A dozen years have passed since Bobby Dandridge first put on Milwaukee's green jersey with No. 10 on the back and displayed the effortless style that was to bring him much acclaim.
In those days, he was expected only to blend with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. He wasn't expected to be a leader, to carry the load, to be the main contributor.
Still, he fit in easily. In his second season he averaged 18.4 points a game and helped Milwaukee win the NBA championship. Now he's back, and although his 34th birthday is coming up in eight days, he's trying to recapture his youth and fulfill the role he had as a rookie.
In what he admits was a desperation move, Coach Don Nelson has brought Dandridge back from oblivion, giving this controversial, often-moody and sometimes-undependable player one more chance to end his career in a favorable light.
After telling the Bucks in 1977 he didn't want to play here any more, Dandridge shopped around. By then his reputation as a problem player was known throughout the league and the best offer he could get was $250,000 a year from the Washington Bullets.
Reprieved, Dandridge reached back for his long-lost zest for the game and provided the ingredient the Bullets needed to win the NBA championship. He retained his enthusiasm the following year, averaging 20.4 points for 78 games in the Bullets' effort to defend the title.
Once that opportunity was lost, however, and once Bullet owner Abe Pollin refused to renegotiate his contract, Dandridge began missing games and practices and affecting the morale of the team. He played only 45 games that season and only 23 last year.
When his contract expired, the Bullets made no move to offer him a new one and Dandridge's career appeared to have ended under a cloud of suspicion. However, a string of circumstances, including Marques Johnson's holdout, Junior Bridgeman's knee injury and the fact that the Bucks have the potential to win the championship this season, have given the former all-star one last chance.
"I'm very happy to be back," Dandridge said after scoring four points in his first appearance, against the Bullets, Thursday night. "I've been asked to blend in and not be the main contributor. I'm 34 and I'm glad I don't have to be the main man night in and night out.
"It feels good just to be able to play defense and give up the ball. I think this enhances my chances of staying healthy and playing another two years. By the first of December, I should be at the top of my game."
Nelson is aware of Dandridge's absentee record with the Bullets, but he also realizes that the silky-smooth 6-foot-6 forward's experience could be valuable if Johnson sits out the entire season over the salary dispute.
"I first contacted Bobby midway through training camp," said the coach, who also serves as director of player personnel. "I talked to him then and told him that if Marques didn't come back by the beginning of the season, I was interested in hiring him. I told him what kind of contract I had in mind for him and he was receptive."
The contract, which could start a trend with aging NBA players, calls for Dandridge to receive $3,000 for every game he plays, but only $300 for games he misses because of injuries.
"We took a lot of heat for signing Bobby," said John Steinmiller, the club's vice president of business operations. "But the type of contract made the move easier to accept. If Bobby breaks his leg in the next game, he gets the lesser amount for every game he's out."
Nelson said he had to make a move because he didn't want to make excuses if Johnson doesn't play. He envisions Dandridge backing up Sidney Moncrief at forward, which frees Bridgeman to continue in his highly successful sixth-man role.
"I'm just preparing myself the best I can," the coach said. "Bobby has the ability and the intelligence to help us, but only time will tell if he will."