Category: Sports

On the worst-run professional sport

Matt Welch:

Thursday marks Opening Day of the 2022 Major League Baseball season …

… weather permitting …

… which means it’s open season for hot takes about how to fix what ails the National Pastime—disputes between labor and management, declining attendance and TV viewership, increasingly dull on-field product, etc.

The New York Times Wednesday probably won the MLB preseason hate-clicks derby by publishing a Matthew Walther op-ed under the headline, “Baseball Is Dying. The Government Should Take It Over.” It’s at least semi-satirical, so not worth getting exercised over (beyond the basic responses of “No it isn’t,” and “No it shouldn’t”), but both the essay and the spectacle of an ambivalent Opening Day are timely reminders that much of what plagues the sport is not solvable by government, it emanates from government.

It’s weird that baseball would still require rescuing, given that Congress as recently as 2018 passed the Save America’s Pastime Act (see how semi-satire works?). That law, which probably never could have been passed as a standalone bill, was actually crammed into a must-pass omnibus spending whatever, and as such is a fine example of what happens when you mix government with baseball.

種族滅絕奧運會

Jim Geraghty:

Ten days ago, this newsletter noted that the opening days of the Genocide Games — er, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing — had generated a “cataclysmic loss of audience” for NBC. Over the past week or so, the audience size hasn’t gotten any better — and it’s not just here in the United States:

Television ratings for the Beijing Olympics are off by 50 percent from PyeongChang levels in 2018, which themselves were well below the levels of Winter Olympics past. But to hear the International Olympic Committee tell it, there’s no problem, no problem at all. . . . In the United States, though, with the exception of the post-Super Bowl bump, ratings for the Games have bounced off the bottom of the ocean floor at historic lows.

No, it’s not only a viewer boycott of China that’s driving the low ratings, but it’s hard to believe that it’s not a factor. Viewers around the world have a lot of reasons for antipathy toward China these days — from the ongoing Uyghur genocide, to the crackdown on Hong Kong, to the aggressive moves towards Taiwan, to that virus that started in Wuhan which has killed almost 6 million people around the world officially and perhaps many, many more.

There are no live audiences or cheering crowds at the events, a television correspondent got dragged away on airwaiters and bartenders in the hotels are wearing full hazmat suits, and there’s not even the usual pretty scenery — the ski-jump platform was built next to a steel plant with structures that reminded American audiences of nuclear reactors. There’s something absurdly dystopian about this whole debacle.

For a long time, the IOC insisted to the world, and perhaps to themselves late at night, that autocratic regimes such as Russia and China were challenging but worthwhile partners who helped make the games a truly global event. It contended that the long history of blatantly unethical behavior by these regimes, inside and outside the field of play, shouldn’t be a reason for concern and certainly wasn’t a reason to exclude those countries’ athletes or bar them from hosting the games. Whatever Beijing and Moscow lacked in ethics, they made up for in money and the authority to build stadiums quickly.

These games brought another embarrassing and outrage-inducing scandal, this one involving Kamila Valieva, the 15-year-old Russian figure-skating prodigy. Valieva tested positive for the heart drug trimetazidine on December 25 at the Russian nationals; the test results were only delivered from a Swedish lab last week, after Valieva helped Russia win gold in the team figure-skating event. “The IOC ruled there would not be a medal ceremony for the team event, in which Russia won gold and the U.S. won silver. If the Russian team is eventually disqualified over the positive drug test, the Americans will move up to gold, Japan will win silver, and Canada will win bronze.” When Valieva competed in her free skate, she fell apart, falling twice and finishing in fourth place.

No one believes that a 15-year-old girl would obtain and take a performance-enhancing substance on her own; someone had to have supplied it to her.

You know a situation is bad when the usually mild-mannered Mike Tirico, NBC Sports’ anchor for the Olympics coverage, calls out the IOC on-air for utterly failing to protect Valieva or to mitigate Russian cheating and rule-breaking:

Something undeniable is the harm to the person at the center of it all: a fifteen-year-old, standing alone, looking terrified on the ice before her free skate. This image, maybe more than anything else, encapsulates the entire situation — the adults in the room left her alone. Portrayed by some this week as the villain, by others as the victim, she is in fact the victim of the villains — the coaches and national Olympic Committee surrounding Kamila Valieva, whether they orchestrated, prescribed or enabled, all of this is unclear. But what is certain is they failed to protect her.

