The inside game
All summer long, I had to listen to post-trade analysis. Everybody had an opinion, and anywhere I went in the country I was asked how I could trade Kareem. By and large, Milwaukee fans were supportive, although there were those who thought if we had fired Costello, Kareem would have stayed in Milwaukee. That was the view of the Janesville connection on our board.
But none of this mattered. Kareem was a Laker. He was very grateful and complimentary to the Bucks organization and the Milwaukee fans and media. He handled the move with great dignity. In parting, he was careful to say that while Milwaukee had many good qualities, it just was not his bag.
Not many people got to know Kareem. I actually first met him when he was still Lew Alcindor, a lanky high school center who was the best player in New York City. One day I stopped in Harlem on my way to the Maurice Stokes memorial game, and Kareem needed a ride to the game. I was with Tom Thacker, so Kareem folded himself into the back seat and rode with us. We talked mostly about the game. He was reserved and quiet, but polite, and we had a nice chat. When he went to UCLA, of course, I knew he was a great player, but I did not really know anything about his personal life. I was not working for the Bucks when they drafted him. I was gone from Milwaukee for a year, and when I came back, Oscar Robertson had joined Kareem. The two respected each other, but they were not really friends. There was a bit of a generation gap between them. Oscar was a family man, and Kareem was a young, hip, single guy.
As a young general manager, I thought it was necessary to try to build a relationship with Kareem as well as the other players. I recognized his importance to the franchise, so I tried to respect his lifestyle and his privacy. I was always there to help. My door was always open. I think he appreciated that, and I know I appreciated what I learned from dealing with a nonconformist. He was an extremely private person. Many considered him aloof and unfriendly. A few took it so far as to call him rude. That was not true. A little man ran up to me in the Milwaukee airport and complained that Kareem was rude and would not sign an autograph. I knew that Kareem would sign if approached properly, so I wondered what the real story was.
Kareem watched the little snippet of a man complaining and then approached me while I was talking with some players in the boarding area. He nodded in the man’s direction and said, “Can you believe that idiot asked me to sign an autograph while I was standing at the urinal?’’ Now who was rude and inconsiderate?
Just because Kareem was not an engaging person, this did not make him unfriendly. He was very intelligent, but he was his own person. I learned that if he wanted to talk, I would talk, and he could be very talkative when the subject interested him. If he did not want to talk, I left him alone. He enjoyed being by himself. I met his parents. He came from a very solid, two-parent home. He was very close to his parents. He was a jazz enthusiast and even did a radio show in Milwaukee. He collected fight films, too, a passion he shared with Wes. Wes had many of the old fights on tape, and he freely shared them with Kareem. Losing the big fellow was a tough loss for Wes, because the two had a special relationship.
But we had to move on.
David Meyers was a long, six-foot-nine-inch All-American from UCLA who was an excellent rebounder and a good shooter with decent range. He came from a family of good basketball players, and there were those who thought his sister, Ann, was the best player at UCLA at the time.
Junior Bridgeman was a six-foot-five-inch swingman from Louisville who led the Cardinals to the NCAA Final Four his senior year. He was a good all-around player who was just a fair shooter in college. I liked his character and Denny Crum, his college coach, told me Bridgeman would be better than most first-rounders in a couple of years because of his intelligence and tremendous work ethic. He told me he wanted to be great.
Elmore Smith was a good rebounder and shot blocker. Most of the NBA thought he was an underachiever who could be very good if someone lit a fire under him.
We thought Brian Winters would become an All-Star with playing time.
I had researched these players thoroughly and was certain they would be integral components of the Bucks’ future. With the newcomers added to our veterans—Dandridge, McGlocklin, Price, Brokaw, and Jimmy Fox—we thought we would at least be competitive. We did not have our own first-round pick but we took Clyde Mayes in the second round, and he provided additional size.
Dandridge’s contract was up, and I dreaded having to negotiate with my old friend Irwin Weiner, his new agent. Irwin was relatively new in the business, but he had two important clients, Walt (Clyde) Frazier and Dr. J. He thought Dandridge was in their league. Irwin was quite a character. He tried to emulate the flashy Frazier with his fine suits, fur coats, and limos. The only difference was that Clyde was younger and better looking. I always enjoyed Irwin, but he was a tough negotiator. He could be tough when discussing Walt and Julius, but I did not think Bobby had the same kind of leverage. I was wrong. The negotiation turned into a summer-long project. Bobby was an All-Star and much underrated, and Irwin wanted us to pay him what his other clients were making because he was our only remaining star. As much as I enjoyed the dinner meetings at famous New York eateries, including Dewey Wong’s, Irwin’s favorite Chinese restaurant, I grew sick of negotiating with Irwin.
Still, we needed Dandridge. Finally, Irwin called and suggested one more meeting. He suggested we drive from the city, get away from the distractions, and reach an agreement. He would never come to little ol’ Milwaukee. There was just not enough pizzazz there, plus no one knew him.
He picked me up at LaGuardia in a big brown-and-tan limo. The first words out of his mouth were, “How do you like our new limo?’’ He meant it was his and Clyde’s. By now he and Clyde had become partners. Players sharing other players’ money did not seem right to me, but that was none of my business.
We crossed the George Washington bridge and headed north. An hour and a half later we were in the center of the Catskills. We pulled up to a lavish house overlooking the mountains.
“How do you like our retreat?’’ he asked, climbing out of the back-seat of the limo.
Welcome to the big leagues, I thought to myself as I followed him into the house.
Sandwiches were made, wine was opened and cigars were plentiful. The houseboy had done his thing. We scarfed down the sandwiches and went to the deck. Irwin offered me a cigar and poured me another glass of wine. He was a connoisseur of cigars, and I had begun to smoke them occasionally.
“Ever smoke a Partages?’’ he asked. “Let me clip one for you.’’ I was not that sophisticated when it came to smoking anything. I did not smoke cigarettes and Billy Rohr would not be happy to know I was smoking cigars.
I was getting tired of the whole act.
“Let’s get this thing done,’’ I said.
“Pay us what we want and we can,’’ he answered.
“We are not going higher than $250,000, Irwin,’’ I told him.
He did not respond immediately. I looked over to see his red head propped up on the headrest of the lounge chair. He was sound asleep. I tried to wake him up several times, but I failed. So I decided to join him.
