What did the Milwaukee Bucks ever do to the Philadelphia 76ers? Was it drafting Julius Erving in 1972 when he didn’t want anything to do with Brewtown, and, a few years later — preventing the Hawks from signing him out of the ABA? Or was it drafting somebody named Russ Lee six picks before the Doctor? Did the Bucks commit some cosmic offense to the basketball gods in the first round of the 1987 playoffs when they failed to close the Sixers out in Philly, moving the Dr. J retirement party to the Bradley Center — ensuring that the Doctor would suffer his final loss in front of Bucks fans? Didn’t Doc owe us at least that, small enough consolation though it was for the pain and suffering he and Bobby Jones and Mo Cheeks caused in the 1981, ’82, ’83 and ’85 playoffs?
Was it the Milwaukee police arrest of Charles Barkley in December 1991 for breaking some duffus’ nose outside Rosie’s on Water? A Milwaukee jury had the common sense to acquit Sir Charles of any wrongdoing, agreeing the punch was thrown in self defense. … Or was it this, on Nov. 1, 1996? —
Allen Iverson’s first shot in the NBA: (Unfortunately, some entity — the NBA, the Sixers or the Bucks — claimed protected rights on video of Allen Iverson and Ray Allen’s first minutes in the NBA, so the video evidence of AI’s first NBA shot and Ray Allen’s first made NBA 20-footer and first made NBA 3-pointer is no longer available … but read on ….)
I have a feeling it has something to do with that shot — the airball — #1 overall pick Iverson’s first field goal attempt in the NBA, his first shot on the Philly home court that he would ritually kiss before each game — an off balance fall-away off an aborted drive — drawing no rim in his premiere game for the fans who would grow to love him. That shot, the airball, even as his rookie Big East rival, Ray Allen, tickled the bottom of net with sweet jumpers, sinking both his first midrange two and, before he Answer could respond, his first high-arcing shot from 3-point land, that place that would become forever known as the Land of Ray and Reggie. The rhetoric of the 1996 draft — “Stephon Marbury creates shots for others/woulda been better for the Sixers” prognosis was out on parade, voiced in the clip by Bucks bland-alyist Jon McGlocklin — though you’d have to know that Johnny Mac was also taking a backhand swipe at the Bucks for drafting Marbury #4 and swapping him for a future draft pick and Ray, whom the Timberwolves had taken 5th. McGlocklin was one of the many thousands who thought the Bucks needed a “true” point guard, not a scorer, and obviously had similar thoughts about the Sixers, who had already had a young gunner — 22-year-old Jerry Stackhouse — in the fold. *(see notes on Stackhouse below)*
Iverson went on to score 30 opening night, 1996, but the Bucks won the game, 111-103 and took the season series 3-1, then winning the first two the next season in Larry Brown‘s first year as Sixers coach. But Brown and Iverson turned the tables in the remaining two 1998 Bucks-Sixers games, then went 9-4 over the next four season, beating the Sam, Ray & Dog “Big Three” teams 7 out of ten times. If the Iverson-Ray rivalry was on — and it was — advantage Sixers. Nothing screamed this louder than the bitter 7-game 2001 Eastern Conference Finals, still the NBA standard for crooked refereeing. Most of the shady stuff occurred in Philly but Game 4, the crucial game that would have put the Bucks up 3-1, was hijacked at the BC in a blur of calls and non-calls as the walking wounded Sixers were given new life. The series would live on in infamy, tarnishing Shaq’s 2nd title in LA if only the East Finals were more well-remembered. But they’re not. One of the NBA’s greates travesties wasn’t left on the cutting room floor of ESPN columnist Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball (publ. fall 2009) — Simmons simply forgot it. That’s OK, Bill. The Bob Boozer Jinx remembers.
Since Iverson dropped 5 of those first 6 games against Ray Allen, the Sixers are 28-15 vs. the Bucks, with many of the Answer’s career highlights achieved at Milwaukee’s expense, including a 45-point masterpiece in a 124-120 OT win in Philly, Jan. 3, 2000. For a few years, Iverson held the record for most points by an opponent at the Bradley Center (broken last season by Lebron James), dropping 54 on Michael Redd and Mo Williams, good defenders that they weren’t, more interested in filling up their own box scores than stopping AI from filling up his and winning the game. It was pure streetball that night at the BC, and Iverson was worth the price of admission. There was a down season for the Sixers against the Bucks after Brown quit and resurfaced in Detroit, and another in Iverson’s last full season in Philly, when he took one look at the rookie Andrew Bogut and realized that Ray Ray probably hadn’t been a Buck for years. The rivalry had become one-sided. The airball had been avenged, and it probably should have ended there, in Dec. 2006, when Iverson was traded to Denver for Andre Miller.
