Hot Corner: Unlikely circumstances lead to unforgettable title run for Bucks
By Ben Rodgers
Just remember, none of this was supposed to happen.
The Milwaukee Bucks were never supposed to again be crowned NBA Champions.
Not for the team, that from 1986 to 2017, practiced in a church gym.
Great things aren’t supposed to happen to a team that bungles draft after draft for what seemed like an eternity.
The team that trades away Dirk Nowitzki on draft night isn’t supposed to win it all, ever.
For my entire life, the Bucks were the one subpar team it was fun to root for – it’s in my blood.
My grandparents had season tickets to watch a young Lew Alcindor work the baseline at the old Mecca.
My love for the professional game blossomed under my grandfather Gordon, a public school teacher in Milwaukee, who made me learn to love the NBA and the Bucks, so it’s only fitting I carry that torch to this day.
However, under the tenure of the previous owner, the former U.S. Sen. Herb Kohl, middling results were acceptable.
Without the money to lure a big-time free agent, the Bucks were routinely in contention for the 7 or 8 playoff seed, or just flat out missed the postseason.
Ray Allen for an over-the-hill Gary Payton?
Better to get something, I suppose.
If the Bucks hadn’t traded Allen, he’d walk in free agency, and we could never sign a guy like Payton.
A chance to trade for a young Steph Curry?
No, Monta Ellis looked like the safer option – his ankles are better anyway, and that’s better for the long-term.
Younger fans may remember some of these names as swings and misses in the first round selected by the Bucks: Joe Alexander, Yi Jianlian, Rashad Vaughn, Jabari Parker, John Henson, T.J. Ford, Marcus Haislip, Jason Collier and Danny Fortson.
Reading that list makes me shudder.
When we needed the team most, it was a perpetual letdown, but after a few decades of this, I simply got used to it.
Long ago, I resigned to the fact the Bucks would never win a championship.
Cheering for teams from Milwaukee can be a dangerous thing for hopeful fans, so it’s safer to not set expectations too high.
I remember being ecstatic in second grade when Eric Murdoch hit a half-court shot in a losing effort.
That was the year Glenn “Big Dog” Robinson was picked No. 1 overall, and youngsters across Wisconsin had something to be excited about.
While still an all-time great Buck, Big Dog would eventually be overpassed legacy-wise by the No. 2 and 3 picks, Jason Kidd and Grant Hill, two Hall of Famers.
In 2001, my hopes got dashed when the Bucks made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, only to lose in seven to the 76ers, led by the generational talent Allen Iverson.
By that time, I grew out of my purple Robinson jersey purchased from Kohl’s.
The years that followed would be defined by Michael Redd, a second-round pick who put up great stats, but would never cement himself as a No. 1 guy, as the team trudged on in NBA purgatory in arguably the worst color scheme in sports.
Around that time, before Giannis happened, one of my favorite highlights included a 50-point game from Brandon Jennings on Nov. 14, 2009.
Four years later, when going up against a stacked Miami Heat team led by Lebron James in the first round of the playoffs, Jennings would utter a bit of lore for the diehards like myself.
“Six, we’re going to win in six,” Jennings quipped.
I’ve been typing #bucksin6 on social media for the past three seasons.
A few months after getting swept out of the playoffs, Bucks GM John Hammond swung for the fences, as was the style at the time, and drafted a lanky, malnutritioned Greecean who slid down to No. 15.
It would take a few years before Giannis Antetokounmpo would develop into the all-time NBA great he just cemented himself as (his stat splits this finals are close to some of the best – Shaq, Kareem, Hakeem and Moses).
Shortly after the 2013 draft, the Bucks traded the outspoken Jennings to Detroit for another project player, Khris Middleton.
Next, Kidd came to Milwaukee to coach and taught Giannis some handles, but the team was always falling short, regardless of the flashes of brilliance Middleton showed.
Under Kidd, the Bucks never advanced past the first round.
Around this time, the NBA told Milwaukee it could no longer continue to have a professional basketball team if the team didn’t replace the outdated hockey arena they played in, the Bradley Center.
It seemed like the cycle of mediocrity I grew up in would abruptly end on a downer, as Milwaukee was in serious danger of losing the Bucks to Seattle or Las Vegas.
Building stadiums in Milwaukee has been a Herculean task for generations.
As I was working outside of the media at the time, I remember a few days of feverishly spending any breaks at my job lobbying elected officials across Wisconsin to fight for a new arena.
It eventually happened in late 2015, and for months, my PC wallpaper was a rendering of what would become the Fiserv Forum (I was a pretty cool dude at age 30).
As Kidd was learning the ropes in his first head coaching gig, down in Atlanta, head coach Mike Budenholzer racked up 60 wins in a season leading the Hawks to the No. 1 seed coming out of the East, without a single all-star in 2014-15.
Three seasons after Coach Bud got swept out of the playoffs, and the Hawks never got back to that exceptional form, Bud landed in Milwaukee with a budding superstar after Kidd was dismissed.
After mortgaging the team’s future to win now (three picks for Jrue Holiday), the rest became the stuff of legends.
The Milwaukee Bucks have a rich history of making two bad choices, and somehow having it work out in their favor with one smart move.
In the most recent example, Milwaukee let Malcolm Brogdon sign with the Pacers, to extend Eric Bledsoe (both disastrous moves) and was able to trade Bledsoe for the defensive juggernaut Holiday, who stymied future Hall of Famer Chris Paul (a historic victory after Tuesday).
Teams are not supposed to be rewarded for routinely making mistakes in free agency and the draft, the only ways to build a roster.
Therefore, this championship was not supposed to happen.
Not in this AAU era where superstars team up like the NBA is a game of playground pickup.
However, even a Bucks curmudgeon who suffered through some extremely lean years can be proven wrong.
I never thought I would live to see what unfolded Tuesday night.
Tears came to my eyes as I thought of Gordon and how proud he would have been of this team.
Good things indeed come to those who suffer.
It’s because of that suffering I will always remember this team and what it accomplished.
Thank you Milwaukee Bucks, and thank you to everyone who fought hard to keep professional basketball in Wisconsin.
Editor’s note: To read another Hot Corner article by sports editor Rich Palzewic, CLICK HERE.