Milwaukee Bucks: How Mike Dunleavy Sr. was lured away from the Los Angeles Lakers


As the Milwaukee Bucks experienced a period of great change in the early 1990’s, the team, namely then-owner Herb Kohl, sought the services of Mike Dunleavy Sr. to help them lead them back to success.

By the turn into the 1990’s, the Milwaukee Bucks’ glory days stood firmly in the rearview mirror.

The legends, cornerstones and key pieces that made the Bucks’ high point as a franchise throughout the 1980’s what it was had all moved on to greener pastures around the league or had called it quits entirely.

After having held on to the bitter end, it was in the 1991-92 season when the Bucks had come face to face with the unknowing future as Del Harris, the successor to the team’s winningest head coach in franchise history in Don Nelson, stepped down as head coach 17 games into the campaign.

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From there, the Bucks finished out that year’s campaign with a mish-mash roster filled with veteran-laden players (and in his career twilight Moses Malone) by logging a 31-51 record, which would be the lowest win total they had posted since the 1976-77 season (coincidentally, that’s the year Nelson took over head coaching duties midseason from Larry Costello).

At long last, the identity of being a perennial competitor in the East and the league as a whole had run its course for the Bucks, leaving them to go back to the drawing board and tab someone to lead them to a new and prosperous era.

Then-Bucks owner, Herb Kohl, had only one person in mind for the job, someone who both had previous ties to the team and reportedly had been tabbed for the position in Kohl’s mind only a few years earlier.

Mike Dunleavy Sr. was two years into his stint as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers following the end of the 1991-92 season.

At 38 years old, Dunleavy was seen as a rising star in the coaching ranks after taking over for the legendary Pat Riley, who stepped down at the end of the previous year, and helping to guide the Lakers to a 58-win season and appear in the NBA Finals against the Chicago Bulls.

But in the 1991-92 campaign, Dunleavy had to help steer the ship in the wake of superstar Magic Johnson abruptly retiring following his HIV announcement in the early part of the year as the Lakers went on to finish with a 43-win season and got bounced out of the postseason by the Portland Trail Blazers.

Following the end to both the Bucks and Lakers’ respective seasons, rumors began to swirl regarding Kohl’s interest in targeting Dunleavy to become the Bucks’ next head coach, which Dunleavy initially downplayed and/or dismissed.

Kohl’s interest in Dunleavy at the time could be traced back to the latter’s late playing days as well as the fact that Dunleavy served as an assistant coach under Harris for both the 1988-89 and 1989-90 seasons.

And as Gene Wojciechowski of the Los Angeles Times wrote about back in May of 1992, Kohl’s grand plans to make Dunleavy the team’s head coach following the 89-90 campaign were dashed when the New York native landed the Lakers’ coaching gig that summer:

"“And Kohl, who made his fortune in the family grocery business in Milwaukee, is the same guy who reportedly threw a fit when the Lakers hired Dunleavy away from the Bucks in 1990.According to those familiar with the circumstances, Kohl had planned to promote Dunleavy, a Milwaukee assistant, to head coach. Instead, the Lakers asked first and Dunleavy bolted. Kohl fumed.Said one NBA team vice president: “(Kohl) has always been infatuated (with Dunleavy).”"

But for as turbulent as the Lakers’ season was during the 91-92 year, the differences in where the Lakers and the Bucks were (i.e. market size, Bucks undertaking a full rebuild) created the perception that Kohl’s mission in trying to entice Dunleavy back to the Bucks would be quite a challenge. Needless to say, Kohl pulled out all the stops in hopes to lure Dunleavy all the way back to the Midwest.

In a deal which then-Lakers general manager Jerry West called “unique,” Kohl offered Dunleavy an eight-year deal that held incentives that would reach $12 million over the entire length of the contract.

It stood as the longest-ever contract offered to a coach at the time and gave us a peek into the level of commitment Kohl would shell out to high-profile coaches, something that would surface again when Kohl made George Karl the highest paid coach of any North American sport upon his hiring in the 1998 NBA offseason.

The Lakers attempted to counter the Bucks’ offer by presenting him a two-year contract extension to Dunleavy’s deal to make him the second-highest paid coach in the league, but it all went for naught as Dunleavy agreed to Kohl’s deal within 48 hours of it being offered as Mark Heisler of the Los Angeles Times relayed at the time:

"“I thought there was no way I would be leaving Los Angeles. It was a working relationship I loved. Los Angeles is a place where players want to come out and play. They are willing to redo their contracts to come and play in Los Angeles. The tradition that was here — I didn`t think there was any way I would really basically go back to Milwaukee…“I loved my job and I enjoyed being in Los Angeles. Everything here was as good as it could be. But you know, in this business, when you talk, sometimes things can happen that change your mind. It happened in a matter of 48 hours.”"

As a result of successfully luring Dunleavy to Milwaukee, the Bucks had to send the Lakers compensation, which came in the form of draft picks. In the minds of the Bucks’ brass and their fans, however, the price was enough as they had gotten their guy and Dunleavy’s decision to rebuff the Lakers in favor of the Bucks sent shockwaves throughout the league. From that same piece by Wojciechowski:

"“Jerry Reynolds, the Sacramento Kings’ director of player personnel, couldn’t believe the news.“Is it for sure?” Reynolds said of Mike Dunleavy’s decision to return to Milwaukee. “I’m really surprised. I just didn’t think it would be possible that Mike would leave the Lakers. I knew he had some good feelings about the Bucks’ organization in the past, but to leave a great franchise like the Lakers. . . .“In general, I thought everybody tries to get to the Lakers, not leave them.”"

Next. Milwaukee Bucks: Adrian Dantley’s 13-game tenure. dark

In doing so, though, Dunleavy had to prove that he was able to undertake such a drastic rebuild that the Bucks were only standing on the ground floor of. As it turns out, the best laid plans that Kohl, Dunleavy and the entire Bucks faithful had in mind didn’t quite come to pass as we all would find out as the decade wore on.