Guilt by association is often unfair, but it’s called for here. Russia has been banned from using the name of its country the last three Olympic Games, because of the systemic state-run doping program that was uncovered after they hosted the Sochi games in 2014. The deal that was broken was supposed to ensure a level playing field while giving clean Russian athletes a chance to compete, but that scenario totally broke down here.

Now, a failed drug test from one of their athletes has tarnished one of the marquee events of the games and taken away from every skater’s moment. In the name of clean and fair competition, Olympians and gold medalists from across the globe have spoken up and IOC president Thomas Bach, at his end of the games press conference in the last hour uncharacteristically openly criticized Valieva’s entourage for their quote ‘tremendous coldness’ at the end of her skate and said that those involved should be held responsible

But now it’s time for the IOC to stand up — whether it’s about blocking Russia from hosting events for a very long time or stringent and globally transparent testing for Russian athletes going forward, if swift action from the top of the Olympic movement does not happen quickly the very future of the games could be in jeopardy.

Olympic gold medalist Tara Lipinski, an NBC figure-skating analyst, added that, “It makes me angry that the adults around her weren’t able to make better decisions and be there for her, because she is the one now dealing with the consequences and she’s just 15 and that’s not fair. . . . Again, with that being said, she should not have been allowed to skate in this Olympic event.”

Give NBC Sports a little credit for calling out the IOC on air. Maybe NBC is concluding that operating as a de facto public-relations firm for a spectacularly corrupt and increasingly incompetent Olympic committee just isn’t worth it anymore. The ratings aren’t high enough, the advertisers aren’t happy enough, and NBC Sports employees no doubt want to broadcast unforgettable human triumphs — not to try to polish a turd and implausibly assure viewers at home that the games are fair, free, and abiding under the rules.

Discussions involving Valieva keep spurring the comment that, “It’s not her fault.” Yes, that’s precisely the point, and that’s why the Russian Olympic team used her in this manner. The people who run her career know that the IOC and the world will feel hesitant to judge and rebuke a tearful, angelic-faced 15-year-old girl. That’s why they’re attempting to cheat by using a 15-year-old girl! If this were an adult man, all of us would be reacting much less sympathetically. Our inner conflict about punishing a teenage girl for the actions of others is what the Russians were counting on; they figured that gave them a better chance of getting away with it.

All of these lessons apply to the other big controversy involving Russia going on this week. Some regimes just don’t give a hoot about the rules and will do whatever it takes to win. You can’t trust them, you can’t negotiate with them without verifying that they’re keeping their promises, you can’t rely on their good faith or good will, and if you make a concession in the name of comity, they will pocket it and ask for more.

These games have been a debacle, and the IOC was warned. Adam Kilgore, the Washington Post’s correspondent in Beijing, wrote this morning that the games are concluding under “a pall of pervasive joylessness” and noted that “athletes, officials and media members [are] shuttled from hotels to venues, forbidden to see the host city except out of windows.” What was the point of selecting Beijing, then? These games could have been held anywhere.

Dan Wetzel, a Yahoo Sports national columnist, sees the Russian coaches’ heartless on-air verbal abuse of a terrified 15-year-old girl as the natural fruit of a long string of bad IOC decisions and a refusal to confront national Olympic teams that are systemically abusive: “This is the Olympics that Bach, who has been president nearly a decade, has built. This is it. He just happened to see it in all its depravity on his television Thursday. He was disgusted at what he saw. Join the club.”

The only silver lining to this mess is that Xi Jinping didn’t get much of a propaganda victory out of it all.

Grass wars

Jeff Kerr:

Super Bowl LVI on Sunday significantly changed after Rams wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was lost for the game due to a knee injury after his leg was caught on the SoFi Stadium artificial turf. Beckham, who had two catches for 52 yards and a touchdown on three targets, was dominating the league championship game before the injury.

