On Tuesday the Milwaukee Bucks ended a 50-year NBA championship drought.
It shouldn’t be surprising given our fractious times that this was not met with universal praise throughout the home state of the Bucks. Some people fail to grant others the same rights of opinion as they grant themselves when opinions disagree. (This is a bigger thing with liberals than conservatives, but too few conservatives grant others the right to be wrong.)
There is also the dynamic of Milwaukee vs. the rest of Wisconsin. Some of that comes through this rather defensive piece from On Milwaukee:
Hello, big market sports punditry. I see you over there on the coast, scoffing about Milwaukee’s historic victory in the NBA Finals.
You’ve probably never been to Milwaukee, so let me try to explain this to you.
What’s happening in Milwaukee this week is about so much more than an NBA title. It’s about so much more than some sports talk blowhard who called us a “terrible city.”
It’s about humility. It’s about passion. It’s about showing up and being yourself when everyone else says you should be embarrassed of who that is, and grinning like Bobby Portis and not giving a f*ck.
Did you catch that, Stephen A? We know you didn’t want to come to Milwaukee. We don’t care, we were having a great time regardless. We think it’s hilarious that you had to come anyway. We hope you hated how much fun you had.
Because being a champion is easy when everyone else sees a champion. Being a champion when everyone sees a nobody – when the world sees “Flyover Country” – that takes guts.
That’s why Giannis Antetokounmpo is such a perfect avatar for this place. That’s why his statue will stand taller than the “Bronze Fonz” (but probably in its general vicinity).
Because nobody outside of Wisconsin saw a champion when Giannis stepped onto an NBA court as a gangly, quiet 18-year-old who barely spoke any English.
He doesn’t fit the mold of an NBA champion. Even today, there is a sizable segment of the national sports punditry that (not-so-secretly) resents him for that.
He doesn’t brag. He doesn’t make drama. He’s not flashy.
He shows up, and he does the work. He stays humble and grateful. He doesn’t just remember his roots, he never left them.
There’s no pretension there, just an authentic human being who is awkward and doofy and full of passion.
NBA fans no longer get to count the seconds as Giannis prepares for his free throws.
No, from here on out, they have to spell:
After the game, Giannis described himself as “a people pleaser.”
Believe me, the people of Milwaukee are pleased. We identify with this dude.
If he stays in Milwaukee Antetokounmpo will be as loved as Henry Aaron was. And those who are ignoring the Bucks because of (they believe) incorrect political views are missing out on one of the greatest sports figures (not just for athletic reasons) in our lifetimes.
And we needed this W bad.
Because you don’t GET nice things when you’re from Milwaukee. This city’s entire history is about getting knocked on its butt just when it’s on the precipice of having something nice.
Kevin Smith’s movie classic “Dogma” sums it up succinctly. When Linda Fiorentino asks if Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were sent to hell, Alan Rickman infamously deadpans, “Worse. Wisconsin.”
Nobody quotes that line more than we do here in Milwaukee, and we laugh it off with our customary Midwestern good grace. But there is real pain under that laughter.
People forget that Milwaukee was poised to be a global super-city at the turn of the 20th century. Milwaukee City Hall was the tallest secular building in the world, and the city had growth and population density that rivaled New York, London and Paris.
Maybe we forgot because no one reading this was alive at the time. But I digress.
It didn’t pan out – seems like it never does for Milwaukee. People forgot about the city that “Feeds and Supplies the World.” Factories closed. Racial discrimination reared its ugly head. The rust belt decay took hold. Affluent folks fled to the suburbs and took their wealth with them, and Milwaukee became a scapegoat for the rest of the state to look down upon.
Even when we learned Milwaukee would play host to the Democratic National Convention in 2020 and soak up some warm political press, somehow we knew it wouldn’t work out. We’d never heard of COVID at that point, but we knew that Milwaukee can’t have nice things.
So some thing or another was bound to screw it up.
It’s OK. We’re still here. We’re still doing the work. And let me tell you what I saw Tuesday night in Milwaukee.
I saw 100,000 deliriously giddy people packed into a “Deer District” that sits on top of a scar.
When I moved to Milwaukee nine years ago, that’s what it was – a scar, both metaphorical and physical.
This scar was a reminder of a time when some privileged someones decided to rip out one of the Midwest’s most vibrant African American neighborhoods so they could build a freeway, so that some white folks could get to their homes in the suburbs five minutes more quickly.
And then decades later, when they tore down that ill-conceived Park East Freeway, 24 acres of blighted gravel pit just sat there like a knife through Milwaukee’s heart. When I moved to Milwaukee, I figured that ugly scar would be with us forever.
My hat is off to the Lasry family. When they bought the team in 2014, Milwaukeeans had low expectations. Billionaires from New York don’t normally do much for us here in “Flyover Country.”
Not so with the Lasrys. They threw their talents and their wealth into healing that scar – both metaphorically and physically.
The Lasrys didn’t just build the new Fiserv Forum arena and the surrounding Deer District on top of that ugly Park East Freeway scar.
They committed to hiring unemployed or underemployed Milwaukeeans to make up 40% of their construction workforce. Contractors and detractors said it couldn’t be done, but the Lasrys invested in recruitment and upskilling programs and exceeded that goal.
Those people dancing in the Deer District last night were dancing in a monument to Midwest urban renewal that was built for Milwaukeeans, by Milwaukeeans – folks who showed up and did the work.
Those kids diving off the bridge into the Milwaukee River – they would have come out with chemical burns if they had tried that in 1971.
The scars are healing.
