2020 is the Milwaukee Bucks’ year.
It is the first time since 1971 that the Bucks will win the NBA title. At least that is what fans think.
“It’s so hard to win an NBA championship, but I felt the way they were playing, the unity and execution they displayed on a nightly basis, that they were going to have as good a shot as any other team,” Marquette men’s basketball head coach Steve Wojciechowski says.
Instead, coronavirus plagued the nation and sent the league into a complete standstill.
“Everyone saw Rudy Gobert tested positive for it and then that kind of shut the whole (NBA) down,” Marquette basketball alum and Program Assistant Cam Marotta says. “It was shocking. That’s when I first realize that ‘Oh it’s pretty serious here’ and things are going to be shutting down.”
Prior to the suspension of the season, the Bucks were cruising. Milwaukee holds a league-best 54-12 record, was 28-3 at home, and is poised to be a No. 1 seed in the playoffs, which means they will host a majority of the postseason. Cam believes they were on such a roll in March that they could have swept the Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals.
The future holds a much different look. The season was put on hold for four months, fans were taken out of the equation, the NBA shortened the season and moves it to Orlando, a city flooded with a steady increase in COVID-19 cases.
“People love sports, they escape through sports. They love the ups and downs of supporting their favorite team. When that was taken away, we had to give it perspective,” Marquette men’s soccer head coach Louis Bennett says. “Nothing’s more important than the health of people.”
The move to Orlando to play in the “bubble” means the Bucks lose home court privileges, something the team built off of this season.
“It is different when you don’t have fans,” Marquette women’s basketball forward Chloe Marotta says. “At the same time, the unity that the Bucks have is something that they’re going to really use to their advantage. Being in the bubble together is creating even more unity and togetherness … I’m hoping that that really shows on the court.”
Though the Bucks lose home court advantage, they were not the only team that the pandemic impacted.
“Everybody was affected by it,” Cam says. “Every team was separated … I’m sure it will take a while to get back to that normalcy.”
The centerpiece of the Bucks is 2019 MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, otherwise known as “The Greek Freak.” Last season, alongside then-new head coach Mike Budenholzer, he led the franchise to the 2019 NBA Eastern Conference Finals, before Milwaukee fell 4-2 to the Toronto Raptors.
“When you get a once-in-a-generation player like Giannis, it’s going to help your organization,” Wojciechowski says. “The Bucks have done a great job in surrounding him with guys who really compliment who he is as a star player.”
Chloe compares the crowds outside Fiserv Forum back in 2019 to those of Summerfest. Even Marquette volleyball head coach Ryan Theis attended a playoff game with his son.
“It’s electric,” Theis says. “You have NL MVP playing day after day and then you’ve got the Bucks in the playoffs … I spent the decade in the city of Milwaukee and 28 years in the state and I can’t remember a more exciting spring and summer for our sports community and world than last spring.”
Historically, however, the Bucks were not always this talented.
“Growing up it was different to call yourself a Bucks fan just because people were like ‘Really? You really support the Bucks?,” Chloe says. “We’d come to each game wearing a Michael Redd jersey in hope that someday the Bucks would be as good as they are now.”
The Marottas, who are Mequon, Wisconsin natives, are a basketball family. Cam remembers cheering for the Bucks when they donned the purple and green. Cam and Chloe’s dad Marc, who was a former MU basketball player, was Chairman of the Bradley Center, so the family would go to two to three games a week.
“Most of my life the Bucks were not good at all,” Cam says. “Going to those games, there were not a lot of fans.”
Meanwhile Theis, who is a Madison native, recalls growing up a dedicated Bucks fan — watching his favorite players Jack Sikma, Fred Roberts, Jay Humphries and Terry Cummings — and enduring “The Big Dog” era after college.
“They were always really solid, but the Bulls dominated the East. As I got into middle school and high school, I want to say that was the Bulls’ dynasty run,” Theis says. “They contended well, but never really got to get deep into playoff runs.”
