This was more like it. As Khris Middleton barraged the Celtics with 3-pointers, the Milwaukee defense swarmed Kyrie Irving, and Giannis Antetokounmpo basked in “M-V-P” chants from the Fiserv Forum crowd during the second half of a 123-102 Game 2 win over Boston, the Bucks finally looked like the squad that had spent the regular season trampling the rest of the Eastern Conference. During a clunker of a Game 1 loss three days earlier, Milwaukee had played like an untested team ill-prepared for the rigors of a high-stakes series against a seasoned and talented opponent. But its response down the stretch Tuesday was a stark reminder of what Giannis and crew had done all season. After years of toiling among the NBA’s also-rans, the Bucks now have an MVP favorite and legitimate title hopes just as the organization’s plan to revitalize basketball in the city has become a reality. Their ascension to the top of the East has come at the perfect time for a fan base that’s long clamored for this moment.
In their first season in their new arena, the Bucks won a league-high 60 games, the franchise’s best campaign in 38 years. They finished the regular season as the most effective team in the NBA, and their dismantling of the Celtics in Game 2 showed just how devastating they can be. Milwaukee clung to a three-point lead with 7:06 left in the third quarter, and seemingly out of nowhere the game got out of hand. Antetokounmpo’s ability to barrel into the paint and play off of the shooters surrounding him in head coach Mike Budenholzer’s wide-open system has been an ideal recipe all season, and that combination put Boston away in a hurry. As the Bucks’ advantage grew—to 25 points by the end of the quarter—the mood in the arena shifted. The anxiety that had started to mount after the Bucks fell into a 1-0 series hole and struggled in Game 2’s first half was replaced by the jubilation that’s followed this team for most of the season. “Honestly, it kind of happened pretty quick,” Brook Lopez says of the newly minted optimism. “We got that feeling in training camp and summer workouts. We got this group of guys together, and we saw each other’s drive. We realized we could do big things, and we all wanted to do big things.”
The Bucks may be part of the NBA’s elite now, but as recently as five years ago the franchise was on life support. They went 15-67 in Antetokounmpo’s rookie season in 2013-14, Milwaukee’s fourth straight losing campaign. The team was playing in a dilapidated arena, and many speculated that it could move to Seattle. But on the last day of that regular season, the Bucks held a press conference to announce that longtime owner Herb Kohl was selling the team to New York–based billionaires Marc Lasry and Wes Edens. Kohl, the Wisconsin senator, also used the occasion to disclose plans to build a new arena—and to pledge $100 million toward that effort—that had become a prerequisite to keep the franchise in Milwaukee. Even as the Bucks went on to lose 111-103 to the Hawks to cap the worst season in team history, a feeling of optimism permeated the franchise. For the first time in a long time, the Bucks had leadership with grand aspirations.
Bucks fans hesitate to trash Kohl when talking about his tenure’s shortcomings. In his nearly three decades as owner, Kohl did plenty to further the interests of sports fans in Milwaukee, and even his detractors acknowledge that; you can still find Kohl’s branding in a kid’s area within Fiserv Forum’s lower concourse. But the franchise lacked ambition under his lead. Management built around adequate players like Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis while overpaying for veterans. And the Bucks were largely content to sneak into the playoffs with a low seed and act as the appetizer for Eastern Conference powers like the Pistons, Heat, and Bulls.
Ersan Ilyasova was drafted by the Bucks in 2005 and has spent a total of eight seasons with the franchise, broken up by two years abroad and a few more as an NBA journeyman. But Milwaukee has been home since he left Turkey 14 years ago. Even as he bounced around to teams like the Pistons, Magic, Thunder, 76ers, and Hawks, his three children continued to live in Wisconsin. No one on the Bucks roster is better positioned to examine the changes that have happened to the franchise’s infrastructure over the past several years, and he says that he could feel the shift in management almost immediately. “It’s two different things, when you’re looking back,” Ilyasova says. “You have a new facility, new arena. The new owners came up and stepped up big time. It’s not like the old owner was bad, but it is what it is. Sometimes, a new owner and a new way to manage the team can [accomplish] different things.”