Not only was Beckham unable to play for the rest of Super Bowl LVI, but he has to worry about his future after suffering what is expected to be another torn ACL to the same knee he injured last season while on the Browns, according to CBS Sports NFL insider Jason Las Canfora. Beckham’s injury caused NFL players, current and former, to eliminate the use of field turf at stadiums.

Of course, the $5 billion SoFi Stadium is one of them.

There’s a lot of support for natural grass fields, but what is the “Flip The Turf” campaign? Half of the league’s teams play on artificial turf, which is why players are pushing for change. There are statistics in the campaign to back up why fields should switch from turf to grass.

In the petition, turf fields have:

  • 28% more non-contact lower body injuries.
  • 32% more non-contact knee injuries and 69% more non-contact foot and ankle injuries occurred on turf.
  • Turf can get up to 60 degrees hotter than natural grass, increasing the rate at which toxic gases are released and ingested.

There are also environmental issues behind the campaign:

  • Currently, turf can’t be recycled in the US, leading to an estimated 330 million pounds of landfill waste each year, and microplastics in our water and irrigation systems.
  • On average, one turf field requires over 440,000 pounds of petroleum derivatives. The production of which emits carbon, creates fossil fuels, and contributes to global warming.
  • Unlike grass, turf does not cool the environment. It does not filter air and water pollutants. It does not fix carbon dioxide or release oxygen. Turf has zero climate benefits.

Players are pushing for change. perhaps Super Bowl LVI may be the breaking point.

(For NFL players accustomed to gas-hogging sports cars and SUVs and flying in private jets to be raising environmental issues is a little hypocritical, but be that as it may ….)

Beckham’s first knee injury happened on artificial turf, at, of all places, Cincinnati. Paul Brown Stadium had grass when it opened, but converted to turf, as did the Houston Texans’ stadium. Conversely, the Baltimore Ravens’ stadium started with turf and then converted to grass.

This is, remember, the much-improved turf (supposedly) from the bad old days of carpet of 1/4-inch blades, essentially green-painted asphalt at Camp Randall Stadium and every other college stadium I marched in in five years in the UW Marching Band. But NFL players, all of whom are too young to remember the old turf, seem unimpressed with the new turf.

Lambeau Field has a hybrid surface of grass with plastic blades to keep the grass in place. (The Packers also use grow lights to keep the grass growing as late in the season as possible.) That would seem to be the ultimate grass surface, and the company that sells it, GrassMaster, also equips many soccer pitches in Europe, but at only one other NFL stadium, in Philadelphia.

The Arizona Cardinals’ stadium and the new Las Vegas Raiders stadium have grass fields that slide out fo the stadium during the week to get sun and rain, then slide back in for game day. The Raiders’ stadium has a turf surface underneath, and that was what the Badgers played on for the Las Vegas Bowl in December.

The problem with replacing turf with grass is that the team ends up losing its practice field, since most college teams with turf practice in their stadium, such as UW. (The original turf went in in the late 1960s, and I believe the old football practice fields are either parking lots or buildings.) That should make one skeptical that colleges will be replacing turf with grass anytime soon.

Whether NFL teams replace turf with grass is a more interesting question. In the NFC North Minnesota and Detroit have indoor stadiums, and so putting grass in would be complicated. (Grass was put in temporarily in the Pontiac Silverdome for the 1994 World Cup and in the Louisiana Superdome as an experiment or a Packers’ preseason game back in the Brett Favre era.)

This will be interesting to watch if expensive NFL players continue to get hurt on turf fields.

 

A radio station just for me

One week from tonight I resume my radio sportscasting side thing on this radio station for at least the next nine Friday nights, with two more Saturday afternoon football games and three Thursday night volleyball matches … before the postseason begins.

I started doing this in September 1988 based on cable TV experience consisting of one girls basketball game and two-thirds of a hockey game. As I’ve written here before, it’s always been a part-time thing — a hobby that brings in money instead of the usual — and having seen a lot of radio from the inside I have concluded that being a part-timer is preferable to being in radio full-time for many reasons.

