2020 was supposed to be Milwaukee’s big year. As host city for the Democratic National Convention, we’d finally have an opportunity to reveal our hidden gem to tens of thousands of business, government and media leaders who regularly confuse Milwaukee and Minneapolis. The DNC was going to put Milwaukee on the map and provide an economic boost for pretty much everyone in the area, including yours truly as a would-be Airbnb host (several friends inspired me to list my condo and stay with my parents because the rates were so incredible).
To sweeten the pot, the Milwaukee Bucks were the hottest team in the NBA going into last spring. After a devastating semifinal exit from the 2019 playoffs, their path to redemption and a first championship appearance since 1974 seemed assured as everything was clicking in 2020, and they had the best record in the NBA.
We all know what happens next. The pandemic puts the world on lockdown. The DNC shrinks down to practically nothing; Joe Biden never even stops here. The NBA shuts down on March 11th and doesn’t resume until July when they’ve created a “bubble” in Orlando. The Bucks never recover their mojo after the four-month interruption and get knocked out in the second round of the playoffs, absolutely embarrassed by the Miami Heat.
Instead of gushing praise from the DNC coverage, here’s the kind of national press we get: “Voting in Wisconsin During a Pandemic: Lines, Masks and Plenty of Fear.”
And, of course, everyone loses faith in the Bucks, myself included: They don’t have the right coach; they don’t have the right players; the owners aren’t willing to invest so they’ll always be an also-ran.
Milwaukee’s big coming out party wasn’t postponed; it was cancelled.
2020 went from hero to zero.
Fast forward to today: The city is opening up—not locking down—and the Bucks are competing toe-to-toe with the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals Championship Series—currently a 2-2 series.
The NBA Finals.
That means of 30 teams in the NBA, 28 of them are watching the Bucks play right now from their couches. Lebron James. James Harden. Kevin Durant. Have a Coke, fellas.
As a lifelong basketball player and fan, I’m having the time of my life watching and attending these games.
More importantly, this is bigger than basketball for Milwaukee. Here are my top six reasons why:
- The Bucks owners from New York City have really invested in Milwaukee. Including personal involvement and support of community organizations like The Running Rebels (check this out) and a commitment to diverse hiring. I understand how tax write-offs and government mandates work, but still… these guys have shown up since day one and brought a new swagger to this city.
- It’s a huge shot in the arm for businesses downtown that were decimated by COVID lockdowns. This playoff run has brought crowds of tens of thousands to the downtown “Deer District” for 19 games so far—including massive watch parties for the away games. Those are DNC-caliber numbers of eaters, drinkers, riders and hotel stayers.
- This is karmic fulfillment for Herb Kohl. Former Senator Herb Kohl could have sold the team to owners in Seattle for twice as much in 2014. Instead, he found buyers who pledged to keep the team in Milwaukee and invest in the city for the long-run, including building a new stadium. “Win it for Herb!”
- Only two kinds of people hate Milwaukee… People who have never been here, and people who have never left. ESPN reporter Stephan A. Smith famously called Milwaukee “a terrible city” in June… before he was forced to come here and cover The NBA Finals. I bet he feels differently now, along with several hundred other media and celebrities who have finally been ‘forced’ to come here. (By the way, get your “STAY TERRIBLE MILW” t-shirts here.)
- There’s massive long-term economic development catalyzing. Here’s the lead-in from a Business Journal story on July 6th: “The huge crowds that have packed the Deer District in downtown Milwaukee for Milwaukee Bucks playoff games in recent weeks will likely lead to more development in the burgeoning area on the northern side of the city’s central business district, according to Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry.” It continues: “ ‘If you think about it, we’re the only place where 17,000 people can be watching a game inside and another 20,000 to 25,000 can be outside watching it,” Lasry said. “Name me another city where that is happening? It is what we dreamed would happen. We hoped people would come, but I don’t think we ever envisioned it like this. It is a unique experience and one that is so great for the city.” How cool is that
- The country’s “most segregated city” is celebrating this run together. This lead-in from a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story says it all: “Thousands of people from all backgrounds are gathering each playoff game outside Fiserv Forum, and the city is buzzing with the shared hope of an NBA championship. That togetherness might be temporary, but it’s a glimpse at a more unified Milwaukee.”