Bucks History and Retired Numbers

Overdoing anything makes it less special.  I don’t care if we’re talking about driving go-carts, going to the circus, jumping rope, eating ice cream or playing video games.  If you do it every day, it’ll become less special.  Let’s say after dinner every night you eat a big bowl of vanilla ice cream.  The first time you have that ice cream, you’re going to be ecstatic, almost nothing is better after a meal than some creamy, cold, delicious vanilla ice cream.  The next day, you’re going to enjoy that ice cream almost as much, but it’s no longer quite the same.  The next week?  You’re still loving your ice cream, but now you’re used to it.  You’ve become accustomed to this treat and it simply cannot be as special as it once was.  And let’s assume you have kids and they’re eating this ice cream too.  Now you’re children are growing up without really recognizing how much of a treat it is to get ice cream after dinner.  They think it’s just part of the dinner process and lack to ability to decipher what’s special from what is to be expected.

That’s why I have never understood the Bob Lanier thing.

Honoring past players is one of the most important things about sports.  We never want to forget the highest highs in the histories of our respective teams.  Fans want to remember when and why they first fell in love with a team.  The “old days” often create a bridge between generations of fans and are an opportunity for younger fans to learn why their parents got them into the game in the first place.  So, I understand the value in retiring numbers.  Seeing the numbers in the rafters is a constant talking point and goes a long way in remembering how the Bucks got to where they are.  But, I’m concerned that the Bucks have indirectly removed a touch of the value of a retired number over the years.

When I think of retired numbers there are certain aspects of importance I’m looking for in a player to deem his jersey worthy of never being worn again.  A player has to play a vital role in franchise lore, he must in some way shape or form alter the course of a franchise’s history or at the absolute least have his jersey retired in honor of his longevity.  A case study in my first set of requirements: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Kareem could only stand six seasons of his basketball life being spent in Milwaukee, but we all know the Milwaukee Bucks never would have lasted without the greatest Buck of all time getting them started.  Milwaukee is currently seen as a struggling to compete, small market franchise, but even when Milwaukee was a reasonably large market in the late sixties, not many thought the city could support a basketball team, as they had already failed once with the Hawks in the fifties.

But Kareem changed everything.  The Bucks drew nearly three thousand more people on average per game in Kareem’s rookie year.  He helped establish them as a winning franchise, brought the Bucks their only championship and even when he decided he could no longer spend his winters in Milwaukee, brought back talent that helped keep the Bucks competitive for years to come.  This is the kind of guy who deserves a retired jersey.

A case study in my second set of requirements: Jon McGlocklin.  Jonny Mac has been with the Bucks from day one.  He’s seen the Bucks from every imaginable angle.  A co-founder of the MACC Fund, McGlocklin has long been one of the most philanthropic members of the Milwaukee sports community.  Mac has been with the organization for over forty years and to many is the voice of the Bucks.  Is Mac going into the hall of fame?  Not any time soon.  He only made one all-star team and as a Buck only averaged a little over twelve points a game.  But he’s so much more than that to Bucks fans that he deserves a spot up in the rafters.  He’s a valuable talking point in Bucks lore.  Retiring his number as soon as they did (1976) probably was a little silly, but in the end all is well that ends well.

Things start to get a little bit silly as you go down the line of jerseys though.  The silliness first stands out at Brian Winters.  Winters was one of the cornerstone pieces of the Kareem deal.  He played eight years for the Bucks and finished near the top of many leader boards in Bucks history, including the top of the assists board.  Winters was the kind of player who maximized his talents, earning two all-star births and had a great basketball IQ.  Most importantly, the Bucks made the playoffs six times during his time with them.  He had the feel of a winner and the respect and admiration of the organization.  He probably was a slightly above average player, but time spent and a good relationship with the organization put him over the top.  Oh, and this (from an interview with Michael Jordan in Cigar Aficionado):

MRS: Who in your mind is the best shooter you’ve ever seen?
JORDAN: Best shooter. Oh, boy. That’s a great question. Pure shooter?  Pure shooter, I would say Brian Winters, who played for the Milwaukee Bucks. He had the most beautiful stroke of all the people whom I can think of.

But Bob Lanier?

Hey, Lanier had a terrific career.  Seven all-star teams.  Eight consecutive years with over twenty points per game scored.  A walking double double in his Detroit days.  But as a Buck?  A pretty ordinary player.  Thirteen and a half points and a hair under six rebounds a game.  Andrew Bogut is on pace to average considerably better numbers than that as a Buck and most people would pass out if anyone were to even suggest retiring Bogut’s number some day.  That’s the problem with retiring Lanier’s number, we’re setting the bar awfully low.  Maybe Lanier was a hall of fame locker room guy in Milwaukee, but does that mean we should reconsider Sam Casell’s case?  Casell was the last piece that seemed to push Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson’s Bucks teams over the top into the Eastern conference finals in 2001.  Lanier did a lot more winning than those guys did, but he played on much better teams.

