Who the @!&# is Swen Nater and why is he one of the most important players in Bucks history?

Andrew Bogut hauled in 27 rebounds last night in the Bucks 101-95 overtime loss to the Miami, tying Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s Bucks franchise record for most defensive boards in a game with 20.   Kareem did it twice, once in 1974 and once in 1975.

Bogut’s 27 total rebounds were six off the franchise single game record of 33 held, not by Kareem or the Dobber, Bob Lanier, Vin Baker or any All-Star big man Bucks fans would remember, but by a 6’11” center who had, like Kareem, played for John Wooden at UCLA and who, like Dan Gadzuric and Francisco Elson, was a product of the Netherlands:

Swen Nater.

Who?

Nater grabbed 33 rebounds Dec. 19, 1976 in Milwaukee at Mecca Arena against the Atlanta Hawks, a game that is distinguished in other ways by the fact that it was one of only 30 games the Bucks won in 1976-77, Don Nelson’s first season as Bucks head coach.  It was Nellie’s 13th game, his 3rd win of an NBA coaching record 1,335.  That old “Green and Growing” jingle hadn’t been written yet. Bango didn’t even exist.

Neither did the ABA, which made the 1976-77 NBA season the dawn of the modern era.  Nater, a 1973 Bucks draft pick, joined the Bucks three years later when the ABA dissolved (see comments below),  played one season and was traded to the Buffalo Braves for the #3 overall pick of the 1977 draft as the Bucks dove headlong into a youth movement, created Bango, hired somebody to write the goofy “Green and Growing” jingle and dove headlong into a youth movement.

Nater, along with Moses Malone, Artis Gilmore and Marvin “Bad News” Barnes was one of the top rebounders in the ABA, and didn’t disappoint in the NBA.  In the five seasons of his prime, 1977-1981, he hauled down 4,848 rebounds in 392 games (12.4 per) for the Bucks and the Braves/Clippers.  In 1980 he led the NBA with 1,216 boards and in 1981, led the league in defensive rebounds with 722.

To put that in perspective: Bogut’s season high is 763 overall rebounds in 2008.  In his sixth season, AB’s career total is 3,318.  Statistically, and in terms of durability, only Dwight Howard in today’s NBA has put together a five consecutive rebounding seasons that compare favorably with Nater, 1977 through 1981.

Nater averaged 13 pts and 12 rebs per game in 72 games for the Bucks in 1976-77, about where Bogut’s current numbers are.  No, Swen didn’t block shots or play defense like Bogues (no center in Bucks history has ever played the kind of enforcer D Bogut is playing now) but he hit his free throws.

What madness befell the Bucks that caused them to trade Nater to Buffalo for a draft pick?

Nellie and the Bucks in 1977 had the #1 overall pick in the draft and their hearts set on 7-footer Kent Benson out of Indiana, and this made Nater expendable.  Benson, however, was a bust, more or less, and was eventually traded to Detroit for Bob Lanier.

The Bucks used the #3 pick they netted from Buffalo on another player from UCLA, forward Marques Johnson, who, in his rookie season, led the Bucks to within one game of the Western Conference finals.  By 1979, Marques was a first team All-NBA forward, arguably as good as Dr. J.  By 1980 the Bucks were back in the East, where Marques was the one matchup that gave Larry Bird fits more than any other (sorry Doc).  The Bucks remained in the Golden Age’s top tier along with Magic’s Lakers, Bird’s Celtics and Dr. J’s Sixers for the remainder of Marques’ career (1977-84) in Milwaukee.

That 1977 Nater trade eventually morphed to bring Terry Cummings, Ricky Pierce and Craig Hodges to the Bucks in the 1984 trade with the Clippers (for Marques and Junior Bridgeman).  Cummings, Pierce and Hodges helped keep the Bucks in the upper echelon of the league through the 1980’s, or until Sidney Moncrief’s knees gave out.  Cummings, the primary player in the Marques trade, would later bring back All-star Alvin Robertson in a trade with the Spurs.

Of course, what the Bucks did with the abundant resource that was Swen Nater was certainly more important than Nater himself, but an argument could be made that getting Swen out of the ABA and then trading him to Buffalo are two of the most important — and ultimately beneficial — events in the history of the Bucks.  The drafting of Lew Alcindor in 1969 still stands as the single-most important event in Bucks history; the trade with Cincinatti in 1970 for Oscar Robertson is up there;  the trade with Detroit in 1979 that allowed the Bucks to draft Moncrief was another monumental event.

But Nater-for-the-pick-that-became-Marques, in my book, ranks ahead of the Sidney draft, and not only because Marques was my favorite player and the 1977-82 Bucks were a team built around him. By 1983, the Marques-and-Sidney, Sidney-and-Marques Bucks were arguably the best team in Bucks history, certainly one of the best teams in NBA history never to win a title.

What makes the Nater-Marques transactions matter more than others (probably even more than acquiring the Big O) is that they were the gift that kept giving into early 1990’s, when the Bucks at last, after more than a decade of winning, had to tear down and rebuild.  No Nater, no Marques. No Marques, no Terry Cummings or Ricky Pierce or Craig Hodges.  No Cummings, no Alvin Robertson.  And so it goes … all the way to the tanking that eventually led to the #1 pick in the 1994 draft.

