[This is a long article, so I’ll keep this brief. Brief enough to write that this article from the Los Angeles Times is one of my favorites from the 1970s. The reason: reporter Thomas Bonk took a seminal moment in NBA history and had the investigative wherewithal to fill in most of the blanks on the 1975 trade of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to the Laker. Bonk did so not only for the newspaper’s readers on December 25, 1987, when the story was published, but for generations of NBA nuts to come like me. All I can say is thank you, Mr. Bonk, for drilling down and getting the story. Your great story stands the test of time.]
In a suite of rooms at the Sheraton Hotel downtown Milwaukee, after a dinner of beef Wellington, red wine, and assorted cheeses, the National Basketball Association’s most valuable player, the most-dominant figure in the game, told his employers he didn’t want to work for them anymore.
Twenty-eight-year-old Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said that night he wanted the Milwaukee Bucks to trade him. While the men who ran the Bucks listened in deathly silence, Abdul-Jabbar said he wanted only one thing. He wanted out.
The night of October 3, 1974 marked the beginning of the end of Abdul-Jabbar’s association with the Bucks. In the five years he had played in Milwaukee, he had won an NBA title, in 1971, and had taken his team to a seventh game in the NBA Finals just six months before that night in October.
Now, those things were no longer enough to keep him happy. And although no one knew it at the time, that one meeting eventually produced the biggest blockbuster of a trade that the NBA has ever seen, the one that brought Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers.
For almost eight months, the trade that has rearranged the balance of power in the NBA had a couple of noticeable characteristics. Whatever package the Bucks would eventually wrap Abdul-Jabbar in, it had to be a huge one. And it would also be a secret one, at least while everyone tried to figure out where to send the package.
While the Bucks kept looking, they kept quiet. They thought they could talk Abdul-Jabbar out of leaving, but his mind was made up. “I had only one year left on my contract, and I told them I really wasn’t interested in signing up again,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I wanted to leave Milwaukee. If they would trade me it would be the best thing for everybody.”
There may be a whole generation of fans who believe Abdul-Jabbar probably was born in the painted area in front of the basket at the Forum. This just has to be his home, the only place he has ever known. It is from here, with his back to the basket, that Abdul-Jabbar looks over his right shoulder, then dribbles to his left, and lofts a shot so famous it was named for him. The sky-hook.
Abdul-Jabbar has not always been a Laker, no matter how much it may seem like it. How long has it been? Laker clocks say it was four NBA titles ago. According to a more conventional method of telling time, it was more than 12 years ago.
The trade that changed the makeup of the Lakers happened Monday, June 16, 1975, when club owner Jack Kent Cooke announced he had sent four players—Brian Winters, Elmore Smith, David Meyers, and Junior Bridgeman—and a cash payment to the Bucks for Abdul-Jabbar and Walt Wesley.
For Cooke, it was probably his highest achievement as owner of the Lakers, and he remains justifiably proud of it. “It was almost wholesale on our side for what amounted to retail on their side,” Cooke said. “We got this magnificent player, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The great success of the Lakers really stems from the acquisition of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. I don’t think there is any question of that.”
Cooke had once before traded for a well-known center. Before the 1968-69 season, he traded Jerry Chambers, Archie Clark, and Darrall Imhoff to the Philadelphia 76ers for 32-year-old Wilt Chamberlain. Chamberlain retired in 1973 after playing on one Laker championship team, the 1972 club that won the NBA title from the New York Knicks in five games.
But never before or since has the best big man in the league been traded at the height of his career, going on to lead his new team to four NBA titles, outscore every player who has ever played basketball, play longer than anyone ever has before, and outlast every one of the younger players for whom he was traded.
The trade that brought Abdul-Jabbar to the Lakers was unique, complicated, innovative, and also essential to the franchises of the Lakers and Bucks. It also changed the lives of six players involved in what Cooke called “that dizzy trade.”
It caused one city to look at itself and another one to close its eyes, pinch itself, and wonder how it could be so lucky. And the whole thing began on a Thursday night in October, 12 years, 2 months, and 22 days ago. For those who were involved, it doesn’t seem so very long ago.
The telephone rang in the office of Wayne Embry, general manager of the Milwaukee Bucks. Sam Gilbert was calling. Gilbert was a UCLA basketball booster and an adviser to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, among a number of other current and former Bruins.
