Abdul-Jabbar’s jersey staying in Milwaukee

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar left the Bucks in the 1970s, but his jersey will be staying in Milwaukee.

Troy Kinunen's heart rate spiked as the minutes ticked away on Saturday. He stared at his phone and dialed from Milwaukee to New York City repeatedly, test calls to make sure the voice on the other end of the auction would answer when it mattered most.

For a Milwaukee sports memorabilia collector chasing one of the biggest scores in the city's sports history, this moment brought the highest levels of stress. 

"I had two phones, two extra batteries," said Kinunen, who runs the Milwaukee memorabilia evaluation and research company MEARS. "I was a nervous wreck for like three hours. I didn't want to miss it. I kept calling my contact. I had a backup phone. I took it real serious. I didn't want anything to go wrong."

In the end, Kinunen's agonizing made way for elation. He placed the winning bid of $80,000 on a home white Milwaukee Bucks jersey worn by Lew Alcindor from 1969-71. The jersey, Alcindor's last before he became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, was the only one available to the public. The other home white jersey is in the Basketball Hall of Fame. 

Even when the 19.5 percent buyer's premium from the auction house was added, bringing Kinunen's total payout to $95,600, his happiness couldn't be dimmed. 

The jersey, sold as part of Heritage Auctions' Platinum Night Sports event, could have been purchased by anyone in the world. Kinunen recognized the significance of bringing it back to Milwaukee, the town where Alcindor began his professional basketball career.

"Being in Milwaukee, what's a better piece that epitomizes early Bucks basketball than Lew Alcindor's rookie jersey and his championship season?" Kinunen said. "That was our city's only championship. It was something that I really decided to be aggressive about. From a business standpoint, too, I think it was a good price what I paid for it when compared to other historic jerseys."

Heritage Auction consignment director Chris Nerat had estimated the Alcindor jersey could sell for anywhere from $150,000 to $250,000. And Kinunen said he was willing to pay $150,000 or more if necessary. Fortunately for him, it didn't come to that.

The jersey had belonged to Patrick McBride, a former Bucks ballboy who became the youngest equipment manager in professional sports history at age 17 in the early 1970s. He had held on to Alcindor's jersey for more than 40 years before deciding to auction it off.

McBride sold Oscar Robertson's 1970-71 Bucks championship season jersey for $55,000 at the same auction. He also sold Abdul-Jabbar's first pair of game-worn goggles from 1974 for $6,500. McBride snatched them out of the trash in the locker room after Abdul-Jabbar discarded them because the goggles were scratched.

All told, McBride said his Bucks items sold for $148,000 at the auction, and he'll likely see about half that money after taxes and auction fees.

McBride, who went to the auction in New York with his 26-year-old son and 23-year-old daughter, said the auctioneer called on him to speak about his experience as a Bucks ballboy before the items went up for their final bid. He discussed how critical Robertson was to the championship team and shared his belief that Robertson and Alcindor were the best guard-center combination in the NBA.

"Those jerseys carry a lot of memories and a lot of magic and a lot of meaning," said McBride, now the dean of students at the University of Wisconsin medical school. "For me, that was a really special moment. I'm so glad that jersey ended up back in Milwaukee."

Other items up for bid at the auction apart from McBride's collection included Mike Eruzione's game-worn jersey from the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" Olympics semifinal against the Soviet Union. The jersey sold for $657,250 including the buyer's premium. His hockey stick from the same game went for $262,900. A 1927-28 Lou Gehrig game-worn New York Yankees jersey sold for $717,000, and Curt Schilling's bloody sock from the 2004 World Series was purchased for $92,612.

Kinunen said he first became aware of the Alcindor jersey's existence a few months earlier when his company was asked to authenticate it. When he realized its significance, he knew he had to own it.

"I had a very positive feeling about it right away," Kinunen said. "I've handled other period Bucks jerseys of common players, or not of Alcindor's caliber. By handling the contents, you get a feel for the material and the way the lettering, the number was applied and the tagging. It was consistent with the other things I had seen."

This is not the first piece of Milwaukee sports history that Kinunen has owned. He also owns Robin Yount's 1982 World Series bat and Paul Molitor's bat from the same Series in which he smacked five hits in Game 1 — still a World Series record.

Kinunen said he would be willing to loan the Alcindor jersey to the Bucks to showcase it in the team's arena, although he has yet to hear from them. At the very least, one of the biggest scores in Kinunen's collecting career will be on display somewhere soon.

"We're going to have an unveiling of it," Kinunen said, "and maybe just have a party for any interested Bucks fans that would like to come check it out."

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