On April 30, 1971, the Milwaukee Bucks defeated the Baltimore Bullets 118-106 to win their first NBA championship. The team had won the equivalent of a Powerball jackpot the previous year, when a coin flip gave the team the first pick in the 1969 draft. The Bucks drafted Lou Alcindor, the dominating center from UCLA, then added the great Oscar Robertson, an equally dominating guard who had played for terrible teams for a decade. The early good fortune lead to glory as the Bucks franchise won its first title in only the third year of its existence.
At the time, I was a second grader at St. Therese School in Appleton, Wisconsin. While I didn’t follow the NBA that closely at first, I knew this championship was a big deal. Shortly after the Bucks won the championship, Alcindor changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, which confused me a bit, but second graders are easily confused. As we grew older, we would try to imitate Abdul-Jabbar’s famous sky hook on the school playground, ineffectively of course. We would cheer our Bucks and curse the mighty Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers, who would stand in the way of our team’s glory. The Bucks made it back to the finals in 1974, but lost to the Celtics in 7 games, including the finale on the floor of the Milwaukee Arena.
As time went on, Abdul-Jabbar decided that he no longer wanted to live in Milwaukee, which did not fit his cultural needs. The Bucks traded Abdul-Jabbar and the players the team received in return formed the nucleus of a consistent contender for the league championship, but a team that never could get past the hated Celtics and the equally despised Philadelphia 76ers. This went on for over a decade, but by the early 90s Michael Jordan ruled the league and the Bucks became a footwipe. I continued to follow the Bucks throughout my adolescence and into adulthood, but there wasn’t much joy in it.
In 2013, the Bucks finally found the man who would replace Abdul-Jabbar, a Greek citizen of Nigerian descent named Giannis Antetokounmpo. He was 18 years old and while his talent was recognized, he was not invited to hang out in the green room with the other top prospects of that year. When his name was called, he came up on stage from the stands at Barclays Center, a face in the crowd. Over the following eight seasons, he transformed himself from a skinny refugee kid into the most imposing and relentless basketball player on the planet, earning the nickname “The Greek Freak.” On Tuesday evening, Antetokounmpo led the Bucks to their first championship in 50 years, scoring 50 points in a 105-98 clincher against the Phoenix Suns. For his part, Antetokounmpo is a thoroughly likable young man with a big smile and a spectacular game, and his teammates are equally talented and amiable. And after a 50-year wait, my childhood team had finally returned to the summit.
It’s a great story, but only if you accept the narrative that the NBA still means something. In the 50 years between championships, much has changed. The games in 1971 were played in darkened arenas with less than 13,000 people in attendance. The owners were local businessmen and the coachers were guys like Red Auerbach, the curmudgeonly cigar chomping leader of the Celtics. Over the course of 50 years, the NBA engaged in relentless marketing, leveraging the genuine star power of Abdul-Jabbar, Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan to transform the league into an international entertainment. The money flowed and the movie stars and beautiful people were sitting courtside, especially in Los Angeles.
This went on for a long time, but in recent years the dominant player and personality has been LeBron James, immensely talented but a man with a perpetual scowl on his face. His preferred nickname is “King James,” and he has been an imperious monarch for nearly 20 seasons. He indulges in woke social commentary and turns a blind eye to the NBA’s sordid relationship with the Chinese government, claiming that critics of the tyrannical regime are not sufficiently informed. James is a tremendous talent, but he’s utterly detestable.
So after 50 years, how much joy is there in winning a championship of a league full of vipers and hypocrites? For me, more than is justified. The fan in me wants to get a championship cap that matches those the Bucks wore as they accepted the trophy in Milwaukee, but let’s face it, it’s likely that hat probably comes from a crappy Chinese factory and the profits would land in the coffers of some woke conglomerate.
But still, but still, I want to believe the Bucks have accomplished something noble and that my years of fandom are now being rewarded. My head says it’s a lie, but my heart says something else.