Most of the fans in attendance at the sold-out Fiserv Forum on Sunday night stuck around to the final bell, and with good reason. The Milwaukee Bucks had just notched their 60th win of this magical, gift-from-above 2018-19 season, defeating the Atlanta Hawks 115-107 behind 30 points and nine rebounds (in 24 minutes) from MVP favorite, Giannis Antetokounmpo.
Sixty wins is rarified air in the NBA. Usually, only one or two teams will reach the number in a season. The Milwaukee Bucks will be the only team to do so this year. It’s a monumental achievement for the franchise. It’s also a stunning, surreal capstone on a season that’s been so mesmerizingly unbelievable that I have to keep reminding myself that this is all real and this is all happening.
After celebrating as the confetti fell and taking a moment to soak it all in, I walked out of the arena Sunday night thinking about another late-season game against the Hawks. It was five years ago when the night the Bucks lost their 67th game to finish the 2013-14 season with the worst record in the NBA, as well as the worst record in franchise history.
This was a team that had a promotional giveaway with a poster of Nate Wolters (Naters Gonna Nate!)—a 2013 second round draft pick who averaged seven points and three assists per game and was out of the league a year later—because he was legitimately one of the season’s few bright spots.
But on that April night at the BMO Harris Bradley Center, watching this terrible team lose 111-103 to cap off one of the worst seasons any NBA team had ever had, there was more joy in the arena than I’d felt in some time. The game tipped off just hours after the press conference when Senator Herb Kohl announced he’d be selling the Bucks to Marc Lasry and Wes Edens and donating $100 million toward the construction of a new arena.
The buzz in the building during that game was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced at a sporting event. No one cared that the team was losing because the fans were refamiliarizing themselves with a concept they’d long forgotten after years cheering for the moribund Bucks: Hope.
At halftime of the game, my friend Kevin, a Bucks diehard, snuck down to Kohl’s seats (because that’s a thing that could happen in the Bradley Center during that season) to thank the Senator for what he’d done for Milwaukee. Kohl shook his hand and said, “I love you.” It was that kind of night.
The Bucks would be heading into the offseason with this newfound hope, a high draft pick, and new ownership ready to offer a fresh start (and a chance at building a new arena that would ultimately keep the team in Milwaukee).
As it turned out, the team already had the key to unlocking their glorious future: Giannis, then a 19-year-old rookie who’d shown flashes of brilliance in his first season after making the leap from the Greek second division to the NBA.
Now, the 24-year-old is in the running to potentially join Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan as the only players to win both the MVP and Defensive Player Of The Year in the same season. And he plays for the Milwaukee Bucks, a team that has clinched the best record in the NBA, giving them home court advantage throughout the playoffs at their brand new arena.
And on Sunday night against the Hawks, he sliced through the defense at will, swatted away would-be buckets, and hammered home thunderous dunks that brought standing ovation “M-V-P!” chants from the long-suffering Bucks faithful. The Bucks never trailed, getting key contributions up and down the roster throughout the night. And though the Hawks rallied, the Bucks slammed the door shut with a 9-0 run late in the fourth, punctuated by a dagger three from Giannis that put the game out of reach.
It was nice to be in the building for loss number 67. It was a little better to be there for win number 60.