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The Bucks Stop With Giannis and … These Three Guys

Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks have the best record in basketball and the media footprint of a college hockey team. How does a franchise in a small market led by an MVP candidate with its sights set on an NBA title become a national concern?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last year, a 27-year-old Australian man had a crazy dream. He wanted to quit his job, leave his family, and move to Milwaukee. That’s not the crazy part. The crazy part is he wanted to cover the Bucks.

Kane Pitman fell in love with Ray Allen and the Bucks during the 2001 playoffs. He has tried to watch as many games as he could since. Pitman was working as a tradesman in an oil refinery near Melbourne when he decided, Screw it, I’m going to take a chance. He got a foreign work visa with the help of an Australian basketball website. Pitman arrived in Milwaukee on October 12, five days before the Bucks’ season opener.

Pitman is a full-fledged beat writer in the sense that he has credentials, attends practices and games, and, at least in the media scrums I watched, asks smart questions. But nobody is paying Pitman to cover the Bucks. He gets small checks by selling the occasional piece to the Melbourne Herald Sun or ESPN Australia. Mostly, Pitman is self-funding his audition as an NBA reporter, using the Bucks beat as his stage.

“It might be a stupid idea,” he told me, “but that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

Beat writing turns out to be an expensive hobby. And Pitman’s savings are slowly draining away. For Bucks road games, he takes red-eye flights so he can skip the extra night in a hotel. In October, Pitman took a 1 a.m. Greyhound bus to Minneapolis for a game against the Timberwolves. A man sitting near him made odd gagging noises all night. Pitman went straight from the bus station to the Bucks’ shootaround, then collapsed in his hotel. Eric Nehm, the Athletic beat writer, offered to give him a ride back to Milwaukee.

To further stretch his money, Pitman stays home on the Bucks’ off days. He hasn’t bought new clothes in a while. He frequents happy hours. “I don’t think I’ve been to McDonald’s once,” he said. “I think that’s pretty impressive.”

When people hear about Pitman’s quest to make it as a beat writer, they’re often moved to tell him how cool it is. “I’m like, it’ll be cooler if it works out,” Pitman said. If he doesn’t get a job, he has to move back to Australia after the season.

Pitman admits to moments of crushing self-doubt. “You’re just like, What did I do?” he said. “Did I make the right choice? I had a job back home.”

Getting a job by arriving Giannis-like in an NBA media room might seem like a long shot. On the Bucks beat, it’s not all that odd. The Bucks have always had a tiny press corps that’s friendly to outsiders. What’s changed is that Milwaukee now has the best record in the NBA, and in Antetokounmpo its most interesting star. A tiny beat is about to be overrun by national writers.

One way to measure the size of an NBA team’s press corps is by counting how many reporters not employed by the team’s website or TV partners turn up at your average weekday practice. Without Pitman, the Bucks would have had two such reporters. Now they have three.

In January, Matt Velazquez, the Bucks beat writer with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, was chatting with Antetokounmpo after a shootaround in Orlando. It was a “one-on-one,” the most cherished currency in NBA writing. Only this was a one-on-one by default, because Velazquez was the only unaffiliated reporter there. A Bucks PR person remarked, “Best record in the league, MVP favorite—and one guy from the media here!”

“It’s a pleasure to work with you,” Antetokounmpo said.

Such scarcity is hardly new to the Bucks beat. In the Milwaukee sports hierarchy, the Bucks often finish behind the Packers, Brewers, and the University of Wisconsin. Legendary newshound Bob McGinn came out of the Packers beat. The Brewers have Tom Haudricourt. There’s no Bucks equivalent, because there was never very much interest. Michael Hunt, who was the Journal Sentinel’s Bucks writer for five seasons starting in the late ’90s, told me, “I was usually alone, and I was usually the only person traveling with the team, too.”