I had nothing better to do while surrounded by trees, a hundred miles from the city. I woke up a short time later. He was still snoring. It was several hours later that he woke up. He was not sure where he was. I demanded to be taken back to the city. On the way back, he rejected my offer again. The nap had not brought him to his senses. We eventually got Dandridge signed for $250,000 and opened training camp with him as the leader of our young team. Larry and I did not know how he would take to that role. From our past experiences, we had learned that some veterans did not like to be on a team that was rebuilding. Veteran players can either be a help or a hindrance, depending on how they lead. Losing often brings out the worst of everyone on a team, which meant that Larry and Jack McKinney, his new assistant coach, had to communicate more than ever and give positive reinforcement to the veterans as well as the rookies.
But it was difficult for Larry to be positive after he learned that Hubie Brown, who had left after the 1973–74 season to coach the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels, was being considered as his replacement. The board decided to delay extending his contract, and Larry was uneasy. What was unfortunate was that some board members had talked to some of the players about Larry and, as is usually the case, not all were supportive. Throughout my playing career and my short time in management, I never thought players should determine who coached the team. If that was the case, there would be coaching changes every week. I did, however, listen to their complaints with an open mind.
This was the situation as we headed into the 1975–76 preseason. Our second game was against the Lakers and Kareem. The sold-out crowd gave Kareem a long standing ovation as an expression of its appreciation for his six years with the Bucks. It was quite emotional.
It was obvious how much we missed him when we opened the season with five straight losses. Then we won five straight. Fans were not overly concerned about our won-lost record. Instead, they were focusing on the new players, each of whom made important contributions as the season progressed.
David Meyers proved he could score and rebound as we thought, and Brian Winters shot his way onto the All-Star team in his second season, averaging 18 points per game. Bridgeman showed his versatility, starting in nineteen games. Elmore Smith blocked shots and rebounded the way we had hoped. Elmore was talented, but he lacked a passion for the game, which presented a problem going forward. Dandridge finished the season in the top ten in scoring, and the Bucks finished the season 38–44, still good enough to win the Midwest Division. But our playoff run was short as we lost to Detroit, two games to one.
Larry did another great job of coaching and was rewarded with a two-year contract extension before the playoffs began. Alverson and I had lobbied hard for that to happen. Finally, we convinced the board that it was the wrong time not to extend him. But the anti-Costello faction still wanted him out.
With Larry signed, we directed our attention to the upcoming draft. We determined in our post-season assessment that we needed a true point guard. Our scouts and I ranked John Lucas and Quinn Buckner the two best in the country. Lucas was an All-American from Maryland, and Buckner was the quarterback of the NCAA champion Indiana Hoosiers, as well as a member of the Olympic team. We were confident we would get one of them, and it turned out to be Buckner. The Houston Rockets surprised everyone by making Lucas the Number 1 pick in the draft, so we took Buckner at Number 7. We also had the picks awarded to us by the league in the Julius Erving case, so we took Alex English and Scott Lloyd. We expected them to fit right in with our young team.
About this time, I also took my last shot at Erving. The ABA folded after the 1975–76 season, but it went out with a bang. Commissioner Mike Storen pulled out all the stops for the ABA All-Star Game, introducing the slam dunk contest, featuring high flyers like Erving and David Thompson, and the three-point shootout, featuring long-range bombers like Louis Dampier. Despite all that, and big-name entertainers performing, the league still could not generate enough support from television to cover its bad debts and some loosely run franchises. Four of the stronger teams—New Jersey, San Antonio, Indiana, and Denver— each paid $3.2 million to join the NBA. Players who had been drafted by the NBA reported to those teams, and there was a dispersal draft for the rest. In the end, this would make for a stronger league as players like Erving, Thompson, Dampier, George Gervin, George McGinnis, Artis Gilmore, and Moses Malone significantly increased the talent level. In the short term, there was much scrambling to add these superstars to the rosters.
NO DR. J
In Milwaukee, we were thrilled with the merger. Although Julius was playing for the Nets, and the merger deal called for the surviving teams to keep their players, we had heard Julius was unhappy in New York and wanted out. Maybe there was still a chance. He certainly would expedite the rebuilding process.
Irwin Weiner called and told me to come to New York if we were interested in Erving. I dropped everything and flew out, arriving in his office at 11:00 A.M. for an 11:30 meeting. I was determined not to return without a deal. I still had visions of a storybook ending.
Irwin’s assistant, Susan, directed me to an office so I could make some calls while waiting. I started to get nervous when noon came and I still had not seen Irwin. Surely, I was not going to get burned again, was I? Torched was more like it. Susan had suggested I go across the street to get a bite to eat at a deli. I told her I was not hungry and I was not going anywhere. I did walk down the hall to the men’s room and on my way back I thought I saw a familiar figure scooting out the side door. It was Pat Williams, now general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers.
“Hey, Pat,’’ I said. “What the hell are you doing here?’’
“I just signed Julius,’’ he mumbled. “Sorry, Wayne.’’
I stormed into Irwin’s office to find him puffing on one of his blasted cigars. How arrogant was that? I could have punched him.
“What the hell just happened here?’’ I demanded.
Irwin explained that Doc just was not interested in coming to Milwaukee. He wanted to stay on the East Coast, in close proximity to New York, and he wanted to play in a big market. He apologized for having me make the trip and bid me farewell after some further dialogue. As I said, he was extremely apologetic.
Because I had grown to love Milwaukee, I could not understand why some players would not give the city a chance. I later learned from Irwin that Erving, like most superstars, thought that playing in the big markets would bring more opportunities for commercial endorsements. This was another element in how we would manage in future years. We would now have to consider factors other than talent because agents and players wanted to maximize their earnings, and advertisers wanted these players in major markets.
At the time, however, I had to finally admit I was never going to get Julius Erving in a Bucks uniform. Wes always told me there was no way The League would let Julius come join Kareem and Oscar, creating a dynasty in a small market. He was not exactly right, though the outcome was the same. And it was clear that in order to win a championship now, we would have to go through Erving and the Sixers.
My disappointment was tapered somewhat by the fact that we were getting great reports on our youngsters who were playing in the Los Angeles summer league. We knew we were on to something when our West Coast scout, Dick Baker, called after the third game to tell me, “Wayne, you’ve got some players. Junior is good, Buckner is good and so is Meyers. But the player who is going to be great is Alex English. His shot doesn’t look pretty when he releases it, but it goes in the basket and he can get it off against anyone. You’ve got to get out here.’’
I usually go to the summer league after the signings are done and things have quieted down. But this summer I lost another assistant coach. Jack McKinney resigned to join the Lakers, so I needed to hire another coach. Larry liked Rod Thorn, but Rod was a candidate for the Bulls vacant general manager spot, and he eventually was hired for that. I was receiving calls from my old roomie and friend Don Nelson, asking me to sign him as a player. The Celtics had released him, and no one else was interested. After several conversations, he realized his efforts were futile. He decided to try to become a referee, and he was working in the Los Angeles summer league under the watchful eye of top referee Darrell Garretson.