When Lasry and Edens took over, they made drastic changes. And the ride hasn’t always been smooth. Jason Kidd’s tenure as the head coach—which began when Milwaukee poached him from the Nets following a failed power struggle with then-Brooklyn general manager Billy King—had its share of promising moments, but eventually devolved into another lackluster era with a defined ceiling. Stumbling into Mike Budenholzer in 2018 after he was let go by the Hawks following an excellent five-year run proved to be a coup, as well as the final step—along with shrewd additions like Lopez and Nikola Mirotic—that completed the Bucks’ on-court vision. Armed with a progressive coach, a new arena, and more empowered decision-makers like president Peter Feigin and GM Jon Horst in place, the Bucks were finally calibrated like a successful modern basketball organization.
In many ways, Antetokounmpo’s rise has mirrored the Bucks’ trajectory. When his career began, Giannis was something of a cuddly curiosity—a still-growing teenager trying smoothies and loving life. But over the past few seasons he’s gone from delightful to dominant. Giannis has emerged as a different kind of sports hero in the city: a truly transcendent talent that Milwaukee can call its own. Aaron Rodgers may be revered, but Green Bay is about two hours north of the state’s most populous city. Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun helped reinvigorate the Brewers a decade ago, but neither ascended to the heights that Antetokounmpo has in his young career. He’s already the best Bucks player in two generations, and even the all-time greats who played in the city before him—like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson—only made pit stops in Milwaukee. If Antetokounmpo decides to stay here past the summer of 2021 (when his contract is up), he’ll become a fixture of Milwaukee’s sports landscape in a way others have not.
The Bucks are no longer just a feel-good story worth catching on League Pass. They’re a team with NBA Finals aspirations that’s learning just how great they can be. “In your basketball career, [these] opportunities are really rare,” Ilyasova says. “We have a really good chance to play for a championship. That has to be our mentality going forward. It’s not about winning one game or one series. We have to focus on the big picture.”
Maybe even more striking than their climb up the league’s hierarchy has been the Bucks’ rise up the sports pecking order in both Milwaukee and Wisconsin at large. During the third quarter of Tuesday’s victory, the Jumbotron showed former Wisconsin running back and 1999 Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne in his seat in the lower bowl. The crowd went berserk. Before the Bucks’ recent success, they ranked near the bottom of the priority list for most Milwaukee sports fans. The beloved Packers, the Badgers’ football and basketball teams, and the Brewers all took precedence for many around the state—which has made the rise of Bucks Mania so rewarding for their players and longtime believers. Local TV interest has skyrocketed: At 3.1 this season, Milwaukee garnered its highest rating since 2003. “I’ve just seen it more and more,” Lopez says. “Driving by, seeing ‘Go Bucks’ on buses, seeing flags on cars, or signs in the lawn. It’s definitely a contagious feeling. And it’s been picking up the whole [year].”
Antetokounmpo’s face is all over downtown Milwaukee these days, but nowhere is it larger than on the banner hanging off the east side of Fiserv Forum. That’s fitting, given that Giannis’s presence was a critical factor in getting the arena constructed. During the 2014-15 season, his second in the league, Antetokounmpo averaged 12.7 points per game and showed flashes of becoming the superstar he is today. The Bucks went 41-41 as the debate continued about whether the city and state should help finance the new building. As the state prepared to cut $250 million from the University of Wisconsin’s system budget, many residents found it hard to justify using so much public money to subsidize the vision of two billionaires. But the alternative—losing the Bucks and their suddenly bright future—didn’t seem palatable either. In August 2015, a bill approving $250 million in public funding was signed. Ask any Bucks fan, and they’ll say Fiserv Forum is the house that Giannis built. Now, it’s the place where the faithful come to pay tribute.
The east side of the arena features a large plaza complete with a massive screen, an outdoor beer garden, and two giant bars. For the first time, the organization has tried to facilitate a sense of community on game day, to craft the kind of tradition that is so important to other Wisconsin-based teams. The entire setup is a shrine to all that is new and exciting about the Bucks, which makes the pile of rubble next door all the more jarring. Across the street sit chunks of the old BMO Harris Bradley Center, remnants that will be removed once the building is completely torn down. Amid the hunks of twisted metal and concrete, four blue letters—“B-R-A-D”—still hang off what used to be the front half of the arena. The Bradley Center was built to lure an expansion NHL team, and its seating arrangement was designed in kind, meaning it was cavernous and unsuited to basketball. Just as they were throughout Milwaukee these past few decades, the Bucks were an afterthought in their own building.
The Bradley Center’s rotting carcass may be a reminder of the Bucks’ uninspiring past, but it also makes their vibrant future all the more clear. Bucks fans have been waiting more than 30 years for this—this team, this player, and this opportunity.
An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to where Kidd coached prior to joining the Bucks.