As in other NBA cities, the idea that the team wasn’t getting the coverage it deserved led to the creation of a kickin’ blogosphere. In 2007, Frank Madden and Alex Boeder founded the site Brew Hoop. Eric Nehm, a Brew Hoop alum who worked at the local ESPN Radio affiliate and wrote a column for Milwaukee Magazine, started coming to Bucks games until he’d created a de facto beat job for himself. “I don’t want to say unfettered, but I had a ton of access,” Nehm said. The Athletic hired Nehm last year.

This season, there’s one reporter, Velazquez, who travels with the Bucks full time. Nehm has attended three-quarters of the games. (One of the undercovered aspects of The Athletic is that they’ve restored competition to several beats, but many of their writers don’t travel with teams full time.) Pitman, hopping on and off red-eyes, occasionally crashes in Nehm’s hotel room. At home practices, you can find the three beat writers joined by Katie George, the team’s sideline reporter, and often Malika Andrews, the Chicago-based ESPN reporter who has what Zach Lowe dubbed the “Bulls suck beat.” Andrews has spent 49 nights in Milwaukee Marriotts in 2019 alone.

The beat writers have seen more national writers like Lowe and Howard Beck this season. They’ve also seen more beat writers from other cities. Beat writers usually choose which road trips to skip by adhering to a time-honored formula: shittiness of team plus shittiness of winter weather. The Milwaukee weather hasn’t changed, but the Bucks are actually good.

The loneliness of the Bucks beat was often matched by the squalor of the conditions. For decades, the Bucks practiced in the Cousins Center, a building owned by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. The worst thing about the Cousins Center isn’t that Khris Middleton once slipped on a wet spot on the floor and tore his hamstring off the bone. The worst thing is that when the eponymous (and long-dead) Archbishop Cousins found out a priest was accused of sexually abusing more than a dozen young boys, he merely sent him to another diocese. Recently, the building was renamed the Mary Mother of the Church Pastoral Center.

In the ’90s, a reporter like Hunt could enter the front door of the Cousins Center and walk almost unimpeded into Ernie Grunfeld’s office. When Jason Kidd took over as Bucks coach, he declared that reporters could enter the facility only through the back door and congregate in a tiny stairwell while they waited for practice to end.

New stadiums and facilities usually go two ways for beat writers. The digs are roomier, sure, but they’re also more restrictive. At the Cousins Center, reporters stood right next to the locker-room door after practice so that players couldn’t escape. At the Bucks’ new $31 million practice facility downtown, players sometimes exit the court through a far door, leaving reporters in the lurch.

This season, the Bucks moved out of the Bradley Center, one of the crummiest arenas in the NBA, and into Fiserv Forum. The media accomodations at Fiserv Forum are bigger and nicer. But during a preseason game, Velazquez heard a security guard call the hallway that leads to the Bucks’ locker room a “sterile hallway.” “Sterile” means reporters can wander the hallway only at prescribed times. It was as if the Bucks were playing home games in the Yongbyon nuclear reactor.

On the Bucks beat, Giannis Antetokounmpo is extremely available. He’s so available that Velazquez will sometimes decide not to bother him and go off to talk to other players. “I try and give him that space,” Velazquez said. “Which if he goes somewhere else … good luck.”

Of all the NBA rituals Antetokounmpo had to learn about after coming to the NBA from the Greek second division, one of the strangest had to be sidling—the practice of sharing a private moment with a reporter while you walk out of the locker room. Back in the 2015-16 season, Nehm saw a reporter slyly running his recorder while he walked with Antetokounmpo. “What are you doing?” Antetokounmpo said. “I know you’re recording that!”

Now, when Nehm and Antetokounmpo sidle, Nehm makes sure to hold his recorder in front of him, so Antetokounmpo can see it. “Giannis is incredibly loyal and he’s incredibly honest,” said Nehm. “For you to try to pull something over on him, to me that would be the death knell. That would be the end of your relationship with Giannis.”