This is the thing I enjoy the most, and enjoy enough to want to do it to professional (as in network) standards, including the not-so-fun aspect of game prep, which usually takes up at least as much time as the actual game broadcast does. I have never announced beyond NCAA Division III college football, basketball and hockey (plus one semi-pro football championship with NFL rules), and at my age I doubt I will have

I wrote back in late June that I have been uncommonly blessed in broadcasting sports to have announced five state football championship games (where my team was 2–3), three state boys basketball tournaments (no state champion yet, though I have experience at that), three state girls basketball tournaments (one year I called two state championships in two hours, and then added another the next season), one state wrestling tournament, two state girls volleyball tournaments (most recently this year despite my team losing the game before state; then came positive COVID tests for the winning team), four state baseball tournaments (no winner there yet), one state softball tournament (which ended with “And that’s a state championship!”), and one state boys soccer tournament (with the house goalkeeper).

All of this wasn’t actually the motivation for today’s blog. A friend of mine forwarded a joke meme that was previously posted by a radio station that calls itself Steve FM. A long time ago I wrote about my idea for “Steve TV,” based on my temporarily ubiquitous presence on local cable TV due to my being a school board candidate while having announced two pre-state basketball tournament games.

It turns out there are two Steve FMs. One is, to be precise, 96.7 Steve FM in Columbia, S.C., while the other is 104.9 Steve FM  (call letters, of course, WSTV, which you’d think would be Steve TV’s call letters, assuming we’re east of the Mississippi River, the W vs. K call-letter dividing line) in Roanoke, Va., a station that refers to itself as “Roanoke’s Random Radio.” Both are owned by iHeart Radio.

Each plays “adult hits,” defined by the always-accurate Wikipedia as “adult contemporary, pop and mainstream rock hits from the 1970s [or late 1960s] through at least the 1990s.” Another feature is that “Due to its broad nature, the adult hits format can be easily automated. This means that the station can be run with little to no on-air personalities (a trait that, in some cases, may be openly promoted by the station), leaving only staff involved in station operations, advertising sales, and promotional presences.”

Wikipedia adds that “A large number of adult hits stations utilize male names as their branding. The practice was popularized by the franchised Jack FM and Bob FM brands, and has been widely imitated with other common male names.” That includes Ben FM, Charlie FM, Chuck FM, Ed FM, Frank FM, Mac FM, Max FM, Mike FM, Rob FM, Sam FM, Ted FM, Tom FM, Wayne FM and, to be more inclusive I suppose, Kate FM.

I am not really a fan of automated radio, though I listen on occasion (until I hear a song I don’t like). Live and local is really the best radio. (It is, for instance, hard to get local weather updates when there is no one to provide them.) On the other hand, if it’s my radio station then I should be the voice, right? (As if anyone would listen to 24/7 Steve.)

Most music radio stations have a playlist of 250 to 300 songs. I have a YouTube playlist called, of course, Presty the DJ …

… with, as of this writing, 712 songs. Since the average radio station plays 360 songs a day, I could go through the whole playlist without a repeat every two days, and, unlike both terrestrial and satellite radio, never hear a song I don’t like.

As long as we’re going through this fantasy exercise, I should point out that I like theme blocks to a point (“60s at 6,” “70s at 7,” “80s at 8,” “Two-for Tuesdays,” etc.) I also like actual news (and entertainment news is not really news unless it has some sort of strange element to it, preferably one that makes a celebrity look stupid).

I also like comedy bits to a point. I grew up listening to Larry Lujack’s “Animal Stories” and “Cheap Trashy Showbiz Report” on WLS in Chicago. Later the former Rick and Len had “Small Town Crime Wave” and other bits on WAPL in Appleton. The most hilarious was probably “PO’d in the Post,” when they would reread segments from The Post~Crescent’s “Sound Off” column, which was nothing more than voicemails of people anonymously complaining about something.

Readers might recall that Rush Limbaugh started as a top 40 DJ …

… and his original idea was to combine rock and roll and right-wing politics. I’m not sure anyone has done that, and therefore I wonder if that’s possible, though combining rock music with libertarian politics is more consistent.

I usually listen to radio for music more than talk anyway.

 

Presty the DJ for Aug. 5

First, a non-rock anniversary: Today is the 95th anniversary of the first broadcasted baseball game, on KDKA in Pittsburgh: Harold Arlen described Pittsburgh’s 8–0 win over Philadelphia.

