Milwaukee Bucks: John Erickson leaves behind lasting legacy

MILWAUKEE, WI - DECEMBER 08: (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WI - DECEMBER 08: (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /

The first general manager in Milwaukee Bucks history, John Erickson, passed at 92 years old this week and leaves behind an indelible mark in the team’s history.

If you’re a fan of the Milwaukee Bucks, there’s a strong chance you might not know who John Erickson is, or his significance to the team’s 52-year history.

Yet Erickson’s fingerprints were all over the formation of the Bucks back in the late 1960s, from a mere idea, to expansion team and to eventually becoming the title winning team they were three years into their existence.

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Erickson passed away earlier this week at 92 years old in Kansas City, Missouri, leaving behind an incredible legacy not just with the Bucks where he stood as the first general manager in the team’s history, but Wisconsin sports in general.

Before being appointed the first GM in Bucks history, Erickson served as the head coach of the Wisconsin Badgers basketball teams for nine seasons from 1959-1968.

Over his reign as Bucks GM, the Rockford native played a pivotal role in the Bucks’ infancy, such as the origin of the Bucks name itself. It was Erickson who explained why the Bucks, first suggested by R.D Trebilcox, was the name the team’s panel of judges picked, despite the fact that the Robins were the most popular nickname suggested throughout the naming contest:

"“Contest judges chose a name that reflected the fish and game area ‘because it is indigenous to Wisconsin,’ said then-General Manager John Erickson.‘The predominance of Bucks led us to the name.’”"

It’s Erickson’s critical involvement, though, in the landing of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar that may be the most defining contribution to his tenure as Bucks general manager and his basketball life overall.

Everyone knows about the historic coin flip that the Bucks won over the Phoenix Suns that effectively won them the right to draft Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, first overall in the 1969 NBA Draft. While celebrating that landmark moment that would transform the Bucks in a literal flip of a coin, Erickson’s ear was burnt by a lit cigarette of Bucks owner, Wes Pavalon, which he reflected on to Tex Maule of Sports Illustrated:

"“It stung a little, but I didn’t notice it,” Erickson said recently. “I didn’t care, once we had Lew.”"

The underdiscussed aspect behind the story of Abdul-Jabbar coming to Milwaukee is the intense negotiations that Erickson had to navigate immediately upon being awarded the first overall pick.

At the same time, the New York Nets had selected Abdul-Jabbar with the first overall pick in the ABA Draft and then-ABA commissioner and NBA Hall of Famer, George Mikan, sought Abdul-Jabbar’s services on behalf of the rival league. With his agent, Sam Gilbert, running the negotiations, Abdul-Jabbar and his team arranged for the Bucks and the ABA to prepare to make one offer for the 22-year-old.

In an unusual tactic at the time, Erickson and Bucks officials chose to offer Abdul-Jabbar an offer of $1.5 million guaranteed from one up to five seasons. It was that framework that won over Abdul-Jabbar into coming to Milwaukee where he agreed to the five-year package and continued to spurn further offers from Mikan and the ABA as they increased the level of guaranteed money following their failed first offer.

Thankfully for all Bucks fans, Erickson recounted his reasoning in the negotiations when trying to secure Abdul-Jabbar to come to Milwaukee to Bob Dutton of the Kansas City Star back in June of 1994:

"“Lew liked that because it gave him some options,” Erickson said. “He wasn’t sure that he wanted to play in Milwaukee. He’d said that he preferred to play in Los Angeles or New York.“This way, if he wanted, he could sign for one year. Then, if he didn’t like Milwaukee, he could leave after two years (because of the NBA’s option clause that allowed teams to retain a player’s right for one year beyond a contract).”Three days later, Alcindor agreed to sign with the Bucks, selecting the 5-year package. Although Mikan rushed forward with a new offer, Alcindor stood firm.“Lew said that he gave his word to Milwaukee and that his word was good,” Erickson said. “He said he refused to be peddled like a piece of meat.”"

The rest, as they say, is history as Abdul-Jabbar’s landmark arrival immediately turned around the Bucks’ fortunes, both on the court and off. JR Radcliffe rounded up Erickson’s comments in a previous story talking about how the UCLA product turned the Bucks into a hot ticket in Milwaukee for USA Today last year:

"April 25: From Journal reporter Chuck Johnson — “The Milwaukee Bucks, with 7 foot Lew Alcindor as the principal attraction, already have had requests for 6,000 season tickets for the 1969-70 NBA, more than half the tickets available in the 10,746 seat arena.“‘Can you imagine — a year ago at this time, we didn’t even have a player,’ Erickson said. ‘Oh, we had drafted Charlie Paulk (now in the army), but we hadn’t signed him. And we were trying to sell season tickets. The demand for tickets this year has been terrific. We had to get into the ticket business two weeks early because of it.’ “"

Erickson continued to preside over the formation of the Bucks’ championship-winning core in the lead up to the 1970-71 season. However, he put his tenure as Bucks GM on hold when he made a failed Senate run in Wisconsin where he eventually lost to the incumbent senator, William Proxmire.

After that unsuccessful bid, Erickson still remained in the fold to celebrate that championship winning season in 1971 before departing after the year. Erickson even went as far as being a huge figure in the Bucks playing playoff games at the UW Field House when the Milwaukee Arena was already booked for conflicting events as Bucks president Ray Patterson told’s Tom Oates back in May 2011:

"“John Erickson was very influential in that,” Patterson said. “In those days, we were kind of disgusted in that (the Arena) put an outdoor show on and completely overlooked the Bucks. I think part of it was because Marquette was so strong. So we were very happy to be welcomed into Madison and we played well.”"

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With that era of Bucks basketball arguably still reigning as the franchise’s glory days, Erickson’s influence and contributions are critical to the success the Bucks enjoyed during that time and all Bucks fans are all better for knowing that. Rest in peace, Mr. Erickson.