The Bucks' meteoric rise from stagnation, in a goofy new taxpayer-funded arena
An Eastern Conference finals preview of sorts. (Illustration by Rachal Duggan.)
The Milwaukee Bucks are relevant again. The team finished the season with the winningest record in the NBA at 60-22 and catapulted to the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference, giving them home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo has been lighting the league on fire. He averaged 27.4 points, 11.4 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 1.2 blocks, and 1.2 steals per game and delivered a whole lot of opponent intimidation as he barreled through defenses, who have yet to figure out a way to stop him, or even slow him down. This season has been pivotal not only for the team's on-court success, but for making sure the state's publicly funded bet on a new arena in Downtown Milwaukee wasn't a flop. The Bucks' 30-year lease at the Fiserv Forum ensures the team will stay here through at least 2049.
When Wisconsin's legislature and Gov. Scott Walker secured $250 million in state funding for a new Bucks arena, it was indeed a classic example of professional sports leagues bullying their way to public investment. The Bucks threatened to move to Las Vegas or Seattle, and leagues like the NBA increasingly expect teams to have modernized stadiums replete with amenities. Still, the Bucks' inaugural season in the Fiserv Forum (or Four One Forum, as some locals colloquially call it, corporate naming rights be damned) was a stunning success.
Despite this year's on-court success and a turnaround for a franchise that has been mostly lackluster for the past three decades, many Milwaukee citizens went into the season with a profound dislike and distrust of the new arena. Owners Marc Lasry and (then owner) Wes Edens, along with former team owner Herb Kohl, contributed $200 million towards the $524 million arena, leaving a paltry $324 million tab for the city and state to pick up. What would Milwaukeeans actually get for their investment? Yes, perhaps it's better than The Bradley Center, the Cold War-era bunker where the Bucks played for the last 30 years, but as working-class fans struggle to stretch a buck (no pun intended) and Wisconsin goes ever crazier with corporate welfare, it seemed a big ask.
It's still an open question whether a new arena will do much for the 27.4 percent of Milwaukee's population living below the poverty line, or for neighborhoods systematically ravaged by redlining, urban renewal, and other discriminatory policies. Things are at least looking more lively in the part of downtown surrounding Fiserv: Milwaukee craft-beer company Good City Brewing now has an outpost just outside the arena, and the almost too perfectly named luxury development, Royal Capital Apartments, has gone up across the street. A nifty vintage arcade called 1983, located on nearby Old World 3rd street, serves $3 PBRs and craft brews, if you're looking to pregame and nerd out in quick succession. (Unfortunately, 1983 will be closing its doors soon.) The revitalized foot traffic brought in the area has not only helped remind people that Milwaukee is a real city with meat flesh human beings, but also brought more shine to the bars and other businesses.
Benefits aside, another noteworthy feature of the new arena is that it unabashedly resembles a Mexican restaurant, Milwaukee Belair Cantina, down to the barrel roof and the modern glass-and-steel look. I couldn't find any connection between Belair Cantina and Populous/HNTB, the construction firms that handled the construction of the Fiserv, so maybe one can chalk it up to local coincidence.
My own impressions of the Fiserv forum are that the concessions are quality but overpriced (the better options include local restaurant fried chicken from Gold Rush Chicken, burgers from Sobelman's, and pizza from Canal Street Pizzeria), the seats are comfy, and getting out of there after the game can be a chore, as the lack of side exits makes for traffic bottlenecks. The game-day giveaways, of which I've experienced two, were choice (both were hats designed by Bucks players). Overall, the Fiserv is a nice chic modern dwelling, but it's definitely going out of its way to serve the affluent above all, which is annoying, if not unexpected.
Did I mention the Bucks are the best team in basketball this last year? They finished the regular season with the league's best record, and the team's best record since 1981, and now. Very likely (and soon to be announced) most valuable player Giannis Antetokounmpo has been the catalyst for the Bucks' massive success, and has become a superstar. He was co-captain for the NBA All Star game with Lebron James, and helped the Bucks win their first playoff series since 2001. Point guards Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, and Malcolm Brogdon and center Brook Lopez had breakout seasons (Middleton also made the All Star game this year), and helped the Bucks lead the league in point differential and blowout wins. For comparison, the Bucks had an 8.8 point differential (or margin of victory), and the next closest team was the Golden State Warriors at 6.5, largely thought to the best team in the NBA.
For lifelong Milwaukee Bucks fans like me, this season has been a gratifying reward for enduring so many years of mediocrity. The Bucks currently are in the Eastern Conference finals against the Toronto Raptors, which start on May 15 and May 17 with two home games that will no doubt brighten up the team's pricey new tin can.