'It Means More': Giannis and the Bucks Deliver Defining Moment For Resilient Milwaukee

This team has been a gift.

The Recombobulation Area is an award-winning weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.

Bobby Portis holds the Larry O’Brien trophy and Milwaukee celebrates its first championship in 50 years with a parade downtown. Photo by Kevin Layde.

It was a spectacle unlike anything the city had ever seen. More than 100,000 people had flooded downtown Milwaukee with the city’s first championship in a half-century on the line. 

The crowd was immense, massive, almost overwhelming. Between the number of people inside Fiserv Forum, out in the Deer District and filling the surrounding closed-to-drivers streets, it was a population that, on its own, would be the state of Wisconsin’s third-largest city. Wide-shots of the crowd shown over and over on the Finals broadcast were staggering. This is not the type of scene you typically see surrounding an NBA arena, even for a championship-clinching game. Nothing about this scene was typical, for no reason greater than it had assembled over the Milwaukee Bucks, of all teams. 

It was a tense game. The Bucks battled anxiety-inducing offensive droughts, often-confounding officiating decisions, and a Phoenix Suns team that would not quit with their season on the line. But as the end of the fourth quarter approached and victory became reality, Giannis Antetokounmpo -- the Bucks’ all-world franchise cornerstone who had just delivered one of the greatest performances in NBA Finals history -- smiled wide and stretched out his 7-foot-4 wingspan arms, gesturing to the crowd to bring the noise and let the celebration commence.

The city erupted. In that moment, so much about being a Bucks fan, so much this happening in our home city of Milwaukee broke through in an emotional outpouring, a mix of release and jubilation that this team — this oft-forgotten team that had been mired in decades of losing — had reached the top of the mountain and had become NBA champions.

The week that followed unfolded with pure elation and collective joy throughout the city of Milwaukee. From the celebration pouring out of every bar in town following Tuesday’s championship-clinching victory through Thursday’s euphoric championship parade — its first since the 1957 Braves paraded down Wisconsin Avenue, as the ‘71 Bucks team never got a parade — it finally felt like everyone in the city was pulling in the same direction. Milwaukee has understood just how special this has been, and embraced every second of it. It has been beyond beautiful. 

The Bucks’ championship has come to be a defining moment for Milwaukee. Teams win championships every year, but rarely does one happen quite like this. A 50-point performance snapping a 50-year title drought may have been the exclamation point, but every piece of this season, this team, felt as if it was speaking to something greater. 

Like Giannis Antetokounmpo said during the Finals about winning with the team that drafted him, “It means more.”

In so many ways, this championship just means more. It means more that it happened in Milwaukee. It means more that this is where Giannis Antetokounmpo chose to stay. It means more that Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton have been on the team since its 15-win nadir in the 2013-’14 season. It means more that the team survived in no small part due to former owner Herb Kohl’s insistence that the team stay in Milwaukee. It means more that Giannis and the Bucks did it the hard way.

It matters that it was this group of players. It has always felt like that team from Milwaukee wasn’t supposed to win the title. Maybe it had to be a team like this to change the franchise’s fate. 

This is a group of guys who'd been overlooked, cast aside, signed off the scrap heap, left for supposedly greener pastures. Guys like Giannis Antetokounmpo (the most disrespected superstar in recent years), Khris Middleton (battling constant questions of whether he’s a “real” number two option), Jrue Holiday (abandoned by Anthony Davis in New Orleans), Brook Lopez (signed for next to nothing after the Lakers let him go), PJ Tucker (who played all over the world internationally before finding his way back to the NBA), Bobby Portis (who took less money to play for a winner, and turned into a Milwaukee folk hero). They came together in Milwaukee and upset the NBA’s insular fraternity. There’s no top five pick on this roster, nobody from the Banana Boat, none of the big names who came through the NBA’s star-making machine. Just this island of misfit toys that made up the Milwaukee Bucks. 

These Finals ended with the Milwaukee Bucks flipping the NBA’s cool kids table and bringing the trophy home with freaks and geeks (and Greek Freaks) in Milwaukee. 

Beyond what happened on the court, it means more that this championship happened in Milwaukee, that it happened with the Bucks, and that it happened now. 

This team and this city have meant so much to each other, and maybe that’s because they have something in common: Resilience. This Bucks team embodied the resilient spirit of the city they call home. People often wonder why Giannis chose to stay in Milwaukee of all cities, and perhaps it’s because they are fueled by the same resilient fire. 

