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Steve Novak played for nine different teams in 11 years over the course of his NBA career, so he knows a thing or two about travel and life on the road as a professional basketball player. And, as a Brown Deer High School and Marquette University graduate who retired last season, is now a FOX Sports Wisconsin contributor on Bucks broadcasts and lives with his family in the area, Novak has watched Milwaukee’s development over the last couple of decades, especially Downtown.
So when we sat down with Novak for a recent interview, among the many wide-ranging topics we discussed with him were his opinion on how the city has grown, the Bucks’ role in affecting area changes and the perception of Milwaukee within the NBA.
Whenever one of his teams was in Milwaukee, Novak was the go-to local expert on what to do and where to go. In the wake of reports over the last couple of weeks about what opposing players and teams have done in this city – Oklahoma City guard Russell Westrbrook notoriously ate at Real Chili before his Thunder beat the Bucks on Oct. 31; the Los Angeles Lakers went to Escape the Room, though the team-building activity didn’t help them win on Saturday – and given that it’s currently OnMilwaukee Hotel Week, we asked Novak for an insider’s take on the Brew City experience of NBA visitors.
The following is excerpted from a longer interview with Novak:
OnMilwaukee: You graduated from Marquette in 2006 and returned to Milwaukee numerous times during your NBA career over the next 11 years. How have you noticed Milwaukee change over that time, in terms of its prior reputation and compared to other NBA cities?
Novak: Since I was a guy that would come back every year, (my teammates would say), "We’re going to Milwaukee, Steve, what are we doing?" And then they’d be like, "The city is too cold," it’s this, it’s that. But now I feel like nothing needs to be said. The team has been playing so well and is so exciting. We have a guy named Giannis, who is such a big super star. Everyone sees the new arena happening, it is like the rejuvenation of downtown.
Just the sale of the team and the new ownership, that whole transaction, everyone was so aware of that. To me, what everyone has recognized is that these guys are the elite financial minds in the world and they chose the city of Milwaukee. It’s not like they just got handed it; go do something with this. They chose this city. They not just chose to buy the team, but build an incredible new arena and pump a ton of money into the rejuvenation of the city of Milwaukee.
When I was playing, my third or fourth year I would be like, "Go to Elsa’s, it’s a sweet spot." Now I feel like everybody knows what’s going on in the city. Obviously, if you live here, you feel it and see it constantly, but even the guys coming in, they know this (new arena) is unique. We have been in every place in the league. They see it going up and they are like, "Wow, something cool is going on here." Being a Milwaukee guy who is from here and has always been Bucks fan, no matter where I was, it is kind of cool to know we will have put Milwaukee on the map. It’s something unique.
Russell Westbrook ate at Real Chili the night before the Thunder played the Bucks, which was a funny off-the-court story a couple weeks ago. That seems like a recipe for a DNP-CD (did not play, coach’s decision). Real Chili is great, but that’s probably not one of the places you’d have recommended, right?
(laughs) No, it would not have been a place I would have recommended, at least not for a teammate. Like, "What’s wrong with your guy? Oh he had Real Chili." That would not have been one place I would have recommended. Elsa’s was always a good one, Mo’s Steak House was one. Milwaukee Street was always the spot, you got the guys that want to go to the club, grab a drink, that kind of thing.
But honestly, I always did feel I’m going to have a list of 10-15 things I could tell the guys to do, and then I’d get here and sometimes there wouldn’t always be … But now I feel like a lot of the teams are staying in the Third Ward, they are right at the new Kimpton Hotel, which is I think is awesome. But now guys are going to know, once this (arena district) fully develops, this is where you are going to go – teams are going to be staying down here more. So truthfully, as a player, when we would go to cities, we’d get somewhere and always have our three or four places you knew. I feel like the development Downtown is going to have the brewery, restaurants and that stuff, this is going to be probably where guys know they can go, the niche that players know, this will be it.
How does the NBA community view Milwaukee now, in terms of ownership and the new arena, the business operations, the team on the court? Is there a different perception of the city and the organization?
I wouldn’t expect (players) to understand how important the referendums were, everything getting passed, all of it happening and keeping the team here. I think the perspective of the owners to recognize, "Look, if we are actually going to be in the city of Milwaukee and keep this here and make it special for a really long time…" if you invested several hundred million, you would want to make sure that was the case.
The first thing they are doing right is the arena, the development, the practice facility and I think – I feel like I know – what the city doesn’t even realize yet is keeping a guy like Giannis here, all of this has to do with that. For the owners to have the perspective that it is going to be state of the art, it is going to be the best, he will have no reason to ever want to go anywhere else. Giannis deciding to stay or go, which every free agent in the NBA always has the opportunity, it means so much to this city and I think the owners – based on what we are looking at happening – recognize that really before anybody.
The investment is in the city of Milwaukee, and Giannis is a huge part of that. Him showing, "Look, I’m signing a four-year extension and be here for four years," I think he showed personally how he feels about the city. He could have done what LeBron does and sign the two year with the opt-out after one. He showed he wants to be here, and the owners are saying thank you Giannis for treating Milwaukee and the Bucks like that, but we are also going to show you there is no better place to be. I think that combination is unique, that the owners understand that and put all this together and Giannis saying this is where I want to be.
There are not a lot of cities and teams that have that dynamic. There are owners going, "We’re not going to spend that much on this or build that," and there are guys signing two-year contracts with opt-outs after one. It’s very unique where Milwaukee sits, with Giannis and the city and the owners, that dynamic is really good."
Born in Milwaukee but a product of Shorewood High School (go ‘Hounds!) and Northwestern University (go ‘Cats!), Jimmy never knew the schoolboy bliss of cheering for a winning football, basketball or baseball team. So he ditched being a fan in order to cover sports professionally - occasionally objectively, always passionately. He's lived in Chicago, New York and Dallas, but now resides again in his beloved Brew City and is an ardent attacker of the notorious Milwaukee Inferiority Complex.
After interning at print publications like Birds and Blooms (official motto: "America's #1 backyard birding and gardening magazine!"), Sports Illustrated (unofficial motto: "Subscribe and save up to 90% off the cover price!") and The Dallas Morning News (a newspaper!), Jimmy worked for web outlets like CBSSports.com, where he was a Packers beat reporter, and FOX Sports Wisconsin, where he managed digital content. He's a proponent and frequent user of em dashes, parenthetical asides, descriptive appositives and, really, anything that makes his sentences longer and more needlessly complex.
Jimmy appreciates references to late '90s Brewers and Bucks players and is the curator of the unofficial John Jaha Hall of Fame. He also enjoys running, biking and soccer, but isn't too annoying about them. He writes about sports - both mainstream and unconventional - and non-sports, including history, music, food, art and even golf (just kidding!), and welcomes reader suggestions for off-the-beaten-path story ideas.