I finally made it out to the summer league in early August to check out our new juggernaut. It was readily apparent why everyone was raving about these guys. They were a joy to watch. I was more convinced than ever that there would be life after Kareem for the Bucks.
The biggest disappointment in the summer league was Nellie’s performance as a ref. He struggled mightily, and he admitted to me over a couple of beers that he was failing in his bid to become the first ex-player to referee. After several hours of chitchat and laughs, and a few more beers, he asked me again about playing and again I told him no. “Big Man, I’m scared,’’ he said. “What am I going to do? The only thing I know is basketball. Can’t you help ol’ Nells?’’ he asked, slurring his words.
A lightbulb went off in my head. I was feeling sorry for him and really wanted to help my old roomie.
“We’re looking for an assistant coach,’’ I told him. “Would you be interested in that?’’
I explained that one faction of our board thought Larry was out of touch with our players. I figured Nellie could help bridge that gap since he was fresh off the floor. I always regarded him as a good basketball man. I had observed his input when we were teammates under Russell. I knew he had a passion for the game.
Nellie jumped at the chance. I told him I had to talk to Larry, and I knew Larry would be concerned about Nellie’s knowledge of the game, as well as his work ethic and loyalty. But I eased Larry’s concerns and asked him to trust me. A week later, Nellie interviewed with Larry and passed all Larry’s tests with flying colors. I hired Nellie, despite the fact that after we made our decision he jabbed me by saying the Kareem trade was the worst in the history of the NBA. I attributed that to ignorance.
Even though Larry was under contract, the rumors persisted and a cloud of doubt hung over the organization. The Janesville group, as I came to call Fitzgerald and his gang, was attempting to gain control of the board. Alverson kept me abreast of the situation. I tried to keep it from affecting Larry and the rebuilding job he was undertaking, but it was impossible. He constantly asked me to confirm the rumors on the street.
Finally it was announced that Jim Fitzgerald, Bill Blake, and JP Cullen and Son Corporation had made an offer to purchase 361,000 outstanding shares of Milwaukee Professional Sports and Service common stock. Fitzgerald became chairman of the board and president. A short time later, Fitzgerald and Dan Finnane, a board member and longtime business associate of Fitzgerald’s, came to my office to chat. I had met Fitzgerald when he involved himself in the Kareem saga. I had never met Finnane. It did not take them long to tell me they thought I was doing a terrible job of running the team and did not know anything about business. Of course I differed with their opinion. My grandfather’s admonition to “remain humble’’ ran through the back of my mind. I told them we were winning and selling out the arena, as well as making a profit in a small market with limited income from radio, television, and sponsors.
Despite that, I could not help worrying about my future with the team. And all of this time I had been worried about Larry! While this was going on the team got off to a horrible start, losing fifteen of eighteen games. We lost our fifteenth in Seattle, and I reached a decision. There was no way this team could develop under the present circumstances. Larry had lost his grip on the team. He was nervous about the new ownership and was coaching scared, which should never happen. He knew he was not “the man’’ in the eyes of the owners. The players were not responding, and a couple had even aligned themselves with the new owners. The dissension at the top permeated the entire organization. It was time for a change. I called Alverson and advised him of my decision. He was to confer with Wes, who was still reeling from what had just transpired on the board. I talked to Wes later and we agreed we would give Larry the option of resigning to preserve his dignity. I called Larry in Seattle and laid out his options. He said he would prefer to resign when the team returned to Milwaukee. He actually sounded relieved.
Trading Kareem was well received, all things considered. Firing Larry was going to be the most controversial event in the team’s history. He was very popular among the grass roots fans in Milwaukee. He was one of them. He represented all that was good in people—morality and integrity. So what if he was not a fashion plate? White socks with blue suits were accepted in Milwaukee. So what if he wore a crewcut when everybody else was wearing long hair? Under his leadership, the Bucks treated their fans to an NBA championship and a Western Conference title in six years. The team was a contender every year after the inaugural season. He was an excellent coach and human being, and he deserved a chance to rebuild. But I was not going to be able to give him that. His critics pointed to his communications problems with players. They claimed Kareem and Oscar really won the title, without much input from Costello. Red Auerbach’s critics said the same kind of things in Boston. Personally, I had found it tougher to manage superstars than average players. But this decision was being made by people who had not managed either one.
As the 4 P.M. press conference drew closer, I was examining my future with the team as well. The new owners had made it clear they were not too happy with me. I had no security, and Fitzgerald did nothing to offer any. In fact, he had confirmed the change in my status during a meeting at the Milwaukee Athletic Club. Team president Bill Alverson and I sat in a room with Fitzgerald and Milwaukee real estate investor Bill Blake discussing how the team was going to be run. They handed Alverson and me typewritten outlines of our job descriptions under the new regime. It was clear all of my power was being taken away. If I stayed, I would have tremendous responsibility with absolutely no power.
“You can take that paper and shove it,’’ I said, handing it back to Fitzgerald. “I will not remain under those terms. I realize you may not like my response, but I don’t care. At least I will be able to look myself in the mirror in the morning. I intend to maintain my dignity. This is important to me.’’
Several days later, on November 22, 1976, I stood in front of a room full of reporters and introduced Larry, who made his announcement. It was not a surprise. When Larry finished speaking, I announced I was resigning as general manager after the draft. This was a surprise. The questioning got tough. It was difficult for me to try to show support for Fitzgerald, who was seen as a villain, while being loyal to the people who hired me.
After some one-on-one interviews, Fitzgerald, Blake, and I caucused to discuss our next move. I promised to help during the transition and started by suggesting they name Nellie the coach. They did not know Nellie from Adam, so they had to take my word. The three of us and Nellie met in Fitzgerald’s room at the Milwaukee Athletic Club. I turned to Nellie and said, “Congratulations. You are the next head coach of the Milwaukee Bucks.’’ He had been a coach for all of two months.
“Whoa, Big Man, I’m not ready,’’ he said.
“You are,’’ I told him, and Fitzgerald echoed my sentiments. That seemed to ease Nellie’s mind.
But after Nellie left the room, Blake said, “He’s a little rough around the edges, isn’t he?’’
He was referring to the fact that Nellie was most comfortable in jeans and a denim shirt. He wore a coat and tie for the team picture and looked as if he was being tortured. Blake’s observation was quite accurate for someone who had just met the guy.
