By Doug Russell Special to Published Oct 10, 2012 at 3:00 PM Photography: David Bernacchi

As the Bucks embark upon their 45th NBA season, to say that the franchise is at a crossroads is a terrible understatement.

Years of uninspired play, mounting injuries, an aging arena and an unenthusiastic fan base have made even the most die-hard exhausted of answering the questions of "when" and "if."

When will the Bucks get back to their winning ways of the '70s and '80s? If we, the public, subsidize a new arena, will it save our community's team?

If a new arena is not built, when will the Bucks pull up stakes for greener pastures, hungrier fans, and a new building?

When will the Bucks hang another championship banner? If they never do, why should we keep spending our money going to games and investing our hearts into a team that cannot compete?

Those "whens" and "ifs" sure can be pesky.

The threat of relocation hasn't been used, not yet anyway. And even though Bucks fans have certainly (and rightfully) taken umbrage at the stewardship of Sen. Herb Kohl over the last 27 years, he has kept the team in Milwaukee.

Beyond that, there is objectively little more you can put in the Senator's positive column.

Since Kohl purchased the Bucks in 1985, there have only been 11 winning seasons, but six of them were the first six years he owned the team. Since the Bradley Center opened in 1988, the Bucks have only advanced beyond the first round of the playoffs just twice; and in a league where it is statistically more difficult to not make the playoffs than to play beyond mid-April, Milwaukee has, in a significantly weaker Eastern Conference, failed to qualify in five of the last six years.

Dyed in the wool Bucks fans are understandably upset. They are not the problem. The problem is the rest of the populace is becoming increasingly apathetic as to whether or not we even have a team at all.

The true believers will always be there. And goodness knows the Bucks (and every franchise) need them. But in a city where few stars want to play and in a time when the national economy is still in shambles, convincing the good people of Milwaukee to pay hundreds of dollars to watch mediocre basketball becomes a harder and harder sell.

Part of the problem is manufactured by NBA Commissioner David Stern's disinterest in leveling the playing field for small market teams. In Stern's world, the only teams that appear to matter are the chosen ones: the Lakers, Heat, Celtics, Mavericks, Spurs, Knicks (because it is New York), Nets (because it is now New York) and Bulls. Everyone else is treated as little more than a speed bump to fill out the schedule.

Oh, every once in a while there is a team like Oklahoma City that pops up on the radar of the powers that be at NBA headquarters inside New York's Olympic Tower, but these small-market anomalies are few and far between.

But the Thunder are an interesting case study on several different fronts.

A never-thought-of burg in the middle of a never-thought-of state, Oklahoma City was best known for the terrible 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. A decade later, the NBA came to town after Hurricane Katrina forced the Hornets to temporarily vacate New Orleans.

What was supposed to be just a way to stay afloat in a previously-untapped major league professional sports market instantly became the talk of the NBA. A new community, undeterred by Stern's insistence that the team would not abandon post-Katrina New Orleans, supported the Hornets in droves.

A state-of-the art arena, NBA-hungry fans and the prospect of breaking new ground in Oklahoma was something that could not be ignored. After then-Seattle Sonics owner Howard Schultz failed to secure a new arena for his team in the Pacific Northwest, he sold them to Oklahoma City businessmen intent on ripping the Sonics from their historical home without a second thought.

It did not matter that the Sonics had history. It did not matter that they had a tremendous up-and-coming talent in rookie Kevin Durant. There was money to be made on the prairie.

Seattle slept on building a new arena and they lost. And after getting lucky in successive drafts with Durant and then Russell Westbrook, the Thunder are proof that a small market club in a proud but underrated town can be among the NBA's elite.

Of course they are the exception rather than the rule, but because of the small-roster nature of basketball, one player can turn a franchise around. Unfortunately, the Bucks have yet to find that player.

That player was supposed to be Andrew Bogut, but he was never healthy enough to tap into his potential. Brandon Jennings was supposed to be that player, but while he is talented, Jennings is hardly elite.

So, can the Bucks compete in 2012-13? I guess that depends on what the definition of "compete" is.

Can they compete with Miami or Chicago for the Eastern Conference crown? No. But can they compete for a playoff spot with the likes of Philadelphia and Orlando? I suppose, but is that good enough anymore?

The Bucks still lack an identity; a signature player that fans think will be here in town for years to come. That is okay, but only as long as they win. Unfortunately, victories have been in short supply in recent years.

But while the cynical look at the hopelessness of a deep playoff run, the Bucks have never before been faced with the double-barrel of an apathetic community numbed by losing, coupled with the urgency of an upgrade to the rapidly aging Bradley Center. In the mid-1980s, the team was winning division championships and fans were enthused about what Mrs. Pettit's donation to our community could bring our team. As it turned out, not all that much.

Today, there are actually Milwaukee sports fans that cling to the delusion that if the Bucks leave, that's just fine because it would only hasten the arrival of a NHL team. It won't. No NHL team is going to move into a 25-year old arena, no matter how good the sightlines are. If the NBA leaves, we all lose. Period.

The fact of the matter is that the Bucks have to do more with less. If they cannot, there are bigger cities with better arenas that would love to welcome our team there. Kansas City, Omaha, Louisville and Anaheim can open their doors today. Seattle, a community that has learned the hard way that as long as you have a team you have a chance, just approved a new arena to lure someone back to replace the Sonics.

And all of these places are looking at us. Okay, not only us, but the Bucks are a team that is on the short list for relocation, absent a new venue.

So whether or not the players realize or care about their place in our city's history is unclear, the urgency to win is now. Sen. Kohl has never publicly held the team hostage, but he has also had his re-election somewhat dependent on being a pillar of the community. Pillars of the community don't run off vital public businesses.

Meanwhile, the Bucks are caught in the vicious circle of sports. Today, the team has to win to get fans; fans have to support the use of public money to invest in what is, in reality, a large capital works project. The Bucks need that new building to remain financially competitive to bring players that can help win games.

Wait. What came first again, the chicken or the egg?

Doug Russell Special to

Doug Russell has been covering Milwaukee and Wisconsin sports for over 20 years on radio, television, magazines, and now at

Over the course of his career, the Edward R. Murrow Award winner and Emmy nominee has covered the Packers in Super Bowls XXXI, XXXII and XLV, traveled to Pasadena with the Badgers for Rose Bowls, been to the Final Four with Marquette, and saw first-hand the entire Brewers playoff runs in 2008 and 2011. Doug has also covered The Masters, several PGA Championships, MLB All-Star Games, and Kentucky Derbys; the Davis Cup, the U.S. Open, and the Sugar Bowl, along with NCAA football and basketball conference championships, and for that matter just about anything else that involves a field (or court, or rink) of play.

Doug was a sports reporter and host at WTMJ-AM radio from 1996-2000, before taking his radio skills to national syndication at Sporting News Radio from 2000-2007. From 2007-2011, he hosted his own morning radio sports show back here in Milwaukee, before returning to the national scene at Yahoo! Sports Radio last July. Doug's written work has also been featured in The Sporting News, Milwaukee Magazine, Inside Wisconsin Sports, and Brewers GameDay.

Doug and his wife, Erika, split their time between their residences in Pewaukee and Houston, TX.