The shadow of Chicago always looms over Milwaukee. Chicago is one of the largest cities in the United States and it boasts a strong cultural and culinary reputation that carries the city’s name throughout the globe. Milwaukee is perhaps best known internationally as that one Alice Cooper joke from Wayne’s World, but people in other countries know exactly where and what Chicago is.
A big reason for this is Michael Jordan, a man who cast a shadow over the entire world and casts an even bigger shadow over an entire sport. His statistics paint him as one of the greatest players to ever play the game, but those numbers can never live up to the legend. MJ is Paul Bunyun with a dash of Ares and a splash of Godzilla and Johnny Appleseed. Jordan is a God made mortal. He’s superhuman—a destroyer of worlds that simultaneously brings peace to the planet with his gift of basketball mastery. (ESPN’s Michael Jordan: ‘The Last Dance’ has a slightly more exaggerated take.)
Milwaukee sits a little over 90 miles to the north of Chicago which means that for much of Jordan’s career, he was relatively close by. His Airness was always looming, always threatening to destroy, always stealing fans with a tongue wag and turnaround jumper.
It was almost always this way. In the second game of Jordan’s professional career, the Bulls played the Bucks in Milwaukee. The Bucks were deep in their “really good, but not good enough to beat the Celtics or Sixers” phase at the time with franchise stalwarts like Terry Cummings, Sidney Moncrief, and Mike Dunleay leading the way. As recounted in David Halberstam’s Playing for Keeps, Dunleavy was watching the game from the bench when Jordan took off from the foul line for a dunk attempt. Dunleavy turned to his teammate Kevin Grevey and said, “There’s his first big mistake.” Jordan scored. Of course he did.
The very next night, Jordan’s third ever NBA game, the teams tangled again in Chicago and Jordan put on the first of many dominant performances against the Bucks. The 1984-1985 Bucks would allow an NBA-low amount of points per game that season, but they were utterly hopeless against Jordan in the fourth quarter. Jordan finished with 37 points, 6 steals, and 5 assists in this one with an astonishing 22 of those points coming in the fourth quarter.
Jordan’s dominance over the Bucks would continue for the next decade plus. In 1996, the Bulls were adding more championship trophies while the Bucks fortunes were starting to turn around, thanks to the addition of Ray Allen. The Connecticut sharp shooter was the fifth pick in the Draft that season and a sign of hope for the franchise. The two teams would face off in a pre-season game on October 15, 1996 where the two star players would meet in person for the first time.
Before tipoff, Allen and Jordan walked out onto the hardwood, met at half court and shook hands. “‘What’s up, Ray? Welcome to the NBA,'” Allen remembers Jordan saying. “I was like, ‘Man…Michael Jordan knows my name.'”
Michael was always famous for his relentless competitive streak, but this greeting almost reads as…nice. That probably had something to do with it being the preseason and the fact that Allen was already on his team: Team Jordan Brand. In fact, it was Jordan who hand selected Ray Allen to be the first player to endorse Jordan Brand, Mike’s own spin-off brand from Nike, and during that rookie year Allen was the one guy in the league who wore Jordan Brand shoes. It wasn’t until almost a year later that Jordan Brand would become available to the public, becoming a billion dollar brand in the process, and it all started with a Milwaukee Bucks sharpshooter named Ray Allen.
The two would meet again in the 2001-2002 season with Michael Jordan as a member of the Washington Wizards during his ill-fated second comeback. A sellout crowd at the Bradley Center on January 11, 2002 would see Ray Allen score a game-high 27 points while Jordan would post one of his worst of the season with 22 points, 6 turnovers, and -16 on court point differential. This game isn’t available anywhere online and nobody remembers it now. History may be written by the winners, but it’s also ignored when it doesn’t fit the legend. That said, this article has pictures from both of those games.
This wasn’t Jordan’s first connection to a Bucks player. In college at North Carolina, Jordan actually had a poster of the Bucks’ Marques Johnson hanging in his dorm room. It’s not a stretch to say that the Marques Johnson poster was one of the last things he saw before falling asleep at night.
For his career, Jordan played 66 games against Milwaukee (second most against any team) where he averaged 32.3 point per game (fourth best against any team) with a 125 Offensive Rating (tied for his best against any team). From Jordan’s third season until his final one with Chicago, the Bulls had a 42-9 record against the Bucks. On the court, this man owned the Bucks.
After he retired, Jordan nearly owned the Bucks off the court too. Marc Stein in 2003 reported:
The growing sentiment around the league is that Jordan is only interested in a front-office return to the NBA if he has full decision-making power with his new club. Sources said that is why Jordan is pursuing the purchase of the Bucks from Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.)—with commissioner David Stern serving as an intermediary—instead of taking Robert Johnson’s offer to join the expansion franchise in Charlotte.
Jordan’s negotiations with Milwaukee are “very hot,” according to one league source. Kohl is openly trying to sell the franchise, reportedly for at least $170 million.
