by Todd Komarnicki
When it comes to sports, everything important that ever happened to me, happened at the age of 6. It was 1971, and I cried when Steve Blass and his pinpoint power beat Jim Palmer’s leg kick and Mark Belanger’s chop. The Pirates may have won the World Series, but the Orioles had my loyalty for life.
When the Dallas Cowboys’ defensive lineman Bob Lilly kept sitting on little Bob Griese’s head, my 6-year-old self could totally relate to being at the bottom of the pile. So the Dolphins took my NFL heart.
Two underdogs, two sports. Had to be a winner in the bunch. It that would come in the long and lanky form of ‘71’s NBA Champion Milwaukee Bucks. The world may have been watching Lew Alcindor’s impossible greatness or Oscar Robertson’s unstoppable certainty. But watching on our Zenith in Wynnewood, PA, I saw one thing. A second-year pro, skinnier than the wind, who made basketball look as easy as breathing.
In Latin, “Bobby Dandridge” means elegance in high tops. Alright, it doesn’t. But it should. Number 10 was liquid nitrogen, almost invisible to the human eye, but deadly in its force. Dandridge on the wing meant a cut for the back door that left a gash in the Milwaukee Arena floor. Or it meant a smooth 18-footer, so ticklish to the net, it asked for more. And the twine would get plenty more.
If Bobby D had been born into a weak team, like Bernard King and the ’84-85 Knicks, he could have easily rolled a 50 if the game demanded. Instead he was the salt on the Bucks popcorn—difficult to see but vital to the sweet taste of success. Dandridge was the silk before Wilkes. And watching Kevin Durant play today makes one sense what a Dandridge-led team would have looked like. Silent class. Silent assassin. And in my opinion, too silently appreciated.
In the driveway, the only way for me to beat my dad’s old school hook shot (which he hit consistently, from the lip of the garage, one hand on the Lincoln, no fair)… was to do a Dandridge slip-and-slide off the glass or, a gentle step-back, calling nothing but net.
Dandridge was such a part of my psyche that I started to imagine I could move that invisibly on the court. Fellow youth league players proved my vision, by never passing to me. With our lengthy family name, I would often give the restaurant hostess our call out as Dandridge. Which I still had to spell for her, but at least I got to say, “like Bobby Dandridge. Number 10. Milwaukee Bucks. You know.”
Even in this era when everything is so instantly viewable/mashable and forgettable on YouTube, finding footage of Bobby Dandridge doing his thing from the NBA, let alone his college career at Norfolk State is nearly impossible. And somehow, that’s just perfect. His greatness was his invisibility. Even on the ragtag Bullets who won the ’78 title, led by Elvin Hayes and Wes Unseld, few recall Bobby running the wing, filling the lanes, as lofty and lovely as ever. No NBA crown for either the Bucks, or the Bullets/Wizards, without Bobby. I’ve read that one of Dandridge’s nicknames is “Peek,” which proves it takes a discerning eye to see him.
The definition of clutch, Bobby parlayed his career regular-season stats of 18.5 ppg into 20.1 ppg when it mattered, in late spring. He was an All-Star four times, an NBA Champion in multiples and a graceful teammate from suit-up to flight home.
I don’t think a Bobby Dandridge Bobblehead Night is going to come from this article (it’d be cool, though—Bobby-head Night in DC!), but I do think it’s important to remember the guys who not only played the game well, but played it beautifully. The players whose sheer elegance inspired a million backyard fall-aways at the buzzer just before the dinner bell.
SLAM graciously afforded me the opportunity to speak with Mr. Dandridge, the favorite player of my youth. What follows are highlights of our wide-ranging conversation.
SLAM: The NBA game used to be more beautiful, elegant and therefore, in my opinion, a lot more fun to watch. Do you think team basketball will ever fully return, or is our culture too different to allow for it?
