The winningest coach in NBA history (1,335) got the lion’s share of those wins as coach of the Milwaukee Bucks in the Marques Johnson–Sidney Moncrief era. This weekend coach Don Nelson — Nellie — was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame.
With Satch Sanders (a Celtics teammate from Nellie’s playing days), Bucks center Bob Lanier and Nellie’s Warriors star Chris Mullin standing behind him, Nellie reeled off the names of his Bucks core – the best team the NBA ever forgot: Sidney, Marques, Junior Bridgeman, Brian Winters and Paul Pressey (Terry Cummings, Marques’ eventual replacement, also got a nod). Here’s the video of the full speech:
Nellie won 540 games (.611 winning percentage) and seven straight division titles with the Bucks, one in the Western Conference, then six straight Central Division titles in the East after the 1980 realignment that set the rivalries in the post-ABA merger Golden Age. Oh, it made sense geographically for the Bucks and Bulls to switch conferences with the Rockets and Spurs, aligning the three Texas teams in the Midwest Division after the 1980 expansion in Dallas — but moving Marques and Lanier’s Bucks (Moncrief was coming off the bench behind Winters at the time) into the East with the Dr. J’s 76ers and Larry Bird’s Celtics grossly weighted the balance of power in the league.
Had the Bucks stayed in the West, the 1981 Finals might well have been a Milwaukee-Philly matchup. The 1983 Finals would certainly have been a Milwaukee-Philly showdown. Instead, Nellie’s Bucks were denied the big stage by either Philly or Boston in the East playoffs while Magic Johnson’s Lakers waltzed to the Finals eight times in 10 years. Those great Bucks teams have faded in league memory, getting less respect now than Reggie’s Pacers and the Malone-Stockton Jazz teams, even Ewing’s Knicks, Finals losers all.
As difficult as it may be for fans who don’t remember to imagine this, Reggie Miller — inducted into the Hall this week with Nellie — would not have started on the Bucks and been a valued sharpshooter off the bench circa 1981-87, playing behind Moncrief. The same is true of Jamal Wilkes, also inducted into the Hall this weekend. Wilkes would have backed Marques up, just as future Hall of Famer Alex English did in the 1977-78 season. Marques and Sidney — 5-time All-Stars both — were that good. Yet their Bucks teams seem to slip further into unremembered time with each passing year.
Who was that the camera cut to when Nellie mention Sidney and Marques? There in the audience sat an expressionless 76ers coach Billy Cunningham, deep in thought. Four out of five years (1981-85), the Sixers kept the Bucks from a shot at the Finals or the Celtics, or both. Was Cunningham remembering Game 7 in 1981 in Philly, when Caldwell Jones saved the Sixers by grabbing a loose ball under the 76er basket? Or was he thinking of the protest Nellie filed with the league after that game?
Or was Cunningham thinking about Dr. J and Marques, a small forward showdown for the ages, one that Doc ceded to Bobby Jones on the defensive end? If a Bucks fan could offer a guess, it was probably about “Bobby.” Which heroic Jones defensive play was the Sixers coach remembering? His memory on those plays (and non-calls by the refs) can’t possibly resemble how a Bucks fan remembers them. But at Nellie’s induction, Cunningham was there, back in time somewhere, lost in the many close shaves the Sixers had against the Bucks.
Dr. J and Bird were in the audience, but (as you’ll see in the video) the cameras didn’t find them during the Bucks portion of Nellie’s speech. And when Nellie noted that his assistant coach (and former teammate), K.C. Jones, won two titles with Bird as Celtics head coach, Nellie politely declined to mention that Jones got the Boston job amid the fallout from the Bucks’ 1983 playoff sweep of the Celtics — four straight in the playoffs, in Bird’s prime.
Later on in the speech, when Nellie mentions that he coached Miller on “Dream Team II” in 1994, the cameras do find Bird and his “Dream Team I” teammate Michael Jordan. While Jordan is smirking, apparently enjoying a private joke, the look on Bird’s face is none too pleasant. It is drawn into a scowl, and there’s a dark look in his eyes, as though he wanted to revoke Nellie’s Celtics player credentials. I like to think that Bird was still mulling the Bucks and the ’83 sweep, about the sub-par shooting series he had against Marques; and how Nellie humiliated the Celtics — Danny Ainge in particular — during the series, labeling the over-matched Ainge “a whiner,” not good enough to be on the court with Moncrief, Winters, Pressey and Bridgeman. Things were pretty ugly for the Celtics in that series from the opening whistle to the end, when Moncrief threw in a three-pointer in the closing seconds just to add to the Celtics humiliation. The final score wasn’t close.
The Celtics fired coach Bill Fitch shortly after the sweep and replaced him with Nellie’s assistant, Jones. They kept Quinn Buckner on, too, as a backup point guard, probably more so to make sure Nellie didn’t bring Quinn back to Milwaukee in 1984 than because Quinn was much use to the Celtics. Whether that’s true or not matters less than the depth of the bitterness felt in Boston after the sweep. The next season the Celtics got their revenge, beating the Bucks in the 1984 East finals on their way to a title and Quinn, bad knees and all — the player once singled out by Nellie as the one guy he would never trade — was in kelly green, not the forest green of the Bucks.
Or maybe Bird was remembering the Celtics being down 10 to the Bucks in Boston with four minutes to go in Game 7 of the 1987 East semifinals, with only the Pistons between either team and the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Miraculously and with it all on the line, the Bucks self-destructed and the Celtics won their fifth trip to the Finals in the Bird era, another Larry and Magic finals. And it is Celtics guard Dennis Johnson, not Sidney Moncrief, who is in the basketball Hall of Fame.
This may change someday for Sidney, now a Bucks assistant coach, maybe next year but probably not. Moncrief won the league’s first two Defensive Player of the Year awards and was the only guard in the 1980s allowed into any conversation about Magic and Michael (sorry Isaiah), yet his name did not appear on the list of potential 2013 inductees posted by NBA-TV during the induction ceremony. Bobby Jones was listed, however, and so was Sixers point guard Maurice Cheeks. This is how the league remembers the era that included Nellie’s Bucks, even if Larry Bird doesn’t.
For now, the Bucks coach is in the Hall, and that will have to do. It does, if only because of Cunningham’s far away stare and that horrible scowl on Bird’s face during Nellie’s induction speech.