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The real story behind Kareem’s trade to the Lakers

by Peter Vecsey

NEW YORK — Begging Bob Seger’s forgiveness for slanting unbeatable lyrics, but I wish I knew then what I’m only finding about now.

Thirty-six years ago (come June 16) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was traded by the Bucks to the Lakers. Prior to his sixth season the team franchise player/league centerfold politely in formed management he was prepared to sign with the ABA Nets when his contract ran out later that year if he wasn’t dealt to an NBA city of his choice.

Carmelo Anthony is executing pretty much the same game plan with the Nuggets. Having respectfully notified management he wants out after 7 1/2 seasons, he is prepared to exercise an escape clause and become a free agent at the end of this year if he’s not traded to a team of his choice.

Two “supreme court cases” with one definitive difference: The first remained utterly undercover for over nine months until the Bucks finally accepted a rationally satisfactory offer, whereas the Nuggets’ negotiations with the Nets were played out publicly almost every day for four months before Mikhail Prokhorov (temporarily?) terminated trade talk.

“Kareem set quite a precedent, didn’t he?” Wayne Embry marveled last week by telephone from his winter home in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he works as a part-time consultant to the Raptors.

Talk about setting a standard; six years after concluding an 11-season career as a center (12.5 points, 9.1 rebounds) for Cincinnati, Boston and Milwaukee, Embry (74 on March 26) became professional sports’ first black executive when the Bucks hired him to replace Ray Patterson.

Meaning, Embry conducted the clandestine operations that resulted in the Lord of the Rims being exchanged (along with Walt Wesley) for Brian Winters, Elmore Smith, the second and seventh picks in the first round (David Meyers and Junior Bridgeman) and cash.

That was my second full season of tracking the Knicks; I’m still unsure why I got demoted from covering the Nets/ABA war zone. Like everyone else, including the Bucks’ two beat writers, I didn’t have the foggiest idea Kareem had asked out until shortly before the trade became official . . . and still knew very few of the pertinent particulars until Embry agreed to share them.

Kareem’s final chapter in Milwaukee began Oct. 4. Sam Gilbert, the unofficial godfather and illicit supporter of many UCLA basketball players, called Bucks majority owner Wes Pavalon and heaved a hint of bad news on his doorstep.

A very straightforward meeting involving Pavalon, Kareem, Embry and Gilbert convened that Saturday for almost four hours at an isolated Sheraton west of Milwaukee. Kareem prefaced his wish to be traded with “Nothing against the organization, but the city and I aren’t culturally compatible.”

There was no talking him out of it. Kareem’s mood was pleasant, but he put it right out there about jumping leagues to the Nets if something couldn’t be arranged with the Knicks or Lakers.

“We knew if this got out we would be sunk in our city, so we established guidelines,” Embry said. “We agreed to keep things quiet until a trade got close and that’s what happened.”

However, trade proceedings got delayed when Kareem broke his hand during the exhibition season. Don Nelson fouled him hard underneath and he just whirled and punched the stanchion.

Though the league’s all-time leading scorer (38,387) played 68 games, finishing third in scoring (30), fifth in rebounding (14) and first in blocked shots (3.26), the Bucks (38-44) never recovered. They failed to make the playoffs after losing in the Finals (Celtics) the year before in seven games.

The Knicks were first to bid. Team president Mike Burke and GM Eddie Donovan visited Milwaukee and “tried to steal Kareem,” Embry said. “They thought they had the edge because he was from New York.” They offered a past-his-prime Walt Frazier and, as usual, had no first-round picks.

“They thought cash was appealing to everybody, but cash can’t play,” Embry scoffed.

Team president Bill Alverson grumbled to Embry, “They think we’re country hicks. Burke shows up in a $1,000 suit and tries to take us to the cleaners.”

Amazingly, nothing leaked out about the negotiation.

Although Kareem didn’t designate the Atlanta Hawks as an option, Embry called them anyway, because they owned first and third picks in the 1975 draft. A meeting with owner Tom Cousins and coach/GM Richie Guerin went nowhere. Those picks translated into David Thompson and Marvin Webster. Both signed with the ABA Nuggets.

Embry’s road running buddy was Lakers GM Pete Newell. At some point he confided Kareem’s stance and the rapidly restricting time frame to trade him.

Nearing mid-June, “out of the blue” Newell called Embry at 10 a.m., 7 a.m. in Los Angeles, and asked if Kareem was available. “He might be,” he said.

A meeting was arranged that very afternoon in Denver at a Red Carpet Hotel. Embry and Alverson represented the Bucks in the conference room. Attorney/Board of Governor Alan Rothenberg and Jim Locher represented Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke.

The Lakers offered the two picks. Done!

The Bucks asked for the shot-blocking Smith and offered Wesley to back up Kareem. Done!

The Lakers offered past-his-prime Gail Goodrich. The Bucks needed to rebuild and instead wanted the deft-shooting rookie Winters who had averaged 11.7 points. No deal!

“This guy Locher kept leaving the room,” Embry remembered, “and we keep negotiating.” Long after the fact, it was learned he reported progress to Cooke, whose instructions were not to return to L.A. without a deal.

There was still no deal at 8 p.m. Embry and Alverson booked a red eye to Chicago and left for the airport. Just before takeoff, Rothenberg trotted down the concourse to their boarding area. Negotiations continued on the flight to Chicago and remained unresolved.

“Still no Winters, still no damn deal!” Embry exclaimed.

Embry and Alverson rented a car and drove to Milwaukee.

“I had just climbed into bed when my wife hands me the phone and says, ‘Guess who’s in town?’ ” Embry recalled. Rothenberg met Embry and Alverson at Wayne’s office at 10 a.m. The deal was consummated long before noon that included a cash component.

How much?

“I’m ashamed to admit, something like $250,000,” Embry said.

Several board members of the Bucks were opposed to the agreement. Embry convinced them how serious Kareem was and how much the team had to lose if a deal wasn’t made. He conceded it wasn’t perfect, but advocated doing it out of respect to Kareem who carried the team to the 1971 title and the 1974 Finals.

Oscar Robertson had retired. It was time to build a new foundation.

Peter Vecsey cover the NBAfor the New York Post.