MILWAUKEE -- When John Hammond really gets going he talks as rapidly as an auctioneer. He's at the podium and he's cranked up right now. What he's selling is the concept of the Milwaukee Bucks.
"We still like our team," the Bucks' general manager tells a group of season-ticket holders before a game at the Bradley Center. It's been a season filled with injuries, yet Hammond continues to find reason to believe. The more he talks, the more animated he gets.
He starts describing how effective Corey Maggette is on isolation plays, then he drops into triple-threat position and imitates Maggette's jab step.
Hammond's a salesman, all right, but he's also an honest man. He tells the truth about his product.
"We're not built around a star, per se," he says.
In other words, the Bucks aren't championship contenders. Because in the NBA, championship teams are built around stars. And does anyone believe a marquee free agent will ever come to Milwaukee?
"I think it is feasible," Hammond says in an interview later. "But more than likely, it's probably going to come to us through the draft. Maybe we make a right move and hit the jackpot. It could maybe come through a trade ... probably -- honestly and realistically -- less likely through free agency. But why not through the draft?"
It's what they cling to, hoping that the draft can deliver once again the way it did in 1969, when the No. 1 overall pick brought them Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then Lew Alcindor) fresh out of his dominant tour at UCLA. (The same draft also netted Bobby Dandridge, who went on to become a four-time All-Star.)
But the Abdul-Jabbar saga in Milwaukee is bittersweet. Yes, he commenced his run to the NBA all-time scoring record by averaging 28.8 points per game in his rookie season and won the league's Most Valuable Player award three times with the Bucks. When Oscar Robertson arrived in a trade the next year they went on to win the championship. But Abdul-Jabbar also created the template for the migration of superstars from small markets. In 1975 he wanted to be in a bigger city, a more diverse city, a coastal city. He forced a trade that sent him to the Los Angeles Lakers.
There are some mitigating factors. It didn't drag out as long or as publicly as Carmelo Anthony's longing for a trade to New York. Abdul-Jabbar's departure didn't create as much lingering resentment as LeBron James leaving Cleveland.
"While it was painful at the time, in retrospect what I remember is the class and integrity that both the franchise and Kareem showed in arriving at a solution," said Bucks vice president of business operations John Steinmiller, who has worked for the team in various capacities for 40 years.
And you won't hear any anti-Kareem sentiment from longtime fan Doug Dorrow.
"He gave us a championship," Dorrow said. "He got us to the Finals in 1974. We could've won that one, too. We were there for like five or six years with that guy."
And while they never quite got "there" again, at least the players the Bucks received in the trade (Brian Winters, Elmore Smith and draft picks Dave Meyers and Junior Bridgeman) helped them stay on a tier just below the Celtics and 76ers in the Eastern Conference during the early 1980s.
But Abdul-Jabbar stays with the franchise as the standard of excellence and the example of exodus. None of the three subsequent No. 1 overall picks the Bucks have drafted -- Kent Benson, Glenn Robinson and Andrew Bogut -- produced at a Hall of Fame level from the outset. And if they do land another player as transcendent as Abdul-Jabbar there's a nagging doubt that they can keep him.
"Milwaukee isn't No. 1 on a lot of guys' hit parades, OK?" Dorrow said.
"Maybe if a great player that we trade [for] comes in, we get him, he plays a couple of years here, but he's from New York or the Philly area ...
Dorrow shrugged, and offered a few understanding words.
"Heck, I came home after college," he said. "It's not for everybody."
Believe it or not, Abdul-Jabbar also serves as an example for my belief that small markets should have the ability to overpay players. The only reason Kareem came to Milwaukee in the first place was because of money. He was also drafted by the New York Nets of the ABA, and the thought of playing within sight of the Manhattan skyline he grew up in appealed to him. But, surprisingly for an upstart league trying to snare talent from the established league, the Nets came in with a low offer, so Abdul-Jabbar chose the Bucks' higher salary.
Now where's the money going to come from? The Bucks remain at the absolute bottom of Forbes' NBA franchise valuations, worth $258 million with annual revenues of $92 million, according to the magazine.
The Bucks' arena, the Bradley Center, opened in 1988 -- before the colossal, luxury-suite-laden modern NBA buildings. Steinmiller calls it a "middle-aged star."
"The bone structure's fantastic," he said. "But the revenue streams have changed."
There's no momentum for a new building, and Steinmiller isn't waiting on another $90 million private donation similar to the one the state received from the Bradley family.
Steinmiller and Hammond cite the team's high payroll (10th in the NBA at $69.7 million), despite its limited income, as evidence that owner Herb Kohl is committed to putting a winning team on the court. They'll have payroll flexibility next year when Michael Redd's $18 million salary comes off their books. Hammond said he can get authorization to pay someone "an extraordinary number" if warranted. But who would take it?
"They're never going to get a LeBron," Bucks fan Joe Neuberger said. "Dwyane Wade went to school in town [at Marquette] and they're never going to get him back. The one guy you'd think you'd have a chance at and you're never going to get him back."
Some teams merely have to wait for one of those players to arrive. Most, like Milwaukee, have to hope.
The harsh reality is, "They don't have a shot to compete year-in and year-out," Neuberger said. "In a given year they have a shot to compete, but not year in, year out."
He hopes they can make a run once every three or four years.
"It turns out to be once every nine or 10 years," he said.
Indeed, it's been 10 seasons since the Bucks last made the Eastern Conference finals, and lost a Game 7 to the 76ers when Ray Allen's shot missed. Since then the Bucks haven't advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs.
So why does Neuberger keep his season tickets? His kids love coming to the games. He still enjoys the athleticism of the NBA. And let's face it ...
"You're in Milwaukee, Wisconsin," Neuberger said. "You're in the middle of winter. You come here on a Saturday night. Not a lot of options. I think that's why people come here."
And it doesn't take a championship contender to get them in the building. That's actually a hidden advantage to playing in a smaller market. In Los Angeles, the Lakers need to compete for a championship every year or they'll quickly become an afterthought, no longer in favor with the in crowd.
"I think Milwaukee's such a blue-collar town that they just want to see good, hard work," season-ticket holder Dorrow said. "Trying all the time. Not giving up. If we get a 50-win season, man, we're happy. We don't need a championship; that's icing on the cake for us. We just need a good, strong, competitive group that might stick around three-four years that we can relate to, that we can bond to."
The Bucks turned last season's playoff appearance into a 90 percent season-ticket renewal rate, in addition to about 2,000 new ticket packages, good enough to earn a commendation from the league. The Bucks are 22nd in attendance this season, averaging 15,303. You can still find large blocks of empty seats in the arena on a typical night. Most of the crowd's enthusiasm comes from a rooting group Bogut started and funded known as Squad 6. Their cheers and taunts reverberate through the arena.
The Bucks try their best to involve and reward their fans. One promotion tries to turn the chilly weather into a benefit and sells selected tickets to an upcoming game based on the current temperature. On this night the chilly 16 degrees means $16 seats. Another promotion seems to summarize the plight of the team even as it attempts to create interest in the team. The winner of a contest gets a chance to see a Bucks game ... in New York.