Photos by Louis Keene
The Milwaukee Bucks are losing. A lot.
This is not what the executive staff imagined heading in to the season. General manager John Hammond spent the offseason disinfecting what was believed to be a toxic locker room. He built a new roster and brought in a new coaching staff, with the goal of creating a team that could make the playoffs. Owner Herb Kohl spoke many times over the course of the summer, insisting that the team would be competitive. "We are not playing for the lottery," he toldfans heading into the season. "We want to be a good team." The Bucks were criticized in some quarters for this approach, which was seen as shortsighted—could four playoff games and a brisk whisking to the exit be worth it—and insufficiently bold. There was a counter-argument to that. At the moment, both are moot.
They're moot because, at the moment, the Bucks are the worst team in the NBA. That’s exactly what an increasingly vocal contingent of fans have been asking for all along.
This group of concerned supporters, organized under the banner of Save Our Bucks, doesn’t want their team to be a perennial loser, of course. But they realize that a season as bad as this one is the easiest way to catalyze a long-term shift. And the Bucks are in desperate need of a change. If this season's slow-motion crisis precipitates it, Save Our Bucks is more than willing to endure it.
Since taking over as owner of the franchise in 1985, Senator Herb Kohl has regularly mandated that the team remain competitive at all costs. A mandate is just a mandate, though, and it hasn't been enough to make the Bucks much good. Excluding the 57-win season in the year in which he took over as owner, the Bucks have exceeded 50 wins just once during Kohl's stewardship. And yet, during The Kohl Administration, the team has finished with fewer than 30 wins only five times.
The general consensus is that this is the worst place in the NBA hierarchy: the area occupied by teams that aren’t contenders but aren’t quite bottoming out, consigned to bump along with draft picks in the teens, improving or slipping by degrees without ever quite busting out of limbo. Under Herb Kohl, this is—much more than Milwaukee or any specific place in the standings—is where the Bucks have played.
The Bucks have continually and intentionally prioritized maintaining this position, most vexingly by trading away long-term pieces for short term gains. A prime example of this would be the 2003 trade that sent Ray Allen, still in his prime, to Seattle; in exchange, the Bucks received 28 games of 34-year old Gary Payton. Ten years later, the promising 19-year-old wing Tobias Harris was dealt for a 28 game rental of JJ Redick. Both moves were made with the intention of making a playoff push, and both teams were unceremoniously and quite predictably eliminated from title contention in the first round. Both those short-term acquisitions left in free agency months later.
Things have been no better when the Bucks have money to burn. Senator Kohl, to his credit, hasn’t been a stingy owner. That, sadly, is about the nicest thing there is to say about how the team has spent his money. The Bucks regularly pay veteran players for what they’ve done, rather than what they will do, and while some of this may owe to the exigencies of a small-market premium, the broader failure of ambition is visible here, too.
Though these moves were made by different general managers, they all have a strikingly similar feel, a Bucks-ian trademark that sets them apart from deals any other team would make. Even if the prevailing belief of Bucks fans that Herb Kohl offers direct input on the decisions isn’t true, he has tapped the executives responsible for executing his mandate. The team spends more time getting out from failed, overpriced deals—only to complete more of them—than it does building something sustainable. Handing a blank check to the general manager with “Just get us to the postseason” on the memo line is no way to build a team. And the Bucks are the team that strategy has built.
The Save Our Bucks movement seems, in a sense, to be pre-empting a problem that doesn’t exist yet. The group’s name sounds melodramatic—the greatest obvious danger to the Bucks comes from whichever team is dunking on them on a given night—and national media has yet to make much of the possibility of the Bucks leaving Milwaukee. But Save Our Bucks has a longer view, and an acute sense of the weight that nearly three decades of relentless middling muddling-by has put on the franchise. “The Save Our Bucks movement was well in motion before the Bucks current disastrous season unfolded,” Save Our Bucks spokesperson Paul Henning told me.
Attendance has been dropping steadily for the better part of the decade, and the team is in need of a new arena. The lease with the BMO Harris Bradley Center, the team’s home since 1988, ends in 2017, and the NBA has given the team until then to put in place plans for a new arena. Milwaukee residents will be a hard sell for any new taxes to fund a sports complex, and come 2017 the city's taxpayers will only just be getting out from under a controversial 0.1% sales tax started in 1996 that paid for Miller Park. Public financing is difficult to come by for any team, let alone one that has been losing supporters by the section-full since George W. Bush's first term.