How close was it? Close enough for Jordan to directly influence the Bucks’ 2003 draft. The deal was close enough on draft night in 2003 for Jordan to push to make the draft pick for Milwaukee before the deal was done. On the night of the draft that was a sticking point in the negotiations with the Bucks steadfast that they would make their own pick, but that has been refuted by Chad Ford. On the “2003 Redraftables” episode of the Book Of Basketball podcast, Ford stated that the Bucks drafted the guy Jordan wanted despite him not officially owning the team.
“In the long list of bad Michael Jordan draft picks, I believe, I had sources in Milwaukee at the time swear to me that they went ahead and drafted the guy that Michael Jordan wanted, which was T.J. Ford out of Texas and that was clearly not the right guy. Injuries really stunted his career. Although he wasn’t bad before all those injuries.”
Eventually, Kohl’s fears of Jordan taking the Bucks out of Milwaukee would kill the deal.
“There was considerable angst in Milwaukee about Jordan because he has no connections to Wisconsin and no one in his group is from the state. The fear was Jordan would move the franchise or leverage local officials into building a new arena or changing the lease terms for the Bradley Center.”
Jordan eventually became the Charlotte Bobcats owner, buying the team from Robert Johnson for $175 million just seven years after Johnson paid $300 million for the team, and Jordan’s history as an owner has shown that the Bucks probably dodged a bullet. Jordan’s Bobcats/Hornets have had seven coaches in the past 15 years, with only three playoff appearances to show for it (none of those extending beyond the first round). The Bucks would eventually sell to Wes Edens and Marc Lasry.
It wouldn’t take long after Edens and Lasry’s purchase of the Bucks for them become acquainted with His Airness in their own individual ways.
Jordan, Edens, Los Angeles Lakers co-governor Jeanie Buss, Celtics co-governor Wyc Grousbeck, and CEO Emilia Fazzalari got together to create a line of high-end tequilas called Cincoro Tequila. Cincoro translates to “five gold” in Spanish and “pays homage to the five founding partners and their pursuit to create the gold standard in tequila.”
The group of NBA governors and Fazzalari concocted the idea for the brand one night while waiting on a table at a Manhattan pizzeria. The topic of tequila came up, and a lightbulb went off.
The lightbulb apparently said, “$70 for Blanco, $90 for Reposado, $130 for Anejo, and $1,600 for Extra Anejo.”
JUST IN: Michael Jordan, Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck, Lakers owner @JeanieBuss and Bucks owner Wes Edens launch new @cincorotequila. Prices: $70 for Blanco, $90 for Reposado, $130 for Anejo & $1600 for Extra Anejo. pic.twitter.com/MGKdhuUERU
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) September 16, 2019
“That was when we realized there was an opportunity in the market to create a new tequila, a better tequila,” Fazzalari said. “We let our hair down and became true friends that night.”
Even post-basketball, this is how the world of Michael Jordan works. He owns things and he controls people. While this group of individuals may believe that they are on equal footing with Michael Jordan in this business outing, and from a financial stake perspective they very well may be, this is absolutely Michael Jordan’s tequila. Michael Jordan is the Michael Jordan of this tequila business and the rest of them are Bill Wennington and Jud Buechler. Nobody is going out and saying, “Damn, I really want to try that new Wyc Grousbeck tequilla.” It’s Jordan’s world and these guys are just living in it.
Marc Lasry, one of the other Bucks owners and a close friend of Bill Clinton, had the chance to catch up with Jordan earlier this year when the Bucks and Hornets played in Paris. At the time, the Bucks were 40-6 and on pace for a truly historic season. Lasry sought Jordan’s advice on what it might take for the Bucks to win 70 games this season.
“When I was in Paris, I was talking to Michael about this, and I said, ‘Well, what do you think? I think we’ve got a real shot at doing what you guys have done [win 70 games]. This is a really unique team.’
“And he goes, ‘Look, my advice to you is don’t focus on beating our record, focus on winning a championship.’ And I said, ‘Wow, that’s great. Thank you for that. Just so you know, we’re going to focus on beating your record and winning a championship.’ I think we should do everything, but that’s me.”
The Bucks record since that meeting: 13-6. A 70-win season was out the window before events in the real world killed the idea of a full season altogether.
Lasry’s statement was hubris from the get-go. It’s not like he called up Coach Bud and said “Hey, this is what we are going to do to win 70 games this year.” It was billionaires talking to billionaires about their investments and the richer one ignoring the advice of the lesser billionaire. The only problem is that Jordan is not only a lesser billionaire, he’s the greatest winner that the NBA has ever seen and knows more about winning championships on the court than anyone alive. He might know what he’s talking about.
The Bucks and Milwaukee are not unique in tale of Michael Jordan. Every city and every NBA team has their Michael Jordan stories. The string of championships and dominance of the 1990s clouds the success of every NBA team that has come since, and the current iteration of the Milwaukee Bucks is no different.
But unlike Bucks teams of the past, the current one has the unique opportunity to cast their own shadow. They could bring a championship home. Giannis Antetokounmpo may never reach the heights of Michael Jordan in the NBA, but there’s a chance he could be our Michael Jordan. Sometimes a chance is all you need.