Photo by Louis Keene

Cheering Together, Drifting Apart: The Future of Basketball in Milwaukee

The Milwaukee Bucks are a team in transition. A diverse community has emerged around this team, but it might not survive.

Jan 13 2016, 9:09pm

Photo by Louis Keene

Zigkid and I are outside the Bradley Center, in Milwaukee, trying to get a sense of who wants to watch the Bucks play a bad team on a Monday night. On a good night, Zigkid tells me, he'll move twenty tickets; with the Blazers in town on a Monday, he might not sell any. Still, Zigkid's been slinging stubs in the Wisconsin winters since the Glenn Robinson administration, so he's going to stick this one out. There are always people who want to watch a basketball game, even if the Bucks are playing in it.

A pair of Cream City faithful approach our hero, who at something like 6'4" 260 has the presence and jaded urgency of a scalp game Killer Mike. His offer—two center-court lower-levels, twenty each—doesn't cut it. It's a reasonable price, but as the pair file past him to the glass arena doors, barely breaking stride, their decision makes more sense: sometimes people who have tickets just like to feel out the market. Between eight thousand (Zigkid's guess) and 14,389 (announced) wayward souls chose to attend that evening's showdown, and maybe half that number could give a shit about the game.

"It's not a basketball town no more," Zigkid says of Milwaukee. "It's a cheap town."

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A cheap town means long nights for scalpers, but cheap tickets have helped give Bucks games a lively diversity that is otherwise absent in this deeply segregated city. Take your pick of jarring statistics: Milwaukee owns the nation's second-highest black poverty rate, Wisconsin the highest black male incarceration and unemployment rates. Anecdotal uglinesses like Bucks forward John Henson being profiled at a suburban Milwaukee jewelry store are the tip of a big iceberg that sits heavily in deep water. Systems of disenfranchisement menace African-American life everywhere in Milwaukee, but this old and half-empty basketball arena sits on the fault line of cultural inclusion. At least for now.

The Bucks, intentionally or not, have done a fine job of making their games feel like Saturday night high-school affairs. The stakes are about as low, as the sage and smiling Linda Nation reminds me from her post at the Bradley Center's one-dollar coat check. "I do more listening and giving advice to people than anything," she says. "When the team loses and people tell me the Bucks suck, I tell them to come back to see me, then!" Sitting among racks of North Face and Patagonia, Linda has no way to follow the games except through the collective cheers and groans of the crowd. She hasn't missed much in the way of cheers: the Bucks are 14-21 as the season's halfway point approaches.

Here we all are. Photo by Louis Keene

The masses don't necessarily flock to this windowless cinder block in the middle of downtown Milwaukee, but some of them do come back—for Linda or Giannis or reasons of their own—and the crowd that does is unique in the NBA landscape. Of those he sees heading to the turnstiles, Zigkid estimates the ratio of whites to nonwhites is about 70 to 30. (Milwaukee is 40 percent black, but black people make up less than 7 percent of the state's population.) "Cheap" means a family of four can get into a game for $20 on some nights, and enough do to make the concourses hum with banter and souvenir begging. Squeaking sneakers, squalling kids, and a lot of people who would not otherwise be in the same building—this is what de facto integration sounds like in the third most-segregated city in America.

The two New York hedge-funders who bought the franchise in 2014 are betting that a competitive roster and a vibrant new home can rebrand the Bucks and invigorate the city, perhaps in a way that can entrench diversity in the home crowd. They want the Bucks to be like the Thunder or the Raptors or the Mavericks: a new-money franchise with crossover appeal.

Early indications show them getting their way, starting with securing city and state funding for a new arena without a public vote. Putting together a winning roster is the final phase of the project, and at least one bright young player is eager to play a galvanizing part in the narrative.

"It means a lot [to be a part of Milwaukee's revival]," Jabari Parker told me before a recent Bucks game, "because I don't see it in a good place right now." Still playing out his first 82 games as a pro after a torn ACL derailed his rookie season, Parker, like this city, has a lot of room to grow. "It's my duty to help [Milwaukee], because I know that I have an image and a voice, and things that can help a community."

The owners' vision of saving the team and the town requires demolishing and replacing the Bradley Center at first opportunity. With a new arena coming and the team looking to capitalize on its promising young talent, Zigkid's slashed prices—which put live NBA action within the reach such a broad range of race and class—figure to be a limited-time offer. Anyway, that's the business plan.

Isn't it a beaut? Photo by Louis Keene

A giant block of granite originally cut for hockey, the Bradley Center is as welcoming as a headstone, and the games played there often take on the stop-and-go slovenliness of its subway-station-inspired concourses. On the night Zigkid lets me get in for free, the Blazers and the Bucks combined for 33 turnovers in a game that at times resembled hung-over intramurals. This is generally what the Bucks are up to: they haven't won a playoff series in 15 years, and the victory that ended Golden State's 24-0 start this season is arguably their most memorable win since then. A Milwaukee trip reminds visiting players that this game is a job, this city just another pin in the map. Even for guys on the Bucks, Milwaukee has historically seemed but a layover on the way to the next professional destination.

