During the height of their early glory days, the Milwaukee Bucks drafted a superstar in the making in Julius Erving in the 1972 NBA Draft. But why did he never end up playing a single minute with the team?
In their first four years as a franchise, the Milwaukee Bucks had already accomplished many great honors very few recent expansion teams achieve in their first decade, let alone in their infancy.
Making a string of shrewd moves as well as having a bit of luck on their side (i.e. the famed coin toss for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) certainly helped the Bucks reach great heights in warp speed.
Nevertheless, the foundation the team’s ownership and front office laid at the franchise’s beginnings paved the path for the greatest period of success the Bucks have experienced to this day.
More from Bucks History
- The 3 biggest “What Ifs” in Milwaukee Bucks’ franchise history
- 6 Underrated Milwaukee Bucks of the Giannis Antetokounmpo era
- Ranking Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 10 best Bucks teammates of all time
- How well do you know the Milwaukee Bucks’ top 20 career point leaders?
- Looking at important playoff numbers in Milwaukee Bucks franchise history
However, the trajectory of that Bucks team and the franchise in general could have been much different if it weren’t for an interesting situation involving one of basketball’s legendary figures.
As the Bucks were looking to repeat as champions in the 1971-72 season, Julius “The Doctor” Erving was making his star known in the ABA, playing for the Virginia Squires.
Already an accomplished player in high school and at the University of Massachusetts, Erving was bringing his high flying ability to the professional level and setting the league on fire. In his rookie season with the Squires, Erving amassed a double-double, averaging 27.3 points per game and 15.7 rebounds per game.
While both the Squires and the Bucks were deep in their respective playoff runs that season, the NBA was holding that year’s draft (sounds strange, doesn’t it?). Considering the state and the size of the NBA at the time, the draft process was much different to what it is now, spanning numerous rounds and with each round lasting 17 picks.
More from Behind the Buck Pass
- Bucks 2023-24 player profile: Can MarJon Beauchamp take a leap?
- Piecing together the Milwaukee Bucks’ dream starting 5 in 5 years
- Predicting Thanasis Antetokounmpo’s 2023-24 stats for the Bucks
- Grade the trade: Bucks land reputable backup guard in swap with Pacers
- New workout video should have Milwaukee Bucks fans excited
During that year’s draft, the Bucks were in a rare position to add a prestigious player to a championship caliber team as they held two first round picks, the sixth and twelfth overall picks. After taking Russ Lee, a small forward out of Marshall, their first time up, the Bucks selected Erving with their second first round selection.
A gamble like taking Erving at that point was obviously a risk the Bucks were willing to take, considering how skilled of a player he already was and projected to be. Yet little did the Bucks know how everything would unfold in the ensuing months.
Shortly after the draft finalized, news broke that Erving had signed a contract with the Atlanta Hawks right before the draft. The Hawks’ argument, made by the team’s owner Bill Putnam, was short and sweet:
"“My position on that is that Erving is a professional and not subject to rules of the college draft.”"
But why would Erving sign a contract with the Hawks when he already was under contract with the Squires? Erving, contended that his agent at the time, Steve Arnold, who helped facilitate his contract with the Squires, was also working on behalf of the team and the ABA. Feeling misrepresented, Erving filed a lawsuit on the Squires and the ABA, demanding that his contract be voided.
With the Hawks angling for Erving’s services, the Bucks obviously felt they held his rights since they drafted him as Bucks GM Wayne Embry put it at the time:
"“As far as the by-laws of the National Basketball Association go, the rights to Julius Erving belong to the Milwaukee Bucks-it’s as clear cut as that.”"
As both the Bucks and Hawks were going through negotiations to settle their dispute, a Georgia Superior Court judge, Ernest G. Tidwell, ruled that Erving’s contract with the Squires was “voidable, terminated and of no further force or effect.”
From there, Erving joined the Hawks for training camp to prepare for the 1972-73 season. Meanwhile, negotiations between the Bucks and the Hawks eventually broke down, with both sides unwilling to meet demands (rumor is the Bucks were asking for “Pistol” Pete Maravich, Lou Hudson, draft picks and cash in exchange for Erving’s rights).
That’s where then-NBA commissioner Walter Kennedy intervened and brought the matter to a Board of Governors meeting where the Bucks were awarded Erving’s NBA rights. Despite the vote, Erving continued to stay with the Hawks, even going as far as playing with the team once their preseason began.
Due to Erving’s unauthorized participation, the Hawks began to rack up fines from Kennedy and the NBA. Defiant, the Hawks, namely Putnam, filed an antitrust suit worth $2 million towards the league:
"“You can believe we will refuse to pay. We’ll just let the courts decide the matter. At this point, we have filed our suit and we’ll do our talking in court.”"
It was then, as all the controversy surrounding Erving’s NBA future was reaching a fever pitch, an unexpected turn of events occurred. A federal judge ruled that Erving was to only play with the Squires and any disputes over his contract were to go through arbitration.
Eventually, Erving and the Squires both settled their differences and Erving played with the team for one more season, before being traded to the New York Nets the next offseason.
As for the Bucks and Hawks, their differences weren’t settled until Larry O’Brien was appointed NBA Commissioner in 1975 where he ordered the Hawks to pay $150,000 to the Bucks and trade them two second-round picks in the following draft (the fine was later reduced to $100,000).
Of course, Erving “returned” to the NBA in 1976, joining the Philadelphia 76ers, where he later crossed paths with the Bucks over the next decade-plus.
However, where both parties’ paths crossed the first time remains to be one, if not the biggest “what if?” questions that hangs over the franchise. Not only could have Erving’s presence resulted in more title runs for that era of the team, could it have saved the Bucks from having to trade their biggest star to grace the team?
We could only go on and on about what could have been had Erving actually played for the Bucks, but it only stays as what could have been.
With that said, Erving will always be immortalized with the Bucks in some capacity, but ultimately, it’s not in the way Bucks fans would have liked.