Photo courtesy of Sector 7's Twitter profile.
When Andrew Bogut was traded from Milwaukee to the Golden State Warriors last spring, some raucous Bucks fans were left wondering about their own fate as well. Because Bogut had played such a large role in creating that group of fans in the first place.
They went by the name “Squad 6,” an homage to the Australian big man’s jersey number, and they were the chanting, cheering and always-on-their feet members of the NBA’s first player-sponsored fan section. Bogut’s generosity made their presence at Bucks games possible, but suddenly, they needed a savior.
Enter Ersan Ilyasova.
“Turkish Thunder,” as the group fondly calls Ilyasova, took over where Bogut left off and fronted the bill for 50 season tickets in Section 212 of the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Auditions were held, the rowdiest diehards were chosen, and out of Squad 6, “Sector 7” was born.
Guess what jersey number Ilyasova wears.
It all dates back to 2009. Zak Grim was entering his fifth season as a member of the Bucks Hoop Troop, which is tasked with rallying fans and tossing T-shirts to the crowd during breaks in the game. That’s when Grim was approached by the team’s then-director of game operations, Mike Schnieders, and given the chance to become director of the newly conceived Squad 6.
According to Grim, Bogut wanted to replicate the crowd scenes he saw while playing in Europe and Australia, where fireworks, drums and choreographed chants from the fans are the norm. Even the NBA had at least one set of fans who tried to mimic the Europeans, an independent group of Houston Rockets super fans called the Red Rowdies.
Milwaukee, meanwhile, had no such thing at its home games.
“On Tuesday nights,” Grim says, “against people who aren’t the Knicks or the Bulls or the Heat, you could hear a pin drop in that place. Bogut recognized that problem and wanted to bring something like the Red Rowdies to the Bradley Center.”
The difference between the Red Rowdies and Squad 6? Squad 6 members would pay for their seats not with dollars, but with dedication. If fans would commit to showing up with constant energy, Bogut would commit to buying their tickets, and the group worked closely with Bucks game operations personnel to liven up the Bradley Center.
“Bogut chose the direction of the squad, and the idea was a soccer fan atmosphere,” says the 27-year-old Grim, who now works in Washington, D.C. Bogut also sat in on auditions and helped choose which fans would be admitted to Squad 6.
So when the 2009-’10 Bucks season began, the Bradley Center got a much-needed shot of adrenaline, and star rookie Brandon Jennings provided only part of the lift.
“It was the perfect way to kick off this new initiative,” Grim says. “The team performed well, and there was a lot of energy in the Bradley Center. It created an atmosphere inside the Bradley Center that hadn’t been replicated probably since 2001.” That’s the year the Bucks fell one playoff game short of reaching the NBA finals.
After just a single season of Squad 6, Bogut’s brainchild seemed to be spreading to other NBA teams. In 2010, Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert started “Area 55” in his team’s home arena. Now in its third season, that 55-seat section is stronger than ever.
But in its early days, Area 55 was no match for Squad 6, says lifelong Bucks fan and Squad 6 leader Dan Hoelzl.
Hoelzl says he grew up hanging out with Bucks stars Bob Lanier and Terry Cummings, who happened to be family friends. Moreover, he says he hasn’t missed a Bucks home game since April 2009. And on Nov. 5, 2010, Hoelzl organized a visit to Indiana by 50 members of Squad 6, who outcheered Area 55 in its own building.
“We took them by surprise. We actually had more people there than they did,” says the 31-year-old Hoelzl.
He’s telling the story before Milwaukee’s Nov. 28 home game against the New York Knicks, when he’s suddenly interrupted. The Bucks are introducing Sector 7 on the arena’s big video screens, and after Hoelzl pauses to acknowledge the moment, he continues the tale. “[Area 55] has made big improvements since then. That particular game, we happened to totally take over their arena. They were shell-shocked.”
The Bucks beat the Pacers 94-90 that night in 2010, but the man who made Squad 6 happen couldn’t be at the game to see it in person.
“Bogut was in the hotel with a migraine. Ironically, Ersan started at center that night against Hibbert,” Hoelzl says. “He filled in that night, and now he’s filling in for Bogut with Sector 7.”
Bogut purchased 100 season tickets for Squad 6 in its inaugural season, and this season, Sector 7 has 50 seats at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. Bill Boppre assumed duties as the fan group’s coordinator after Grim became manager of game operations at the Washington Wizards’ home arena last spring. Boppre says there has been no change in attendance from last year’s Squad 6 to this year’s Sector 7.
But there have been some minor changes as a result of the transition from Squad 6 to Sector. Boppre says there is no longer a three-strikes-and-you’re-out attendance policy, and there is now a surplus of rotating members to ensure near-full capacity every game.
Sitting a row in front of the green and red mob, you’ll notice little change between Squad 6 and Sector 7. Newspaper confetti still rains down when the Bucks score their first basket. Signs reading “Haitian Sensation” (for Bucks center Samuel Dalembert) and “Wham Bam Thank You Lamb” (for rookie Doron Lamb) remain hoisted high. Chants like “Marsh-Melo” (when Knicks’ star Carmelo Anthony is at the free-throw line) are still heard above all else, assuming Hoelzl approves them first.
“It’s about the team,” says 21-year-old Dan Wimann, a three-year Squad 6 veteran and occasional Sector 7 stand-in. “The sponsoring player, it’s awesome, but I think that it’s awesome to have a big group of fans who are willing to embrace every aspect of the team.”
Fans, players and Bucks staff members agree that Sector 7 (and its predecessor) helped augment a previous lack of energy in the arena’s lower bowl. And while Bogut may be gone, his initial contribution is certainly not forgotten.
“Andrew started a good thing,” Ilyasova says. “Sometimes the gym is empty. They keep us going a little bit. They’re doing a really good job.”
Right now on Bucks.com, a season ticket in rows Q through T of Section 212 is listed at $3,108.80. So if Ilyasova paid face value for Sector 7’s tickets, it would cost more than $155,000. It’s a relatively small sum compared to his annual salary of roughly $8 million, but that’s money he could’ve easily spent elsewhere.
And seeing how the Bucks just signed the 25-year-old forward to his five-year, $40 million contract last summer, Sector 7’s future seems secure.
Grim certainly hopes so. After playing such a big role in the group’s early days, his vision for its future is clear: “That Sector 7 is a huge success for years to come.”