Bucks Steal a Star in Unknown Curtis Perry, 1972

[Curtis Perry spent eight productive seasons in the 1970s NBA as the quintessential role player. At 6-foot-8, 220-pounds, the Washington, D.C. native was rugged enough to battle inside with the NBA’s burliest and athletic enough to snatch rebounds in traffic, finishing with career averages of 8.8 rebounds, 9.5 points, and nearly 2 assists per game. 

In 1970, when Perry entered the league as San Diego’s mostly anonymous third-round draft choice, he seemed destined for a cup of coffee in the pros and a quick waiver slip. What changed everything was a lucky move to the world-champion Milwaukee Bucks. This article, written by NBA insider and Milwaukee native Bob Wolf, describes Perry’s lucky roster move and offers yet-another example of how finding the right organizational fit matters in the NBA. The article ran in the January 29, 1972 issue of The Sporting News.]

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Ever since they came into the National Basketball Association three years ago, the Milwaukee Bucks have been trying to find a power forward. Now they apparently have stumbled onto one without even realizing it.

His name is Curtis Perry, and if it hasn’t yet become a household word, it is because he only recently graduated from anonymity. He is a 6-foot-7, 220-pound, second-year man from Southwest Missouri State, and from all indications, he is the steal of the year in the NBA. 

Curtis Perry in Houston

The Bucks came up with Perry in a manner that is slightly difficult to believe. They got him only because he had become excess baggage on the Houston Rockets’ roster after the Bucks dealt Greg Smith to Houston for the Rockets’ first-round draft choice. 

“Houston was going to put him on waivers after they got Smith,” said Bucks’ coach Larry Costello. “They had to get rid of somebody to make room, and he hadn’t been playing. We weren’t that well set up front, and Wayne Embry (Bucks’ administrative assistant) had recommended Perry, so we figured we had nothing to lose by taking a look at him.”

When they made the deal for Houston’s first-round draft pick, the Bucks figured they might finally be able to locate a power forward in next spring’s college crop. The Rockets had won only six of 29 games at the time, so the transaction put the Bucks in line for a prime pick in the draft. Costello named such prominent senior fowards as Dwight Davis of Houston and Travis Grant of Kentucky State as possibilities. 

Meanwhile, as Costello said, the Bucks took a look at Perry, and what they saw was almost too good to be true. After sitting out his first week as a Buck, Perry got his chance in a game against the Boston Celtics, and within another week, he had earned a starting shot. 

Perry was in and out of the starting lineup for a while, as Costello continued to experiment, but by the dawn of the new year, he had taken a firm hold on the forward berth that Smith used to occupy opposite Bob Dandridge.

The youngster has not set any houses afire with his scoring, but the Bucks don’t mind that. They have plenty of firepower wrapped up in the shooting arms of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson, Dandridge, and Jon McGlocklin. 

What they want is rebounding—solid, tough rebounding—and this is where Perry has endeared himself to Costello. In one stretch of five games recently, Perry was in double figures in rebounds four times. And don’t forget, there aren’t so many rebounds available with the 7-foot-2 Jabbar sweeping the backboards. 

“The thing I like most about him is that he gets rebounds in traffic,” Costello said. “He gets them with two or three guys around. Anybody can get a rebound when he’s the only guy there. Not only that, but he has made some great passes and has shown himself to be an unselfish player. He isn’t just thinking about scoring points. 

“And even as inexperienced as he is, Perry isn’t a wild, scattery type of player. He operates under control at all times. He listens to coaching and doesn’t make the same mistakes twice.”

Costello still has to pinch himself when he recalls how lucky the Bucks were to land Perry. “I certainly can’t say he’s here because of me,” Costello said. “I had heard a little about him, but not much. Sometimes a guy comes in and can’t even bounce the ball. All I knew about him was that we had a guy with a great build. I can’t remember ever having seen him play against us. 

“It would be great if a coach could spend two weeks in each training camp in the NBA. Then we would know what trades to make. You can’t tell much from six games a year.”

Big and rugged enough to take care of himself in a crowd around the basket, Perry has finally given the Bucks a man who can handle Dave DeBusschere of the New York Knicks, whose domination of Dandridge had much to do with the Knicks’ hex over the Bucks the last two seasons. 

The Bucks and  Knicks divided a home-and-home series recently, and thanks to Perry, DeBusschere was well contained. In the second game, in fact—the one the Bucks won—the New York veteran was no factor at all. 

Dandridge had always had to cover the much-stronger DeBusschere in the past because he was taller than Smith, but now he was free to guard a man his own size, Bill Bradley, and the Bucks had solved their matchup problem at last with Perry against DeBusschere. 

After playing against Perry two straight nights, DeBusschere said, “I wondered about the deal when the Bucks made it. I thought maybe they were giving up too much speed and quickness in Smith. But Perry showed me something. He’s a good, strong, tough player, and he did an excellent job on me.”

If the Bucks and the rest of the league are surprised about Perry’s sudden emergence as a starter for the NBA champions, how about Perry himself? “It’s unbelievable,” Perry said. “I really expected to be put on waivers by the Rockets. I wasn’t playing, and because I wasn’t playing, nobody had had a chance to look at me. 

“When the Bucks took me, I was happy to get out of Houston, but mostly I was happy to stay in the league. I figured I’d get a chance here, anyway. Costello hadn’t seen me play. So, I figured he’d at least put me in and see what I could do. 

“It’s nice playing in Milwaukee. It’s an entirely different attitude from Houston—strictly professional, strictly business. Everyone’s eyes are fixed on one thing: [winning] another championship.”

Perry was drafted by the Rockets, then based in San Diego, on the third-round last year after averaging 24.4 points a game as a senior in college. But he spent most of his rookie season with a team called the Northwest Travelers of Arlington Heights, Ill., in the Continental Basketball Association.

“Playing in the CBA was something,” Perry said. “At least it kept me in shape. I averaged about 22 points and 28 rebounds a game, and I also led the team in assists. Everybody shot except me. 

“I normally don’t pay that much attention to scoring. I figure I can help more by playing defense and getting the ball out. I guess that’s what everybody is supposed to do on a basketball team.”

Perry’s one pronounced weakness so far has been a tendency to foul too often. In one six-game stretch, he committed 31 fouls and fouled out twice. “But Larry keeps telling me not to hold back just because I get into foul trouble,” Perry said. “He just says, ‘Keep going, and we’ll worry about the fouls later.’”

As frustrated as he was with the Rockets, Perry lost no time in proving to the Bucks that he was a man of confidence. “A lot of people still think of me as a rookie,” he said. “But I’ve been around two years. My only trouble is that I never got much playing time. 

“They brought me here for rebounding, and that’s what I have to do. I’m supposed to help take some pressure off Kareem.

“Some fellows sit on the bench for years, and people think they’re not good basketball players. All they need is a break. My break was being traded, and my job is to make the most of it.”

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