These circumstances make for a challenging time for a franchise to commit to losing; the quest for a new arena would seem to make winning more important than ever. That view is just what Save Our Bucks organizers have been fighting against.
Hosted on SaveOurBucks.com is a fan-made manifesto, a cry for change highlighted by documented failures in the past, and concluding with a blueprint for the future. The site has only been online for a few months, gaining traffic through word of mouth and social media. That was before a crowd-funded billboard was posted on a Milwaukee highway with the web address and a battle cry—“Winning Takes Balls,” accompanied by an image of lottery balls—directed at the franchise and its owner. This was, in its goofy way, the equivalent of Martin Luther hammering his theses to the church door. The sentiment for a Bucks reformation has only grown since then among a vocal and active community of Bucks fans online; their town hall is the Bucks forum on RealGM.com.
This would seem an unlikely place for a massive change in organizational direction to begin, but there is both buzz and sting in the busy beehive of the online Bucks fan community. “No one in the local media was willing to touch this story [of the mismanaged franchise] out of fear of backlash from Senator Kohl and the organization,” explains PaulPressey25, the moderator of the RealGM.com Bucks forum. And if no one in the media would talk about the Bucks’ woes, the fans would. Despite being one of the smallest markets in the NBA, Bucks fans of RealGM have produced more threads and generated more views than the most popular squads in the league.
“Many of the ideals were ideals that were discussed on RealGM,” Henning says. This groundswell is not just an online thing, either—one only needs to watch highlights from the team's "Fear The Deer" run in 2009-10 or the 2001 trip to the Eastern Conference Finals to see just how loud a motivated Bucks fanbase can get.
Sprinkled in with game and roster discussions are ever-extending threads addressing the group’s distain for Bucks management. This is not remarkable in itself, and neither really is the fact that this online community has begun to meet up in the real world. But there are signs that these online protests may be growing into something else—something not quite revolutionary, perhaps, but a movement dedicated to winning fans a bigger say in the Bucks' future.
“Many of us on RGM kicked around idea to make our voice heard,” PaulPressey25 explains. They found a way in March of 2008. A small but vocal—and in an area as unpopulated as the Bradley Center, noticeable—group of Bucks fans showed up for a game that was unimportant in most every way. Over the course of a 22-point loss, a small group of Bucks fans, moving under the cover of paper bags and armed with subversive signage, made their way around the concourses of the arena, eventually even approaching owner Herb Kohl in his seat. The display was plotted and organized through RealGM, and gained some media attention.
The demonstrators' real victory came three days later, when then-General Manager Larry Harris was fired. The end result entered the bag revolt into the lore of the RealGM posters along with other acts of protest. Some are dirtier than others; GM John Hammond’s phone number was leaked after an off-season trade.
“The front office is very familiar with Save Our Bucks. Understandably, we don't think they or Senator Kohl are particularly fond of it,” PaulPressey25 says. Some even believe the team has reacted directly to the actions of Save Our Bucks. “A week before the billboard went up, Herb Kohl announced he was seeking investors and had hired a firm in New York to explore a sale,” Henning says.
The outreach has continued to grow, to a point that Save Our Bucks has become hard to ignore, even for an organization perpetually wearing blinders. Members of Save Our Bucks, including Paul Henning, appeared and spoke at a listening session regarding a new arena. The presence of Save Our Bucks was credited in the local press for the strong attendance at the session. “I did introduce myself and have a conversation with [Bucks Executive Vice President of Business Operations] John Steinmiller. He may not agree with it all, but he respects hardcore Bucks fans in a season when there aren't many,” Henning says.
Though there are different camps and trains of thought that have dug out their own niches within the community, the different threads all tie together in a unified force for change. Save Our Bucks, nascent though it is, is the realized form of a long-established resentment. “Fans have always been frustrated with how the team was run,” PaulPressey25 says. Save Our Bucks is the shadow executive branch of Bucks fandom, complete with a conduit to the media and regular press releases.
