You have to plan in this business and — it’s time to be transparent here — we were planning for the worst on the morning of June 30.
Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo later admitted he’d gone to bed the previous night fearing his season was over. That certainly appeared to be a strong possibility after his left knee had bent backward in an awful manner during the third quarter of a loss to the Atlanta Hawks in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals.
Even TNT analyst Reggie Miller was having a hard time staying composed as he watched the situation unfold. “Someone’s down,” Miller said. “And it looks like it’s Giannis grabbing that right — or excuse me — that left knee. Oh, no. Oh, my goodness.”
Oh, no, indeed.
The Bucks went on to lose 110-88 and, even though the series was tied 2-2 and going back to Milwaukee, it was hard to keep your mind from drifting toward doom and gloom: Was this the latest gut-punching moment in what had been a decade of heartbreak for Wisconsin sports fans since the Green Bay Packers won a Super Bowl in February 2011?
Back to that morning and the moment of transparency. A staff email circulated, basically asking if it was time to get the ball rolling on a potential story that would document all the near misses since that glorious night in North Texas.
Those same Aaron Rodgers-led Packers, seemingly headed for a dynasty, haven’t even gotten back to the Super Bowl, losing four times in the NFC Championship Game.
The Brewers losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers at Miller Park in Game 7 of the 2018 National League Championship Series seven years after they also blew home-field advantage during a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in an NLCS that went six games.
The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team losing close games to Kentucky in the 2014 Final Four and to Duke in the title game the following season. Some near misses by the Badgers volleyball team, who knocked on the championship door but couldn’t bust through it.
And even these Bucks, who were a No. 1 seed each of the previous two years but couldn’t get over the hump, including wasting a 2-0 lead to the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference finals.
And now, the superstar who had signed a five-year, $228.2 million supermax extension last December to remain in Milwaukee was clutching his knee as another golden opportunity for an elusive title sports fans in Wisconsin could wrap their arms around seemed to be slipping away.
Three weeks later, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are champions — and what a glorious run it was.
I didn’t think it was possible to be more in awe of Giannis the freak athlete than I already was. Then came “The Block” to help close out Game 4, “The Alley-Oop Dunk Heard Around the World” to help seal Game 5 and the brilliance of his 50-point effort in Game 6.
Nor did I think it was possible to be more impressed with the off-the-court version of Antetokounmpo than I already was. The dude is so likeable, his attitude so refreshing, and that endearing personality was on full display during coverage of the NBA Finals.
Antetokounmpo’s news conferences were must-see events, and my favorite moment came midway through the Finals when Sam Amick, a national reporter for The Athletic, asked him a great question about his lack of ego.
“I figured out a mindset to have that when you focus on the past, that’s your ego,” Antetokounmpo said. “I did this. We were able to beat this team 4-0. I did this in the past. I won that in the past. When I focus on the future, it’s my pride. Yeah, next game, Game 5, I do this and this and this. I’m going to dominate. That’s your pride talking. It doesn’t happen. You’re right here.
“I kind of try to focus on the moment, in the present. That’s humility. That’s being humble. That’s not setting no expectation. That’s going out there, enjoying the game, competing at a high level. I think I’ve had people throughout my life that helped me with that. But that is a skill that I’ve tried to, like, kind of — how do you say, perfect it.”
What a great answer — and great advice to follow, whether you’re a youngster trying to get better at a sport or an adult trying to get better at, well, life.
One final moment of transparency: When Antetokounmpo’s future was up in the air prior to him signing the supermax, part of me wondered whether he’d be making a huge mistake by staying in Milwaukee. He’d done his part to make the Bucks relevant and bring joy to the city and state, after all, so I wasn’t about to begrudge him if he chose to go chase a title elsewhere.
If that thought ever entered his mind, it didn’t remain there for long. After the final buzzer sounded Tuesday night and chaos ensued inside the Fiserv Forum, Antetokounmpo delivered some hugs before finding a chair on the baseline and shedding tears as he took in the scene.
Later, he explained why he couldn’t leave Milwaukee.
“There was a job that had to be finished,” Antetokounmpo said.
“Coming back, I was like, this is my city,” he added. “They trust me, they believed in me, they believed in us. Even when we lost, the city was still on our side. Obviously I wanted to get the job done. But that’s my stubborn side. It’s easy to go somewhere and win a championship with somebody else. I could go to a super team and just do my part and win a championship. But this is the hard way to do it ...
“And we did it. We (expletive) did it.”
That you did, Giannis, and thanks for bringing us along for the ride. After a decade of heartbreak, Wisconsin sports fans needed that joy more than you can imagine.
Contact Jim Polzin at firstname.lastname@example.org.