Nellie and I met later to talk things over. He was still nervous, but I reassured him over a few beers. I thought he was going to be a good coach, and I told him I would be there to support him. I also told him he needed to hire an experienced assistant as soon as possible. I also suggested he meet with Al McGuire, Dean Smith, and Bobby Knight when the season was finished. I wanted him to learn from three of the best coaches in the country, each of whom had his own unique style. Over the next several weeks, Nellie and I spent long hours together discussing my plan to rebuild the Bucks. Other than promoting games, he knew very little about front-office responsibilities. He also knew very little about coaching, which he readily admitted. It was a risk and I knew it, but I figured if he could impart his knowledge of the game to our young players and teach them the Celtic way to win, he had a chance of being successful. He was a Celtic much longer than I was and played on more championship teams, so he knew how to win. He followed my advice and hired another former Celtic, K. C. Jones, as his assistant. K. C. was out of work at the time, and I thought he would be a great complement to Nellie. He was one of the best defensive players to play in The League, and he knew how to teach defense.
Fitz and I eased the pressure by telling Nellie developing the young players was more important than winning for now. That was a good thing, because we did not win. We were building for the future by playing our youngsters and letting them play through their mistakes and learn from them.
While Nellie and K. C. coached, Rick Sund and I continued to scout college talent. The 1977 draft was months away, but it looked promising. We had scoped it out when we did our projections before the Kareem trade. Marques Johnson was a player we targeted back then. After watching the two of them at UCLA, we dreamed of having him and David Meyers as our forwards. We made another significant move when we traded Elmore Smith and Gary Brokaw to Cleveland for Rowland Garrett and first-round draft choices in 1977 and 1978, which gave us two first-round picks in 1977. We were well on our way to recovery. Of course, we had no way to go but up. We won thirty games in 1976–77, the worst in The League. But then we won the coin toss giving us the first pick in the draft.
This was my last official draft with the Bucks, and I wanted to make it a good one. When the season was over, I had to teach Nellie my process of preparing for the draft. Rick, the scouts and I had ranked the players. Nellie had not seen any of them except on television. We informed him and Fitz of our rankings, and Nellie was taken aback when we announced we were heading out to interview players. “Why, Big Man?’’ he asked.
“Because we are hiring them for jobs, the same as IBM or accounting firms or law firms do,’’ I told him. “We want to know their backgrounds, what their parents do, who had influenced their lives, what their aspirations were. We want to know if there is any history of drug use or any other problems or character flaws.’’
He was dumbfounded. “I never went through any of that,’’ he said.
“No, but we’re a different generation,’’ I said. “The 1960s and 1970s brought a lot of cultural changes in society and The League. We can no longer take things for granted.’’
Cedric “Cornbread’’ Maxwell, an All-American from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, was a player I wanted to interview. He was represented by my old friend Ron Grinker. I called Grinker to set up a meeting in Charlotte, and I insisted Nellie come with me. I told him I would pick him up on the way to the airport. When I pulled up in front of his apartment building, Nellie stood there dressed in jeans and a sport shirt.
“Get your bag, Nellie,’’ I told him. “We don’t have much time. You know we’re staying overnight, don’t you?’’
He patted his shirt pocket. “I’m all set, Big Man,’’ he said. “I’ve got my toothbrush.’’ I should have remembered he was not worried about his appearance. After all, we had roomed together.
Both of us were surprised when we got to Charlotte and Maxwell was not there to meet us. I waited an hour before calling Grinker to ask him where Maxwell was.
“He should be there,’’ Grinker shouted over the phone. “Call me back in fifteen minutes.’’
Cornbread finally showed up three hours later. After being introduced he asked us, “Why are you guys here anyway?’’
“We want to interview you,’’ I said, trying to control my temper.
We sat in the hotel lounge answering his questions and getting one word answers to ours. He did a better job interviewing us than we did interviewing him. Finally we parted, and Nellie and I headed to the car. “Is it always like this?’’ he asked me over a beer.
“Nellie, it’s just the beginning,’’ I told him. “You’ll see it all.’’
As the draft drew near, he was amazed at the amount of time Rick and I spent on the phone talking to coaches, trainers, and anyone else who might know the particular prospect. I explained to him that with the escalating salaries and guaranteed contracts it was crucial not to make a mistake. This was also one of the reasons I spent so much time on the road once the college season started. My feeling was that if I was responsible for the contracts, I wanted to see these players several times.
In this strong draft, we had decided Marques Johnson was our man. We never were able to get Julius Erving, but we thought Marques could be almost as exciting. Normally, in this situation, we would have taken a center, and Indiana’s Kent Benson was the best available. But I did not think he would have as much impact as Marques. Besides, we also had the Number 11 pick and we thought maybe we could get a center there. The night before the draft was filled with drama. It was Fitz and Nellie’s first draft and they sat watching Rick and me “maneuver.’’ This meant talking on the phones with teams about trades or with agents about how the draft might unfold. A trade possibility opened up. John Y. Brown, owner of the Buffalo Braves, called Fitz, who had me pick up the extension and listen in. What I got was a lesson in the changing complexion of The League.
“I need a white center,’’ Brown said.
To my way of thinking, a team need a “good’’ center, whether he was white or black. But we had a guy who fit the bill—Swen Nater, who had actually joined us for the 1976–77 season after playing four years in the ABA. We found he was a good rebounder, but he did not really fit into Nellie’s system.
“Have we got a guy for you,’’ I told Brown.
We sent Nater to Buffalo for the third pick in the draft. With the first and third picks, we were almost assured of getting Marques and Benson in some order. As the evening passed with all of us reviewing the draft, talking about different scenarios and munching on junk food to calm our nerves, we settled on how to proceed. The only hitch was that rumors were circulating that Kansas City was going to take Benson at Number 2 if we did not take him at Number 1. I also was worried that if we took Benson at Number 1, Kansas City would take Marques at Number 2.
To ease our minds, I came up with a plan. We had also heard Kansas City was interested in Otis Birdsong. If that happened, we knew we would get the players we wanted with the Numbers 1 and 3 picks. I knew Birdsong was represented by Bob Woolf, the agent I had helped get established in the business years ago. I called Bob and told him we were thinking about drafting Birdsong and wanted to talk to him. He told me Otis had gone to Kansas City so the Kings could introduce him to their fans as soon as he was picked.
That was just the news I wanted to hear, although it did mean we would have to take Benson first.
“Gentlemen,’’ I said to the roomful of people, “we are going to get the players we want at Numbers 1 and 3. Now let’s focus on Number 11.’’
That was the pick we had received from Cleveland.