Embry, now the general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, clearly remembers that phone call of more than 12 years ago. He remembers it because Gilbert requested a meeting. The subject? Abdul-Jabbar.
“When he said he wanted to talk about Kareem’s future, I didn’t know what the hell to expect,” Embry said. “I sensed that there was something that wasn’t right.”
The problem wasn’t with the Bucks. The problem was Milwaukee. Abdul-Jabbar didn’t want to be there anymore. William Alverson, the team’s president, had already masterminded a three-year contract extension of Abdul-Jabbar’s original 1969 deal that went into effect November 1, 1972. “Everything was fine for a while,” said Alverson, then and now a partner in a Milwaukee law firm.
That renegotiated contract listed Abdul-Jabbar’s salary at $350,004 for the 1972-73 season and $378,000 for 1973-74. Abdul-Jabbar would earn $399,996 for the 1974-75 season. But he made it clear that he wanted his next contract to be written someplace other than Milwaukee.
Gilbert and Abdul-Jabbar showed up to meet Embry, Alverson, and board chairman Wes Pavalon. First they ate, then Embry waited for Gilbert to get down to business. “Finally, Sam dropped the bomb,” Embry said. “Kareem wanted to be traded. Of course, it took us by surprise, even though I was somewhat suspicious. Sam further said Kareem wanted to be traded to New York. His second preference was Washington and his third preference L.A.
“We asked Kareem if there was dissatisfaction with us, and he said, no, he just wanted to be traded from Milwaukee,” Embry said. “He said his lifestyle and the lifestyle in Milwaukee were not compatible.”
Such an admission should not have caught the Bucks by surprise. Two years before, Abdul-Jabbar had told an interviewer that he and Milwaukee were running on two different tracks. Chuck Johnson, now retired, was the sports editor of the Milwaukee Journal when he wrote a story while traveling with the Bucks on a West Coast trip. The story quoted Abdul-Jabbar about his problems with Milwaukee.
“He admitted it was difficult for him in Milwaukee,” Johnson said. “It was all cultural differences. Milwaukee was a blue-collar city. Well, when the story came out, everybody in Milwaukee was mad as hell. He had put down the city. It wasn’t his kind of place. Of course it wasn’t, it wasn’t his style at all, certainly not New York or L.A. It was probably the first indication in print that he didn’t like it here.”
Alverson’s recollection of the Gilbert meeting is that Gilbert did more talking than Abdul-Jabbar. “He told us that Kareem had given it another shot,’ Alverson said. “What had been fine since the new contract, Sam told us wasn’t fine anymore. Milwaukee just wasn’t where a big-city boy could be comfortable, he said. In essence, it was a foreign culture to Kareem. He wanted out, he would be out, one way or another. The implication was that if he had to sit out a year, he would. We believed him.”
The Bucks were well advised to treat Abdul-Jabbar’s desire to be traded as a serious issue. If he did, indeed, sit out a year, or if he followed through on his vow not to sign again with the Bucks after his contract expired and went to another team, they could wind up with nothing—not Kareem, not any players from a trade, and little or no goodwill from the fans.
At that time, the NBA had no rules governing the movement of free agents, players who had fulfilled their contracts. This was before the so-called Robertson suit in 1976, brought by Oscar Robertson [and other team player reps], in which the federal courts spelled out what was then the NBA’s free-agent system of compensation and the right of first refusal.
Alan Rothenberg, who was the Lakers’ attorney for Cooke, did not know at the time that Abdul-Jabbar wanted to be traded, but he soon would. Rothenberg, now president of the Clippers, said the Bucks were walking a tightrope with Abdul-Jabbar. “The compensation rules hadn’t been tested,” he said. “Milwaukee was afraid that [Commissioner Walter] Kennedy wouldn’t have the guts to give them any kind of an award if Kareem left and went somewhere else.”
Embry, Alverson, and Pavalon said they would do their best to make Abdul-Jabbar happy, while at the same time hoping they would be able to change his mind. After four hours, the meeting at the Sheraton broke up.
