the parade he was in for the champion Baltimore Bullets in 1978 and then said of the Bucks’ title: “At that time, I don’t know if teams did parades and stuff like that.”

Teams, of course, could not throw their own parade.

“I’m going attribute some of it to, you know, the mayor’s office, the city just saying the Bucks are our team,” said former Milwaukee Common Council President Marvin Pratt, who was a student at Marquette in 1971. “They were kind of downplayed. They weren’t as esteemed as a team as they should be or they would be these days.

“A lot of the civic pride stuff, it doesn’t necessarily have to come from City Hall, (but) it’s kind of political to a degree.”

And some residents who had been physically separated from other parts of the community through politics felt an undercurrent as to why the Braves had parades and the runner-up Brewers would have one, yet the one team between them did not. An undercurrent as clear to see as the team photos.

“I think by the mere fact that you had the four (starting) Blacks on the team, it was kind of suppressed,” Walker said of the Bucks’ title. “Winning a championship was great, but then there was, well, we won the championship but we had to have Black players. I think that was in the minds of a lot of people.”

And in remembering the climate of 1971, there is a real feeling among some that city leaders weren’t willing to celebrate such a team and encourage a mass gathering of people downtown.

“Trying to get Black and white people together in a group on Wisconsin Avenue would have been a no-no,” Rev. Baring said.

It is unknown if such thoughts existed in City Hall regarding a formal parade, but the opposite could have been true. Pulling the city together under a single championship Bucks flag may have served as a salve, rather than tinder.

“It would have been making a different statement back then, too,” Rev. Baring acknowledged. “It was almost unheard of anyway for the cultures to have mixed like that with big parades, which we have now.

“The Bucks didn’t get a ticker-tape parade and that might have been the underlying reason because of mixing the races in a parade setting, having people come together like that in that setting.”

As for members of the Bucks organization, the reason why they didn’t get a parade after their championship is wholly unknown – but none of them felt it was racially motivated.

“I didn’t feel that at all,” Robertson said.

Dandridge admitted he lived on the north side of Milwaukee because of its predominantly Black population but said, “We were athletes, so we didn’t deal directly with all the prejudices that may have existed.”

The same can be said for even the most outspoken players about the lack of a parade. McGlocklin knew some of his Black teammates had race-related “experiences” in or around Milwaukee, but he never heard of anyone not supporting the team or holding a celebration because of its Black players. Smith couldn’t square that up either.

“I never heard anything of that sort,” Foley added. “Never. Never. I don’t think that had anything to do with it at all.”

50 years and counting

Fifty years later, the city and the state look back at that season fondly. Whatever the subtext, a champion is a champion.

Its impact was likely felt and appreciated more after 1971, though. It helped root the franchise and the NBA not just in Milwaukee, but statewide.

“All of a sudden, I think Wisconsin picked up the basketball,” recalled former Oshkosh North High School coach Frank Schade, who was drafted by the Kansas City-Omaha Kings out of UW-Eau Claire in 1972. “All of a sudden, we started getting a name and it’s gotten better and better and better.”

The surviving Bucks players, staff and family all said they were loved and appreciated without the shredded paper raining from the rooftops of Wisconsin Avenue – even if some wonder why it didn’t.

There is a tinge of regret that the COVID-19 pandemic likely scuttled any plans the organization may have had to reunite them, too, but the accomplishment remains a jewel for them and Milwaukee.

“I think the city deserved it,” Robertson said. “I met some wonderful people and so did my wife. Had great times there with almost everyone I met, white or Black.

"All these other things that happened, I was not truly aware of all of them. I guess I may have known about some of them. But when you enjoy a place and have some success on the court, and some success off the court, it means a lot. I’m just happy about it.”

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