“A lot of guys try all their lives and never make it there.”
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Daniel Cunegin said that to a reporter Thursday evening while peddling Milwaukee Bucks gear at Deer District Racine on Monument Square, one of many jobs he’s had in the past half-century.
But 50 years ago, Cunegin made it there. “There,” in the NBA, at the NBA Finals, on the bench, when Oscar Robertson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) and their teammates earned Milwaukee its first pro basketball championship.
Cunegin never played in the NBA. He doesn’t have a single assist, point or rebound to his name. The Bucks don’t list him on their all-time roster.
But he’s got a championship ring from being part of the Bucks organization during its 1970-71 championship season, complete with his name inscribed on it.
Indiana to Tennessee to Racine to Milwaukee
Cunegin grew up in Gary, Indiana. He drew attention playing basketball in the 1960s for Gary Roosevelt High School in the 1960s; in 1991, future Bucks star Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson would lead Gary Roosevelt’s basketball team to a state championship.
From there, Cunegin would become a scoring star at Lane College in Jackson, Tennessee, receiving Most Valuable Player honors in the 1969 Chicago Basketball Classic tournament, an honor he remains proud of.
Noted for scoring prowess, he earned the nickname “The Wolf” for his “slick” ball-handling — dribbling behind the back and through the legs before those moves entered the mainstream.
At Lane College, he met his wife, Sylvia Lee (nee: Bolton), a 1967 Park High School graduate who passed in 2016. She’s now in Park’s hall of fame, having devoted her adulthood to serving others through being a lifetime member of both the Racine Branch of the NAACP and St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, 1123 Center St. She earned the 1992 SC Johnson Community Service Award, having worked at SC Johnson for more than three decades.
Settling in Racine with Sylvia after college, Cunegin made a name for himself in municipal leagues. He scored 54 points in back-to-back games in 1970. A Journal Times story published in March 1970 noted that Cunegin was “regularly scoring in the 40s and 50s, making him the most prolific scorer to hit Racine muni circles in some time.”
As Cunegin tells it, a fraternity brother of his, Larry Reed, was coaching a “farm team” for the Bucks in Milwaukee in the early ‘70s.
After Reed died in 2012, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that he had been “the first African-American assistant basketball coach hired at the University of Wisconsin. He also served as head scout and camp director for the Milwaukee Bucks in the early days of the franchise.” The Bucks were founded in 1968 and still hold the distinction of being the fastest expansion team in American professional sports history to win a championship, having taken just three years to do it.
During the 1970-71 season, Cunegin went to Milwaukee and talked his way into a tryout, earning a spot on the “farm squad” Reed was coaching.
At the time, professional basketball’s “minor leagues” were not nearly as organized as they are today.
Cunegin said that the farm squad would practice against the actual Bucks and scrimmage against lower-level teams affiliated with other NBA squads like the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics. That system has since evolved into the G-League — formerly the D-League, short for Development League before Gatorade purchased naming rights — the minor league that has been in place since 2001.
Dan Smyczek, the Bucks’ vice president of communications, said the team doesn’t have official records of that farm team, despite newspaper reports confirming it existed and that Reed coached it.
While The Journal Times could uncover no official record of it, Cunegin said he ended up sitting on the bench as part of the actual Bucks squad during a couple games in the 1971 Finals.
“I started with the farm team. Somebody got hurt, I don’t remember who, and I moved up,” Cunegin said.
An injury, a spot on the bench, a ring
During his year as part of the Bucks’ organization, Cunegin did not play in a regular-season or postseason game, the threshold for being listed on the Bucks’ all-time roster and on historical websites such as basketball-reference.com. He never came off the bench, but was closer to the action than any fan could ever hope to be.
Frequently, anyone who was part of a championship team at any point during the season — including coaching staff, clubhouse staff and front-office employees — will be gifted a championship ring, even if they weren’t officially on the team during the postseason run.
So, even as basketball legends such as Abdul-Jabbar, Robertson, Bob Dandridge and Jon McGlocklin carried the Bucks to their greatest height in the team’s history, Cunegin has his share of the glory.
“Everybody that was in the organization got a ring,” Cunegin recalled of 1971, a time when NBA franchises were valued at only about $5 million, less than most of the Bucks’ current starters will be paid by the team in one season.
After the Toronto Raptors’ 2019 NBA championship, dozens of people, including the team mascot and the actor-rapper Drake — a Toronto native and camera magnet from his courtside seat at Raptors home games — were reportedly gifted championship rings, with the players’ rings being valued in excess of $20,000 and other staff members like assistant coaches and trainers being given rings of lesser value.
Diamonds are forever
On Thursday night at Deer District Racine, Cunegin wore his ring on the ring finger of his left hand, more wrinkly than it was during his basketball-playing days, but still the large, strong hand of an athlete.
The ring, like the other championship pieces from that year, has a large diamond surrounded by an inscription with the words WORLD NBA CHAMPIONS across the head and the NBA logo on one side. When Robertson auctioned his 1971 championship ring three years ago, it sold for more than $91,000.
Besides amateur athletic pursuits from the basketball court to the tennis court, Cunegin has been around the block. He spent 12 years teaching in the Racine Unified School District. He later started Z&Z Enterprises, named for his twin daughters Zakiya and Zahra, through which he is a vendor. Even at 75 years old, he still holds a vendor’s license, having worked countless fairs, festivals and now basketball watch parties as he did Thursday night on Monument Square.
Cunegin’s ring and memories are among the only solid evidence that he was there in 1971.
“We do not have any record of Mr. Cunegin playing for the Bucks on the ‘71 NBA Championship team,” Smyczek said in an email Thursday. Additionally, basketball-reference.com has no records for anyone with the surname Cunegin.
Cunegin, however, has a championship ring with his name on it. Not many can say that.
In photos and video: More than 100 gather on Monument Square during “Deer District Racine” Thursday evening
Michael Redd, a former Buck, still remembered by this fan
Let’s Go Bucks
A young fan
A young fan
PJ Tucker on screen, Bucks gear on fans in Racine
Cornhole on the square
Raising a sign in support of the Milwaukee Bucks
Fan pumps his fist in support of the Milwaukee Bucks
Go Bucks! on Monument Square
Now that’s a fan!
Watch Now: More than 100 people gather on Monument Square to cheer on the Milwaukee Bucks
All eyes on the Bucks game
All eyes on the screen
Bling and the Bucks
All smiles with Beers and the Bucks
Friends show up for the Milwaukee Bucks
Hanging out on Monument Square
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