And all this makes Swen Nater, the gift from the defunct ABA that kept giving, who once grabbed 33 rebounds for the Bucks in a single game, a player whose significance to the Bucks franchise rivals that of Sidney and the Big O, and is lesser than only Kareem and the player Nater was traded for, Marques Johnson.

20 thoughts on “Who the @!&# is Swen Nater and why is he one of the most important players in Bucks history?

  1. Kevin

    The 79-80 Bucks split 6 games with LA., 2-2 with Benson, 1-1 with Lanier. Seatlle was the defending champion, so if we knock them off we have a good chance against LA. Lanier was still in top form, and he always gave Kareem fits in Milwaukee with Detroit. Buckner was excellent on defense, and he would have guarded Norm Nixon, the Lakers point guard at the time. That would have put Winters on Magic or Wilkes. Marques may have guarded Magic at times, as he was taller and Magic went to the rack more than he shot from outside. But it would have been a great series.

  2. J.D. Mo. Post author

    Do you think the Bucks would have gone on to beat the Lakers in 1980? Seattle’s center was Sikma, not as good against Kareem as Lanier. Marques usually dominated Jamal (Keith) Wilkes. I worry about Quinn on Magic, though. As it was, Quinn had a tough time with Cheeks, another reason the Bucks couldn’t get past Philly in ’81.
    1982, Junior was injured again and Quinn’s knees were about finished … so that year’s off the table. But I’d have to agree that 80 and 81 were the prime years to beat Magic and Bird, when they were in their rookie and sophomore seasons. And before Bird had DJ and McHale, and before Magic had Worthy.

  3. Kevin

    The 11 man roster also contributed to not keeping George, and Pat and Richard both played key roles in 79-80.
    That rebounding weakness made the result in Philly predictable. But losing Junior in game five of the 1980 Seatlle series cost us a title.

  4. J.D. Mo. Post author

    Nellie had to trade George to Indiana for Mickey because George — after having played a year in Denver “on loan” — refused to play for Nellie. By then, the Bucks wanted George back because Meyers decided to retire. So what I meant was, that instead of loaning George to Denver, Nellie should have kept him on the team regardless of Meyers condition or whether he would be able to play. That 79-80 season, Bucks fans fretted over Meyers and his back, and he was never what he was two years earlier, before the back injury.
    So the Bucks keep George around, maybe he doesn’t start but the 79-80 team is a little better, and maybe, just maybe, George sees 80-81 as an opportunity and helps the Bucks get over the top against Philly in the 81 playoffs.
    Three of the four games the Bucks lost to Philly in that seven game series were close — the three Bucks wins were blowouts. If the Bucks do a better job controlling the defensive glass against the Jones’ and Dawkins, the Bucks win that series.

  5. Kevin

    I think you mean they if they hadn’t traded George for Mickey in 1980. Meyers return in 79-80 and Pat Cummings’ arrival probably made George expendable to Denver. They also traded future GM Ernie Grunfeld for Richard Washington. But as we discussed before, they really didn’t need more scoring to justify the Indiana trade, and Mickey’s average fell about 5 points, anyway.

  6. J.D. Mo. Post author

    I have completely forgotten Otis Howard. Baskeball-reference says he was a 6-8 forward who played in three games for the Bucks in 1978 and Nellie shipped him to Detroit … but I have no memory of this.
    I still think if Nellie had hung on to George Johnson and not “loaned” him to Denver for a year they might’ve overcome the loss of Meyers and got past Philly in 1981. George turned out to be one helluva rebounder for a couple of years, and that’s what the Bucks clearly lacked. Mickey, not so much and that series came down to a single play (or two) underneath the defensive glass.

  7. Kevin

    Boston got by Detroit, so I think we would have. We almost won or won 6 of the 7 games in that Boston series.

    Pat Cummings I hated to see go, even though he bombed in the 1982 Philly series. Even though he was picked in ’78, his rookie year was 79-80. And don’t forget Otis Howard.

  8. J.D. Mo. Post author

    Even Pat Cummings wasn’t a bad pick in 1978, after we took George Johnson. Cummings had a surprisingly long career and had a couple of decent seasons with the Knicks setting picks for Bernard King. He wasn’t good enough, though to help much in the playoffs vs. Philly, though at least he was around, which Nellie couldn’t say about Ernie Grunfeld.

    Moving ahead to Game 7 in 1987, do you think they could have handled the Bad Boys from Detroit? I remember being fairly confident about it considering all the firepower the Bucks had with everybody healthy.

  9. Kevin

    He was also a home town favorite. I still don’t know why they didn’t re sign him. His replacement, Mike Evans.
    The Bucks traded the 1980 pick with Benson. Then they did okay: Lister, Pressey and Breuer. Then a drop of with Kenny Fields, Jerry Reynolds and Skiles. Scott wsn’t ready to take charge and then was injured. Then they acquired John Lucas, which made them a serious contender. But that 3-1 deficit to Boston was too much to overcome, although they came close. That game 7 is shown on NBA TV, and watching it, i believe Nellie blew it. They had control, but they were obviously tired at the end. Craig Hodges, who won the deciding game 5 vs. Philly, did not get the call.

