Milwaukee’s Monumental Moment: Giannis Antetokounmpo's Decision to Stay Brings Fresh Hope to the Brew City
The Bucks superstar signing the supermax is set to provide a jolt to Milwaukee both on and off the court.
The Recombobulation Area is a weekly opinion column by veteran Milwaukee journalist Dan Shafer. Learn more about it here.
The impossible finally happened: An NBA superstar at the height of his powers chose to stay. That superstar is Giannis Antetokounmpo. The city is Milwaukee.
The two-time MVP made it official on Tuesday, Dec. 15, announcing a tweet heard ‘round the world: “This is my home, this is my city. I’m blessed to be able to be a part of the Milwaukee Bucks for the next 5 years. Let’s make these years count. The show goes on, let’s get it.”
This is a monumental moment for Milwaukee. A player like Giannis doesn’t come around often, and a player like Giannis choosing to stay committed to the small-market team that drafted him for the long haul has become exceedingly rare in the NBA. In the last decade, LeBron James left Cleveland, Kevin Durant left Oklahoma City, Anthony Davis demanded out of New Orleans, but Giannis Antetokounmpo proved to be the exception by choosing to stay.
It’s now official that the team in Milwaukee — the one that was on the brink of relocation just a few years prior — is signing perhaps the best player of his generation to the biggest contract in NBA history at five years and $228 million.
Bucks fan or not, everyone in Wisconsin should be celebrating this moment. The one NBA superstar who stayed chose to stay here in Milwaukee, of all places. This is an incredible win for this city and says so much about where we're headed.
Giannis' decision to stay is also going to be a massive economic stimulus package for downtown Milwaukee. When LeBron James returned to Cleveland in 2014, one economist said that decision was worth $500 million to the local economy. I joked about it on Twitter, but I actually wasn’t kidding when I said Giannis choosing to stay in Milwaukee would probably create more jobs in Wisconsin than Foxconn. Giannis choosing to stay is a huge, huge deal for Milwaukee and Wisconsin’s economy.
After the year Milwaukee has had in 2020, it sure is promising to look on the horizon and see Giannis and the Bucks competing for titles and filling the Deer District with fans for the better part of the next decade. Losing the Democratic National Convention and the hundreds of millions of dollars it would have brought was a real blow to the city, and Giannis’ potential departure would have clouded the road to recovery. We don’t have to worry about that any more.
The coronavirus pandemic has been disastrous for the local economy, particularly to those in the restaurant and hospitality industry. But now, downtown businesses can look ahead to 2021 with a renewed sense of hope. In 2019, the Bucks made their first deep playoff run with Giannis leading the way, and tens of thousands of fans flooded downtown in a scene unlike any the city had ever experienced. With Anteotkounmpo now signed through the 2024-’25 season (with a $51 million player option for ‘25-’26), the restaurants, bars and hotels that benefit from the Bucks are looking at a brighter future.
A brighter future for downtown Milwaukee is what many envisioned when the controversial public funding deal — the one that brought a nine-figure combined total from the state, county and city to help build what eventually became Fiserv Forum — was struck in 2015. And that brighter future was in the sights of former U.S. senator and team owner Herb Kohl, who made sure the Bucks would stay in Milwaukee when he sold the team to Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens in 2014.
And now that brighter future can be a reality for Milwaukee and for the Bucks fans who’ve stood by their team through a lot of long, dark years. Going into the season (now just a week away!), this team once again has championship aspirations, and with our homegrown superstar leading the way, there’s no limit to what they can achieve.
Consider this, Bucks fans: The first post-pandemic championship parade for an American professional sports team could wind through downtown Milwaukee. If that’s not something worth getting excited about, I don’t know what is.
And as much as Giannis means to Milwaukee on the court, he’s been a leader off the court, too. Wearing an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt, the MVP joined protesters in Milwaukee to march through the city as part of the Black Lives Matter movement (now at a historic 200 days and counting of sustained protest action in and around the city), and addressed the crowd, saying “I want my kid to grow up here in Milwaukee and not be scared to walk in the street.”
Antetokounmpo was also a key part of the Bucks’ historic protest, backing teammates George Hill and Sterling Brown in choosing not to take the court in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series against the Orlando Magic, in the days following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha.
In addition to standing up for equality and justice, Giannis has displayed a generous spirit with all sorts of charity work over the years and with a timely $100,000 donation to Fiserv Forum employees at the beginning of the pandemic. The stories through the years of his commitment to his family are the stuff of legend. He’s genuine and authentic in ways few professional athletes are in 2020. Not all athletes are role models (nor do they need to be), but Giannis sets a real example for the next generation of Milwaukeeans. His loyalty, clearly, is unmatched. He is one of one. There is no one else like Giannis.
Basketball is a global game, and the NBA is a global league. Because of the Bucks, Milwaukee has a unique place on the world stage. And now, Milwaukee and the Bucks’ place on that world stage is forever tied to the Greek immigrant of Nigerian heritage, whose family was undocumented until the day he was drafted, who came to Milwaukee, found a home, worked hard, grew, thrived, and is now achieving success at the highest level and at just 26 years old. He is a global superstar whose story is that of a global citizen, and it seems as if he’s only scratched the surface of what he can accomplish, both on and off the court. His is a story that both shows the world for what it is and provides hope for what it could be.
Giannis’ story is a 21st Century American Dream story, and for reasons that go far beyond basketball, we are extremely fortunate that he is writing the next chapter here in the city of Milwaukee.
It just matters more that Giannis is choosing to stay. Here in Milwaukee, we’ve watched him grow from the skinny 6’9” teenager who ran through the streets to make it to practice in time after wiring money home to his family in Greece to the 6’11” four-time All-Star, four-time All-NBA selection, Defensive Player of the Year, two-time MVP, international superstar that he is today. We mourned with him when his father suddenly passed away in 2017, and we celebrated with him when his son was born earlier this year. We’ve watched him grow up.
And it will mean more if Giannis delivers Milwaukee its first professional sports championship in 50 years. The Green Bay Packers have seen success, yes, but the Packers are a statewide team and their championship parade route doesn’t go down Wisconsin Avenue. It was 1971 when the Bucks, led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, last won the Finals. That team didn’t even get a parade, and Kareem would leave for Los Angeles a few years later. And you have to go back even further, to 1957 with the Milwaukee Braves, to when a Milwaukee team last won the World Series.
Milwaukee has needed a win for a long, long time. And as this interminably terrible year comes to a close, with the promise of vaccines and new leadership ready to lift us toward a better 2021, Giannis choosing to stay brings with it a jolt of fresh hope to the city at the perfect time.
It finally feels like things are starting to turn.
Dan Shafer is a journalist from Milwaukee who writes and publishes 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.
Follow Dan Shafer on Twitter at @DanRShafer.