Unified Milwaukee hosts NBA Finals 50 years after title run

MILWAUKEE – A lot has changed in Milwaukee since the Bucks won their last NBA title half a century ago.

Nothing reflects the differences more than the melting pot of fans swarming outside of the Fiserv Forum playoff games. Fans will flock there again on Sunday in hopes of helping the Bucks rally out of a 2-2 deficit in the NBA final when they host the Phoenix Suns in Game 3.

The diversity of the crowds is remarkable given Milwaukee’s history.

Team President Peter Feigin retired five years ago after calling Milwaukee “the most segregated, racist place I’ve ever seen in my life,” but believes 49-year-old Milwaukee-born LaNelle Ramey – a black man that this needs to be said.

“It forced those who were here, long-time Milwaukeeans, to look in the mirror – especially those who wouldn’t believe it,” said Ramey, executive director of MENTOR Milwaukee, a Bucks-backed youth mentoring organization .

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Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said he did not take personal anger out of Feigin’s 2016 comments. Noting the diversity of his own administrative team, Barrett added, “I am also aware that we have very large income gaps, education gaps and public safety gaps not just in the city of Milwaukee but throughout southeast Wisconsin.”

Feigin believes that what the Bucks did off the pitch is at least as important as what they achieved on the pitch.

When asked what his proudest moment at the Bucks is, Feigin doesn’t mention the Eastern Conference title the team just won. He instead cites players’ decision not to speak for a postseason game in the bubble at Walt Disney World last summer after the shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

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Their decision led to a league-wide postponement of the playoff games.

“It really sparked a worldwide hiatus and awareness of social justice,” Feigin said.

Barrett said the Bucks “not only embodies the team spirit that you see in all players, but they embodies the community spirit of wanting to be part of the community. It’s been true since the day they came here. “

The involvement of Bucks players in social issues isn’t new.

Bob Dandridge, a recent Hall of Fame selection who played on the Bucks championship team in 1971 and on the 1974 roster that lost the NBA final to Boston, said there were many outspoken players on those teams.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s activism inspired the NBA to award a social justice award that bears his name. Oscar Robertson filed the lawsuit that helped bring free agency to the NBA. Dandridge was also not afraid to share his views.

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The difference today, says Dandridge, is the support players get from management.

“I think it’s a completely different approach to being open to current owners and owners in the 1970s when I was in Milwaukee,” said Dandridge.

Team managers also made a statement behind then-Bucks security guard Sterling Brown after Milwaukee police brought him to the ground and shocked him with a taser for a parking violation in January 2018. Brown, a leader in the Bucks’ playoff protest last year, sued the city and eventually reached a $ 750,000 settlement.

When Feigin took over the presidency of Bucks in 2014 after Wes Edens, Marc Lasry and Jamie Dinan bought the team, the franchise struggled.

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Milwaukee’s 2001 Eastern Conference final was the only time the Bucks got past the first round of the playoffs from 1990 to 2018. The Bucks played at the Bradley Center, one of the oldest venues for the NBA.

“It was like finding a unicorn, found a Bucks fan six years ago,” said Sean Marus, a 28-year-old Bucks fan from the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa.

The times have changed.

Marus was one of roughly 9,000 fans who flocked to the Fiserv Forum on Tuesday to watch the Bucks play Game 1 of the NBA Finals in Phoenix on a video screen. Bucks officials said an additional 20,000 fans had gathered in the Deer District outside the three-year arena.

“It doesn’t matter what color you are,” said Brandon Cunningham, a 27-year-old Milwaukee resident, speaking to the Fiserv forum before Game 1. “Everyone is here to support the Bucks.”

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The Bucks have campaigned for social change in Milwaukee and across the state.

Bucks players visited a prison last season to highlight the need for criminal justice reform. The Bucks have partnered with the Sacramento Kings for a Team Up for Change summit with panel discussions on police brutality. They led a protest march through downtown Milwaukee after the death of George Floyd.

After making comments on Milwaukee at a 2016 Rotary club event in Madison, Wisconsin, Feigin later issued a statement referring to the city’s economic and geographic differences. As the mayor pointed out, these problems still exist.

Angela Lang, the executive director of the Milwaukee-based Black Leaders Organizing Communities, believes activists addressing issues like police accountability, spending disparities, and clean water have had an impact on the Milwaukee community.

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“Although I think we are far from perfect as a city, with this amount of activism and organization, it feels like we could be on our way to something tangibly real in the next few years,” Lang said. whose organization promotes civic engagement by black residents.

Lang said the Bucks are an important part of the change.

“It feels like they’re not just a team,” said Lang. “They are actually embedded in part of our community.”

On the pitch, the Bucks’ run to the NBA final has strengthened the city, which is suffering from losing the Democratic National Convention last year to the pandemic.

The Bucks’ turnaround began in 2013 when they drafted two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo with the 15th overall pick and took over Khris Middleton from the Detroit Pistons. Ahead of this season, the Bucks added the Jrue Holiday guard, who quickly made an impact on the city.

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Holiday donated a portion of his 2019-20 salary to help start the Jrue and Lauren Holiday Social Impact Fund with his wife. Your foundation recently opened a second round of funding to provide up to $ 1 million in grants to black-owned businesses and black-run organizations in Milwaukee, the New Orleans, Indianapolis and Los Angeles areas.

His entries have become popular with fans starving for a championship.

“They made it clear that this is just as important to them as it is to us,” said Holiday.

If the Bucks can find a way to win their first NBA title in 50 years, it would give Milwaukee residents of all backgrounds one more reason to celebrate together.

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