MILWAUKEE — Standing outside Fiserv Forum in a massive crowd that grew larger by the second, Lue Lueck wore a green jacket in the style of the Milwaukee Bucks’ 1971 championship team, dreaming that this would be the night he’d see another.
“I came down here because I think we’re going to win, and I want to say I was here,” said Lueck, 38, from Madison.
His hunch proved correct, as the Bucks clinched the title with a 105-98 victory over the Phoenix Suns.
The Deer District in downtown Milwaukee became the center of the city’s celebrations as the Bucks neared their first NBA title since 1971. It encompasses Fiserv Forum, several cavernous bars and restaurants, and of course, the plaza where thousands of ticketless fans gathered to root for Giannis Antetokounmpo and his teammates throughout the playoffs.
City leaders predicted the throng might hit 65,000 Tuesday night, a figure that would dwarf the 10,000 or so who crammed into “Jurassic Park” outside Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena when the Raptors went for the title in 2019.
The enthusiasm surprised even the Bucks’ owners, who opened the $524 million arena in 2018 and saw the plaza become a popular gathering spot the following summer, when the Bucks made it to the Eastern Conference finals.
“We hoped people would come, but I don’t think we ever envisioned it like this,” Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry told the Milwaukee Business Journal earlier this month. “It is a unique experience and one that is so great for the city.”
The space has also hosted yoga sessions, family movie showings, art fairs, festivals and public viewings of major sports events like the 2019 women’s World Cup final. But high-stakes Bucks games are when it really comes alive, said Carlos Anguiano, 30, of Milwaukee.
“Just being here, you can feel the energy right away,” he said as bass-heavy music pummeled the air before tipoff. “It’s a lot different from staying at home and watching TV.”
On Tuesday night, the arena was a glass and steel island amid an ocean of humanity — diverse, young and overwhelmingly clad in Bucks green. It was so dense that even the king-size screens were hard to see through the crowd; you had to listen for the cheers or groans to know what was happening on the court.
Police restricted entrance to the Deer District by game time but a large crowd formed outside the fence, a block deep in places. Once or twice people pushed their way inside as officers scrambled to close the gaps.
There’s no similar space in Chicago, with the possible exception of Wrigleyville (though the entire city seemed to be a watch party during the Cubs’ 2016 World Series run). The United Center and Guaranteed Rate Field are surrounded by parking lots, and while the Museum Campus outside Soldier Field offers plenty of potential gathering spots, there are precious few amenities.
Finn McCarthy, 22, of Elmhurst, said Chicago would be well-served with a Deer District equivalent. The recent University of Wisconsin at Madison graduate planned to spend his evening at the Mecca Sports Bar and Grill, a full court heave away from the arena, and said he wished Chicago teams offered public places that generate the same energy.
“Being with that many people, all rooting for the same thing and having a really fun time while they’re doing it, it’s a big party,” said McCarthy, who adopted the Bucks as his second favorite team after the Chicago Bulls.
Siblings Gregg and Kristen Sparks, who grew up in Wisconsin but now live in Chicago, said people started to gather in the plaza six hours before the 8 p.m. tipoff. They said the spot has given an extra charge to game-day excitement.
“I’ve noticed a lot more people walking around in Bucks gear,” Gregg Sparks said. “There are a lot more people coming down even if they don’t have tickets to grab a beer. It’s made it definitely more of a destination. But the Bucks have also been a lot better (since the arena and plaza opened), so it’s a chicken and egg sort of thing.”
Tuesday’s event had a spring break vibe to it, with young men wearing backward ball caps and young women sporting crop tops, though when the sun went down you could see some shivering in their throwback Ray Allen and Andrew Bogut jerseys. The smell of cannabis was inescapable; fat vape clouds billowed into the air.
One accessory that was almost entirely absent was the face mask. They were not required for entrance into the Deer District, and very few wore them despite a seven-day rolling average for new COVID cases that surged 160% in the past two weeks throughout Wisconsin.
As for the game, it was so evenly matched the crowd seemed to think they could tilt the balance with ritual gestures – wiggling their fingers when Antetokounmpo prepared to hoist a free throw or lifting their arms over their heads, prayer-like, as a three-pointer arced toward the basket.
Whenever Grace O’Brien, 23, of Milwaukee, had come to the district during the playoffs the Bucks won, she said, so she felt duty-bound to bring the luck once more.
“It’s a lot more crowded but it’s still pretty fun being able to come together and celebrate with our team no matter which way it goes,” she said. “It’s a great way for everyone to experience it and not just the people who are inside.”
Another Milwaukeean, 61-year-old Kevin Carrington, said the festivities were a leap beyond those surrounding the Bucks’ 1971 championship.
“All these people gathering together just to enjoy this history that’s going on, that’s a good thing, especially after COVID and all the stuff that took place (over the last year),” he said. “This is great.”
The Bucks repaid their fans’ enthusiasm with a fourth-quarter burst that saw them pry open what had been a close game. Antetokounmpo, normally a miserable free throw shooter, seemed as though he couldn’t miss from the stripe as the crowd outside bellowed, “MVP! MVP!”
As the final seconds ticked away, young men scrambled up lamp posts to whip the crowd beyond a frenzy and people screamed in anticipation.
“I been waiting 50 years for this!” a man shouted.
The crowd noise peaked as the final buzzer sounded. Carol Demers, 63, of Brookfield, hugged her husband Dave while fireworks and confetti burst above their heads.
“This is the most exhilarating thing you could do and I’d come back again,” she said. “It’s been wonderful.”
Story by John Keilman, Chicago Tribune