Bobby Dandridge: The current culture won’t allow for it. When I was playing, there was a natural flow to a game of basketball, and if a team wanted to excel it had to learn how to play within that flow. In the intervening years, all types of rules have been added to increase the scoring, because no matter how phenomenal today’s players are, scoring has remained stubbornly down—and now, with the constant double teaming as a defensive strategy, the natural flow of the game has suffered, too.
In the ’70s, a team scoring 100 points a game was routine. But due to lack of fundamentals, and the influx of a host of 19- and 20-year-olds who didn’t have the chance to learn the game in college…there’s a general lack of knowledge that hurts the flow. The way to understand the flow is from years of experience and just playing.
SLAM: Do you remain in touch with more members of the ’71 Bucks Championship team or the ’78 Bullets Championship team?
BD: After eight years with Milwaukee, I’d say it’s equal between both. I guess it’s natural that you wind up more aligned with the last team you played for. I’m closest with Elvin Hayes, I talk to the Big O (Oscar Robertson) at least once a month, Tom Henderson, etc.
But the thing that exposes me the most to the Wizards’ history is being head of the Wizards alumni association. It was a brilliant idea from Wizards’ owner Ted Leonsis. He felt the history of the Bullets was being lost on the Wizards and started bringing Bullets alumni back to the games to be recognized and to be treated with dignity—as the stars that they were. This has turned out to be a tremendous idea, to make up for players who have been forgotten. Phil Chenier, Wes Unseld, all the greats. Occasionally it’s difficult to get the former players to return, but once they get in the building, they love it. And it teaches the new players about the illustrious Bullets Championship past, which can only inspire the Wizards of today.
SLAM: If you had current players’ ears and the promise that they would do what you said, what one piece of basketball advice would you give them? And what one piece of life advice would you give them?
BD: Basketball-wise, I’d say keep basketball as the number one priority, and socializing number two. And that means practice an hour early and an hour afterward, put in the extra work. The guys that have excelled, like Kobe, Nash, Deron Williams, Durant, there are about 15 guys who do the extra work, the rest think it’s gonna come automatically by being on an NBA team. And work in the offseason, that’s the one place for dramatic improvement. That’s what the superstars do, so act like a superstar if you wanna be one.
Life-wise, elimination of the posse. If you need support the first couple of years, choose a family member, as opposed to taking your boys you used to hang out with back home. Because it’s a business and you need to be focused the first couple of years if you have any hope of continuing to live the dream.
SLAM: Did the move from Virginia, which was both your home state and your college locale, to Milwaukee, make you homesick?
BD: Not homesick, but it was a dramatic culture shock. I grew up in an all-black environment, so when I went to Milwaukee, and it was a whole different culture—every neighborhood was a different culture—I did find the inner city was the only part of Milwaukee that felt like my comfort zone. Because I didn’t branch out for a couple of years, I was viewed as stand-offish. But it was a combination of shyness and protectiveness. I was getting to live a childhood dream and I didn’t want to do anything to mess it up—so I decided to stay where I was most comfortable.
After Kareem left, Milwaukee got five first-round Draft choices—and suddenly I was the last remaining player from the Championship team. I had to surface as the leader. There was no more time for shyness. And it gave me an opportunity to work on leadership skills, having to be the man who was looked to in the clutch. I had two great mentors in O and Kareem…five years of watching how it’s done. I learned when to take over a game but still keep everyone else involved.
SLAM: What old-school magic from your NBA days would you like to see in the modern NBA?
BD: More overplay/prevent defense. Keeping your opponent from getting the ball was always the number one defensive priority. Bob Love was good at that. John Havlicek was exceptional at it. Bobby Jones, too.
It went out when trapping came in, but hustle is dead. Now if you get beat, you just stand there. When I was playing, if you got beat on an overplay, teammates would help you once or twice, but if you kept getting beat, it was on you. And there was always somebody on the bench ready to show the coach that he could play better defense. Now everything is help/trap. The one benefit is it does force teams to take low percentage shots—mostly threes. But the irony is there are more guys getting hurt, now, despite the fact that the game is far less physical today.
There’s nothing as old school as hustle.