As Velazquez notes, “Does Giannis like the media?” is actually two separate questions. The beats think Antetokounmpo likes the reporters themselves more than he likes the interviews. “He doesn’t particularly enjoy doing media,” Pitman said. Antetokounmpo doesn’t talk before games and is iffy about talking after shootarounds. In the final games of last year’s playoff series against the Celtics, Antetokounmpo talked to the media after games in the locker room, leaving Middleton to man the podium by himself.

None of the beat writers are sure how much of their stuff Antetokounmpo reads, though they’re fairly sure he doesn’t take any of it too seriously. Before the January 16 game against Memphis, Nehm tweeted that Antetokounmpo hadn’t dunked in three games. Then Antetokounmpo dunked all over the Grizzlies. After the game, Antetokounmpo comically trolled Nehm: “I downloaded the [Twitter] app on my phone. Eric said, ‘Oh, yeah, Giannis hasn’t dunked for three days.’ … I was really sad. Eric was my guy.’” Nehm was shocked.

National writers, who’d love to strap on their Lee Jenkins scuba gear and plumb the depths of Antetokounmpo’s soul, find their longform profile requests rejected. “Giannis is an inaccessible superstar—but in a Duncan way, not in a Russ way,” said one national NBA writer. “He’s totally polite and just kind of not interested.”

Antetokounmpo’s agent, Alex Saratsis, confirmed that he has been turning down most profile requests. At this point in the season, Saratsis said, Antetokounmpo is “not going to be going around doing GQ covers. It’s not important to him. Or going around doing original content—read into that what you may.”

Antetokounmpo has already visited most of NBA media’s stations of the cross. The Chris Mannix this-guy-could-be-something profile. The Jenkins this-guy-is-something profile. The TV mini doc. And, finally, the 60 Minutes piece, which aired immediately after the show’s interview with Stormy Daniels. Before talking to Steve Kroft, Antetokounmpo said he didn’t know what 60 Minutes was.

“Giannis hasn’t heard of that” is a distinct subgenre of Giannis journalism, the 2014 smoothie tweet being the high point. “Giannis backstory” (his tough upbringing as the son of immigrants in Athens) is another subgenre. The inevitable next wave, after Antetokounmpo masters basketball and turns his eyes toward Hollywood or Silicon Valley, is “corporate Giannis.” Saratsis gets a lot of requests for those profiles too.

The tricky thing about covering Antetokounmpo is that he’s affable but elliptical. James Harden is campaigning for MVP like Beto O’Rourke standing on the countertop of an Iowa coffee shop. Antetokounmpo’s approach, Saratsis said, is “if you feel I’m good enough to win MVP based on my performance, then I win it. I shouldn’t be going on an MVP media tour.”

In February, ESPN cameras actually caught Antetokounmpo mouthing the letters “M-V-P.” But when beat writers teed him up after the game, Antetokounmpo smiled slyly and said, “You guys go watch the tape. I didn’t say nothing.”

With the press, Antetokounmpo is doing a version of what he has been doing on the court. He’s slowly figuring out his abilities in a low-pressure setting. When the Bucks lost to the Sixers this month, the cameras caught Anteotokounmpo calling Ben Simmons a “fucking baby” after dunking on him. The clip lit up NBA Twitter. But the beat writers waited four minutes into Antetokounmpo’s postgame scrum to ask about it. When Pitman finally did the honors, he broached Babygate with the delicacy of a 20-year veteran of the beat.

“When you got Ben one-on-one a couple of times,” Pitman said, “you seemed really comfortable and confident that you could get what you wanted. How did you assess that matchup again with him?”

After the scrum broke up, Pitman told Giannis, “I didn’t want to straight-up ask you if he was a fucking baby.”

“I thought it was a very good question,” Antetokounmpo said.

None of the Bucks beat writers wonders whether Mike Budenholzer likes talking to the media. Coach Bud is the stylistic opposite of the old Bucks coach George Karl, who enjoyed lighting up his own players in front of reporters. “Bud is proud of how dry he can be in scrums, and he says so,” said Andrews. Coach Bud is like his old boss Gregg Popovich, without the trolling or jokes.