The next day we added Benson, Johnson, and Ernie Grunfeld to the nucleus of Winters, Bridgeman, Buckner, and English, all All-Americans. I left my job as general manager of the Bucks, knowing I had left them with a bright future, as I had promised after the Kareem trade. Not only were there good young players, but there was a staff of dedicated, hard-working people, people who were nearly as responsible for our success as the coaches and I were. I was leaving a good friend and bright young executive in John Steinmiller, who, along with Rick Sund, served as alter egos and helped me get through some trying times. My instincts told me Nellie was going to be a good coach in The League. I was only sorry I was not going to be there to see it, or to finish the rebuilding job I had started. I thought I had become a good general manager. The biggest thing I had learned was that you did not manage basketball players. You managed people who happened to play basketball, people from different backgrounds with different needs.
I learned the importance of communication. I learned how to turn adversity into opportunity. I had gained respect from our fans, the media, and the greater basketball community. After the 1976 Olympics, I was asked by USA basketball, the governing committee for our Olympic basketball teams, to serve on the selection committee for the next Olympiad. I had become quite active in the city of Milwaukee, sitting on several civic boards. But none of them would to be able to take the place of my Number 1 passion—basketball. I hated the thought of leaving it. Despite his poor first season, Nellie’s contract was extended and he also was given the title of director of player personnel, making the position of general manager obsolete. It was something I had advised Fitz against, because I thought it was too big a job for one person. I also explained coaches often made emotional personnel decisions that they regretted later. But Fitz disagreed. He wanted to hold the coach accountable for everything. Plus, as owner, he wanted to take a more active role in the operation of the franchise.
John Steinmiller became vice president of business operations, and Rick Sund remained as a scout. The rest of the front office stayed in place. Bill Alverson went back to practicing law, and Wes retreated to his farm in West Bend. A new board was elected, and several of the existing board members remained. I joined my partner, Sherman Claypool, as an owner-operator in the McDonald’s restaurants, and we opened our third franchise behind the Milwaukee Arena in 1970. (Thank you David Danderand and Bob Beavers of McDonald’s Corporation for presenting me with this opportunity in 1969.) One thing Nellie did that I did not like was letting our old teammate K. C. Jones go in favor of one of my former scouts, John Killilea, who was now Heinsohn’s assistant in Boston.
To my surprise, that spring I received a call from Fitz asking me to meet him at a restaurant in the resort town of Lake Geneva, midway between his home in Janesville and Milwaukee. I had no idea what he wanted, but I had plenty of time to think about it on the hour drive. I had been rude to him in our meeting at the MAC, so I did not expect anything good to come out of our discussions.
We talked about the Bucks during lunch. He commended me on the draft, but he also expressed disappointment in how I handled the questions during the press conference announcing Larry’s resignation. He thought I could have been more supportive of him. He did say he respected how I reacted to the job description that he had presented me. I again tried to explain there was no way I could be disloyal to Wes Pavalon, the man who had the courage to hire me. I assured him it was nothing against him or any of his partners. As we left the restaurant, he turned to me and asked me to stay on as a consultant with the title of vice president-consultant.
“Nellie and I need your experience and your knowledge of the game and the league,’’ he said. “I also need your reputation locally and within the league and the college community. I can’t pay you much at the start, but I will make you whole down the road. I can pay you $25,000, plus travel expenses and a reasonable expense account beyond that. I want you to continue scouting college players and help me with player negotiations when you have the time. Think about it and get back to me.’’
I thought about it all the way home and decided to accept the offer, which included some cable television stock options. It would allow me to stay involved in basketball and see the team develop from the inside. There was no doubt in my mind they needed me. Nellie was best known as a player, and a rogue player at that. He did not always get along with his teammates. I spent many, many hours with him while we were teammates and roommates. Even after I moved to Milwaukee, we hung out when the Bucks played in Boston. I had been warned by some of my former Celtic teammates that I should not trust him, but I had no reason not to trust him at that point. I considered him one of my best friends. I wanted him to succeed for him and me and the fans.
There was another reason I accepted Fitz’s offer. The money was not great, although it was not that much less than I had been making. And, considering that I had no responsibility other than consulting, it was not that bad. I remembered what my folks told me: Always seize the opportunity to learn from the people who have been places you have not been. I knew Fitz was a sharp businessman, as were the people around him, including Dan Nevaiser, another board member and real estate investor who became a good friend and business partner.
I watched with pride as the new Bucks recovered from the worst record since the expansion year. The talented rookies joined the second-year men and compiled a 44–38 record, finishing second in the Midwest Division in 1978. Nellie had grown as a coach, Winters was an All-Star again, Buckner was second-team All-Defense, and Marques made the All-Rookie team. When Seattle beat Golden State in the last game of the season, the Bucks were back in the playoffs. Fitzgerald got caught up in the excitement of the playoff race and arranged for a special feed of that game to be broadcast in Milwaukee to allow our fans a chance to listen to the game that decided our fate. It was a confident group of players and an excited group of fans that prepared for our opening-round series against the Phoenix Suns.
We swept the Suns, but we lost to Denver in a hard-fought series, four games to three. It was disappointing, but it established us as a team of the future. In fact, Fitz developed a marketing theme that incorporated the team’s youth and its colors: Green and growing. We suffered a relapse in the 1978–79 season. The Oscar Robertson lawsuit filed by the NBA Players Association against the owners had been settled, which removed oppressive “reserve’’ or “option’’ clauses in contracts that bound players to their teams even after the contracts expired. Thus, when free agent Alex English, whom we had drafted, signed with Indiana, we got nothing in return. Killilea had convinced Nellie that rookie George Johnson was going to be another George McGinnis so we did not really need Alex. Although I believed Alex was going to be something special, I was unable to convince Nellie otherwise. We also lost Dave Meyers for the entire season with a back injury. We dropped to fourth in the division and missed the playoffs. Marques Johnson continued to star, making the All-Star team and the All-NBA team as one of the best small forwards in The League.
The good news in our poor showing was that we had the fourth pick in the 1979 draft. Al McGuire, who had resigned as the Marquette coach and was now doing color commentary on television, told me about the “Three Amigos’’ who played for Eddie Sutton at Arkansas. He said they were really good and one could be a star, the tallest one, he said. As usual, he did not know their names. But we figured it out. He was talking about Sidney Moncrief.
Scout Garry St. Jean and I loved Moncrief and wanted to draft him. In doing our usual pre-draft preparation, we knew he would be there at Number 4. I learned that Detroit general manager and coach Dick Vitale wanted Michigan State star Greg Kelser at Number 5. As a matter of principle, we never told anyone who we were going to take, but Detroit wanted some kind of assurance we would not take Kelser. I suggested to Nellie that since we wanted Moncrief and we had the next pick, we should make a little money for Fitz. We asked for, and received, $50,000 from Detroit to switch picks. We each got our man. We would have done that anyway, but now we also had an extra $50,000. I had more than covered my salary.