Milwaukee has to be resilient. Because this city has to put up with a lot

Among the biggest off-court storylines of the playoff run was the comments from ESPN’s “First Take” labeling Milwaukee as a “terrible city.” And while Milwaukee mounted its defense of those disrespectful, condescending comments, you need to look no further than the floor of the Wisconsin State Assembly the day prior to find elected officials trashing it’s largest, most diverse city in ways no less insulting. If you think what “First Take” said about Milwaukee was bad, tune in to what Republican state legislators and their talk radio allies say about this city every single day.

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But just as their home city is so often driven by its resilience, so have these Bucks. They trailed every series after the first round, and still won the championship. They were left for dead down 2-0 in Brooklyn, again down 3-2 in the series, and still won Game 7 on the road against Kevin Durant and the Nets. Antetokounmpo’s knee bending the wrong way froze the fanbase in horror, but he miraculously avoided any longer-term damage and returned to action in the Finals after missing just two games. Down 2-0 again in the NBA Finals, the Bucks rallied back to deliver signature Finals moment (The Sun Block!) after signature Finals moment (the Steal-and-Oop!), before Giannis Antetokounmpo willed his team to the promised land in a closeout game for the ages — 50 points, 14 rebounds, 5 blocks, and 17-19 (!) from the free throw line. It was the most Jordanesque Finals performance since Jordan himself.

There was no way that Antetokounmpo, one of the fiercest competitors in all of sports, was going to allow his team to do anything but win just one game away from delivering Milwaukee its first championship in 50 years, with more than 100,000 fans ready to revel in this unlikely victory. 

It has been a remarkable journey. 

It almost never happened. Milwaukee really could have lost the team. People don’t generally acknowledge just how close it really was. 

Before Giannis arrived, the franchise was facing extinction. The team’s owner, former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, had just served the last of his 24 years in office, and questions swirled about what he might do next with the beleaguered Bucks. He’d resisted offers to sell the team before, but he was 78 years old, the Bradley Center was nearing the end of its life as an NBA arena, and the Bucks were stuck in NBA’s no-man’s land, never good enough to really compete, never bad enough to really rebuild. The long-term future of the organization, at every level, was one big question mark. 

That all changed when General Manager John Hammond selected Antetokounmpo with the 15th pick in the 2013 NBA Draft. Selecting the 18-year-old Greek immigrant of Nigerian heritage, who was undocumented until entering the draft, proved to be the moment that forever changed the future of the Bucks — and the city of Milwaukee.

None of what happens next is possible without Giannis.

That’s certainly the case for what happened on the court, but without the promise of the young rookie who showed flashes of greatness in his first year, capturing the imagination of long-suffering Bucks fans hungry for a winner, there’s a real chance the arena debate unfolds differently. 

Because it was close. Milwaukee really could have lost the team. This is not an exaggeration. I covered the arena debate closely at Milwaukee Magazine, and while things happened rather quickly — because of the NBA-imposed deadline on the need to build a new arena or else lose the team, it had to — the speed of that debate obscured just how close things really were.

Despite enjoying majorities in the heavily gerrymandered Wisconsin State Legislature, there was no consensus among the state GOP on the issue, and while the proposal was brought forth by Republicans, it needed Democratic votes in order to pass. In the ultra-polarizing Walker era, bipartisanship was hard to come by, but that’s what was required to make this deal happen. Also hard to come by was cooperation between state Republicans and majority-Democratic Milwaukee, and former Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele probably deserves more credit than he often gets for helping make a complex deal work on multiple levels of government.

Of course, none of that debate even takes place without Herb Kohl, who pledged to spend $100 million of his own money to help build the arena, giving the Bucks the head start to cut into the public funding pie that the Brewers’ stadium — nearly all of which was funded with public dollars — never had. But the Bucks were still a tough sell.

Had Giannis not provided that injection of hope that the Bucks so desperately needed, would the enthusiasm had been there to support a team that had done little but lose and lose for decades prior? It’s entirely possible that without Antetokounmpo, everything unfolds differently and the Bucks leave town.

It means more that this is how it all happened. Giannis Antetokounmpo became the one to both save the franchise and deliver its crowning achievement. Without Giannis, there is no championship — and maybe no Fiserv Forum or Deer District, either. 

It means more that this is when it happened, too. 

The last year was a brutal one for Milwaukee. The pandemic hit the city hard. Along with all the many challenges that came with the coronavirus outbreak, Milwaukee was robbed of what was supposed to be its breakthrough moment — hosting the Democratic National Convention in a big-spotlight election year. As many as 50,000 visitors were expected, and the spectacle was to invite the eyes of the world. It turned out to be a lost summer. A painful, frightening covid surge then began in fall, and some especially tough winter weather that followed made it all the more difficult for people in the city to be together. 

But eventually the city would emerge from the depths of the pandemic. Wisconsin’s best-in-the-nation level vaccination pace put us on a path to finally be together again after so many months apart. 