  10. J.D. Mo. Post author

    Forgot about Lloyd Walton. He was a late 1970s version of Boykins, though he couldn’t shoot as well as Earl does. He did a decent job filling in for QB.

  11. J.D. Mo. Post author

    1976 was good — Quinn Buckner and Alex English. English only played two years but had a couple of huge games in that Denver series in 1978 — probably had a lot to do with why the Nuggets wanted him. When the Bucks let English go to Indiana after his breakout in the playoffs, they were compensated with the Pacers’ first round pick in 1979, which Nellie traded to the Nets for Harvey Catchings.
    So 1976 draft nets Buckner and English/Harvey — not too shabby considering how important those two were to the defense.
    Still, there’s a title for the Bucks in there that the Bucks could have, would have, should have had if Nellie and Fitz had managed what seems like an overabundance of resources just a little bit better.

  12. J.D. Mo. Post author

    They couldn’t get ahold of UCLA’s starting center? I’m beginning to wonder how competent the Bucks original ownership and management team was about the draft … so many picks after 1969 when they drafted Kareem and Bobby D, so little to show for it.
    Wayne Embry was GM by then — what the heck was going on?

  13. Kevin

    The ABA out bid the NBA for several players and that was the beginning of escalating salaries. Virginia would pay more for a starter than Milwaukee would for a reserve. Also, Swen had to know that Kareem played 40-48 minutes per game. But all I remember reading in the Sentinel was that the Bucks were not able to contact Nater. huh?
    The Bucks also had Julius Erving’s NBA rights. Too bad he wasn’t still with the Squires.
    Don’t think Nater would have mattered against Boston. He was a rookie and Cornell Warner was so strong on the boards he beat out Curtis Perry to start and outrebounded Happy Hairston in the first round. The Lakers were the only team to win the regular season series from the Bucks in 73-74 and it was because of Hairston dominating both backboards. Warner went to the Lakers two years later.
    The Bucks problem in the Boston series was the full court press disrupting their offense. Lucius Allen was out, Ron Williams was benched for forward Mickey Davis because he was hapless, so Costello went with a bigger lineup. McGlocklin was playing with a leg or knee injury, so Oscar had to do all the work. The players were wore out in Game 7 from the double overtime in Game 6. But Cowens fouled out of Game 6 and carried Boston in the fourth quarter of Game 7. The Bucks trailed 72-66 after three.

  14. J.D. Mo. Post author

    Do you know why Nater decided to sign with Virginia in 1973 instead of playing for the Bucks? Seems the Bucks probably would have beat Boston in the 74 Finals if they had had Nater underneath to help Kareem out against Cowens and Paul Silas.

  15. Kevin

    Benson was improving when he was traded to Detroit, and then was average. The 79-80 Bucks got out of the gate fast, but then slipped to .500 when they traded for Lanier. We know the rest.
    I always wondered what would have been if Benson was not decked by Kareem in his very first game. Also, Kareem took a lot more physical abuse from Dennis Awtrey in previous years. But Benson paid the price.
    The Bucks did not need Birdsong with Winters and Bridgeman, and Kansas City had Wedman and needed a shooting guard bad. So Marques was going to be there at number 3. But he easily could have been number one. Dandridge went to Washington, so they had to get Marques one way or another.
    Imagine Nater and Meyers on that 80-81 team.

  16. J.D. Mo. Post author

    Thanks Kevin – the Bucks media guide is woefully incomplete about some of those 1970’s transactions, as we’ve discovered with the George Johnson mess in 1978-80. I’d better stick with basketball-reference, especially for the ABA goings-on.
    But I do remember watching Kent Benson, who never looked comfortable on an NBA court, and wondering what if? Why not just keep Nater and use the #1 on Marques, which even then seemed like a no-brainer even with Bernard King and Walter Davis and Otis Birdsong also in the 1977 draft. That’s how good Marques was.
    And Benson really was that bad, and so much of a disappointment that you had to wonder. Nater missed all of 8 NBA games in his four seasons after the Bucks traded him, and led the NBA in rebounding — and that’s a huge difference in the middle that the Bucks would have been able to count on night after night through 1982.

  17. Kevin

    Nater was drafted by the Bucks in 1973 to back up Kareem but lost him to the ABA. The Virginia Squires, his last ABA team, were not in the Dispersal Draft so those players went to the teams that had their NBA rights, Twardzik to Portland was another example.
    Benson had a shaky senior year, and I have said many times that the Bucks should have kept Nater and drafted Marques No. 1. He definitely would have made the difference rebounding and there would be a few more banners hanging in Bradley. I appreciated Bob Lanier, clutch, but he only got about 6 boards per game. By the way, I watched that 33 rebound game on TV. Nater was also the reason Elmore Smith was traded to Cleveland, the center aquired in the Kareem trade.

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