MILWAUKEE — Much has changed in Milwaukee since the Bucks won their last NBA title a half-century ago.
Nothing reflects the differences more than the melting pot of fans swarming together outside Fiserv Forum playoff games. Fans will flock there again Sunday in hopes of helping the Bucks rally from an 0-2 deficit in the NBA Finals when they host the Phoenix Suns in Game 3.
The diversity of the crowds is striking considering Milwaukee’s history.
Team President Peter Feigin backtracked five years ago after calling Milwaukee “the most segregated, racist place I’ve ever experienced in my life,” but 49-year-old Milwaukee native LaNelle Ramey — a Black man — believes it needed to be said.
“It forced those who were here, longtime Milwaukeeans, to look in the mirror – in particular those who didn’t want to believe it,” said Ramey, the executive director for MENTOR Milwaukee, a Bucks-backed organization that fosters mentorship programs for area youth.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said he took no personal umbrage over Feigin’s 2016 comments. Barrett noted the diversity of his own administrative team while adding, “I’m also very cognizant of the fact we have a very large income gap, education gap, public safety gap in not only the city of Milwaukee but all of southeastern Wisconsin.”
Feigin believes what the Bucks have done off the court is at least as important as what they have accomplished on the court.
When asked what his proudest moment is with the Bucks, Feigin doesn’t mention the Eastern Conference title the team just won. He instead cites the players’ decision not to take the floor for a postseason game inside the bubble at Walt Disney World last summer last year following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Their decision led to a leaguewide postponement of playoff games.
“It really kind of sparked a global pause and awareness for social justice,” Feigin said.
Barrett said the Bucks “embody not only the team spirit that you see with all the players, but they embody the community spirit of wanting to be a part of the community. It has been true since the day they got here.”
Bucks players engaging in social issues isn’t new.
Bob Dandridge, a recent Hall of Fame selection who played on the Bucks’ 1971 championship team and the 1974 squad that lost the NBA Finals to Boston, said there were plenty of outspoken players on those teams.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s activism inspired the NBA to give out a social justice award bearing his name. Oscar Robertson filed the lawsuit that helped bring free agency to the NBA. Dandridge also wasn’t shy about sharing his views.
The difference today, Dandridge says, is the support players receive from management.
“I think it’s an entirely different approach as far as outspokenness with today’s owners and the owners back in the 70s when I was in Milwaukee,” Dandridge said.
Team executives also issued a statement standing behind then-Bucks guard Sterling Brown after Milwaukee police took him to the ground and shocked him with a Taser in January 2018 over a parking violation. Brown, one of the leaders of the Bucks’ playoff protest last year, sued the city and eventually reached a $750,000 settlement.
When Feigin took over as Bucks president in 2014 after Wes Edens, Marc Lasry and Jamie Dinan bought the team, the franchise was struggling.
Milwaukee’s 2001 Eastern Conference finals appearance marked the only time the Bucks advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs from 1990 to 2018. The Bucks were playing in the Bradley Center, one of the NBA’s oldest venues.
“It was like finding a unicorn, finding a Bucks fan six years ago,” said Sean Marus, a 28-year-old Bucks fan from the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa.
Times have changed.
Marus was one of about 9,000 fans who poured into Fiserv Forum to watch on a video screen Tuesday as the Bucks played Game 1 of the NBA Finals at Phoenix. Bucks officials said another 20,000 fans gathered in the “Deer District” outside the three-year-old arena.
“It doesn’t matter what color you are,” Brandon Cunningham, a 27-year-old Milwaukee resident, said outside Fiserv Forum before Game 1. “Everybody’s here to support the Bucks.”
The Bucks have engaged in social change in Milwaukee and around the state.
Bucks players visited a prison last season to spotlight the need for criminal justice reform. The Bucks teamed up with the Sacramento Kings on a Team Up for Change summit featuring panel discussions on police brutality. They led a protest march through downtown Milwaukee following George Floyd’s death.
After Feigin made his comments about Milwaukee in 2016 while speaking at a Rotary Club event in Madison, Wisconsin, he later issued a statement noting he was referring to the city’s economic and geographic divides. As the mayor pointed out, those issues still exist.
Angela Lang, the executive director for the Milwaukee-based Black Leaders Organizing Communities, believes activists pushing back on issues such as police accountability, spending disparities and clean water has had an impact on unifying Milwaukee residents.
“Even though we’re I think a long way away from being perfect as a city, with that amount of activism and organizing, it feels like we could be on our way to something tangibly real in the next couple of years,” said Lang, whose organization encourages civic engagement from Black residents.
Lang said the Bucks are a major part of the change.
“It does feel that they’re not just a team,” Lang said. “They’re actually embedded in part of our community.”
On the court, the Bucks’ run to the NBA Finals has boosted the city, which is reeling from the loss of last year’s Democratic National Convention due to the pandemic.
The Bucks’ turnaround began in 2013 when they drafted two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 15th overall pick and acquired Khris Middleton from the Detroit Pistons. Before this season, the Bucks added guard Jrue Holiday, who has quickly made an impact on the city.
Holiday donated part of his 2019-20 salary to form the Jrue and Lauren Holiday Social Impact Fund with his wife. Their foundation recently opened a second round of funding to provide up to $1 million in grant money for Black-owned businesses and Black-led organizations in Milwaukee as well as the New Orleans, Indianapolis and Los Angeles areas.
His contributions have endeared himself to fans starving for a championship.
“They have made it known that this is just as important to them as it is to us,” Holiday said.
If the Bucks can find a way to win their first NBA title in 50 years, it would give Milwaukee residents of all backgrounds another reason to celebrate together.
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