Thursday, September 1, 2011

Court Artistry

Don Nelson took the reins of the Milwaukee Bucks after Larry Costello, the only coach in franchise history, stumbled to a 3-15 start in the 1976-’77 season. The team had fallen on dark times and needed a more colorful personality.

The 36-year-old Nelson had just signed on to be Costello’s assistant, briefly flirting with becoming an NBA referee after wrapping up a 14-year playing career. (Nelson had been involved with the NBA so long that he was drafted by the Chicago Zephyrs!)

In Nelson’s first full season as Bucks coach, renowned pop artist Robert Indiana was commissioned to paint the basketball court of the MECCA Arena, the old-school basketball venue in Milwaukee that housed the Bucks and Marquette at the time.

After more outrageous proposals for a colorful court were scuttled, Indiana’s design included 3-D lettering of “MECCA” at mid-court, dark paint on the sidelines and a large “M” in different shellacs on each half of the floor.

The playing surface didn’t have a peer in the NBA, and the Bucks took off with the high-art court serving as a backdrop. Milwaukee racked up 50-win seasons in Nelson’s last seven seasons with the team.

As Nelson told Milwaukee Magazine in a 1989 story about Indiana’s design: “The whole thing we developed over the 11 years I was there was really special and the floor was part of it.”

But Nelson could never get the Bucks into the NBA Finals. After losing to the Seattle SuperSonics in seven games in the 1980 Western Conference semifinals, Milwaukee was shifted to the Eastern Conference.

That would prove to be a death knell for any hopes that the Bucks would get a title in the 1980s. In his last seven seasons with Milwaukee, Nelson’s teams were bounced out of the playoffs by powerhouse Eastern Conference teams from the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers.

The Bucks’ best record under Nelson was 60-22 in 1980-’81. The season ended with a 99-98 loss to the 76ers in Game 7 of the Eastern semifinals. That game featured a tussle between 76ers bruiser Steve Mix and Bucks big man Bob Lanier and an official inquiry to the league office by Nelson after a typographical error by the scorer had the 76ers holding possession of the ball for 31 seconds before Caldwell Jones made two free throws that provided Philadelphia with a 99-95 lead in the final minute.

Nelson was NBA’s coach of the year in 1982-’83. The Bucks were able to sweep the Celtics in the semifinals but then advanced to face one of the greatest teams ever in the 76ers. Philadelphia dispatched Milwaukee in five games and then stormed to the title with Moses Malone, Julius Erving, Maurice Cheeks and Andrew Toney.

Nelson was also named coach of the year in 1984-’85 but was again eliminated by the 76ers, this time in a sweep.

After losing five of six playoff battles, the Bucks were able to defeat the aging 76ers in a seven-game Eastern semifinal battle in 1985-’86. In the deciding game, the Bucks took a 113-112 lead when Craig Hodges’ driving layup was goaltended by Charles Barkley with 28 seconds remaining. The 76ers set up a final play that ended with Erving getting a wide-open 12-foot shot. The shot bounced high of the rim and fans stormed the Indiana-designed court.

The reward for the hard-fought victory? A date with the Boston Celtics, whose outfit in 1985-’86 merits serious consideration for greatest basketball team ever assembled. The Bucks were swept away again.

Nelson’s final season with Bucks in 1986-’87 also ended at the hands of the Celtics. The Bucks pushed the Eastern semifinals to seven games but were edged, 119-113, in the final game.

Nelson soon joined the Golden State Warriors, spearheading the “Run TMC” teams that ran with the coach’s fast-break philosophies but ultimately didn’t have the individual defenders like Quinn Buckner and Sidney Moncrief that Nelson had in Milwaukee.

Not long after Nelson’s departure, the Bucks moved to the relatively antiseptic Bradley Center, leaving the famous MECCA court behind.

Indiana’s court was recently purchased to be part of the Hank Raymonds Educational Center, named for the former Marquette coach whose teams also competed on that magical floor.

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