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On the Milwaukee Bucks and Hope

Feb 3, 2014; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Milwaukee Bucks guard Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) drives past New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith (8) in the 4th quarter at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The Milwaukee Bucks just finished up the worst season in franchise history and are under threat of relocation due to their outdated arena, but thanks to Giannis Antetokounmpo, the number two overall pick in this summer’s draft, and a couple of wicked rich new owners, fans in Milwaukee are as excited about basketball as they’ve ever been.

Long time residents in “NBA hell,” the Bucks haven’t made it past the first round of the playoffs since 2001, when Ray Allen and company carried them all the way to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Since then, they’ve had only five playoff appearances, but only one pick above sixth—the first overall pick in 2005, which they used on Andrew Bogut. And we all know how that turned out.

It all changed this year, however. With the team nowhere near championship contention, fans got the next best thing: a swift bottoming-out that has netted them the second overall pick in a much-heralded draft. With one of Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins guaranteed to be around for the Bucks, there will be a bright young player taking his talents to Milwaukee next year.

Then there’s Giannis Antetokounmpo. The youngster out of Greece was the team’s first round pick last season and it took him just a few weeks to win fans over. Though he tailed off towards the end of the season, he showed countless flashes of brilliance—especially in the open court. As he continues to grow—both literally and in his game—he promises to be a big part of the Bucks’ future.

But all of that—the draft pick and Giannis—was irrelevant with the team playing in a dilapidated arena that Adam Silver declared unfit for the league. Owner Herb Kohl was committed to keeping the team in Milwaukee, but with public financing for a new stadium always going to be difficult to secure, the threat of relocation continued to grow stronger.

Enter Marc Lasry and Wes Edens.

Once Herb Kohl decided to sell the team, the two swooped in and purchased the Bucks for a cool $550 million. Their immense wealth brought a new sense of hope to the city. But hope is funny thing, and one that is tough to conceptualize. We hear about it all the time, but it’s rare that we get to see it in action. On Thursday night, however, I got that chance.

Along with a few blogger friends and hundreds of Bucks fans, I made my way downtown to a local bar to watch Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals and hang out with Lasry and Edens. The two arrived to a standing ovation, having to fight through a crowd of Milwaukeeans eager to greet them. Heading outside to the beer garden and outdoor bar (of which there are a lot of in Milwaukee), the duo made a few opening remarks before spending the rest of the beautiful night mingling with fans.

They accepted business cards, listened to draft ideas, took pictures and had conversations with countless fans for hours on end. A common theme throughout the night was the excitement and gratitude exhibited by each and every person at the event. Over and over again I heard fans tell Lasry and Edens how glad they were that the two had saved the team. I even told Lasry the same thing myself when I got the chance to shake his hand and chat for a few minutes with him and his son.

This was hope. Even with the new owners and the high draft pick and Giannis, the team still doesn’t have a new arena or a good roster, and it will be years before they have either. But none of the hundreds of fans filling the bar to capacity Thursday night were thinking about that. They were grinning from ear to ear about the Bucks’ future and relishing the rare opportunity to chat and share a beer with a couple of billionaires like they were just another guy you met at the bar who likes basketball. They were hatching plans for drafting Joel Embiid and having the next great center, or snatching up Andrew Wiggins and throwing out him and Giannis to form the most athletic and lengthiest (hi, Jay Bilas) wing duo the world has ever seen. They were happy. They were excited. They were hopeful.

And it’s been a long time since Milwaukee’s felt that way about the Bucks.

Jack Maloney