Two nights later, the Bucks played Boston in an exhibition game at Buffalo. It was in that game that Don Nelson accidentally poked Abdul-Jabbar in the eye, and Abdul-Jabbar angrily punched the basketball standard, breaking two bones in his hand. It took six weeks to heal, and that was long enough for Embry to stage a series of meetings with Abdul-Jabbar.
In more than one of those meetings, Embry said he asked Abdul-Jabbar if he had a personality problem with any of the Bucks management team. “I asked, ‘Well, am I the problem? Quite honestly, Kareem, I can leave and (Coach) Larry (Costello) can leave. You’re that important to the franchise.’ At that point, he just reaffirmed the fact that he just wanted to play somewhere else and finish his career in a city that he liked.
“So, I said to Kareem, ‘Look, out of respect to you, what you’ve done for the franchise, I think that we owe you respect . . . and (to) help you satisfy your needs, I’ll make that recommendation to the board,’” Embry said. “I did tell him, though, I didn’t think we could get him where he wanted to be in relation to his priorities.”
However, when the Bucks’ board of directors heard about it, not all of them were pleased. Board member Jim Fitzgerald led a group who believed that Embry and Alverson must have blundered if Abdul-Jabbar was no longer happy. Fitzgerald eventually forced a messy proxy fight in which both Pavalon and Alverson were supplanted, and he had control of the team. But that did not happen until after Abdul-Jabbar was gone.
“By implication, what they were saying is that if they were running the show, Kareem wouldn’t have wanted to leave,” Alverson said.
The Bucks had a gentleman’s agreement with Abdul-Jabbar to remain quiet about his desire to be traded, and it didn’t matter to him who was running the show. Embry and Alverson were understandably concerned that if other teams knew they were being forced to make a trade, the Bucks wouldn’t get very much in return.
But in March, the code of silence was broken. There was a broadcast report by Marv Albert out of New York that Abdul-Jabbar might be traded to the Knicks. Embry, who had been waiting for the day when word leaked on the possibility of a trade, quickly flew from Louisville, Ky., where he had been scouting a college game, back to Milwaukee, where he came up with a strategy. “I set up meetings with the management of both newspapers,” Embry said.” I confirmed that, yes, Kareem might be traded. But we don’t want to make a big thing out of it. The sports editors and the managing editors gave us cooperation. They agreed.”
Bill Dwyre, now sports editor of The Times and then sports editor of the Milwaukee Journal, said he attended no such meeting and knew of no self-imposed censorship on his part or that of either the Journal or the Milwaukee Sentinel. “There’s no way,” Dwyre said. “He must be remembering something else. I remember I had written a column right after Albert’s report out of New York. I wrote there was no way they’d trade Kareem. If I had been a part of any meeting like that, it would have saved me a real embarrassing column.
“Besides, we eventually beat the Sentinel on the story of the trade, and there is no way their editors would have stood still for that.”
Alverson was also aware it was probably only a matter of time before the Abdul-Jabbar trade rumors showed up somewhere. But once they came from New York, he made a mental note to forget about dealing with the Knicks. “I’ll go to my grave believing that the Knicks convinced Kareem and Sam that it was all locked up,” Alverson said. “(Before the leak) we were thinking about convincing Kareem to stay by providing him a townhouse in New York and a full-time charter service to get him to Milwaukee. We were scrambling.”
Every now and then, Abdul-Jabbar dropped hints on how he felt about Milwaukee. When he was asked in the 1974 playoffs how he liked Milwaukee, he said: “It’s where I work.”
Abdul-Jabbar finally confirmed he wanted to be traded on March 14, 1975. The Bucks had just played and lost a home game to, oddly enough, the Lakers. “I don’t have any family or friends here,” Abdul-Jabbar told reporters at the time. “The things I relate to don’t happen to be in this city to any meaningful degree. Culturally, what I’m about and what Milwaukee is about are two different things. The reason I haven’t commented on this before is I don’t want to take a knock at Milwaukee or the people here and have them think they’re unworthy of me. That’s not what it’s all about.
“I have no unkind feelings toward the people of Milwaukee or Wisconsin. I want to underline that. But my family and friends aren’t here, and culturally what I am into does not exist here. My stay with management has been great, and the personnel on the team is great. I have no complaints on that.”
