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The Bucks Are In The NBA Finals For The 1st Time In 47 Years — It's Big For Milwaukee

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The NBA finals get underway in Arizona tonight with two teams that have not been there for decades. That would be the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks. It has been 28 years since the Suns made it to the championship round; 47 years for the Bucks. Chuck Quirmbach of member station WUWM in Milwaukee reports the Bucks' success has brought a bit of unity to a city with big controversies.

CHUCK QUIRMBACH, BYLINE: Milwaukee's only NBA championship came in 1971 when basketball icons Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson swept past the Baltimore Bullets. The chance of a win this year has brought about 16,000 people to playoff games inside Milwaukee's Fiserv Forum and several thousand more to an outdoor plaza that's part of what's called the Deer District to watch home and away games on large video screens.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

QUIRMBACH: A racially diverse crowd cheered wildly Saturday night as the Bucks closed out the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference final. A white woman, Karen Smith, says she hopes a Bucks championship would be a unifying catalyst to help repair divisions in the city.

KAREN SMITH: It's awful. It's awful. This absolutely could be the chance, very well could be.

QUIRMBACH: But those divisions are deep. COVID-19 has hit harder in Milwaukee's Black and Latino neighborhoods, where city officials say there's greater poverty and systemic racism. There have also been years of protests over police shootings of Black men. Black males in Milwaukee also face higher incarceration rates, and there's higher unemployment in Black neighborhoods. Still, a Black man, Karvel Jones, says the Bucks seem to unify people.

KARVEL JONES: Unity is important 'cause I'm Black. With unity, you got harmony. And that right there equals love. And if you got love, then hey, what's the fight about? What's the rise about, you know? Like, what's the hate about?

QUIRMBACH: Greg Shepherd, another Black man, remembers the Bucks' only championship and wants another. But he does not share the optimism about the team being a panacea.

GREG SHEPHERD: No, can't heal everything. No.

QUIRMBACH: But others seem energized by the Bucks players, especially two-time NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was born in Greece to Nigerian parents.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND WHISTLING)

QUIRMBACH: Outside a private hangar at the Milwaukee airport, about 100 people cheered the team before its flight to Phoenix. Scott Saleh (ph), who's white, says he's a little worried about Antetokounmpo's knee injury that has kept the superstar out of two games and makes him a question mark for the finals.

SCOTT SALEH: I think as long as Giannis' knee stays healthy (laughter).

QUIRMBACH: With Antetokounmpo out, the Bucks had to rely on other top players like Jrue Holiday to advance. Holiday, who is Black, told the media that he's aware the fans are coming together behind the team.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JRUE HOLIDAY: I would definitely say the fans and the interaction with the fans, they've made it known that this is just as important to them as it is to us.

QUIRMBACH: The challenge for the Bucks is the Phoenix Suns have never won an NBA championship, and many in Arizona say this is their time for the community togetherness that a sports title can bring. For NPR News, I'm Chuck Quirmbach in Milwaukee.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER MOMMY SONG, "INSIDE OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.