In a suite of rooms at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Milwaukee, after a dinner of beef Wellington, red wine and assorted cheeses, the National Basketball Assn.'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 Oct. 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 skyhook.
Abdul-Jabbar has not \o7 always\f7 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 game 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 the 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."