Speaking of Philadelphia … today in 1957, ABC-TV picked up WFIL-TV’s “American Bandstand” …

… though ABC interrupted it in the middle for “The Mickey Mouse Club.”

Today in 1966, the Beatles recorded “Yellow Submarine” …

… and “Eleanor Rigby” …

… which were part of their “Revolver” album, released one year to the day later.

Continue reading “Presty the DJ for Aug. 5”

The latest sports controversy

Michael Smith first wrote:

“I say put mental health first, because if you don’t, then you’re not going to enjoy your sport and you’re not going to succeed as much as you want to. It’s OK sometimes to even sit out the big competitions to focus on yourself because it shows how strong of a competitor and a person that you really are, rather than just battle through it.”

Says Simone Biles.

What I’m about to say may not be very popular, but if you have read my stuff for any period of time, you know I tend to say what I am thinking.

I feel sorry for her, but more sorry for her teammates. Her statement just seems to be the antithesis of the traditional American spirit.

Biles is a not a kid, she is 24. She is an adult. She indicated in an interview last night that she was feeling fear. Fear of injury, fear of making a mistake, fear of letting her teammates down.

So, she didn’t saddle up. Her mental toughness is gone. I’ve seen this before in people, they become so paralyzed with fear that they can’t even act. It is a from of PTSD or the old version known as “shell shock” – but the Biles situation isn’t a life threatening one. This is a sport.

But it isn’t just Biles – maybe she is the most famous example of it, but I have known young adults to not show up for work, calling out sick and claiming they had such a stressful week, they needed a “mental health day.”.

Somehow I can’t imagine a Chinese or Russian athlete walking away from a competition and you know, those CIA and US Army advertisements celebrating mental weakness and wokeness as desirable characteristics for intelligence employees and soldiers didn’t fill me with confidence.

Biles should not be disparaged for doing what she thought she needed to do for herself, but she damn sure should not be celebrated for it either. She let down her team and an entire country.

I am left to wonder if this is an example of the new America in the hands of the Biles generation, that they just don’t think they should “battle through” when things get tough.

May God have mercy on our souls if that what we have wrought.”

Then Smith wrote:

Many have criticized my comments about Simone Biles. That’s fair – but I have a personal reason for my opinion.

In the late 90’s the business I was part of failed. I was unemployed and dead broke, loaded with debt and with a wife and three kids to feed and literally no food in the house. I can imagine that kind of stress is at least equivalent to what Biles feels. Yet, I didn’t quit.

I couldn’t quit. My family depended on me.
I couldn’t find a job in my field at a comparable level so I turned to skills I learned working in construction from college, doing anything I could to make money to feed my kids. I didn’t give up, I wasn’t embarrassed to take any job I could find.

I clawed my way back over the past 30 years.

That’s real life. I know other people share a similar story. Rare are people who have never faced setbacks in life. Some buckle down and get things done, some people quit – on their families, their teams and themselves.

That has real and immediate consequences, so people will have to pardon me if I am harsh toward an athlete who quits for “mental health” reasons. She has been supported all her life by other people because she can do things nobody else can – and now she can’t (or won’t) do those things.

I don’t know her, and I have said she has the right to do whatever she wants to do and for whatever reason (or no reason at all), but again, she doesn’t just get to escape the consequences – people forming opinions of her or the real impact to her family and her teammates.

We all are entitled to our opinions, but now she is out of the individual competition as well, her legacy will forever be that she quit.

She doesn’t deserve denigration – but by the same token, she sure as hell shouldn’t be celebrated for quitting. Many are celebrating her for “living her truth” and “taking care of herself.”

I can’t do it. I won’t do it. I’m sorry for her problems but she performs in a sport that is basically entertainment, as all sports are to one degree or another. All sports, especially the Olympics, are luxury appendages of a prosperous world. They are nice, but not necessary, so maybe this doesn’t deserve the attention it is getting

Whether Simone Biles ever competes again will not change my world one iota. The fact remains that the behavior of elite athletes in several sports are making me not care about things I once enjoyed and supported (my wife, daughter and I volunteered and worked in the 2002 Salt Lake Games).

A friend once told me that society will forgive anything except going broke. The fact is that I’ll forever carry the stigma of being broke and bankrupt, but I will never be called a quitter.

