The Milwaukee Bucks have Lady Luck and the people of Phoenix to thank for being able to select Kareem Abdul-Jabbar first overall in the 1969 NBA Draft.
The greatest member of the Milwaukee Bucks in franchise history is undoubtedly Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kareem dominated the entire NBA for his Bucks tenure, enough so to bring Milwaukee to the promised land of winning an NBA title.
Since the Bucks have not been back to the NBA Finals since Kareem split for Los Angeles, it’s hard to argue that he’s not the greatest. The story of the Bucks acquiring Kareem is not as easy as the Bucks simply getting the top pick through having the NBA’s worst record though, because they did not.
The Bucks were bad in their first-ever season, winning just 27 games. The Phoenix Suns were much worse however, winning only 16 of 82 contests. In today’s NBA that means Phoenix would have the best shot at the number one pick in the NBA Draft Lottery.
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Unfortunately for Suns fans, there was no NBA Draft Lottery in 1969. There was simply a coin flip, between the worst team from each of the divisions that made up the Association back then. Both franchises knew that the first overall pick–which represented UCLA’s Lew Alcindor, the top prospect in the draft by a margin nearly as massive as Alcindor himself–would come down to a flip of the coin.
The Suns got to make the call, and they picked heads. The Suns organization allowed the fans to choose what they’d call via a poll in the newspaper. Although it almost sounds like a cop-out, then Suns GM Jerry Colangelo told the LA Times the decision was made to make the fans feel closer to the team.
"“I wanted our fans to share in the win or the loss,” Colangelo says. “It was such a monumental, once-in-a-lifetime flip of a coin, why not let your fans be a part of that?”"
Fortunately for Milwaukee, it was a loss that Suns fans would be sharing with their franchise. The coin came up tails, and Milwaukee came out of the day with the first overall selection in the 1969 NBA Draft.
For what it’s worth, former Bucks owner Marvin Fishman claims the Suns actually pivoted at the last season from their intended heads call and still lost, although most newspaper articles written about the event have Phoenix calling heads. Either way, Milwaukee won the toss.
The Bucks took Lew Alcindor, who would later become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and won a title within three years. Phoenix still hasn’t managed to reach that hallowed ground.
Kareem, for his part, gave an incredibly Kareem-esque quote about learning that the Bucks won the rights to the pick that would later be used on him.
"“I was disappointed that I couldn’t go play where I wanted to play — either in New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles.”"
Thanks for the kind words, Kareem. The Bucks, on the other hand, were so excited about getting the chance to add the massive center that owner Wes Pavalon accidentally scorched GM John Erickson, according to a Sports Illustrated article written during the 1969-70 NBA season.
"The Suns called heads, the flip came up tails, and in Milwaukee where Wes Pavalon, the principal owner of the Bucks, and John Erickson, the vice-president and general manager, were listening to the result by telephone Pavalon embraced Erickson so exuberantly that he jammed his lighted cigarette into Erickson’s ear.“It stung a little, but I didn’t notice it,” Erickson said recently. “I didn’t care, once we had Lew.”"
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Facial burning aside, the most important nugget in there is that the coin flip happened over the phone. Imagine if the fourteen lottery teams all were on a conference call with the league office while learning what pick they received!
In today’s paranoid world, talk of the flip being rigged would be incessant. If not for Milwaukee being a small market and expansion team, there would surely be some conspiracy theories out there about the result being influenced for “basketball reasons”.
No matter what happened, what’s done is done. The Milwaukee Bucks got their best player ever due to a coin flip over the phone that was influenced by a newspaper poll in Phoenix. You’ve got to love the NBA.
There’s only one lesson to be learned here: tails never fails.