Hello, big market sports punditry. I see you over there on the coast, scoffing about Milwaukee’s historic victory in the NBA Finals.
You’ve probably never been to Milwaukee, so let me try to explain this to you.
What’s happening in Milwaukee this week is about so much more than an NBA title. It’s about so much more than some sports talk blowhard who called us a “terrible city.”
It’s about humility. It’s about passion. It’s about showing up and being yourself when everyone else says you should be embarrassed of who that is, and grinning like Bobby Portis and not giving a f*ck.
Did you catch that, Stephen A? We know you didn’t want to come to Milwaukee. We don’t care, we were having a great time regardless. We think it’s hilarious that you had to come anyway. We hope you hated how much fun you had.
Because being a champion is easy when everyone else sees a champion. Being a champion when everyone sees a nobody – when the world sees “Flyover Country” – that takes guts.
That’s why Giannis Antetokounmpo is such a perfect avatar for this place. That’s why his statue will stand taller than the “Bronze Fonz” (but probably in its general vicinity).
Because nobody outside of Wisconsin saw a champion when Giannis stepped onto an NBA court as a gangly, quiet 18-year-old who barely spoke any English.
He doesn’t fit the mold of an NBA champion. Even today, there is a sizable segment of the national sports punditry that (not-so-secretly) resents him for that.
He doesn’t brag. He doesn’t make drama. He’s not flashy.
He shows up, and he does the work. He stays humble and grateful. He doesn’t just remember his roots, he never left them.
There’s no pretension there, just an authentic human being who is awkward and doofy and full of passion.
NBA fans no longer get to count the seconds as Giannis prepares for his free throws.
No, from here on out, they have to spell:
After the game, Giannis described himself as “a people pleaser.”
Believe me, the people of Milwaukee are pleased. We identify with this dude.
And we needed this W bad.
Because you don’t GET nice things when you’re from Milwaukee. This city’s entire history is about getting knocked on its butt just when it’s on the precipice of having something nice.
Kevin Smith’s movie classic "Dogma" sums it up succinctly. When Linda Fiorentino asks if Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were sent to hell, Alan Rickman infamously deadpans, “Worse. Wisconsin.”
Nobody quotes that line more than we do here in Milwaukee, and we laugh it off with our customary Midwestern good grace. But there is real pain under that laughter.
People forget that Milwaukee was poised to be a global super-city at the turn of the 20th century. Milwaukee City Hall was the tallest secular building in the world, and the city had growth and population density that rivaled New York, London and Paris.
It didn’t pan out – seems like it never does for Milwaukee. People forgot about the city that “Feeds and Supplies the World.” Factories closed. Racial discrimination reared its ugly head. The rust belt decay took hold. Affluent folks fled to the suburbs and took their wealth with them, and Milwaukee became a scapegoat for the rest of the state to look down upon.
Even when we learned Milwaukee would play host to the Democratic National Convention in 2020 and soak up some warm political press, somehow we knew it wouldn’t work out. We’d never heard of COVID at that point, but we knew that Milwaukee can’t have nice things.
So some thing or another was bound to screw it up.
It’s OK. We’re still here. We’re still doing the work. And let me tell you what I saw Tuesday night in Milwaukee.
I saw 100,000 deliriously giddy people packed into a “Deer District” that sits on top of a scar.
When I moved to Milwaukee nine years ago, that’s what it was – a scar, both metaphorical and physical.
This scar was a reminder of a time when some privileged someones decided to rip out one of the Midwest’s most vibrant African American neighborhoods so they could build a freeway, so that some white folks could get to their homes in the suburbs five minutes more quickly.
And then decades later, when they tore down that ill-conceived Park East Freeway, 24 acres of blighted gravel pit just sat there like a knife through Milwaukee’s heart. When I moved to Milwaukee, I figured that ugly scar would be with us forever.
My hat is off to the Lasry family. When they bought the team in 2014, Milwaukeeans had low expectations. Billionaires from New York don’t normally do much for us here in “Flyover Country.”
Not so with the Lasrys. They threw their talents and their wealth into healing that scar – both metaphorically and physically.
The Lasrys didn’t just build the new Fiserv Forum arena and the surrounding Deer District on top of that ugly Park East Freeway scar.
They committed to hiring unemployed or underemployed Milwaukeeans to make up 40% of their construction workforce. Contractors and detractors said it couldn’t be done, but the Lasrys invested in recruitment and upskilling programs and exceeded that goal.
Those people dancing in the Deer District last night were dancing in a monument to Midwest urban renewal that was built for Milwaukeeans, by Milwaukeeans – folks who showed up and did the work.
Those kids diving off the bridge into the Milwaukee River – they would have come out with chemical burns if they had tried that in 1971.
The scars are healing.
Now, it would be ridiculous and reductionist to say this NBA title marks a turning point for the city of Milwaukee.
This city still grapples with a legacy of racial discrimination that won’t just go away. It’s still the scapegoat of a state legislature that sees Milwaukee as its perennial punching bag. And a humming decade of businesses reinvesting in Milwaukee has suddenly been slammed into neutral amid the uncertainty of the pandemic.
But last night, Milwaukee finally got to have something nice. And it may not be a panacea, but it reminded us why we keep showing up, and why we keep doing the work.
In Downtown Milwaukee, I saw a vibrant city firing on all cylinders and living up to its full potential. I saw white guys who wear MAGA hats hugging Black guys who wear Black Lives Matter shirts. I saw just a little bit of pride creeping out from under that Midwest veneer of humility.
No, we’re not LA or New York or Miami. We never will be. We don’t want to be.
We’re authentic and awkward and doofy and full of passion. We’re Milwaukee.
Any basketball fan will tell you it doesn’t matter what the scoreboard says at halftime.
What matters is momentum. And right now, Milwaukee has the momentum.
Dusty Weis is a former spokesman for the City of Milwaukee and a former radio news reporter. He’s the president and founder of Podcamp Media, a podcast production company proudly based in Milwaukee.