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How the Bucks ended the Lakers’ historic winning streak with a vengeance

Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain elevates above Bucks center Kareem Abdul–Jabbar for a shot.
Lakers center Wilt Chamberlain elevates above Bucks center Kareem Abdul–Jabbar for a shot during the 1971-72 season.
(Los Angeles Times)

The hype during the 1971-72 NBA season was about the historic winning streak the Lakers were building.

It was about the team of Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich, and how the Lakers were mowing down opponents by an average margin of 16 points. It was about a run no one had seen before in major professional sports in the United States and about how the Lakers were on the verge of capturing their first championship since moving to Los Angeles in 1960.

As the streak was reaching its crescendo of 33 in a row, word reached the Lakers that the Milwaukee Bucks were intent on putting an end to all the talk about L.A.’s greatness.

After all, the Bucks were the team of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson, and they were the defending NBA champions.

So, on Jan. 9, 1972, in Milwaukee, a Sunday afternoon, the Bucks stopped the Lakers’ run, winning 120-104 to send away West, Chamberlain, Goodrich and the rest of the Los Angeles cast with their first loss since Oct. 31, 1971.

Jim Cleamons, a Lakers rookie at the time, recalled that they were getting messages that the Bucks “had revenge in their hearts and minds.”

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“A lot of the talk around it, but it wasn’t from the Lakers talking, it was from other people talking,” Cleamons said of the Lakers’ historic run. “That really kind of pissed them off. And because it pissed them off, they were on a mission that Sunday afternoon. They had a national crowd to do it, and they damn sure kicked our ass.

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“First of all, we had beaten them early on, so when we met them on this particular Sunday afternoon, them dudes had larceny in their hearts. They wanted revenge, or whatever you want to call it. They were looking forward to playing us. Especially since it was going to be on national TV. Needless to say, they had their engines, their energy and everything was all revved to kick our ass. That’s what they wanted to do.”

The Lakers defeated the Bucks 112-105 in Game 11 of the winning streak, at the Forum in Inglewood on Nov. 21, 1971.

Abdul-Jabbar had been a force in the game, finishing with 39 points, 17 rebounds and six assists. Yet it wasn’t enough to overcome the Lakers, who had five players score in double figures, led by Goodrich’s 27 points, Jim McMillian’s 25, West’s 22 and Chamberlain’s 26 rebounds.

On that Sunday afternoon when the Bucks snapped the Lakers’ winning streak , Abdul-Jabbar was powerful again with 39 points, 20 rebounds and five assists.

West led the Lakers with 20 points, but he was just five-for-16 shooting from the field.

“I would have no idea what they were saying,” West said about the build-up to the Jan. 9 game. “But I would say this: If I was playing against a player and he got a lot of attention and he was playing in the backcourt, there’s no way that I wasn’t going to feel some extra juice in my body. There was no way I wasn’t, right?”

For 65 days and 33 games, the Los Angeles Lakers were unbeatable during the 1971-72 season. Here’s a look back at the winning streak 50 years later.

During the streak, the Lakers won 16 games on the road and one game at home in overtime.

Pat Riley was one of the Lakers’ key reserves, and though he was mystified at how they escaped with some wins, he pointed out how they kept the string alive.

“I go back, and I remember that there was a least a half-dozen games we should have lost,” Riley said. “But somehow we won because of the greatness of us and Chamberlain and those players.”

The Lakers continued their march onward after losing to the Bucks, finishing with a 69-13 record that is third to the NBA’s best of 73-9 by the 2015-16 Golden State Warriors and 72-10 by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls.

The Lakers earned their revenge against the Bucks when it mattered the most by defeating Milwaukee in the Western Conference finals.

From there, the Lakers won the NBA championship in five games over the New York Knicks.

They began the 33-game winning streak against the Baltimore Bullets, a 110-106 victory that started the Lakers toward an achievement no one saw coming.

It remains the longest winning streak in American professional sports, something Cleamons said he doesn’t “want to see broken during my lifetime.”

Bucks guard Oscar Robertson tries to steal the ball from Lakers forward Jim McMillian during a 1972 playoff game.
Bucks guard Oscar Robertson tries to steal the ball from Lakers forward Jim McMillian during a Western Conference finals game on April 14, 1972.
(Paul Shane / Associated Press)

“Look, I wished we could have extended our streak, but we knew that they, Milwaukee, was pointing on doing their best to kick our ass,” Cleamons said. “It was clear and obvious from the jump ball that they wanted to send us a message.

“They were still the defending champions, and they weren’t going to relinquish their championship just because we had that streak. That streak didn’t mean jack as far as they were concerned. And they were 100% right.”


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