Fitzgerald was very involved in the operation of the team, and I was pleased with our relationship. He involved me in key decisions, as well as recreational activities such as golf or high-stakes games of gin after dinner. I developed a greater comfort level when I was elected to the board of directors.
Nellie and I continued to be close. He stopped by my McDonald’s nearly every morning to talk basketball. I talked him out of quitting a couple of times when he got down over the losing, and I even talked him out of leaving Milwaukee for Chicago when the Bulls made an overture. We relieved our frustrations by playing Pac Man at Major Goolsby’s or Morrie’s at cocktail hour. These encounters were very competitive and often went beyond my curfew, which did not sit well at home. There were many times I sat with him after games ended, replaying things, much as we had always done in Boston. Losses were particularly difficult. Nellie hated to lose as much as I did, whether it was basketball, Pac Man, golf, or gin. He kept me up all hours of the night trying to recoup his losses at gin, largely because of his affection for money. He was one of the cheapest people I have ever met.
Back on the court, we got off to a fast start with Marques and Bridgeman leading the way. As Denny Crum had predicted and I had hoped, Bridgeman worked hard and became one of the best pure shooters in the game and an effective sixth man. Midway through the season, we got another boost. Nellie called me and asked me to meet him at Dos Banditos, a Mexican restaurant owned by a mutual friend. It was near home, which was good because the margaritas were delicious. After a couple of them and a plate of nachos, Nellie started asking me questions about Leon Douglas, who was playing for the Pistons. I gave him my opinion and asked why he was so interested. He told me the Pistons had called and were interested in shaking up their team. They were offering anyone on their roster.
“We need a better center than Benson,’’ Nellie told me. “He’s driving me crazy.’’
I thought that was strange, because when we were talking about Benson before we drafted him, Nellie had thought he was going to be another Dave Cowens, although Indiana coach Bob Knight disagreed. I remembered telling Nellie at the time he should not be fooled by Benson’s red hair, which was the only resemblance I saw. However, I agreed we needed a better center. I thought Kent had become timid after Kareem decked him with one punch during his rookie year. The merger with the ABA brought an influx of quality centers, and we were not going to be a contender with Benson. But I did not think Douglas was the answer. I had seen Benson beat him in the NCAA regionals the year Indiana won the NCAA title.
After a few more margaritas, I asked Nellie if the Pistons were willing to part with Bob Lanier.
“Yes,’’ he told me. “But we don’t want him. He gets coaches fired.’’
Lanier was a premier center in The League who had the reputation of being difficult to coach.
“Nellie, there comes a time when you have to take a risk with a player, provided he has no issues off the court,’’ I told him. “I trust your ability to handle him. You’ve done a tremendous job of relating to players. He will make you a better coach.’’
We debated the subject into the night, and I left thinking I had him convinced. Two days later we drove to Janesville for a meeting at JP Cullen’s estate to get Fitz’s approval. On the way there, I learned why Nellie was reluctant about the trade: Killilea and Steinmiller were adamantly against it. Still, I thought Nellie was 100 percent in favor. After discussing it with Fitz, Blake, and JP Cullen, I was feeling pretty good. I thought Nellie and I were united, and I had learned that Blake and Cullen usually did what Fitz wanted and Fitz always did what Nellie wanted. So imagine my surprise when Fitz went around the room asking our opinions and Nellie said he did not want to coach Lanier. The meeting ended.
The ride back to Milwaukee was quiet. I was not in a talkative mood after I had been hung out to dry. When we pulled into the parking lot at McDonald’s, I pulled Nellie aside and asked him to have dinner with me—just the two of us. We went to Victor’s for one of their great steaks. Nellie explained that Killilea had changed his mind and he did not want to tell me. By the end of the night, I had changed his mind again.
The next day, Nellie and I called Fitz and suggested we meet with Lanier and agent Larry Fleisher at the upcoming All-Star break so we could get to know Lanier a little better. Detroit granted us permission to talk to Lanier, and a lunch meeting was arranged in Fitz’s suite. I had asked for permission to open the dialogue, which Fitz granted. After lunch, we moved to more comfortable seating. Everyone sat but me. I wanted to stand and expose the full length of my six-foot-eight-inch frame and girth in order to take ownership of the situation and make a statement to the six-foot-eleven-inch, 260-pound Lanier and Fleisher. I hovered over them and asked Lanier in a firm, direct tone, “Do you want to play in Milwaukee?’’
“Yes,’’ he said. “I want out of Detroit.’’
We told him we were willing to help him get out of Detroit, but I laid down some ground rules.
“Mr. Fitzgerald is the owner, we don’t need you to be the owner,’’ I told him. “Nellie is the coach, and he’s a pretty good one. We don’t need you to coach. I am the vice president and I help in personnel decisions. We don’t need you to do that, either. We need you to come and play basketball to the best of your ability and bring veteran leadership to a talented team of quality people.
“Do you understand that?’’
Big Bob sat with his knees to his chest and looked sheepish. Finally he nodded and said, “I understand. I can do that.’’
The trade was made that day—February 4, 1980—and the Bucks went 20–6 the rest of the way and won the division title. We lost to a very good Seattle team in the semifinals of the playoffs, four games to three, but the fans were not overly disappointed because they could see the improvement of the youngsters and they knew the addition of a quality center like Lanier would make their home team a contender in years to come. The Bucks were, indeed, green and growing.
The next season, 1980–81, we won sixty games, regaining the form we had in the early 1970s. Our biggest problem was that with the addition of the expansion Dallas Mavericks, we had been moved into the Eastern Conference, where the Sixers had put together a powerhouse, adding Moses Malone to a group that included Doc, Andrew Toney, Mo Cheeks, Lionel Hollins, and Bobby Jones. Billy Cunningham did a great job coaching them, and they beat us in the conference semifinals, four games to three.
We won more than fifty games the next three seasons but we could not beat the Sixers. We also had to worry about an emerging Celtics team. It was only a matter of time before they resurfaced. Red had pulled off two more shrewd deals in order to acquire Robert Parish and Kevin McHale to go with Larry Bird, who was eligible for the 1978 draft although he had chosen to remain at Indiana State another year to finish college. The Celtics were contenders again, making the Eastern Conference stronger than it had been in years. In fact, The League was experiencing a resurgence.
