I’ve been a consumer of Bill Simmons’ content for the better part of two decades. Page Two on espn.com, Grantland, The Ringer, Jimmy Kimmel Live, Any Given Wednesday, The BS Report, The Bill Simmons Podcast, Now I Can Die in Peace, The Book of Basketball. You name it. I’ve consumed and loved all of it. Even when I don’t agree with him, I enjoy what he does and how he does it. One of his topics that pops up occasionally is which team or city has the most tortured fan bases. The explanation is in the name, but the list consists of the fan bases that have had the most professional sports heartache in the United States. The catch is that if your city’s teams just suck, you’re not really tortured. The torture comes from getting close, but not being able to finish. The best recent example is probably Cleveland. They hadn’t won a professional sports title in 50 years. They had some great Browns teams that came up just short, peaking with the Earnest Byner game, then had the Browns taken from them. They haven’t been good since. They had LeBron for years and came close, only to lose him. They’ve had many competitive Indians teams that couldn’t cash one in. Then LeBron came back and they won the NBA title in 2016. Can we call them tortured anymore? At least they got one. You get the idea.
In the spring of 2018 when my beloved Milwaukee Bucks lost to the Boston Celtics in the first round of the NBA Playoffs I tweeted at Bill Simmons – a die-hard Celtics fan, for what it’s worth – that Milwaukee deserved consideration for the most tortured fan base title. I rarely get replies to any of my tweets, but that night I received several. I’ll paraphrase the majority of them: Hey idiot, you forgot about the Packers. The part I found funny was that one of them came from somebody in Buffalo. I’m 43 years old. Born and raised 15 minutes outside of Green Bay. Spent a few years living in Milwaukee during college. Moved back to Green Bay and have lived here ever since. A hardcore Bucks, Brewers, and Packers fan for as long as I can remember. I’d like to think I know something about this topic. I don’t know how to explain this to you unless you’ve been a part of it, but here’s my attempt:
The Packers are Wisconsin’s NFL team, but to the people in Green Bay, they’re Green Bay’s team. We bristle when Milwaukee claims the Packers. They have the Bucks and the Brewers. Madison has the Badgers. When the Packers won Super Bowls XXXI and XLV the championship parade route was through the streets of Green Bay, not Milwaukee. You want to irritate a Packer fan from Green Bay? Mention to them that the Packers used to have two home games a year at Milwaukee County Stadium. Mention to them that the old Milwaukee ticket holders still get two “Gold Package” games every year even though the Packers haven’t played a home game in Milwaukee since the early-90’s. Without fail, every time someone I know from Green Bay goes to a Gold Package game, they’ll report to everyone who will listen, “The crowd sucked. It was a Milwaukee game.” Wisconsin loves the Packers, but like “The North” in Game of Thrones, Green Bay doesn’t take too kindly to people from the south. Someone from Buffalo, of all places, should know that. Would they want someone from New York or Toronto claiming a Bills title if they won one? Just because two cities are in the same state or even geographically close, they can be worlds apart. Sure, Milwaukee football fans who aren’t Chicago Bears fans can claim Packers titles, but I think even people in Milwaukee would admit, it’s not the same as it would be if they were the Milwaukee Packers, or the Wisconsin Packers playing their home games in Milwaukee.
Next, since I just mentioned them, let’s talk about Chicago for a minute. Chicago is Milwaukee’s bully big brother 80-ish miles to the south. Every time the Brewers play the Cubs in Miller Park we have to listen to it being referred to as “Wrigley North”. When the Bucks played the Bulls in the 2015 NBA Playoffs the majority of the fans in the Bradley Center were wearing Bulls red. Announcers everywhere delighted in pointing this out to the chagrin of Milwaukee fans. Of course Chicago can fill up a Milwaukee arena. It’s barely an hour away and the greater Chicago area has a population of 9.5 million. The population of Milwaukee county and the three surrounding counties is 1.5 million. Congratulations on your frequent Milwaukee takeovers, Chicago. You’re an hour away and have six times the population.
So, Milwaukee has a bully big brother to the south and a more-successful little brother to the north that only begrudgingly acknowledges them. Not a great situation. Now let’s focus on the teams in Milwaukee: the Brewers and the Bucks.
Milwaukee has a history of great baseball. Unfortunately a large piece of that greatness belongs to the Milwaukee Braves, who won the World Series in 1957. They left in 1965. The Brewers started in 1970 and have made it to the World Series exactly once, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games in 1982. I was six years old. I wasn’t able to stay up for Game 7 because it was a school night and I cried when I woke up the next morning and found out that they lost. They had the 13-game winning streak in 1987 but missed the playoffs, and in fact finished 3rd in the AL East, despite going 91-71. The next 20+ years featured a lot of losing and hopelessness. Our best prospect during that stretch was World Class Horse’s Ass Gary Sheffield who referred to Milwaukee as “hell” at one point. After a 26-year playoff drought, in 2008 they rented CC Sabathia for 12 weeks and won the NL Wild Card, only to be wiped out in four games by the eventual-champion Phillies. Sabathia left the following winter for a lot more money from a bigger market (as did most of our good players in the past 30 years) and that was that. They made another playoff appearance in 2011, this time going to the NLCS and losing to the rival and eventual-champion Cardinals. We couldn’t even enjoy it because we all knew Prince Fielder was going to leave. Then the Ryan Braun PED fiasco happened. Last year they returned to the playoffs once again with their most loveable team in 35 years and were beaten in the NLCS by a Dodgers team that featured players like Manny Machado and Yasiel Puig, who are are so easy to hate it just makes it that much more painful to watch them celebrate while you’re in sports misery. Tonight we watched as our best reliever surrendered three runs to an otherwise dormant Nats team. Our MVP, Christian Yelich, busted his kneecap three weeks ago and his rookie replacement made a Buckner-esque play in right field that sealed our fate. Were the Brewers really a title contender without Yelich? I guess not. Still a heartbreaking loss…and now officially 62 years without a World Series winner in Milwaukee.
