Mike Braun probably didn’t care that in 1971, the 26th Amendment that lowered the voting age to age 18 was ratified, “The French Connection” won the Oscar for best picture and President Richard Nixon put a 90-day freeze on wages and prices.
Mike was just a sixth-grade student in Monona entranced by one of the more magical sports stories of the year.
The Milwaukee Bucks, an expansion team that entered the NBA in 1968, won the world championship of professional basketball behind the play of future Hall-of-Famers Lew Alcindor and Oscar Robertson and a roster full of talented athletes that brought joy to sports’ fans young and old throughout Wisconsin.
It would be the Bucks’ only NBA championship to date, and for an adolescent like Braun, it was like experiencing a wonderful dream that you didn’t want to end.
Braun is now 61, lives in Oshkosh and has raised two children in their 30s. He is living off the investments he made in a Milwaukee health care co-op, where he once served on the board of directors. He volunteers at his church as the treasurer and Bible study teacher.
Yet, ask Braun about the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks, and he still speaks of the team with enthusiasm. He still remembers the team’s statistics and the memorable victories, including the fourth game of the NBA playoff finals when Milwaukee won the championship by defeating the Baltimore Bullets.
Becoming a follower
Braun’s interest in the Bucks began in 1969 after the team completed its first season in the league with a 27-55 record, the second worst in the NBA, just ahead of the hapless Phoenix Suns, another expansion team that finished 16-66. The NBA authorized a coin flip to determine which team would have the right to draft Alcindor, the most coveted player in college basketball and the linchpin to NCAA championships at UCLA under head coach John Wooden.
Milwaukee won the flip, Alcindor was in a Bucks uniform for the 1969-70 season, and the team was on its way to several competitive seasons.
After the acquisition of Alcindor, Braun started to take a closer look at the Bucks and eventually became an expert at school on everything related to the team. Milwaukee ended Alcindor’s rookie year with a 56-26 record and finished second in the NBA’s Eastern Division behind the New York Knicks, the 1970 NBA champions.
Alcindor averaged 28.8 points and 14.5 rebounds per game, but the Bucks needed one more player to improve their chances for an NBA title. That player was Robertson, who was acquired from the Cincinnati Royals.
“Oscar Robertson was kind of like the Reggie White of professional basketball, because he had not won a championship,” Braun said. “I could not contain my excitement, because I felt his leadership would help the team.”
Milwaukee opened the 1970-71 season with a win over the Atlanta Hawks, ruining the professional debut of Pete Maravich, who was coming off one of the greatest college basketball careers at LSU.
After losing its next game to Detroit, the Bucks did not lose another game until Nov. 27, 1970, and they were firmly atop the Midwest Division with a record of 17-1. A 10-game win streak to start the 1971 portion of the schedule would follow. From Feb. 6 to March 8, 1971, Milwaukee would string together 20 straight victories, at that time, the longest winning streak in NBA history.
Becoming an avid Bucks fan helped Braun relieve the pain of his own athletic shortcomings. He said he was the final player cut from Pee Wee Football.
After that, he listened to most of the Milwaukee games on the radio with Eddie Doucette doing the play-by-play and recorded the broadcasts on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. He scanned the newspaper, looking for stories about the team.
“I would go to school, and clip out the box scores, and I would get in trouble because people trying to read the sports section always found a hole in it,” Braun said.
Milwaukee ended the season with the NBA’s best record of 66-16, 15 games ahead of the second-place Chicago Bulls in the Midwest Division. Alcindor averaged 31.7 points and 16 rebounds per game. Robertson’s scoring average was 19.4, and he dished out 8.2 assists.
Milwaukee won the first three games against first-round playoff opponent San Francisco including two at the UW-Madison fieldhouse, by no less than 11 points. San Francisco took game four but the Bucks ended the series 4-1 with a 136-86 blowout in Madison.
Wilt Chamberlain and the Los Angeles Lakers were next, but the Bucks won the first two games in Milwaukee, lost the third in L.A. but took games four and five for another 4-1 series victory. The win over the Lakers gave Milwaukee the Western Conference crown and the chance to play the Bullets, winners in the Eastern Conference.
While the Bucks disposed of the Warriors and Lakers easily, Braun was worried about the Bullets.
“Center Wes Unseld was a very physical player. Alcindor was still gangly and hadn’t bulked up yet,” Braun said. “I was worried Unseld would outmuscle Alcindor and take away his hook shot, take away his ability to rebound, and dominate under the rim.”
Yet, Milwaukee won the first three games, putting itself one win from the NBA title. The fourth game would be played Friday, April 30, in Baltimore.
Braun said his parents made him do his homework and chores before he could watch the game. Mom and Dad let him watch the game while eating dinner even though tipoff was not scheduled for another hour. The Bucks led Baltimore 60-47 at halftime and held a 12-point advantage entering the fourth quarter.
“The game was going a little long, but my mom and dad allowed me to watch the rest of it,” Braun said. “I turned the sound down on the TV and listened to Eddie Doucette on the radio for final two minutes of the game. I remember listening to him and how crazy he was when the Bucks won it.”
The final score was Milwaukee 118, Baltimore 106. Robertson led with 30 points, and Alcindor had 27. Braun was overjoyed.
“I had a hard time going to sleep. I was just so excited about it,” Braun said. “At school, I was talking to everyone about it. I immediately started thinking we were going to be the Boston Celtics of the 1970s.”
However, that didn’t happen as the Lakers won the title the following year and the New York Knicks took the crown in 1972-73.
Hopes for another title
Milwaukee returned to the NBA finals in 1974 against the Celtics. Trailing 3-2, the Bucks forced a seventh game by winning at Boston in double overtime. But the Celtics won game seven 102-87 in Milwaukee to take the NBA title.
Two seasons later, the Bucks would look a lot different than it did in 1971. Robertson announced his retirement and Alcindor, now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, would be traded to the Lakers for four players.
Yet, the 1971 title was something that could never be taken away from the Bucks and their fans.
“I think it was a magical season,” Braun said. “The chemistry between the players and the coach was such that each player knew what his role was. Larry Costello had such a clear knowledge of the game that he was able to put the players in the roles they would be successful at.”
Braun still follows the Bucks and has enjoyed the play of 2019 MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. He is hoping the NBA season will continue once the coronavirus is under control, so that Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin can perhaps bask in the glory of another league title.
Until then, Braun will always have fond memories of those days as a sixth-grader, following his favorite team until it reached the top.