 

The most divisive championship of all time!

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:

A-N-T-E-T-O-K-O-U-N-M-P-O

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.

 

Postgame schadenfreude, Valley of the Setting Sun edition

The Arizona Republic:

The Phoenix Suns built an early lead, and then unraveled. The Milwaukee Bucks snatched a Game 5 road win, 123-119, to take a 3-2 lead on Saturday. Trailing 16 points after the first quarter, the Bucks overcame the deficit and continued to build on their own lead. It started in the second quarter.

“Well, both second and third,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “You give up 79 points. And the reasoning behind it, I gotta look at the film to see, but we just didn’t have the same energy that we had in the first and fourth, when you look at the numbers.”

In those two quarters, the Bucks scored 79 points. And they did it shooting 32-of-45, including 10-of-17 from 3.

“It just put us in a hole,” Williams said. “I felt like we were playing from behind for a long, long time.”

Still, guard Chris Paul didn’t want to fully boil it down to that stretch. At least, not until he could delve into it more.

“It’s a 48-minute game,” Paul said. “I’ll go back and look at it and see, but we gotta play the way we started off the game. We gotta put a full game together like that.”

In the third quarter, the Bucks eventually built a double-digit lead, but not until after a more evenly-matched stretch.

“We were trading basket for basket for I think five minutes straight,” Suns guard Devin Booker said. “We’re at our best when we get stops and get out in transition. So that’s what we hang [our hats on] on defense, and we just have to be better.”

In the second quarter, the Bucks shot 70.8%, while the Suns shot 35.7%. Booker played just 6:14 in the second quarter. Williams wouldn’t dabble in re-thinking that decision in hindsight.

Postgame schadenfreude, Valley of the Sun edition

I have been too busy (including vacation) to comment on the Bucks’ trip to the NBA Finals before now.

But Wednesday night’s 109–103 win that tied the Finals at two wins each requires me to post this from the Arizona Republic:

The Phoenix Suns had turned each of their previous three playoffs series in their favor with Game 4 victories on the road.

Not this time in the NBA Finals.

The Milwaukee Bucks withstood a mega 42-point effort from Devin Booker by forcing 17 turnovers that led to 24 points in topping the second-seeded Suns, 109-103, in Wednesday’s Game 4 to even the series before a charged sellout crowd of 16,911 at Fiserv Forum.

“The turnovers just crushed us tonight,” said Suns coach Monty Williams as the third-seeded Bucks also got 17 offensive rebounds and 19 second-chance points.

“We shot 50% from the field, but they got 19 more possessions. Over the course of the game when you just give it up that many times, the turnovers and offensive rebounding was a bit of a hill for us to climb.”

The fans chanted “Bucks in 6!” as Game 5 is set for Saturday at Phoenix Suns Arena.

“How bad do you want it? How bad do you really want it,” Bucks All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “And just leave-the-game-swinging kind of mentality. Try to be aggressive. Try to get stops. Try to set screens. Do everything physically possible to put yourself in a position to win this game. I think everybody was feeling that. That’s what we did.”

Phoenix had won its previous Game 4s in its journey to the finals.

  • at Los Angeles Lakers: Won 100-92. Tied series at 2-2 (Won in six).
  • at Denver Nuggets: Won 116-102. Took 3-0 series lead (Won in four).
  • at Los Angele Clippers: Won 84-80. Took 3-1 series lead (Won in six).

Again, not this time.

Khris Middleton scored a team-high 40 points with 14 coming in the fourth quarter while Antetokounmpo added 26 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists to just one turnover as the Bucks won Game 3 and 4 at home in this best-of-7 series.

“You need somebody who can make those shots,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “He and Giannis in a pick-and-roll, Giannis setting great screens. Khris, I thought he had some good looks kind of early. But then he just stayed with it. Credit to him. A lot of big, tough shots, and then the tough finish in transition. He was special. A lot of good stuff from Khris. And defensively, too, I think he’s given us a lot on that end.”

The Bucks overcame a seven-point deficit with 8:39 left in the fourth quarter to even the series. Game 6 will be back in Milwaukee on Tuesday.

Game 7, if necessary, will be July 22 in Phoenix.