Retiring a player’s number is a special event that is supposed to be reserved for special players in a team’s history.  If a ten-year-old kid looks up at the Bucks rafters this season he’s going to see Bob Lanier’s name and number up there with Oscar Robertson and Kareem.  He’s going to think Lanier played as important a role for the Bucks as The Big O and Kareem.  He’s going to be wrong.  There are tons of other ways to honor athletes these days; bobble heads, magnets, coffee mugs, pens, coloring books, throwback jerseys, whatever you can think of they can put a player on it and market it.  If we want to honor the Bob Lanier’s of the world.

Retiring the numbers of the “pretty good” and not solely the great is a bad precedent to establish.  If Lanier was honored, why not Marques Johnson?  Johnson spent seven years as a Buck, made four all-star teams, an all-NBA first team and then went on to steal scenes in “White Men Can’t Jump”.  If Lanier was honored, then why not Glenn Robinson?  Robinson spent eight years with the Bucks, averaged over twenty points in all but one year and is the Bucks second all-time leading scorer.

I don’t want to harp on Bob Lanier though.  What’s done is done and there’s no going back on retired numbers.  Pulling them down would be even more ridiculous than putting them up was in the first place.  I just encourage the Bucks and other franchises to think about what I’ve laid out here today when looking into retiring numbers in the future.  Sure, it may seem like a great idea now to retire Bruce Bowen’s number in San Antonio, but in twenty years will it really be necessary to remember him in the same light as David Robinson and Tim Duncan?  Bowen was important to the Spurs run of championships, his defense and corner threes were crucial.  But was he irreplaceable?  Did he alter the course of franchise history the way Robinson and later Duncan did?  Probably not.  I know “anyone could have done what he did” isn’t always a great defense.  After all, he actually did it.  But it’s a worthy rationalization when thinking about the broad scope of things.

I’m sure in twenty years a Bruce Bowen commemorative “Remember Him?” bobble head will be just fine and go a long way towards keeping him in the hearts and minds of Spurs fans.  But to put him in the rafters is to do a disservice to the fine work of true legends.

The TrueHoop Network is going around the horn discussing what not so good players each team could retire because of their place in the teams lore.  I’d love to hear some comments on the Bucks and their seven retired jerseys and see what other people think about that.  But make sure you check out some of the other sites to see which players hold a special place in the hearts of each franchise.

Some TrueHoop Network Posts:

Atlanta: Mookie Blaylock, Lenny Wilkens, Tree Rollins or Kevin Willis?

New Jersey: Kerry Kittles. (Oddly enough I hope Joe Alexander turns into him.)

New Orleans: Mugsy Bouges love.

Detroit: Billlups, Ben and Rodman.

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  4. If he recovers and the Bucks can’t move his ungodly contract, Redd will become the Bucks leading scorer. It might be hard to keep his name from the rafters then. Of course, if Hammond and Skiles had to do with choosing who went up into the skies of legend, they might choose Luke Ridnour.

  5. Redd should have the record by the end of his contract for sure. Considering that and how good of an ambassador he’s been for the game – never in trouble, Olympic gold, general good guy – I agree that not putting him up there would be awfully difficult. But how is it explained that he piloted the Bucks to a longer string of losing seasons than anyone else in the rafters?

  6. I really liked your article, but I mildly disagree with your point about Bob Lanier. While Lanier didn’t enjoy the career he had with the Pistons in Milwaukee, the Bucks were a tremendous team in the early 1980’s when he was around. He was a central figure (along with Sidney Moncrief and Marques Johnson) with the Bucks and he helped them to be able to defend Moses Malone of the 76ers and Robert Parish of the Celtics. I don’t think you can compare every player in Bucks history with Kareem and Robertson – I think that is a bad precedent to set, and a very inaccurate one. Players who were important at that time with the organization absolutely should be retired – what is the harm of retiring a number? None. Lanier’s number absolutely should be retired as should Marques Johnson’s – I’m actually very surprised his number isn’t.

  7. John-

    I don’t mean to compare everyone to the two greatest Bucks, I just meant to imply that only the truly SPECIAL get such an honor. My only caveat to retiring numbers of players who contributed to very good teams? Where does it end? You seemed well versed in Bucks history, and admittedly I am too young to have seen the Bucks in the eighties, but what about Paul Pressey? Eight servicable years with numbers comparable to Lanier.

    Defense is hard to calculate, so I’ll give you that Lanier was doing his work against some true heavyweights down low and the numbers don’t show that. But I just feel like he was being rewarded for his work before he got to the Bucks and not really for what he did as a Buck.

    I appreciate the feedback though and love the thoughtful discussion. Thanks!