I think it is fair to say that the Milwaukee Bucks are undergoing a renaissance of sorts. Sure, I'm talking about the basketball, but I'm also talking books! Something about spending time in Milwaukee must turn hoopsters into renaissance men. Are we teaching the printing press instead of the press break here? We've now got a hand in more titles at Barnes and Noble this year than we do in the rafters.
Yes, in the past year or so, there has been a wave of books from former NBA players/coaches who have spent some fairly significant time with the Bucks.
In no particular order, here are the titles:
Ray Allen. From the Outside: My Journey Through Life and the Game I Love.
Vin Baker. God and Starbucks: An NBA Superstar's Journey Through Addiction and Recovery
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Coach Wooden and Me: Our 50 Year Relationship On and Off the Court
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Becoming Kareem
See previous blog post on books
Craig Hodges. Long Shot: The Triumphs and Struggles of an NBA Freedom Fighter
See previous blog post on book
George Karl. Furious George: My Forty Years Surviving NBA Divas, Clueless GMs, and Poor Shot Selection
The kids in Milwaukee today are being raised in the "Fear the Deer" culture. They love Giannis and they eurostep their way through every trip to the rim (it's called traveling in youth leagues). But as in any rebuilding, it is important to study the past to appreciate the future. The Bucks franchise may not have the shine of the Celtics, Lakers, 76ers, or Bulls, but there were prior days when the basketball was pretty damn good, and they went toe to toe with those storied franchises regularly under the bright lights of National TV. McGlocklin, Alcindor, Moncrief, Robertson, Winters, Cummings, Johnson (Marques, not Mickey!) Sikma, Pierce, Bridgeman--I could go on. They were the play by play of my childhood. We were the driveway imitators of their unique styles! (Please see the Brian Winters jumpshot)
Milwaukee was/is considered an NBA small town. It was/is also one of the most segregated cities in the US. As you know from many sports titles I review here, the environment of a city, the era, and the athletes are all intertwined in a mix that makes sports a cultural study as much as a tally of wins an losses. In each one of these books, you not only get basketball stories, you get a little piece of how Milwaukee treated these transplant athletes and the impression it left.
To be honest, I left some of these books with a fairly sad revelation of how my city treated some players, and a little more respect for how they persevered. As a ticket holder, we have a limited lens during those 3 hours at the stadium, but it's amazing how little we really know when the lights are down. These books are essential to filling in the gaps. Perhaps it's only fair to the players/coaches to give their version of events.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was known here as a recluse around 1970 (I was told so by dad). Since I was 1 and didn't know better, I never really lost the chip on my shoulder for his perceived attitude and the idea he never wanted to be here. His book, however paints a very different story of religious passion and a man isolated by a closed minded city. The book dramatically opened my eyes to Kareem and his powerful activist side that we see so frequently now. It is truly amazing what a voice he has become, and his books will take you on a stunning journey through his life. It's sobering to reflect and think, if it wasn't him, could the problem really have been us?
Craig Hodges had one of the sweetest shots of anyone in Bucks history. Turns out people didn't like the way he shot his mouth about being black in the NBA. In his book, Hodges discusses that he was basically traded away by the Bucks in the 80's because the management did not like his outspoken ways in regards to his activism. Hodges went on to be shunned by many others within the NBA for his outspoken ways, but still fought for his rights and never let go of his beliefs. Hodges was probably more than our city could handle at the time, which in itself made me sad.
George Karl was a major coup for the Bucks and legitimized the franchise and city in the late 90s. As a big name controversial coach in a timid city, his hiring was a welcome dive into the Bucks getting serious again. He was bold and outspoken and unafraid to take anyone on, including his own players. Karl did some great work in Milwaukee, until he sort of wore out his welcome--something not coincidentally precipitated by the trading of owner Herb Kohl's beloved Ray Allen.
This, of course, leads me to Ray Allen. Drafted out of UConn, he became perhaps one of the most loved Bucks. As part of Karl's Big 3 that included Sam Cassell and Glenn Robinson, the Bucks nearly made it to the top in 2001. Aside from being a brilliant shooter at the time, Ray was also known as a nice guy with a big smile. But nice guys are often an easy mark, and when the Bucks began the process of underachieving in the following years of high expectations, Allen was dealt by Karl for a little more attitude in Gary Payton. When that all went to hell, Karl was fired, and the Bucks were left without one of the most promising players the franchise had seen. It's a trade that still gets debated today.
Vin Baker's story is a stark reminder of the dark days a franchise can have. Vin was drafted onto a terrible team. The Bucks were young, miserable, and according the Baker's book, some(him included) were pretty much high all the time. Then Big Dog Robinson came on board, and he was supposedly high all the time too, but at least they started winning, so that must've made it better. Baker gives us a backstage pass to NBA downtime and the dangerous lifestyle it can breed. He also discusses the debilitating pressures he faced as a high draft choice and franchise face. Vin makes no excuses, and offers his tale of going from star to losing it all in a very heartfelt, honest way. His story is a cautionary tale, and does prove that good things can happen to those who wish to change. It makes me happy to see him on the bench as a new Bucks assistant coach.
Every athlete has a story. It might pay if you are a librarian to look into the local franchises and see if there are any books on or by former local players. Aside from learning about individual lives, the kids may just gain a greater understanding of what was happening culturally in their city during those times, and the struggles these stars faced trying to fit it and live up to their lofty expectations.