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Fateful Flip

By Lance Tominaga, ESPN Honolulu Web Editor.

“The coin has come up tails.”

With those five words, the fates of two NBA franchises were forever altered.

The year was 1969, and the league’s two fledgling franchises – the Milwaukee Bucks and Phoenix Suns – were nearing the end of their miserable debut seasons. The Bucks would finish the year at 27-55, dead last in the Eastern Division. The Suns fared even worse, winning only 16 games and finishing 39 games behind the Western Division leader, the Los Angeles Lakers.

As the teams with the league’s worst records, the Suns and Bucks were in contention to land the No. 1 pick in that summer’s NBA Draft. That draft class included several promising players, including future All-Stars Jo Jo White, Bob Dandridge, Butch Beard and Norm Van Lier.

The jewel of the class, however, literally and figuratively stood head and shoulders above everyone else: UCLA’s Lew Alcindor, the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

At the time, the 7-foot-2 Alcindor was busy leading the Bruins to their third consecutive national championship. He would also finish his collegiate career with three national “College Player of the Year” awards and three NCAA Final Four “Most Outstanding Player” awards. In his three seasons of varsity ball at UCLA, Alcindor averaged 26.4 points and 15.5 rebounds.

Faced with the prospect of losing his starting job to Alcindor, Suns center Jim Fox (career averages to that point: 7.8 points, 8 boards per game) didn’t seem overly concerned.

“Maybe I can beat him out,” Fox told a reporter. “It’s a little unlikely, but it’s not impossible.”

The coin flip to determine which team would receive the top pick in the NBA Draft was held on March 19, 1969 in the New York office of NBA Commissioner Walter Kennedy. The historic proceedings were done via a four-city conference call involving Kennedy, Suns General Manager Jerry Colangelo in Phoenix, Suns President Richard Bloch in Beverly Hills, and a team of Bucks officials in Milwaukee.

Via random drawing, Kennedy awarded Phoenix the right to call “heads” or “tails.” Weeks earlier, the team let its fans vote on what the call should be, and the result was in favor of “heads.” (The fans may not have been the best source of good mojo. Earlier in the season, during a nationally televised Christmas Day game, a group of Suns fans were shown holding a huge sign that read, “WE WANT YOU, LOU!”)

“What is Phoenix’s pleasure?” Kennedy announced to the contingent.

”Heads,” said Bloch.

Kennedy nodded, then continued: “I’m going to flip a 1964 Kennedy half-dollar…no, not a Walter Kennedy half-dollar…in my right hand, catch it in that hand, and turn it on the back of my left hand. I’m going to put the phone down because I can’t do it with my feet.”

The commissioner then flipped the coin. The silver piece spun tantalizingly in the air – the future of two NBA franchises hanging in the balance.

“The coin has come up tails.”

An Arizona Republic reporter described Colangelo as “a study in dejection.” The newspaper’s sports editor called it “the blackest day in the infant franchise’s history.”

The reaction in Milwaukee, of course, was one of jubilation. “You should hear the cheering,” said Kennedy, cupping his hand over the phone. “It sounds like election night.”

The rest is history. The Bucks went on to select Alcindor in the April 9 draft, signing the 21-year-old to a multi-year deal reportedly worth $1.4 million. The move paid immediate dividends, as Milwaukee improved to 56-26 the next season – a 29-game turnaround from the previous year. Alcindor easily took “Rookie of the Year” honors after averaging 28.8 points and 14.5 rebounds a game.

The very next season, paired with veteran All-Star Oscar Robertson, Alcindor led the Bucks to their first (and to date, only) NBA championship. By winning the league title in only its third year of existence, Milwaukee became the fastest expansion team in North American sports history to win a championship.

Alcindor changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1972 and went on to become the NBA’s all-time career scoring leader (38,387 points). Over his 20-year NBA career, the master of the “Sky Hook” won six league titles and six MVP Awards. He was named an NBA All-Star a record 19 times.

Oh, as for the Phoenix Suns, they used the No. 2 pick in the draft to select the University of Florida’s Neal Walk. The  6’10 center would play eight NBA seasons, never made an All-Star team and jokingly referred to himself as the “booby prize.” Still, Walk remains one of only two players in Suns history (along with Charles Barkley) to average 20 points and 12 rebounds in a season, a feat he accomplished in the 1972-73 campaign. In a January game in 1972, Walk even put up 42 points against Abdul-Jabbar in a one-point victory over the Bucks.

Still, there’s little doubt who won that coin flip.

”I have no idea where that coin is [today],” Jerry Colangelo told Sports Illustrated in 2013. “And I’m not interested.”

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