Mike Budenholzer regarded the press conference query with focused attention, then briefly shifted his eyes downward and mused on his answer for only the slightest of moments.
By almost any tangible metric or measure – wins and losses, offensive and defensive ratings, MVP-caliber talent – Budenholzer coaches this season’s best NBA team. Moreover, his team had just finished dismantling the storied Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference semifinals, winning the series 4 games to 1 with an average margin of victory of 16.25 points.
Still, a seasonlong national narrative has shadowed these Bucks, and it mirrors the misguided popular one about the city they call home: Milwaukee might be quaint and plucky, perhaps, but it surely can’t hang with the established big boys. It was argued by rival cities for the Democratic National Convention, right up until Milwaukee won hosting honors, and it’s been a rote refrain about the Bucks.
When the Bucks won 60 regular-season games, two more than any other team, the doubters warned of a comeuppance in the playoffs. Most famously, after the off-kilter Bucks lost Game 1 vs. the Celtics, ESPN commentator (and former Celtic) Paul Pierce loudly declared the best-of-seven series was over. After that performance, some of the team’s fans, more accustomed to falling short of expectations, felt doubt creep back in. But the Bucks promptly rattled off four straight wins, a turnaround that inspired a wry tweet from none other than Aaron Rodgers that, “Maybe Paul Pierce was right.”
And now, after the Bucks had served Pierce et al. a hearty helping of crow, after Pierce’s comments even played on the Fiserv Forum video board as a focal point for fan jubilation, Budenholzer had been asked a simple question. Why, despite all of Milwaukee’s success this season, were people still so quick to underestimate his team?
He needed only one sentence, delivered in a blunt and measured tone, to answer.
“I don’t give any thought to those people,” Budenholzer said while simultaneously shaking his head. And with that, his eyes scanned the room for the next question.
Milwaukee would do well to follow Budenholzer’s dismissive lead, and in many ways, it already has. Rarely in recent times has this city so embraced a sports-centric story. We’ve dyed the river green and turned a Milwaukee Hop streetcar into a Bucksmobile, where you can pretend that Giannis Antetokounmpo is dunking over you. Bucks hats and shirts increasingly adorn the citizenry, and temporary merch tents have sprung up around the city to fill in wardrobe gaps. Fear the Deer posters and murals – like this new one in the Fifth Ward – increasingly adorn our structures.
And tonight, the Bucks will play in their first Eastern Conference finals game since 2001, when Giannis was all of 6 years old. Now, as the budding global superstar leads his team against the Toronto Raptors, don’t be surprised when more not-ready-for-prime-time whispers make the rounds.
But when they do, remember that only five short years ago, Bucks fans weren’t dreaming about winning a championship, just worried about keeping their team. Back then, when a new Downtown arena seemed an iffy proposition, folks figured the Bucks were about five minutes from moving to Seattle. Now, they’re four wins from playing for an NBA title.
Now, while the last vestiges of the hallowed Bradley Center turn to rubble, Fiserv Forum hosts the Bucks’ raucous march to glory. When the Bucks play on the road, the party moves outside to the beer garden outside the arena, where fans cheer as though they’re really at the game.
And all of it takes place under the massive Fear the Deer banner stretched across the facade above Fiserv Forum’s main entrance. Left to right, Malcom Brogdon, Brook Lopez, Giannis, Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe stare down on the revelers, steely-eyed with businesslike visages that betray only the slightest hints of smiles, sparing no thoughts for what the doubters might think.