The Bucks beat writers have gotten used to hearing certain Bud-isms. Asked about Brook Lopez’s newfound 3-point proficiency, Coach Bud will say he wants every player to take open shots. Asked about an opposing player, Coach Bud will say he doesn’t watch other teams. Want an injury update? Coach Bud doesn’t have one. “He never knows what’s going on,” Velazquez said. “But of course he knows.”

Coach Bud has certain trigger words. Early in the season, out-of-town writers kept asking Budenholzer if he was “surprised” by the Bucks’ hot start. It’s one of Coach Bud’s foundational tenets that he’s not surprised—by anything. “If we heard the word ‘surprise’ in a road huddle, none of us would make eye contact,” Nehm said. “It was like a Saturday Night Live skit. Who was going to break?”

Recently, Khris Middleton told Sam Amick that the Bucks’ locker room is asshole-free. This is more or less true. The Bucks have good talkers like Middleton, Lopez, Sterling Brown, and Pau Gasol. Tony Snell is good but has an odd fear of TV cameras. There were a couple other players the beats told me were “great if you get them rolling.” In NBA reporter-speak, this means the player doesn’t love the media, but is less overtly hostile than Russell Westbook.

Of course, assholes can be valuable to a reporter. The downside of a bunch of nice guys, Velazquez said, is “none of them is coming to us to vent things.” Velazquez added: “I don’t think that everything was hunky-dory with Jabari Parker in the locker room last year. But no one was going to say a bad thing about him. … They’ll let you believe—lead you to believe—that everything’s perfect.”

A level of hunky-doriness prevails among the beat writers too. “Part of the reason we get along so well is we don’t feel like we have the same job,” Nehm said. Velazquez is a wired newspaperman; Nehm leans into features and video breakdowns; Pitman is beholden to the whims of Australia’s Murdoch tabloids.

Sometimes, after a game, two Bucks stars will finish dressing at the same time. Velazquez and Nehm will give each a look and then, as Velazquez put it, “do a little pick-and-pop action.” Velazquez follows one player, Nehm the other. Afterward, the two reporters will share their sound files or interview transcripts, while preserving a few exclusive quotes for themselves.

“If we didn’t like each other,” Nehm said, “I don’t know how any of this beat would work.” In an ideal world, such locker-room tag teaming would be handled by back-up writers at the same publication. In the world we actually live in, where every sportswriter is 10 minutes away from being laid off, the job is left to reporters who are competitors.

A beat writer is tethered to his team in the Jordan Peele sense of the term. For years, the Bucks were a perpetual 8-seed fond of making dumb, win-now trades. (See JJ Redick, et al. for Tobias Harris, et al.) Now, to the beats’ astonishment, the Bucks are seen as a smart franchise. National writers love to speculate about whether Antetokounmpo will sign a supermax extension next summer. The Milwaukee beats don’t worry much about this, figuring no one will know even part of the answer until after the postseason. “This is the time to just pay attention, and we can save all the takes for later,” said Mitchell Maurer, one of Brew Hoop’s managing editors.

But this year’s playoffs will mark a change in the way the Bucks are covered. For most of the media, this year’s Bucks have been a fun, “What will they do next?” kind of team. Unless Antetokounmpo at least makes the NBA Finals, that period is almost certainly coming to a close. “Now, he’s going to be held to a standard by the Skip Baylesses of the world, who are going to be talking about his playoff credibility and all that,” Frank Madden said.

Kane Pitman thinks about a deep playoff run with a mixture of elation and mild alarm. The playoffs means booking a lot of expensive, last-minute flights. Pitman also has a more immediate worry. When he arrived in the U.S. in October, he signed a six-month lease on an apartment that’s within walking distance of Fiserv Forum. That lease ends next month. Pitman will continue chasing his crazy dream, provided he can find a place to live.

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