“When you have that kind of a lead in the fourth, if we can just hold on to the ball and get good possessions, you feel like you can at least hold it there,” Williams said. “So I got to look at the film and see, was it schematics or was it just their defense, I’m not quite sure yet, but we certainly had a lot of self-inflicted stuff tonight.”

The Bucks closed the game on a 27-14 run as Middleton gave the Bucks the lead for good, 101-99, on a jumper with 1:28 left.

Fourteen seconds later,  Antetokounmpo, the 2019-20 NBA Defensive Player of the Year, followed that up with a massive block of Deandre Ayton’s lob dunk.

“I thought I was going to get dunked on, to be honest with you,” the two-time MVP said. “But you know, going down the stretch, just do whatever it takes to win the game. Just put yourself in a position that can win the game. I saw the play coming. I saw that Chris was going to throw the lob and I was just going to jump vertical toward the rim. Hopefully I can be there in time, and I was there in time and was able to get a good block.

The loss puts a damper of the performance of Booker, who bounced back from a career playoff-low 10-point effort in Game 3 to post his third 40-point game this postseason.

“You knew it was going to happen,” Suns wing Cam Johnson said. “You knew he wasn’t going to have another tough night. You know he’s going to get to it and he’s going to get buckets. That’s just what he does. He’s a great player. He’s one of the best players in our league.”

Booker set a record for most points scored in his first postseason run as he has 542 in the playoffs, but didn’t find much comfort in his special Game 4 performance.

“It doesn’t matter at all,” Booker said. “I said that after last game too, when I struggled shooting it. The main objective is to win the game. So anything that goes on throughout the game, it doesn’t matter, for real.”

Phoenix led 82-76 going into the fourth quarter as Booker had 18 points in the third quarter on a perfect 7-of-7 shooting.

The Suns shot 70.6% from the field in the quarter (12-of-17).

However, Booker picked up his fifth foul with 10:50 left in the fourth.

The Suns were up six, 85-79, when Cameron Payne replaced Booker and led, 93-90, when Booker returned with 5:55 remaining.

“He could have gone for 50-plus tonight,” Williams said. “I wanted to get him in maybe a minute earlier than I did, you’re just holding on trying to get as many stops and solid possessions as you can, but it’s not an ideal situation, but I thought we managed it well.”

Booker didn’t get called for another foul, but had two instances when the whistle could’ve easily blown against him. He grabbed Jrue Holiday in transition with 3:38 left in the game, but wasn’t called for the foul.

After the game, lead official James Capers said Booker should’ve been called for the foul on that play.

“During live play, I saw a clean sweep of the ball and thought it was a no call,” Capers said. “However, after seeing the replay, I now realize that I missed Booker’s right arm around the waist of Holiday, and it should have been a defensive foul on the play.”

The Suns went into halftime tied at 52-52 as Booker led all scorers with 20 on 8-of-15 shooting after scoring just 10 in Game 3 on 3-of-14 shooting.

Mikal Bridges added seven points in the first half as the Suns led by as many as nine in the first half. Chris Paul managed just two points in the first half on 1-4 shooting.

Paul finished the game with 10 points and a game-high five turnovers.

The Bucks, as a team, had five total turnovers.

“It was me, I had five of them,” said Paul about the turnovers. “It was bad decision making. That time we were down two and I tried to cross over right there, slipped, turned it over. I had some bad passes in the first half. They got a significant amount more shots than us, so for me I got to take care of the ball.”

His last turnover led to a Middleton layup on the other end to put Milwaukee ahead, 103-99, with 27.2 seconds left.

Usually so careful with the ball, Paul has totaled 15 turnovers in the last three games. When asked if Paul was physically OK, Williams said the 16-year veteran was fine.

“Great players have games like that,” Williams said. “We expect him to bounce back. He had five (turnovers), but we had 17 and they scored 24 points, you know what I mean? That was pretty much the game right there. Then you double that up with the offensive rebounding, so it wasn’t just Chris. As a team tonight, we got to take better care of the ball.”

Bridges didn’t score again after halftime as he took just four shots for the game, marking the second straight game he didn’t score double figures after posting a career playoff-high 27 in a Game 2 win in Phoenix.