Milwaukee Bucks: Scott Williams’ legend was further forged in conspiracy

26 May 2001: Scott Williams #42 and Darvin Ham #21 of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrate in game three of the eastern conference finals against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Bucks won 80-74. DIGITAL IMAGE. Mandatory Credit: Otto Greule/Allsport.
26 May 2001: Scott Williams #42 and Darvin Ham #21 of the Milwaukee Bucks celebrate in game three of the eastern conference finals against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The Bucks won 80-74. DIGITAL IMAGE. Mandatory Credit: Otto Greule/Allsport. /

A popular veteran role player on a rising Milwaukee Bucks team, the events of the 2001 Conference Finals ensured Scott Williams‘ name wouldn’t quickly be forgotten.

Scott Williams was a popular player during two-and-a-half seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks, but over 16 years on from his final game for the franchise, his legend has grown to levels that would have seemed incredibly unlikely at that time.

A big man who started 77 games during his time with the Bucks, Williams’ style of play was almost guaranteed to earn him fans in Milwaukee.

As the former UNC Tar Heel outlined in an interview with Jim Paschke for in 2013:

"“When I was traded from Philadelphia to the Bucks, I didn’t quite know what to expect, and I was kind of a throw-in just to make the Tim Thomas trade happen. And working hard in George Karl‘s system, and having kind of survived a number of other forwards who had come through, I started to really get an opportunity to play. And the fans really took a liking to me. I just hustled out there, and you know, it’s a hard-working town and if you’re a hard-working player they’ll respect that.”"

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In spite of being an ascendant team in the East around the turn of the century, the Bucks struggled to really lock down their front court positions. While Sam Cassell, Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson drove the team forward, the likes of Williams, Ervin Johnson and Joel Przybilla offered close to replacement level minutes at center, and often teamed up to cover both front court positions.

Still, their contributions were vital to the Bucks. As such, the loss of any one of the three was always sorely felt, and in fact, Williams’ legacy in Milwaukee is arguably built more on one key absence than it is on any single game he played in.

The 2001 Eastern Conference Finals were meant to be the moment when the Bucks truly signaled their arrival as a force to be reckoned with at the NBA’s highest level, and heading into a decisive Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers, that opportunity was still there for Milwaukee.

The problem was that if the Bucks were to find a way to close out that series in enemy territory, they would be tasked with doing so without Williams in uniform.

Just over two minutes into the opening quarter of Game 6, Williams met Allen Iverson with an elbow that sent Philadelphia’s star to the floor. Williams had opened the game by scoring the Bucks’ first four points, and clearly pumped up, he stepped across into the lane, intent on stopping Iverson.

Williams explained the play at practice the following morning to Dick Weiss of the New York Daily News:

"“I wasn’t trying to commit a flagrant foul or hurt him in any way. I have a knack of trying to get in the lane and drawing charges when people come flying down the lane. And he’s a little quicker than I thought he was and he’s a little smaller than I thought he was.He’s so low to the ground, I never got my elbow higher than about my rib cage and it just happened to catch him at the chin”"

The contact was undeniable, and Williams acknowledged it, just as the broadcast team had reacted to it live as events had unfolded. As such, the officiating team had assessed the contact as worthy of a flagrant-1, and Williams continued in what proved to be a vital win for Milwaukee.

The controversy came when, after the fact, the NBA decided to upgrade the foul to a flagrant-2, in spite of action having been taken by the officials during the game.

As Tom Spousta of the New York Times explained it:

"“After reviewing videotape of the play, Stu Jackson, the N.B.A. senior vice president for basketball operations, reclassified the foul as a ”flagrant foul penalty 2,” meaning Williams was automatically suspended for Sunday’s game in Philadelphia because he had accumulated too many penalty points in the playoffs.”"

At the time, the league’s system for suspensions worked on a points accrual system, and the decision to upgrade Williams’ foul gave him the extra point required to push him over into suspension territory.

As a result, Milwaukee was forced into playing the deciding game without a key cog of their rotation, and at that particular point, their starting lineup. In a series that had already seen battle lines drawn between a big market and a small market, this proved to be sufficient fuel for conspiracy theories to reign on for years to come.

For example, Williams’ suspension was highlighted alongside the more general foul disparity in the series in Brian Tuohy’s book, The Fix is in: The Showbiz Manipulations of the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and NASCAR.

"“During the course of their seven-game series, all of the calls went the 76ers’ way. The Bucks were called for 43 more fouls than the 76ers while also being called for 11 technical fouls compared to two for the 76ers. The Bucks also were tagged for four flagrant fouls (none for the 76ers), one of which suspended Bucks center Scott Williams for Game Seven.Here’s the strange part: at that time in NBA history, there was a point system amassed by the league for counting intentional and flagrant fouls. When a player’s tally reached 12 points, he was automatically suspended for a game. In Game Six, Williams accrued his 11th point. The NBA reviewed Williams’ flagrant foul and decided it wasn’t a one-point flagrant foul, but a two-point flagrant foul thus giving Williams 12 points and instantly suspending him for Game Seven.”"

Bill Simmons also championed the idea of a conspiracy against the Bucks in that series in his book, The Book of Basketball:

"“The Sixers finished with advantages of 186-120 in free throws, 11-2 in technicals and 4-0 in flagrant fouls. Glenn Robinson, one of Milwaukee’s top-two scorers, didn’t even attempt a free throw until Game 5.”"

The Bucks had been vocal with their concerns throughout the series, ultimately leading to fines. Most memorably, Ray Allen spoke of his family having spotted then-commissioner David Stern cheering for Philadelphia, before offering the following insight:

"“It behooves everybody for the league to make more money and the league knows that Philadelphia is going to make more money with L.A. than we would with L.A.”"

Almost two decades on, all of this continues to sting a fanbase who have watched injuries, misfortune, and — let’s be honest — ineptitude get in the way of any kind of return to the levels which that 2001 team played at.

As a result, Scott Williams has become something of a cultural touchstone in the Milwaukee community, evolving into a figure greater than his talents had made him in the moment.

See: Tweet from the team’s official account as recently as 2016.

Next: Milwaukee Bucks: Larry Sanders and what could have been

Now, not only is Williams remembered for his serviceable minutes, blue-collar work ethic, and generally cheery disposition, but as the man who will forever represent something greater. When the names of many of his teammates have long been lost from memory, conspiracy theories will guarantee that Williams’ legend will live on.