But it didn’t end there, and lately, the Revenge of the Airball has hit the Bucks hard: the Sixers have won 8 out of the last 10, and had won six straight until the Bucks 91-88 victory Jan. 27, very likely the Answer’s last game ever on the Milwaukee court that has been so kind to him. I was there to see it, and though Iverson gave way to Louis Williams in the 4th quarter, I caught a basketball high watching AI chase Brandon Jennings all over the court, both of them wearing #3, the young Buck honoring the old Sixer, his hero. I also believed I was witnessing the breaking of the Sixers’ spell. When Iverson left the team a couple of weeks later for personal reasons and didn’t come back, and the Bucks went on a 15-2 tear after acquiring John Salmons, I was sure it was over. Boy, was I wrong.
Wednesday night the Sixers, a dismal 24-47 and without two of their best players, Williams and Thaddeus Young, blew the Bucks out of the Bradley Center. Willie Green (16 pts) couldn’t miss until his team was up by 20. Rookie point guard Jrue Holiday (15 pts) proved unguardable for Jennings and Luke Ridnour. Center Sam Dalembert, as usual, locked down Bogut, with some help from 2nd-year big man Marreese Speights, and Dalembert was almost perfect under the basket for 12 pts, 10 rebs. Andre Iguodala played lock down defense on Salmons and was off to the races in the open court, where Iggy’s Sixers teams are at their best. Power forward Elton Brand, who’s done most of the damage for the Sixers vs. the Bucks this season (also singled out as the force of gravity slowing down Iggy and the gang since becoming a Sixer) didn’t have to break a sweat or make more than a shot. Brand was 1-7 from the floor in 27 uninspired minutes, while the Sixers young guns had a blast. Jodie Meeks, traded by the Bucks a month ago with Francisco Elson to the Sixers for Royal Ivey, Primoz Brezec and a draft pick, got into the act with 7 pts. The Bucks managed to make up a few points in garbage time for a 101-86 final.
Clearly, the Sixers’ mastery over the Bucks has extended beyond the corn-rowed one and the rivalry of a decade ago. Iverson was in Denver and Detroit and Memphis for the eight most recent Bucks losses, make that nine. The Sixers are now 9-3 vs. the Bucks since trading Iverson to the Nuggets, while going 127-155 (.454) against the rest of the NBA. But coach Maurice Cheeks had figured out that speed and nasty defense could be tough on the slow-footed Bucks, even as the detrus of Iverson and the rivalry remained, infecting his teammates with the necessary Buck-beating mojo. Iggy got it, and there was Dalembert (who seems to enjoy his matchup against Bogut). Guards Williams and Green were on those teams, and it infected Thad Young when he came along the next year. Now it seeems to have Holiday and sharpshooter Jason Kapano, too, after playing with Iverson for only a month. And, hey, look who’s back from a one-year exile in Minnesota — forward Rodney Carney, a Sixers rookie during the trade year. Carney killed the Bucks last year in a game at Minnesota, with 22-points and a 4th quarter 3-point barrage. I could mention ex-Sixer Kyle Korver here, too, but that would be redundant. There is something to this Sixers hex, the Philly jinx. The Revenge of the Airball.
If the fact that Wednesday’s loss was clearly beyond the red-hot Bucks’ earthly control wasn’t enough, take a look at how one other Sixer from those post Brown-Iverson teams did in the game. He’s on the Bucks (for now), and on Monday scored 32 in a classic 4th quarter shootout with the Hawks’ Joe Johnson. Yes, the Bucks salvation at shooting guard, John Salmons, predated even Dalembert in Phlly, playing his rookie year in Brown’s final Sixers season. Salmons played four years with Iverson under five different coaches (Cheeks the last one) shooting the ball five or six times a game off the bench if he was lucky.
Salmons was 2-12 Wednesday night in 30 mins against the Sixers and the hex, the Revenge of the Airball. He finished with 4 pts and as many turnovers (1) and fouls (2) as rebounds (1), assists (1) and steals (1). That airball of Iverson’s just never seems to get enough revenge.
*Note: Jerry Stackhouse started his career in Philly and played with Iverson in AI’s rookie year, but lasted only 22 games into the following season. I’m guessing that because he was unhappy playing second fiddle to Iverson and asked to be traded (he went to Detroit), Stack is probably exempt from any effects of whatever it is I’m calling this Iverson thing. Stackhouse was in just his third season when the Philly-Detroit trade went down, which tells us that …
A) Allen Iverson was horrendous to be around early in his career,
B) Jerry Stackhouse was quite the 23-year-old prima donna for a guy who would never go on to make All-Pro, or
C) Both A and B are true, and Larry Brown certainly wasn’t about to let Stack slash the tires on the Iverson-mobile.