Alverson was then forced to confirm that Abdul-Jabbar had asked to be traded from the Bucks. When Alverson was asked whether Abdul-Jabbar was at odds with Costello, Alverson responded this way: “If you ask me if Kareem has ever expressed his satisfaction with him, the answer is yes.”
Costello now lives in Utica, NY, where he coached Utica basketball until the school dropped to the Division III level. He said that the only reason Abdul-Jabbar wanted to be traded was so he could move to a different city. “It wasn’t that he disliked Wayne Embry or myself, it was just something he wanted to do with his life,” Costello said. “We didn’t want to lose Kareem. No one in his right mind would want to lose a guy like him. But he had his mind set. He gave us some great years in Milwaukee, and he did a lot for that franchise. He had to live his life, too.”
In the second season of Chamberlain’s retirement, there was little life with the Lakers. They finished 30-52 in 1974-75, their last year before Abdul-Jabbar, and their worst record since they came to Los Angeles from Minneapolis for the 1960-61 season.
But there was something the Lakers had, something that had already caught the attention of the Bucks, who finished last in the Midwest Division at 38-44 in their first season without Oscar Robertson. The Lakers had two first-round draft choices. They had a rookie guard named Brian Winters; they had a 7-foot-1, three-year veteran center named Elmore Smith. Because of Cooke’s fortune, they also had cash.
Almost immediately, the Lakers moved to the head of the class. Contrary to appearances, the Lakers were there from the beginning, according to Alverson. “They were always our target,” he said. “The Lakers were at the top of our shopping list, but we didn’t try them until late in the game. Then we were play-acting. We were trying to give the impression we had a lot of possibilities with other clubs.”
This was not true. The first team to drop out was the Bullets. Abdul-Jabbar said he never seriously considered them. But if he had, he would have quickly forgotten them after several people were murdered in a house he owned in Washington. The people slain were Muslims, followers of Abdul-Jabbar’s former teacher.
“It wasn’t that I didn’t feel secure there, I just was moving away from dealing with those people, and I didn’t see any need to end up right in the middle of the city with those people,” he said.
That left the Knicks and possibly the Atlanta Hawks, who may have had an outside chance. In the spring, there was a rumor of a three-way deal with the Knicks, Hawks, and Bucks. But Alverson quashed it as soon as it came out. The deal would have sent Atlanta’s Lou Hudson and the Knicks’ Walt Frazier and John Gianelli to the Bucks, who would then have traded Abdul-Jabbar to the Knicks and given $1 million to the Hawks.
This was a preposterous trade rumor. In fact, the only player the Bucks liked who was offered by the Hawks was John Drew. But one player surely was too little. Embry also said the Knicks really didn’t have enough to offer, either. Both Frazier and Earl Monroe were offered, but they were both over 30. The Knicks also offered cash. “Well, what is cash going to do for me?” Embry asked. “I sent (team president) Mike Burke and (general manager) Eddie Donovan back to New York with their tails between the legs.”
Another trade rumor involving the Knicks had Frazier, Phil Jackson, Gianelli, and $1 million going to the Lakers for Abdul-Jabbar. Cooke had issued explicit instructions to come up with a new center to replace Smith, a talented defensive player with limited offensive skills.
There was one player the Lakers had their eye on—Bill Walton. But Pete Newell said Cooke was not particularly pleased with Walton’s lifestyle or his politics. Cooke was later asked whether he would have traded for Walton instead of Abdul-Jabbar. “I would have had to be somewhat awry in the noodle,” Cooke said.
Newell felt all along the Lakers had more to offer the Bucks than any other team. And even though Milwaukee knew that, the Bucks continued to play hard-to-get. “Kareem would go to Europe for a year and then be a free agent—this is what I was telling Wayne,” Newell said. “If he goes to Europe, you’ll get nothing.”
By then, Embry had already told Newell of the squabble between the Bucks’ board of directors in a telephone call. One day in mid-May, Newell called back. “He said, ‘We’ve talked about this thing, and we’re ready to make a trade.’ It was about one o’clock in the afternoon, my time. He said, ‘Why don’t we meet in Denver?’”
“Nobody wanted to be seen anywhere,” Rothenberg said.
The trade that brought Kareem to the Lakers was put together at the United Airlines Red Carpet Club at Denver’s Stapleton Airport. It took four hours and a lot of haggling, much of it over the one player the Lakers wanted to keep and the Bucks would not make a deal without. That was Winters.