Steven Bode, assistant women’s soccer coach and Milwaukee native, says he clearly remembers watching playoff games with high school friends. After the game, they’d go to play in the driveway and he would attempt to imitate his favorite player, Glenn Robinson.
“Jack the socks all the way up and try and impersonate (him),” Bode says. “Ray Allen, everyone wanted to shoot like him, of course none of us could … the Bucks, their history wasn’t that strong. In that era, they made real history and turned some heads. That was a fun time.”
Bode is a true Milwaukee native. He attended Marquette High, played soccer at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and received his graduate degree from MU.
“To come home and have sports teams that, in the past we have a team, but playoffs, ‘Nah I don’t know about the playoffs,'” Bode says. “You have a team that’s not only making the playoffs, but blowing teams out in the playoffs … You feel proud to be a part of Milwaukee.”
Theis says since returning to Milwaukee to coach at Marquette, he has watched 75% of the Bucks games on DVR, is a season ticket-holder and even sat courtside for one game.
“In my house right now, if the Bucks are in the playoffs, ‘Everybody be quiet’ or you’re watching the Bucks with me,” Theis says.
In 2018, former Villanova guard Donte DiVincenzo was drafted by the Bucks in the first round. Wojciechowski says he fits into the team’s culture.
“Rooting for him in a Bucks jersey is certainly easier than playing against him in a Villanova jersey,” Wojciechowski says.
There’s an even bigger Marquette connection to the Bucks after the July 2019 addition of former Golden Eagle guard Wesley Matthews.
“(He) bleeds Marquette blue and gold and has attended a number of our games, has spoken to our team in private situations,” Wojciechowski says. “It’s awesome to have a former player, especially one who represents the things that Wes represents, so close to home … not only has he excelled in the basketball world, but he represents the best of what Marquette University has to offer because he’s a high-character guy. He’s living the dream that most of the guys that I coach want to live.”
Travis Diener, a Marquette basketball alumnus, says Matthews joining the team strengthens his fandom.
“I know Wes at a personal level and obviously he’s a Marquette guy. I cheer for guys that I have a relationship with,” Diener says. “Wes is definitely one of those guys.”
Not only are there former BIG EAST players on the Bucks’ squad, but Marquette also shares an arena with the NBA powerhouse. As a former player, Cam says the team loves sharing Fiserv with the Bucks.
“In Fiserv, you’re talking about the finest basketball arena in the United States — either pro or college,” Wojciechowski says.”The opportunity to play there in front of a passionate sports town and fan base is incredible. It’s a great experience for our players. The fan experience is elite as well. That’s why you’ve seen in our case — in the Bucks’ case — the interest be so high in terms of attendance and people wanting to come to games.”
After coaching in Milwaukee for more than two decades, Bennett says having Antetokounmpo — who is a soccer fan — around since 2013 is helping spark his interest in the Bucks. He’s even been to a few games, including Michael Jordan’s final game in Milwaukee.
“I like professional teams that are in it and on it all the time,” Bennett says. “I believe the Bucks have got a mentality of that. They’re not a first and last five minutes. They’re the total 60 minutes. When I’ve gone, I’ve enjoyed myself.”
With The Basketball Tournament successfully executing the bubble format, Diener says it provides a lot of optimism as the NBA restarts.
“If the players buy in to following the guidelines of what the bubble is and not straying from that, then it will work. If players start leaving or try to do some things they’re not supposed to be doing then it’s going to fail,” Diener says.
Despite all the adversity the team is facing with COVID-19, Bucks fans still have hope.
“With everything that’s going on, they have a great chance of winning this year,” Joe Chapman, head coach of Marquette’s TBT team, says. “The last few years it’s been great to go to games and see the evolution of Giannis and (Khris) Middleton and the core group of guys that continue to play every year. They’re in the final step to become a champion and it’s good to see.”
This story was written by Zoe Comerford. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @zoe_comerford.