"THEY'RE NOT QUALIFIED"
My relationship with Nellie started to change when I would not support him on his trade for Dave Cowens before the 1982–83 season. Nellie was searching for a power forward, and he thought Dave could fit the bill if he was healthy. Tom Sanders and Nellie ran a camp at New Hampshire College, which was twenty miles north of my basketball camp in Nashua, New Hampshire. Our camps ran at the same time, so Nellie arranged for Dave to come up and visit with me in an effort to persuade me. Dave had been sidelined with a chronic hip problem. I rented a car for the week and made several trips to Nellie’s camp to spend time with Dave. A healthy Cowens would have been just what we needed, but a healthy Cowens would not have been available. When we returned to Milwaukee, I repeated to Fitz what Dave had told me: “I don’t know if I’ll hold up, but I’d like to try.’’ I opposed Nellie and told Fitz not to guarantee Cowens’s one million dollar asking price. But Nellie convinced Fitz to trade Buckner to Boston for the rights to Cowens and then guaranteed the one million dollars. Nellie did not like the fact I had disagreed.
Still, he was there for me when Terri required emergency surgery in the middle of that season. I was on my way home from a scouting trip just before Christmas. One afternoon, Terri told our daughter Jill that she had a terrible headache and wanted to lie down. Jill insisted she call an ambulance. Thank God. It saved her life. She had an aneurysm that required surgery. Naturally I was shaken. I spent all my time at the hospital, and we celebrated the holidays there. But Nellie would come by to sit with me, or play cards. One night he brought us a feast of soul food. It was quite a gesture, and we were genuinely touched. We had barely recovered from Terri’s illness when my mother had a heart attack and died in January of 1983. I was devastated. I realized how much of her personality I shared. She had been such a great inspiration to me, overcoming so many difficulties but remaining a sweet and gentle woman. She was tough on Ruthie and me, but she really would not harm a fly. I realized almost everything I had accomplished was to win her praise. All I wanted was for her to be proud of me. Nellie and Fitz were supportive through that time, too. But as time went on, Nellie and I seemed to drift apart. We still would meet for coffee, but not as frequently. Then one morning when we were having breakfast he stunned me.
I was scanning the newspaper and read aloud that Paul Silas had been fired as coach of the San Diego Clippers after the 1982–83 season. “That’s too bad,’’ I mused, thinking Nellie would agree since he and Paul were teammates in Boston. “I doubt he’ll get another chance. There has not been lateral mobility for blacks.’’
There was a pause in the conversation and then Nellie said, “They’re not qualified.’’
I was shocked. I pointed out that Al Attles and Lenny Wilkens had won championships. “Don’t forget Russ,’’ I said. “And what about me? I hired you, and it was my reputation that allowed me to keep you out of the gutters in the streets of Boston.’’
He stuttered a bit before saying, “You are the exception.’’
“No, Nellie, I am not an exception,’’ I shouted. “I was given an opportunity. Everybody should have the opportunity to fail. Most coaches in The League have, you know.’’
The final blowout came during the 1984 draft. As usual, I gave my report on each of the players. UCLA’s Kenny Fields was high on our list, but I did not think we should draft him because I did not like what I had heard during our two-hour interview in Hawaii. I did not think he was sincere and I thought he had an overinflated opinion of himself. When I left to go home the night before the draft, I thought St. Jean and I had convinced Nellie to take Fresno State’s Ron Anderson. But between then and draft time, Nellie changed his mind. When Fitz went around the room to ask each of our opinions right before we selected, Garry and I stuck to our guns. But Nellie belted out, “We’re taking Kenny Fields.’’
“Nellie, I don’t ...,’’ I started. But before I could finish the sentence, he yelled, “I’m sick of your shit.’’ I sat there dumbfounded, wondering what the hell I had done to make him come down on me like that. Afterward, Fitz could not give me any explanation, but he said he had to support Nellie. Nellie could do no wrong as far as Fitz was concerned. He had adopted Nellie as a surrogate son, and Nellie knew it. I referred to Fitz as Nellie’s Sugar Daddy.
The Bucks were one of the elite teams in The League, along with the Sixers and Celtics in the East and the Lakers in the West. David Stern had become the commissioner in 1984 at a time when The League was on the rise, thanks to the arrival of Bird and Magic Johnson in 1979 and Michael Jordan in 1984. Bird and Johnson thrilled the country with their meeting in the Final Four the previous year, and their additions to the Celtics and Lakers, respectively, put a new spark in that old rivalry. Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, Fitz was struggling to make a profit. Fitz always said two things were essential to running a business: making a profit and paying yourself. Cable television was not the answer. He determined he had to be in a large market to make money. He had taken the company private in order to set up the move. There was no doubt making money was why he was in business, which is the way it should be. Many owners think differently. He scheduled a board meeting to disclose his plan to sell the Bucks, or trade them for a bigger market. He wanted to stay in the NBA. He liked being around the players almost as much as making money. He enjoyed the limelight, too.
At a meeting at The Abbey in Lake Geneva, he spelled out his plan to me, Nellie, and Steinmiller. He said keeping the Bucks in Milwaukee was his first option. He swore us to secrecy because he did not want to alarm the fans and start an auction. He said he would announce his plan to the public at the appropriate time. He had his sights on Chicago. Marv Fishman, the Milwaukee real estate investor who was the original owner of the Bucks, was in litigation with one of the owners of the Bulls for a right to buy. Fitz would have loved to work out a deal with Marv. If he was successful, he would have taken Nellie, Steinmiller, and other key personnel with him. I was hoping to remain as a consultant. When it finally became public that the team was for sale, Fitz advised the board that all inquiries should be directed to him or Dan Finnane.
My relationship with Nellie had polarized, and we had very little contact. I also had very little contact with Fitz that spring. I did not know what was going on with the team. Rumors would circulate once in a while. One rumor was that heiress Jane Pettit was negotiating to buy the team, although she denied that in the newspapers. She was an heir to the Allen Bradley manufacturing fortune, and when the company was sold to Rockwell, she came into a lot of money. She already owned a minor league hockey team in the city, and with part of the money from the sale, she agreed to build a new arena in downtown Milwaukee. I received a call from Fran Croak, who was a lawyer in the firm that represented the Pettits.
“Contrary to what you’ve read,’’ he said, “we are interested in buying the team. Can you come over to our office?’’
Fran and I were old friends, and I knew he was serious. But I told him he had to call Fitz or Finnane.
“We will do that,’’ he said. “But we need to know more about how the salary cap works, and we thought you could help us. If we decide to go forward, we would want you in a prominent role.’’
“I’ll be right over,’’ I said.
I was not there fifteen minutes when a secretary opened the door and told us there was a news bulletin that the Bucks had been sold to U.S. Senator and Milwaukee businessman Herb Kohl. Attorney Joe Tierney immediately left the room to call his daughter Mary Alice, who worked for a local television station. Moments later he returned and confirmed the news. It was March 15, 1985. I was shocked and wondered why, as a board member, I was not informed. I bid Fran and Joe farewell and went back to the office to share the news with my assistant, Judy Berger. I called my former assistant, Jean, and asked her what was going on. She said a press conference had been called for 4 P.M.