People around here like to hate on the Bradley Center, but there's some warmth to its charmlessness, and the ecosystem within works in a way few other things in Milwaukee do. A low-key socialism emerges when the Bucks are at their competitive nadir; during their tanktastic 2013 season, the team literally gave away lower-level tickets to fans sitting in the upper deck. Of course, the seats behind the bench are as cardboard as the ones upstairs, but that's the point. Everyone gets the same misshapen ass-groove on an equally creaky chair; everyone inhales the same exhaust fumes after Bango straight throttles a Harley onto the court during a fourth-quarter timeout.

As long as the inferiority of the Bucks or their arena affords it, the Bradley Center sustains this anomaly: black fans and white fans sharing even the lower concourse, sitting next to each other, cheering for the same team. A collapse in demand created the diversity, and the city's basketball diehards of all backgrounds have created a community in that space. Factor in plenty of people who don't care about the game at all, and it's positively lit.

"I notice it, definitely. It's rare," said Jerryd Bayless, who's playing in his seventh NBA season, and his second for the Bucks. He and Parker are two of the thirteen black or half-black players on the Bucks' 15-man roster. "When you go to arenas around the country, it isn't as diverse as it is here."

A quarter-billion dollars of public money has been earmarked for the Bradley Center's replacement. It's a shiny new multiplex set to open in the fall of 2018, and preliminary renderings betray the expected: a full-spectrum campaign on maximizing profitability at the expense of the everyday fan. The upper deck will shrink from eleven thousand seats down to six thousand in the new arena, according to a team spokesperson, and a second floor of luxury suites will push the least expensive seats even farther from the action.

Best lady in the building. Photo by Louis Keene

Though the spokesperson said that the Bucks are "committed to keeping tickets affordable and competitive," the bottom line is that ticket prices will go up at the new arena, making it more difficult for less wealthy fans to go. Whether prices stay high depends on how the players perform in their fresh digs. This is the essential paradox of the Bucks' competitive aspirations: success could actually undermine their pursuit of a community united and fulfilled by basketball.

If everything goes the way of the promotional material, the new arena will trigger an economic chain reaction of apparently nuclear proportions in Milwaukee. Bar and retail store owners around the arena sing the same song—Development. Jobs. Growth. Opportunity—but basically every economic study of similar projects throws shade on the hype. Milwaukee's racial and economic divides are vast, parallel, and geographically manifest, and a new arena is not going to make these real problems go away.

Moreover, circumventing the referendum process to access state and city coffers reveals a troubling foundation under this supposed agent of re-enfranchisement, even if there are local employment standards for the construction project. The people here are beholden to insider politics as inevitable and intractable as the cold weather; by any measure, only a few of them like the Bucks. Those who do are left to cherish the time they have left in this oasis of concrete and tile, before this ambitious, expensive public works project pushes some of them up and prices others out.

"The owners could have put more money up toward the arena to take some of the burden off the citizens of Milwaukee," said Nick Sanders, a Bucks fan decked out in team gear. Sanders, who is black, is from North Milwaukee, a neighborhood ravaged by every possible racial exclusionary force going back to the 1950s. Sanders's job involves helping people re-enter the workforce, and he pointed out that the Bradley Center employs a number of them. "But politics and the way the game is played is out of my reach, man. I only know so much."

Milwaukee stand up. Photo by Louis Keene

Between the franchise's corporate goals and what could be lost in realizing them are Bayless and Parker and the rest of the Bucks. After all, the true enemy of ticket demand isn't a bad arena but a bad team. (Zigkid, for what it's worth, thinks it won't be five years in the new arena before sales plummet and ownership weighs relocation.) Can the core of the team's future help bridge the gap dividing this city, even if the team is winning?

Parker, whose talent and urban Midwestern roots may suit him to the task, seemed to think so. "If you serve in any way," Parker said, "it doesn't matter if it's a team engagement, or appearance, an autograph or a picture or being nice to someone. That's all it takes."

Bayless, on the other hand, sees basketball's role as mostly symbolic in the grand scope of the city's social struggle. "As far as racial issues, [changes] gotta start from the higher ups, the politicians," he said. "It has to be a concerted effort with everybody to really try to fix that issue. But it's something that's been going on for a lot longer than the Bucks have been in Milwaukee."

In the meantime, Linda will keep dishing smiles and claiming tags from the coat check counter, as she has for the past decade. At 63, she hopes to retire before the new arena opens. In the current of fans streaming by her, she's noticed "some new people, some regulars, some people who have left. I think they get upset, saying, 'I'm spending all my money and this is what I get.' But that's life—and isn't that's the way of the game? One team wins, and the other team loses."