Save Our Bucks unabashedly embraces the idea of a proper rebuild, but is careful to use terms like “tanking” sparingly. (This is a restriction not honored by the RealGM posters, who use the t-word liberally.) It’s semantics, but it's also diplomacy: Save Our Bucks is trying to tailor its message for Bucks ownership’s ears, and it's tougher for wealthy public figures to embrace strategic failure than it is for commenters on a website. There’s an irony to this, as Senator Kohl’s reason for insisting on being competitive has always hinged upon the idea that the public would stop supporting the team if they were to bottom out. Now, that's just what a loud and persistent community of fans are demanding.
Still, given the current position of the franchise, SOB's cautious public rhetoric seems wise. Despite acquiring a wealth of veteran role players and a retread coach—standard ingredients for any Eighth-Seed stew—the Bucks find themselves at the bottom of the NBA standings. The team has stumbled onto the path that Save Our Bucks has been pointing toward all along. Senator Kohl’s reluctance to make this decision on purpose has some fans wary that he will be willing to follow through on rebuilding, and stories of Kohl's reluctance to move struggling 26-year-old Ersan Ilyasova tend to support these fears.
But for all the mistakes that litter the Bucks roster, fans—with their characteristic blend of armchair expertise and inherent optimism—have identified assets that appear worth developing. They believe the best way to find out just how promising these players are is by giving them playing time rather than hiding them behind known commodities. The Bucks, given their abject state, may have no choice but to agree.
The 25-and-under portion of Milwaukee’s roster has a certain Island of Misfit Toys vibe to it. Nate Wolters is the closest to a true point guard on the team, and is without a consistent jump shot; Brandon Knight is a shooting guard trapped in a point guard’s body; Giannis Antetokounmpo stands out as a future star, is as marketable as he is promising, and can’t stop growing; John Henson is a right-handed power forward who almost exclusively shoots left-handed hook shots; Larry Sanders is an elite defender with a temper that's only intermittently under his control; Khris Middleton is as pure a scorer as can be, but seems strangely averse to dunking.
This is not a winning team, to be sure, but it's a likable bunch that flashes enough potential for fans to dream on. Given the way the Bucks have used young assets in the past—poorly, at best; as ways to rent bigger name vets creeping up on their expiration dates—it makes sense that Save Our Bucks would be both protective of them, and fearful for their future. “There is hope,” promises Henning. “There are still hardcore fans here. We do have a budding superstar in Giannis and a top pick in a loaded 2014 draft.”
Things will have to change, though. The Bucks have a decent shot at the first pick in the NBA Draft this season. Here, too, there's a cautionary example. The last time Milwaukee landed the top pick, it selected Andrew Bogut—ahead of Chris Paul, among others—and used him as the centerpiece for a quick turnaround. The team signed Bobby Simmons to a $47 million contract in free agency, extended Dan Gadzuric for $36 million, and gave Michael Redd $91 million—all the largest contracts those players would ever receive. The reward was a summary wiping-out as an eighth seed, then three straight years without a playoff berth. Save Our Bucks is dedicated to making sure the Bucks don't pursue the same gambit twice.
Senator Kohl’s ownership will always have a caveat to it: He has kept the Bucks in Milwaukee. He has regularly refused to surrender the franchise to another owner without the promise that Milwaukee remains its home. The senator turned down Michael Jordan when he pursued the franchise and has made it clear he will only allow new investors if staying in Milwaukee is part of the agreement. His dedication to the city is to be commended. “We think [Kohl is] at a crossroads as to how his legacy will be viewed. If he's able to transition ownership of the team to a new local entity, while ensuring a new arena is built, he will rightfully be viewed as the savior of the team,” PaulPressey25 says. “On the other hand, if he's not able to navigate these waters, and the team relocates out of state, his legacy will be that he took the great public goodwill… and squandered it.”
For all these binaries, though, Save Our Bucks is finally demanding that the team pursue some goal beyond acceptable stasis—a long horizon plan to build an organization with more than next year in mind, and one that might make that 2017 deadline a little less menacing. “I would be crushed if they left. So would so many people,” Henning says. If the next great Bucks team has its genesis in a comment thread, it would make for a great story. But Save Our Bucks would settle for any future at all—anything but more of a present that looks so strikingly like the past.
Special thanks to John Kim.