March 11, 2014

Algonquin For "The Good Land"

The first Saturday of this month saw me in Philadelphia watching the Wizards beat a hapless 76ers team (second worst record in the NBA) in a relatively new arena in front of a sellout crowd. OK, so the Allen Iverson jersey retirement ceremony might have had a little something to do with the uptick in attendance that night. The Sixers were a successful proud franchise in the late 1970s and early 1980s, winning an NBA title and falling short in a couple of more finals. For the last few years they have been toying with being a good team, grabbing a low playoff seed the past couple of years before tearing it all down and rebuilding behind new coach Brett Brown this season.

This past Saturday, just one week after being in Philly, I was in Milwaukee watching the Wizards squeak by a hapless Bucks team (worst record in the NBA but arguably way better than the Sixers at this point) in a not so attractive 25 year old arena in front of not many folks at all. The Bucks were a successful proud franchise in the 1970s and 1980s, winning an NBA title and dominating their division year after year in that span. For the last few years they too have toyed with being a good team, grabbing low playoff seed after low playoff seed before going all out and rebuilding behind new coach Larry Drew this season.

On the surface, these two Wizards rivals (using that term very loosely) would seem to be in pretty similar situations. But Milwaukee's got it way worse. Despite both teams being terrible this year and hoping for a miracle rebuild, the Bucks have the burden of an NBA mandate to get a new building. Like pronto. Like in three years. They also have an owner looking to sell the team to an investment group who will preferably keep the team in Milwaukee (that group doesn't seem to exist right now) while out of town investors are circling the city like sharks just waiting for the NBA's OK to have at it and take the team. Such is the state of professional basketball in Milwaukee these days. Sounded to me like I should head up to Wisconsin quickly in case the team disappears entirely in the next few years. So I did.

The first half, before things got ugly.
Saturday night's contest was the Wizards' third of the season against the Bucks. Despite the Bucks' sub-.200 record, the Wizards came away with only a split in those previous two games, preferring to play at, or I guess slightly below, Milwaukee's level at home in December and needing a last minute comeback to send it to overtime on the road before finally prevailing in the extra session a few weeks before that in Milwaukee. So Saturday's contest appeared to be an ideal trap game for the Wizards, especially with the Bucks' best player, Larry Sanders, sidelined for the season and their starting shooting guard, O.J. Mayo, serving a one game suspension for a punch to the Pelicans' Greg Stiemsma's throat the previous night in New Orleans.

Early on, it didn't appear there was any danger of a loss here at all. The Wizards came out in the first half like they seemed to be uninterested in making this a competitive game, building a 28 point lead and hitting the 70 point mark about four minutes before the end of the second quarter. Finally it seemed like we had avoided playing down to the level of inferior competition for one night at least. 

Not so fast. Our team's attitude towards playing the right way seemed to waiver with about two minutes to go in the first half. The atmosphere on the bench, at least from my seat about 10 feet away, seemed light, with players hamming it up, laughing and celebrating the Bucks' misfortunes. The play on the court, meanwhile, slowed down and degenerated into a one on one, time wasting exercise which for the Wizards this year has yielded not much success at all. I said at that time I'd feel lucky if we were up by 20 at the break. We survived and took a 22 point cushion to the locker room.

After a halftime show featuring a 50 something year old man standing atop a 15 foot or so high stack of chairs, the Wizards sauntered out of the locker room and proceeded to score zero points in the first seven minutes plus of the third quarter. It was the kind of letdown we can't afford against a halfway decent team with Nenê out with an injury and the Bucks quickly cut the lead to single digits. John Wall played quite honestly one of the worst games in recent weeks; he was absolutley dominated by Brandon Knight. And Bradley Beal continued the inconsistent play he's shown in the past few weeks.

Fortunately the Bucks are not a halfway decent team and the combination of 28 points from Trevor Ariza, a super valuable 13 from Drew Gooden off the bench and a strong fourth by Beal was enough to put the home team away by seven points. I've said it again and I'll say it again: the Wizards are just not good enough to take any minutes off right now. Scoring 10 points in the third quarter and yielding 33 in the fourth quarter of a game isn't going to cut it most days. 48 minutes, guys. I'm thankful for the 75 we poured in during the first 24 minutes. This brings my road record to 3-4. I definitely picked the right away games this year.

I'd feel remiss if I didn't spend a few sentences on the BMO Harris Bradley Center since I'd heard numerous sources describe the place as a dump. I didn't feel the interior of the arena was that bad, although it's clearly older and lacks amenities that the NBA loves, like tons and tons of luxury boxes. But the outside of the arena is a different story. This building has a complete lack of character. It's a scaleless, windowless box that doesn't engage the city or the street at all. The entries at either end of the building contain no sense of arrival at all. It honestly looks like the building was designed in the 1970s then shelved for a while and then finally built in the late 1980s on the cheap. It made me proud of the Verizon Center for it's ability to activate the streetscape. I guess the nine years between the construction of the two buildings make a lot of difference.

Liquid cheese eating contest. Go! Go! Go!
So given the state of the building and the record of the team, it's understandable that the Bucks are on the edge of begging fans to attend in person. We talked to a number of people in the city asking us why we were in town and the typical response when we said we were going to the Wizards-Bucks game was along the lines of "I'm sorry." But if there's one thing I can say that the Bucks did right it's the in game entertainment. They ran it like a meeting, presenting a quarter by quarter agenda for the fans so we knew exactly what to expect. They even covered the halftime show I guess so you could decide to stick around or bail. And this was the only game I've attended where there was a liquid cheese eating contest: two dudes sucking down canned artificial cheese for 45 seconds. Classic and somehow totally Wisconsin. I'm sure they didn't have doctors on hand doing a before and after cholesterol check, but it might have been prudent.

I got a lot out of my weekend in Milwaukee. Of course I'm glad the Wizards won. That was, after all, the reason I made the trip. Milwaukee is a classic midwestern city and I've loved the midwest ever since I spent four years at the University of Michigan. In between taking in downtown's eclectic mix of early 20th century and 1970s/80s buildings; checking out the statue of the Fonz (seriously); eating a late night snack of delicious fried cheese curds (translation: fat deep fried in fat oil with a side of fat ranch dressing); and gazing at the largest and scariest collection of Miller Lite and Coors Light at the Miller Brewery (totally worth the trip by the way), I had a very enjoyable weekend. Milwaukee is crossed off the NBA pilgrimage list. Next up: NBDL action in New England.

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