Embry and Alverson represented the Bucks; with Rothenberg, Newell, and Jim Lacher, Laker vice president/treasurer, negotiating for Cooke. “There were no secrets anymore,” Rothenberg said. “They knew we were willing to give up the entire roster for Kareem. We were trying to convince them to take (Gail) Goodrich. He was older (32), and they just didn’t like him very much.”
The Lakers offered three players—Smith, Goodrich, and one of their first-round draft picks. But no money, and no Winters. Soon after that, the talks stalled. “We had a problem with Brian and the cash,” Embry said. “We kept talking with Rothenberg, Newell, and Lacher, and one of those three guys was always jumping up to leave the room. We could never understand what the hell it was they were doing. We found out later they were calling Jack Kent Cooke.”
Rothenberg had agreed to give the Bucks both of the first-round draft choices. Milwaukee designated whom the Lakers would draft, Meyers and then Bridgeman. Part of the agreement was a kind of allowance that the Bucks gave the Lakers to sign the two draft picks.
In addition, the Lakers agreed to include Winters. The Lakers also agreed to pay the Bucks a total of $800,000 on the following payment schedule, according to contract documents: $250,000 on December 1, 1975; $250,000 on May 1, 1977; and $100,000 on May 1 of each of the next three years.
Also part of the deal was that the Lakers had to sign Abdul-Jabbar to a new contract, which was never considered much of a problem. He wound up with a five-year contract, according to documents, that paid him $475,000 a season. Abdul-Jabbar also received a $750,000 signing bonus, which was to be spread out in annual payments each January 2 between 1981 and 1995.
Although the trade had basically been agreed to, it would still be nearly a month before it was signed and announced to the public. The Lakers kept their end of the bargain when the draft was held. They chose Meyers, the UCLA star, and then selected Bridgeman from the University of Louisville.
By then, Bridgeman had heard rumors he may not be staying long at the Forum. So, he asked Cooke about what he had heard, that he could be traded. “He never really answered the question,” Bridgeman said. “The only thing he said was that there was a one-in-four chance.” The chances were actually much greater than that, although Bridgeman didn’t realize it at the time. Bridgeman signed with the Lakers.
Meyers said he was certain he would be drafted high, not necessarily because of his ability, but because of the reputation he made by being part of the winning tradition at UCLA. Meyers remembers negotiating a contract figure with Cooke and Lacher.
“Cooke said, ‘Jim, can we do that?’ He nodded. Right then I knew something was up. It was just too easy. Everybody in the league knew Kareem was through with the Bucks. Jack Kent Cooke was such a smart owner, he wound up getting the best player in basketball.”
Bridgeman and Meyers are both out of basketball. Bridgeman, who owns a fast food franchise in Brooklyn along with former NBA star Paul Silas, is also a commentator on the Clippers’ television games. Meyers lives in Rancho California in Riverside County. He is a substitute teacher in an elementary school.
Winters was in Delaware visiting his girlfriend when Abdul-Jabbar was traded. When he returned home to Rockaway Park, NY, his sister, Moira, told him he had gotten two phone calls. “One was from the Lakers, and one was from the Bucks,” Winters said. “I found out years later, when I was having dinner with Pete Newell and Wayne Embry, that both of them said they made the deal for me.
“Getting traded to Milwaukee was probably the best thing that could have happened to me,” said Winters, who is in his second year as an assistant coach with the Cleveland Cavaliers. “I got a chance to start every night. Getting traded for Kareem was a happening in my life. And for the Lakers, it’s meant a few championships for them, hasn’t it?”
Smith lives in Cleveland, and he has not gone to an NBA game since he retired in 1981 after his eighth knee operation. He still receives a deferred salary from his NBA days. Smith is a door-to-door minister spreading the word of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Cleveland area. “I never had this much fun playing basketball,” Smith said.
His reaction to the trade was rather subdued. “It was just something that happened,” Smith said. “I look back on the whole experience as just that, an experience. I guess whatever feeling I had, it was mixed.”
Smith explained that he was studying to be baptized at the same time as the trade, so his mind was occupied with something else. “I really don’t know what to say about it all,” he said. “I don’t remember what my feelings were. I was too busy planning for the future now.”
