Milwaukee Bucks: Glenn Robinson and the weight of great expectations

From the moment Glenn Robinson arrived to the Milwaukee Bucks, he was expected to turn around the organization. It turns out it was a little more complicated than that.

Twenty-five years after the Milwaukee Bucks won the rights to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar through a coin flip, the stars had aligned for Milwaukee to take college’s top player once again in 1994.

The Bucks viewed Glenn Robinson as the clear top prize in a draft class that featured future Hall of Famers in Grant Hill and Jason Kidd after they had won that year’s draft lottery by the slimmest of margins.

Robinson’s natural scoring ability had been in full force during his time at Purdue University, all of which propelled him to average 30.3 points per game in his junior season and prompted Sports Illustrated’s Bruce Newman to call him the most complete NCAA Player of the Year since Larry Bird in 1979.

Once the Gary native declared for the draft, the road was paved with gold from there. Robinson was not only viewed as the top overall pick, but had all sorts of endorsement deals lined up, including a shoe deal with Reebok.

After the Bucks officially brought Robinson into the fold through the first overall pick, he sought to further maximize his earnings before playing a single second in the NBA. Famously or infamously, depending on your perspective, Robinson had a contentious set of discussions over his rookie contract as he was seeking to become the league’s first $100 million man.

The impasse had gone up to the start of the 1994-95 season and reached a point that then-Bucks owner Herb Kohl, who was running for re-election for his seat in the U.S. Senate at the time, held a press conference that doubled as a strange stop on his campaign trail as the Chicago Tribune reported on in October of 1994:

“I was thinking of saying to Mr. Robinson, `I’ll tell you what. I’ll take your contract and you can have my franchise,’ ” Kohl said during a campaign news conference.”

Robinson eventually signed a 10-year, $68 million contract the night before his rookie season started and became the reason that the rookie wage scale was implemented under NBA commissioner David Stern the following year. In many ways, the $100 million man label hung over Robinson for the rest of his playing career.

It didn’t help that the Bucks didn’t immediately soar to success upon Robinson’s arrival and perception as a franchise savior, despite the fact that the Bucks had Big Dog and an equally powerful and eventual All-Star in Vin Baker. Neither did the fact Hill went on to be named an All-Star in his rookie season, and he and Kidd went on to share that year’s NBA Rookie of the Year award by the end of the 94-95 season.

Glenn Robinson carved out a stellar career for himself with the Milwaukee Bucks, but didn’t necessarily get the same credit that peers with more varied skill-sets received at the time.

Eventually, the fact that Robinson’s signature scoring ability was seen as one-dimensional and was paired with lackadaisical efforts on defense, and he didn’t possess or take on a do-it-all skill set/role in the vein of his talented class mates, became fodder for critics to pick at his game throughout much of his career.

When Robinson did experience substantial success in Milwaukee by the turn of the 21st century, he was playing a more complementary role to the likes of the sharpshooting, athletic Ray Allen and the veteran floor general Sam Cassell all while under the guidance of head coach George Karl.

Still, the Bucks had finally built a fearsome trio between Allen, Cassell and Robinson and Milwaukee experienced lightning in a bottle when they came one game short of reaching the NBA Finals after a hard-fought Conference Finals series with the Philadelphia 76ers. For Robinson, the success the Bucks enjoyed at their high points of that era were a vindication in many ways as he told Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated in January of 2001:

 “People wrote me off early in my career, but now I look at Elton Brand in Chicago,” Robinson says of another No. 1 pick stuck with a losing organization. “He feels like it’s never going to happen, but he’s going to experience winning in this league. It’s just not going to happen overnight.”

It’s true that Robinson wasn’t this singular force that instantly transformed the Bucks into a winner, the kind that many people projected he would be when he came to Milwaukee following his success at Purdue. In reality, very few players are capable of single-handedly changing the fortunes of a franchise, even those that happen to go first overall as was the case of Robinson.

And from the moment he entered the league, Robinson had a target on his back. Some would say it was self-inflicted due to his contract holdout and subsequently brought on some unsurprisingly horrid responses that shows how far perceptions of the league and its players have come to the current player empowerment era.

While the dramatic trade of Allen is generally regarded as the end of the ‘Big 3′ era, it’s Robinson’s exit in August of 2002 that marked the coming dissolution of that era, which was spurred on by Robinson’s domestic violence charges from an incident that happened a couple of weeks prior.

Clearly, Robinson’s exit couldn’t have been further from when he first arrived to Milwaukee in the summer of 1994. And with the subsequent drama that came about when Robinson was blamed for the Bucks’ last collapse in 2001-02, his teammate and current Bucks assistant coach Darvin Ham came to his defense as he discussed with ESPN’s Marc Stein in December of 2002:

“It was like a slap in the face (for Robinson), because he was the cornerstone for that franchise for years,” said Atlanta’s Darvin Ham, another former Buck who made the Wisconsin-to-Georgia switch in the offseason. “It bothers me. But the bottom line is that we went farther than we ever did when those guys were on the same side. They had the most success in their careers with each other. So let’s just put it all aside, be men and go on about our business.”

Next: George Karl had it all in Milwaukee until he didn’t

Just like that, the legacy that Robinson left behind in Milwaukee immediately came under question. It was no different from how his eight seasons with the Bucks had played out anyway.

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