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October 1, 2014

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NBA SUMMER LEAGUE:

Milwaukee GM ‘back home’ while leading Bucks

John Hammond grew up in northern Illinois, recalls team’s history

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Rob Miech

Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond has a bit more passion for this particular stop in his career, since he was born and raised in Zion, Ill., a short hop from Milwaukee where he listened to Hank Aaron play baseball for the Braves in his youth.

John Hammond grew up listening to Hank Aaron play baseball for the Milwaukee Braves and watching Marquette coach Al McGuire stalk the court at The Mecca.

In Hammond’s hometown of Zion, Ill., halfway between Chicago and Milwaukee, local allegiances are split between the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears.

Most important, Hammond followed the Milwaukee Bucks, from when the NBA club won a coin flip to get Lew Alcindor, to when Alcindor’s sky hook led the Bucks to a championship in 1971.

To when, a day after winning that title, Alcindor changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to when the center bolted west, to when the Bucks had such difficulty in the 1980s against Boston and Philadelphia.

Either Marques Johnson and Sidney Moncrief could beat the Celtics and Larry Bird, but not the 76ers; or they could beat Dr. J and the Sixers, but not the Celtics.

Milwaukee never beat both Eastern Conference powers in the same playoffs to reach an NBA Finals.

Hammond has been Milwaukee’s general manager for a bit more than a year. As he watched a young Bucks squad participate in the NBA Summer League at Cox Pavilion, he reminisced about his youth.

Which is why he brings so much passion to his current post.

"All the teams you’re talking about, I watched play," he said. "I saw the Big O (Oscar Robertson) and Kareem – Lew Alcindor at the time – play together.

"I saw the greats like Johnny Mac (John McGlocklin), and the Marques Johnson and Sidney Moncrief days. I know the history of Milwaukee basketball. I lived it. I am kind of back home."

Hammond, who turns 55 on Sunday, meets many people at Milwaukee home games who trek from the northern regions of Illinois to see the Bucks play.

"Really, it’s easier, in the far North Shore, to get to the Bradley Center than the United Center," he said. "We have a good following in northern Illinois. I grew up as one of those people."

A sister, Barb Edmonds, often makes the hour-long trek from Genoa City to Milwaukee to see Hammond’s work-in-progress, as do a host of aunt and uncles and cousins.

"To have them come to the games means a lot," Hammond said. "I like to talk about them bringing some of the Hammond luck into the building after a win."

Basketball fans in their early 40s will know Larry Bird and Julius Erving without flinching. Marques Johnson doesn’t exactly evoke memories of clutch shots or electric postseason performances.

But Johnson, who had a sweet jump shot and elegant drives from the wing, deserves to be mentioned at the end of a paragraph about Bird and Erving.

"It’s sports," Hammond said. "I’m sure we’re going to be talking about guys like Karl Malone and John Stockton, who they had to beat, and couldn’t, to get there.

"But it doesn’t take away from the greatness of the players or the organization or what they accomplished. Sometimes you can’t finish it the way you want."

An array of banners hangs in the Bucks’ practice facility.

"People can’t take those away from you," Hammond said. "Maybe you didn’t become a championship team, but you had some great runs and a city that loved the team and was proud of their team, and loved the way they played.

"We’re trying to get back to those days."

Johnson, who befriended Hammond when he was an assistant coach for the Los Angeles Clippers, called Hammond with a congrats when Hammond got the Bucks’ job.

"He wished me the best, and that meant a lot," Hammond said. "I think the world of Marques. For a guy like him to talk about his appreciation for Bucks basketball … it’s pretty neat."

Hammond’s major task over the past year has been creating roster flexibility for the Bucks. That, he insists, was what trading Richard Jefferson to San Antonio was about.

To consistently win with the proper salary structure, Hammond said, is the key. Do that and you put yourself in a position to go from good to great when a dynamic acquisition becomes available.

"Then you can acquire the piece that will make the difference," he said. "It might make us a (luxury) tax team … but I know this, we have an owner (Sen. Herb Kohl) who will do that."

The Bucks, Hammond admitted, aren’t currently in a position to talk about a title.

"We’re under financial constraints," he said, "with a roster that probably isn’t considered a championship-caliber team."

If restricted free agent Ramon Sessions fields an offer from another team that the Bucks don’t match, Hammond will be comfortable with Luke Ridnour running the team and speedy rookie Brandon Jennings spelling Ridnour.

Finally, Hammond admitted that the passion he has for his current post is accentuated by the fact that he’s putting his own stamp on an organization.

In Detroit, he was the vice president of basketball operations when he and GM Joe Dumars assembled a team that won an NBA championship in 2004.

The possibility of doing it himself, in a city he grew up admiring from close range, made Hammond pause.

"Talking about this, I’m kind of getting emotional," he said. "But to be able to do it so close to home, and having family and friends be a part of it, would make it even more special."

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