And come together we did. No other city — maybe anywhere in the world — has experienced coming together over a common cause the way Milwaukee and Bucks fans have in the past few months. People seemed to genuinely grasp the significance and uniqueness of this opportunity. It was truly a gift. 

The Deer District, which was still being completed during the 2019 postseason, exploded into a worldwide phenomenon in a vaccinated 2021, with crowds in the tens of thousands each night. 

When the first round of the postseason began on May 22, we didn’t even know if full capacity events would even be a real possibility for the playoffs. That meant that what happened outside in the Deer District evolved almost organically, becoming a combination of a Summerfest free stage show (think Miller Oasis), a Brewers tailgate, and the Bradley Center upper level — all set in front of the biggest sporting event this city has seen in almost 40 years. Quintessentially Milwaukee, through and through, and yet wholly different and brand new. 

That the Bucks put together their magical run as the state and the nation emerged from the depths of this horrifying pandemic that took so much from us makes this experience all the more special. This didn’t happen in any other city. It happened in Milwaukee. It is ours, forever. Like this championship, no one can ever take that away from us. It is a uniquely special experience. 

It was special, too, because while Milwaukee is among the nation’s most segregated cities, it sure didn’t feel that way downtown during Bucks games. Milwaukee is also a very diverse city, and seeing people from different backgrounds, together experiencing the collective joy of a championship, was a wonderful thing. While no substitute for lasting, meaningful change and investing in our Black, Brown and AAPI communities, the celebratory atmosphere that unfolded offered a glimpse of a better future for the city of Milwaukee.

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Everything about this team and this season and this journey has been special. 

As for me, on the night of Game 6, I found myself in the Deer District in the lot where the Bradley Center once stood. Being there in that moment made me think of all the times I’d watched the Bucks from that very same place. I’d been a Bucks fan my whole life, growing up in Waukesha County and going to college at UW-Oshkosh, but it wasn’t until I moved to the city of Milwaukee that I really became a Bucks fan. It’s just different when you’re here. You learn to understand the importance of this team and the resilience of this city and this fanbase. 

My thoughts drifted to one game in particular, from Giannis’ rookie season. The winter of 2014 was especially brutal, and even in the first week of March, high temperatures were still in the single digits. On a random Wednesday night, out with some friends, we got a little buzzed — it’s Milwaukee, after all — and decided to go to the game against Sacramento. The Bucks’ record was 12-47 and the Kings’ was 21-39, so those $10 upper level tickets were sure to be available. 

As we made our way up to our seats, an usher flagged us down to give us new tickets. The arena was so empty that they were moving people down to the lower level. Those new tickets turned out to be in about the 10th row. And from there, as we so often did, we watched the Bucks lose.

It was a pretty embarrassing performance. The Bucks got torched. The Kings’ Isaiah Thomas caught fire early, and he began talking trash with the fan section that had been singing “It’s A Small World” to the 5’9” point guard whenever he touched the ball. The Bucks two leading scorers were Brandon Knight and Jeff Adrien. 

But Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton were there. And we were there. And as the final buzzer sounded and the Milwaukee Bucks had officially won the NBA Finals, we were standing in what could have been the very same spot where we watched the worst team in franchise history lose a frigid winter game to the Sacramento Kings. 

I’m glad we stuck with this team. Being a part of those eight years, watching Giannis and Khris grow up and lead this team to glory, made for a transcendent championship moment. 

Giannis is right. It means more to win this way. 

At the championship parade that I’d been dreaming of for years and years, it all hit me. This team that I’d come to love more than any other were champions. They had delivered the first professional sports championship that’s happened in Milwaukee in my lifetime. The Milwaukee Bucks reached the top of the mountain in a manner so special and so unique, I don’t think we’ve quite yet grasped its magnitude. 

More than anything, I’m happy for Milwaukee. This city should not have to be as resilient as it is. It should not have to put up with the garbage it puts up with. Perhaps this championship run can be a galvanizing moment that ushers in a new era for Milwaukee. Because this is a great city — a truly wonderful, exceptional city in so many ways — and it deserves better from the outside forces so often seek to disregard and demean it. Just look at what has happened when we invested in Milwaukee. There’s a lesson here. 

Milwaukee’s resilience paid off. Investing in the city and building a new arena paid off. The Milwaukee Bucks are NBA champions.

Bucks in 6, forever. Let’s do it again next year.

Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes the award-winning column, The Recombobulation Area. He previously worked at Seattle Magazine, Seattle Business Magazine, the Milwaukee Business Journal, Milwaukee Magazine, and BizTimes Milwaukee. He’s also written for The Daily Beast, WisPolitics, and Milwaukee Record. He’s on Twitter at @DanRShafer.

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