To rub salt in the wounds for Brewer fans, the Cubs have become perennial contenders and we have to listen to their bullshit year-round. When they were the loveable losers we had to hear what a shame it was that they hadn’t won a World Series in 100 years. At least Cubs fans had identities and the sympathy of the entire country. The Brewers have NEVER won a World Series. I’ve spent my entire life waiting and they’ve only made it once and lost…and that was 37 years ago. We still treat anyone who played on the ’82 team like deities and they didn’t even win it. If you’re under 40, you don’t know what a World Series in Milwaukee feels like, and if you’re under 50, it’s nothing more than a distant childhood memory. Nationally the Brewers are met with indifference. It’s like they don’t exist. I’d rather be a loveable loser than simply dismissed.
Then there are my Bucks. I’m not really ready to write about them right now because last spring’s loss to Toronto still stings, but i’ll try. The Bucks had good teams throughout my childhood in the 1980’s that always came up against Boston, Philly, and Detroit teams that were a little better. Like the 80’s version of the current Portland Trailblazers. Probably the best NBA franchise of the 1980’s that nobody remembers, for whatever that’s worth (nothing). Fell on hard times in the early 1990’s. Famously drafted Todd Day in the 1st round of the 1992 draft and he responded like it was a prison sentence. I remember few details about the day I graduated from high school in 1994, but I remember coming home for my graduation party and hearing the news almost immediately that the Bucks won the draft lottery. We shot hoops in the driveway fantasizing about the Big Dog in a Bucks uniform. In 2000 the Bucks finally got their Big Three (Glenn Robinson, Sam Cassell, and Ray Allen) in to the playoffs as an 8-seed and almost pulled off a massive 1st round upset of the Indiana Pacers until Travis Best sunk a corner three in the closing seconds of Game 5 (the 1st round was only five games back then) to bury them.
In 2001 the Bucks came back with the second best record in the East and had Milwaukee’s best team in over a decade. The Bucks lost to Allen Iverson and the Sixers in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals that year. Many – me included – also believe they lost to the NBA and the officials. The officiating in that series was questionable, at best. My guy Simmons still uses it as a go-to reference for poor officiating 18 years later. In 2002 the Bucks traded Scott Williams for Anthony Mason. Mason was supposed to provide the toughness down low that the Bucks had been lacking forever. Everyone thought they had the team to make the finals that year. Instead they had a meltdown for the ages. They were 35-25 heading in to March that year, then went 6-16 the rest of they way. They dropped from the #1 record in the East to out of the playoffs completely.
In 2003 the Bucks traded Ray Allen to the Sonics for 34-year-old Gary Payton in what USA Today called the dumbest NBA trade deadline deal of all-time. The Bucks got 28 games out of Payton before he left via free agency. Ray Allen went on to be a Hall of Famer. Big Dog went on to win a title as a role player with the Spurs. The Bucks slipped back to mediocrity. In 2005 they won the lottery again, this time drafting Andrew Bogut (ahead of Chris Paul). I liked Bogut and have nothing against him, but there are years when winning the lottery is more valuable than others. You know, like this year’s sweepstakes for Zion. 2005 was not one of those years. Bogut might not have been a perennial all-star, but he was a solid player, and 2010 may have been the best season of his career. 16 points, 10 rebounds, and a lot of toughness every game. The Bucks went 46-36 – easily their best team since 2001 – and were looking dangerous until Amare Stoudemire shoved Bogut in the back going up for a dunk during an early-April game. Bogut hit the ground and his arm bent 90 degrees the wrong way at the elbow. He badly dislocated his elbow and broke his hand. Without him the Bucks lost a seven-game 1st round war to the Atlanta Hawks.
With things looking up for the franchise, the Bucks selected Larry Sanders in the first round of that year’s draft. I thought we finally had the Ben Wallace-type I had been waiting for. He was starting to look like it, too. At 24-years-old he was becoming a defensive force in the middle like we never had. Then he decided he just didn’t want it. Walked away from the game. I don’t blame the guy. It just sucked. A wasted pick. Brandon Jennings showed signs and famously predicted “Bucks in 6” before a series against LeBron and DWade’s Miami Heat. They got swept. Jennings didn’t pan out.
Enter Giannis and the most hope we’ve had for a Milwaukee franchise I can recall. This past spring the Bucks finally dropped the label of “longest second round playoff drought”. They gave us a taste of what’s possible for this team by going up 2-0 against Toronto in the Eastern Conference Finals…then a team that went 60-22 and had only lost two games in a row once all season lost four in a row. It was excruciating. I don’t want to talk about it. It’s been 48 years since Milwaukee’s only NBA title.
My point is this: Southeast Wisconsin deserves a champion of their own. Milwaukee sports fans are loyal and love their teams. They’ve had to sit and watch Chicago and Green Bay win titles. It’s time for the middle child neglect to end. I’m tired of nights like tonight. Milwaukee sports fans have suffered long enough. Come on, Giannis! Come on, Yelich! Elevate yourself from beloved to legendary, deliver a title to the MKE and end this torture.