The next day Herb announced that he had entered into a new contract with Nellie. I was shocked to hear this because of Fitz’s plan. Had Fitz changed his mind? Perhaps he was not sure he would get another franchise? Or was that deal part of the sale? I knew he was involved with Franklin Mueli, who owned the Warriors. He had loaned Franklin some money to help his cash flow with some kind of stipulation that he could buy that team after a certain period of time.
I waited a couple of days before I called Herb to discuss my role with the team. I had no right to be presumptuous, I guess, but I was hoping to continue as a consultant. Herb was very vague during our short meeting. He suggested I talk to Nellie about my future with the team, explaining that Nellie had complete control over hiring team personnel. Nellie and I agreed to have lunch the next day. When I walked into Sally’s restaurant, Nellie was waiting at a table away from everyone else. He seemed aloof and reticent. He said very little as we ordered and waited for our food. When we finished eating, he looked into space and said, “Big Man, I am hiring some other people, and I told Herb that I did not want you around any more. You’ll have to talk to him to see if he wants you.’’
I knew Nellie had nothing good to say, because he would not look me in the eye. While driving back to my office, I had flashbacks. For a guy who had been a failure as a referee and begged me for a job when he had no place to go, he had come a long way. And he did not need me any more.
Later that evening, Herb and I met again. He said maybe he would hire me to be a consultant to him, with no involvement in basketball. He said he could not give me a raise. I left the short meeting and told him I would have to think about it and would get back to him. Meanwhile, I was prepared to exit my two passions—basketball and the NBA. I had expanded my businesses, and I had been elected to the board of the G. Heilmann Brewing Company. At this moment, I was preparing for life after basketball. My only involvement with the game now would be my positions on committees of USA Basketball and the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Several weeks passed before I heard anything about Nellie and the new ownership. I stopped by Major Goolsby’s for a beer one night before facing the traffic I knew I would encounter on my way home. Goolsby’s was a popular place in those days, and it was unusual to go in and not know anyone there, even if it was only the bartenders and waitresses. Sure enough, there were a couple of familiar faces at the bar. Both worked for the Journal.
“What’s going on with you, Big Man?’’ one asked me.
“Oh, I’m making it,’’ I said. “We are getting another McDonald’s and I’m doing some consulting.’’
“Anything in basketball?’’
“Not at the moment.’’
Then one of them said, “I know why Nellie and the Bucks did not want you,’’ he said. “Nellie told us it was because you cheated on your expense account.’’
I nearly fell off the stool. “Are you sure he said that?’’ I asked.
“Absolutely,’’ he said.
I drove home in a rage, and as soon as I walked through the door, Terri asked what was wrong. I told her what I had just learned.
“I told you not to trust him, Wayne,’’ she said, releasing all the pentup anger she felt for all the late nights I had spent with Nellie in Boston and in Milwaukee. She never did like Nellie.
The next morning I called Fitz. Dispensing with the pleasantries, I asked his assistant to speak with him.
“Wayno,’’ he said, using a nickname he had given me.
“Fitz, let me be direct,’’ I said. “Did you or any of your financial people question my expenses?’’
“No,’’ he said. “Why do you ask?’’
“Because Nellie is saying the reason the Bucks did not retain me was because I cheated on my expense account,’’ I said, trying to hold back my anger. “Why the vicious attack on my character?’’
“I don’t know why he would do that, Wayne,’’ Fitz whispered.
I hung up and asked Judy to get Dan Finnane on the phone.
“Dan, did you ever question my expenses?’’ I asked, making no attempt at small talk.
I got the same denial from him.
“Call Nellie,’’ was my next command to Judy.
Now that I knew Nellie had fabricated this story, I calmly suggested we meet for coffee at the Hyatt Hotel coffee shop across the street from the Arena. I was surprised he accepted, since we had not talked in weeks. I took giant strides while walking from my office. I was ready for a fight. Rage consumed my 300-pound frame. I had never been this angry.
Nellie could tell it was not going to be a friendly meeting when I approached him with my slightly raised right hand balled up in a fist. Given the size of my hands, my fist looked like the head of a sledge-hammer. “What’s wrong, Big Man?’’ the startled Nellie said.
I am not sure how I controlled my temper, but I managed to spit out, “Why did you tell people the reason you did not want me around was because I cheated on my expenses?’’ He was shocked and vehemently denied it.
“Nellie, you’re lying,’’ I yelled. “I have this from reliable sources. My reputation is my most valuable asset. I’ve worked hard to build it. And I will not let you take it from me.’’
He recovered enough to claim that when we were at our camps in New Hampshire, I had rented a car and charged the Bucks. “You should not have done that,’’ he said.
I asked if he was referring to the time I had driven up to interview Cowens and reminded him that was official business. “How did you expect me to get there?’’ I asked.
“You could have borrowed a car,’’ he said, weakly.
“Why do you have to destroy my credibility?’’ I roared.
Nellie clammed up. “I’ve got to go,’’ he said and left.
“You are the bottom of the barrel, the scum of the earth,’’ I shouted as he hurried through the tables and out of the coffee shop.
Walking back to my office, I tried to find some sort of rationale for his actions. I thought about our times together as roommates and teammates and all I had tried to teach him during our years together in Milwaukee. I wondered where he would be if I had not hired him, and I wished he was there, wherever that was. But I also remembered something else my parents told me: When you get too big, evil people will try to tear you down. This holds true no matter who you are or what you do and no matter how much you ultimately accomplish in life. Nellie had used me up and tossed me away.
It took me some time to overcome the disappointment and hurt. My pastor must have been thinking of me the Sunday morning he recited scriptures from Exodus. His sermon was about Moses and his flight into Egypt to free the Israelites. “Some of the elders turned on Moses,’’ he preached. “Quite often, those you help are those who hurt you the most. Often those you help resent the fact that you are in a position to help them,’’ he continued. The message was so true.
Wayne Embry is a native of Springfield, Ohio, and was the first African American general manager in professional sports. He graduated from Miami University of Ohio with a B.S. in Education, and a minor in Business Administration. He is a member of the Miami University Hall of Fame and was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1999 / Mary Schmitt Boyer is a general assignment sports reporter and feature writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. An award-winning sportswriter who has specialized in covering basketball and the Olympics, she has served as president of the Association for Women in Sports Media and secretary-treasurer of the Pro Basketball Writers Association
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