Now, it would be ridiculous and reductionist to say this NBA title marks a turning point for the city of Milwaukee.
This city still grapples with a legacy of racial discrimination that won’t just go away. It’s still the scapegoat of a state legislature that sees Milwaukee as its perennial punching bag. And a humming decade of businesses reinvesting in Milwaukee has suddenly been slammed into neutral amid the uncertainty of the pandemic.
Maybe if Milwaukee wasn’t the source of most of the state’s social pathologies — high (compared with the rest of the state) crime, horrible schools (that no additional amount of money could fix), playing of the race card against the rest of the non-Madison state, and failure to get rid of the politicians who are fixing nothing, to name four — and had made any attempt at all to rectify that, Milwaukee might have more sympathy outside the 414 area code. We’ll return to that “punching bag” point momentarily.
But last night, Milwaukee finally got to have something nice. And it may not be a panacea, but it reminded us why we keep showing up, and why we keep doing the work.
In Downtown Milwaukee, I saw a vibrant city firing on all cylinders and living up to its full potential. I saw white guys who wear MAGA hats hugging Black guys who wear Black Lives Matter shirts. I saw just a little bit of pride creeping out from under that Midwest veneer of humility.
No, we’re not LA or New York or Miami. We never will be. We don’t want to be.
We’re authentic and awkward and doofy and full of passion. We’re Milwaukee.
Any basketball fan will tell you it doesn’t matter what the scoreboard says at halftime.
What matters is momentum. And right now, Milwaukee has the momentum.
Jake Curtis presents an alternative view:
As Wisconsin basks in the glory, it is worth keeping in mind how the Bucks got to this point and the important role the state’s conservatives played in ensuring this moment was possible.
During Games 4 and 6, the packed Fiserv Forum literally shook, and on Tuesday night over 65,000 additional fans packed the Deer District just outside the arena. The story of the Fiserv arena offers proof that the bold reforms ushered in during Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s era included a long-term vision for economic development based on true public-private partnerships, not the phony ones that far too many taxpayers have had hoisted upon them.
Following the 2014 sale of the franchise by longtime Bucks owner (and former U.S. senator) Herb Kohl to hedge-fund managers Marc Lasry and Wes Edens, the NBA made it clear if the Bucks did not upgrade the aging Bradley Center, the team would be purchased by the NBA and sent off to Las Vegas or Seattle. Unlike other boondoggles, Kohl and the new ownership group put up $250 million while the remaining cost (the total came to around $524 million) came from state income tax revenue, a ticket surcharge, $4 million annually from Milwaukee County, $47 million from the City of Milwaukee, and $203 million in Wisconsin Center District bonding.
Would the billionaire owners have had the ability to pay for the entire construction package? Probably. In a perfect world, should Wisconsin taxpayers have been forced to shoulder the load? No. But the reality at the time was that the Wisconsin legislature, under the leadership of state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (now a member of Congress) and longtime Speaker Robin Vos, and Gov. Walker and his team ushered through the financing plan. Without their work, which was aided by the state’s largest business lobby (the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce), NBA fans could very well have been left watching a Finals played between the Phoenix Suns and Las Vegas Bucks.
Despite opposition from some Milwaukee Democrats, legislators like my former boss, Sen. Duey Stroebel, who represented districts that straddled metro Milwaukee and more rural communities, were forced to take a tough vote to keep the team in Milwaukee. As a result of this bold leadership, the financing package ultimately garnered bipartisan support in both chambers.
The jury is still out on whether public financing arrangements like the one that made the Fiserv Forum possible directly benefits taxpayers. Critics of such deals raise legitimate free-market concerns. However, had Wisconsin conservatives not stepped forward to assist, Wisconsin would have lost an asset and the city’s Deer District would be nothing more than an aging basketball skeleton. Instead, as the Bucks took the court Tuesday night, a full house was present in the Fiserv Forum, 65,000 plus were cheering (and spending money in nearby bars and restaurants) outside, and viewers across the state witnessed a historic performance by Giannis and his teammates.
Everyone should be thankful that in 2015 Wisconsin conservatives did not let the team leave on their watch. Instead, they rolled up their sleeves and ensured the Bucks would remain part of the state’s amazing economic comeback. And because of their efforts, Wisconsin will be able to proudly feature a humble and hungry role model like Giannis for years to come.
About that opposition from Milwaukee Democrats: One of them, Rep. David Bowen, sent a congratulatory social media message that might make you think he had supported the Fiserv Forum package. He didn’t.
As was pointed out in the aforementioned post (when reposted on Facebook), the state funding package was more an allocation of tax revenue than a tax increase, by earmarking the so-called “jock tax” toward the package instead of just dumping it into state General Purpose Revenue. As Walker put it at the time, “I think it’s arguably the most fiscally conservative idea in the country for a professional sports team,” Walker said. “We’re having them pay their own way. It’s not coming out of revenues from anywhere else. It’s not coming from new taxes. It’s keeping the foundation we have today.”
And yet, it helped Walker in no political sense. In fact, nothing the Republican Party has done to help Milwaukee has helped the GOP politically. Did Republicans benefit by getting Miller Park built? Ask former state Sen. George Petak, who got recalled for his support of the 0.1-cent stadium tax, which then lost control of the Legislature. How about Milwaukee school choice? Democrats outside Milwaukee routinely bludgeon Republicans on the spurious claim that private school choice money takes away from public schools.
Fiserv Forum? Notice that instead of Walker as governor …
… Wisconsin has a governor who, as politicians will do, takes credit for something he had absolutely nothing to do with.