There probably aren’t too many who figured Abdul-Jabbar would be in the Laker future for 12 years. Embry remembers an interview he gave right after the trade. “I was quoted as saying we got some good-quality young players,” Embry said. “I said ‘Kareem is 28, and they’ll be around when Kareem is long gone.’ Well, now all those guys are gone, and Kareem’s still going strong.”
The Lakers announced the trade at a news conference at the Forum on Monday afternoon, June 16. Ross Porter, who was then the sports director of Channel 4, had broken the story locally Sunday night. Porter had gotten wind of the trade and summoned a television crew from the station to set up in his backyard. “It was one of the biggest scoops I ever had,” Porter said.
But the contract, although it had been agreed upon, still had not been signed. That formality took place Monday morning at Cooke’s home in Bel-Air. The late Bob Owen of New York, Abdul-Jabbar’s agent before he hired Tom Collins, was present for the signing, which was not without its own brand of tension.
“We’re all signing,” Rothenberg said. “But as Kareem is signing, he’s putting some kind of Arabic symbol next to his name. Being a lawyer, I’m kind of cringing a little. I’m thinking, ‘What if he’s writing down: This contract is void . . . I’m doing this under duress.’ But I didn’t want to upset anybody.
“Finally, I said, ‘Excuse me, what is that?’ It was some symbol of good luck. That’s what he told me, and I had no way of knowing if he was telling the truth. So, I kind of wiped the sweat off my brow, smiled, and said, ‘OK, let’s go.’”
Once the contract had been signed, Rothenberg remembers that Abdul-Jabbar brought a point to Cooke’s attention. “Kareem had always worn number 33,” Rothenberg said. “Cazzie Russell was on the team then, and he had always worn 33. Kareem has got some great style, always did, and he just quietly happened to mention, ‘I know Cazzie Russell wears 33.’ He looks at Mr. Cooke: ‘My number is 33.’ You’ll remember that season, Cazzie was No. 32.”
Of course, Kareem is still 33, although he is now 40.
And who got the best of the deal? “It is not immodest to say we saved our franchise with our deal,” Alverson said. “I don’t think it’s proven to be a bad deal for the Lakers, either. But it was not a good deal for Milwaukee—it was an absolutely sensational deal for Milwaukee.”
Chick Hearn has been broadcasting Laker games since the playoffs in 1961. It is Hearn’s opinion that Cooke should be given a good deal of credit for making a dramatic move to improve the Lakers just as soon as he had the chance. “You can’t win without a great quarterback in football, a great pitcher in baseball, or a great center in basketball,” Hearn said. “Jack Kent Cooke was determined he would get the best one. Without him, we would never have gotten Kareem.”
Cooke, 75, sold the Lakers, the Kings, and the Forum to Jerry Buss in the spring of 1979. He has not forgotten the discussions with his advisers on whether to make the trade for Abdul-Jabbar. “Hot dog, which is my peak of exclamation—holy mackerel is second to that—hot dog, because it immediately reminds me I was sitting in my office, behind that fabulous Chippendale desk, which I have kept—it’s right here, and I’ve got my knees pressed against it right now—and I can see Bill Sharman, Pete Newell, the whole bunch of them around that desk. Dear, dear, wonderful Chick. And Jim Lacher. Canvassing them. Do you think we’re giving up too much? No, I don’t think so. So, finally we did the deal.”
Rothenberg said that Abdul-Jabbar’s arrival at the Forum was “the rejuvenation of the Lakers” and also proof of the magic of Cooke. “He just has that absolute knack and skill for knowing what it takes,” Rothenberg said. “He walks in, buys the Lakers, and they don’t win the championship because they don’t have a center. So, he gets Chamberlain. Then he says he’s going to get a great one. So, he gets Kareem.”
No, Abdul-Jabbar has not always been a Laker. Yes, every now and then, a superstar gets traded. Ask Moses Malone, to whom it has happened twice. Or Ralph Sampson. Or Chamberlain for that matter.
Come to think of it, ask Abdul-Jabbar. “It’s all worked out better than I could possibly have expected,” he said. “I think the trade is very ironic in a lot of ways. I was traded for a number of ball players that were like rookies or very early in their careers. They’re all out of the league now, and you know what? I’m still here.”