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On The Rise: A Tale of Two NBA Cities

The Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks might seem to have little in common, but there’s more similarities than meets the eye.

NBA: Milwaukee Bucks at Philadelphia 76ers John Geliebter-USA TODAY Sports

It was a bunny, the type of shot even fourth-graders are scolded for missing. Normally, Glenn Robinson could’ve made this shot with a blindfold. Instead, the shot caromed off the rim. As an ensuing tip-in attempt fell short and the buzzer sounded on game five of the 2001 Eastern Conference Finals, two teams on the brink of resurgence found themselves irrevocably tied to a series that would remain their apex for the next decade-plus. Two games later, the Philadelphia 76ers dispatched the Milwaukee Bucks to earn the honor of facing the dominant Los Angeles Lakers.

That Conference Finals series still stands as the contemporary beacon of hope for the two cities. For anyone 30 or younger, it remains the highlight of their basketball fandom. In the ensuing years there were brief flashes of excitement and potential, but each was limited by a glass ceiling. Both fanbases subsisted for years on a playoff run that ultimately ended in a loss; nostalgia is a renewable resource, after all.

Beset by the apathy of suspect moves, middling records and a perpetually hazy future, fan interest and attendance waned in the intermittent years, patiently awaiting the chance to cheer for something more than an automatic exit from the playoffs. Now, 16 years after they faced off in the playoffs, the two franchises are excitedly freeing themselves from the bondage of mediocrity, due to a bustling optimism fueled by a pair of (accidental) potential superstars: Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

The exuberance of a Finals birth proved fleeting for the 76ers. After wiping away a decade of relative anonymity with a stirring series win, the team fell at the hands of the new millennium’s first NBA juggernaut, the Los Angeles Lakers, in the 2001 NBA Finals four games to one. Following the franchise’s finest moment since its 1982 NBA title, the team shattered like a busted mirror soon after, with the pieces scattering to teams across the league. The 76ers retained only six players from the season before; their Eastern conference dominance was swiftly replaced by the upstart New Jersey Nets, and then by a Detroit Pistons team that operated with a consistency befitting the town of Henry Ford. Ironically, Detroit reached their apex with a championship in 2004, helmed by none other than the 2001 Sixers’ coach, Larry Brown. Battered and beaten, the Sixers receded to the middle tier of the conference, resigning themselves to an occasional playoff series win. June 15th, 2001 marks the last vestiges of the franchise’s pinnacle for the previous 30 years.

Twelve days before the Sixers suffered their heartbreak, another franchise lamented a series loss that, unbeknownst to them, would be its last truly relevant NBA moment for the next 15 years. Mired in middling results since the early 90’s, the Milwaukee Bucks finally found competency in the form of their “Big Three”, wily Sam Cassell, first overall pick Glenn Robinson and budding star Ray Allen. Admittedly, today’s “Big Threes” look a tad more intimidating. Yet, they coalesced under George Karl for one inspiring run in the 2001 playoffs, a process wherein they collided with the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals. The victor’s prize: a tussle with a downright destructive playoff team, currently on track for a nonchalant “fo’ fo’ fo” clean sweep through the playoffs.

In the aforementioned Conference Finals, Milwaukee and Philadelphia played each other even through four games, but in the series-hinging game five, Glenn Robinson’s shot from the near baseline rattled off the rim. With that miss went the potential for a Bucks’ close-out game on their home court in game six. Despite pushing the series to seven, Milwaukee bowed out in the final game when Ray Allen went down with an injury. Allen fought valiantly, still scoring 26 points in a losing effort, but Milwaukee’s surprising rise soon became nothing more than an apparition. The team missed the playoffs the next year, and the following year they traded Ray Allen for a half-season of Gary Payton and spare parts. To this day, the franchise has yet to advance past the first-round of the playoffs since that fateful 2001 bout.

Despite their team’s dreary ending in the Finals, fans still regard the 2001 Sixers team with esteem. One fan, adorned in a bright red 76ers sweater, discusses how the team’s legacy survives, but its Finals failure probably cost it a prime spot among the city’s sports pantheon. Another, conveniently wearing an ’01 Sixers Eastern Conference Championship shirt, comments on that season as the Sixers’ first moment of relevancy his whole life.

Milwaukee fans hold the Bucks run in similar esteem. With little else to grab hold of during this 25-year period, these scraps of superiority are scarcities. Both team Twitter accounts promote those runs whenever relevant, trumpeting the what little nostalgia anyone under 30 can really possess for their team. As each franchise moved on from their sole periods of relevancy, that playoff series remained an inflection point that prefaced their collective impending decade of dreariness.

Both teams achieved little since 2001; they have either barely exceeded .500 or fell far below. Their futility speaks for itself. Peering deeper though, the connections between the two franchises are striking, if also depressing given they’ve spent so long in the deserts of NBA anonymity even Moses would be impressed. Philadelphia remained buoyed by Allen Iverson’s presence until partway through the 05–06 season, but after a disharmonious parting, they found themselves in similar gutters as Milwaukee. Since that fateful series, Milwaukee only made the playoffs six out of fifteen times. Philadelphia, only seven times. Of those, Philadelphia made the second round only twice, Milwaukee never.

After the AI trade, both teams only had one or two players selected for the all-star game. Michael Redd for Milwaukee in 2004; Andre Iguodala and Jrue Holiday for Philadelphia. With the exception of 2011–12 and 2012–13 for the Sixers (coincidentally when they had decent records) both teams also ranked in the bottom 10 for average home attendance in the league, including each ranking last in the league once.

Amid those disheartening bonds, their lone bright spots remain flawed playoff teams that were quickly dismantled. Milwaukee’s “season upon a hill” during an impenetrably dark decade was a ragtag, 2010 playoff squad affectionately known as the “Fear the Deer” team that relied on rookie Brandon Jennings, Andrew Bogut and retired fireballer John Salmons. When Andrew Bogut inverted his arm during a dunk attempt after a push by Amare Stoudemire near the end of the regular season, the team seemed doomed against the Atlanta Hawks in the first round. They made it a series, but were eliminated in seven. Some fans contend they would’ve beat Atlanta were it not for Bogut getting hurt. Instead, the season receded into fans’ consciousness as 2001 remained the sterling standard for modern Bucks’ fans. In the 2012 playoffs, Doug Collins’ upstart eight-seed fortuitously advanced after the top-seeded Bulls’ star Derrick Rose suffered another knee injury. The Sixers pushed the Celtics in the next round to seven, but still bowed out with questions about whether that team truly had a future around Andre Iguodala.

In the aftermath of their playoff losses, both teams looked to re-tool and build on the fleeting success of the prior year. In the summer of 2010, Milwaukee re-signed John Salmons and acquired Corey Maggette in an attempt to get to the free throw line more. Two years later, Philadelphia rejiggered a whole host of players in the summer of 2012 by signing Nick Young, Kwame Brown, Royal Ivey and dealing their “franchise player” Andre Iguodala, along with Mo Harkless, Nikola Vucevic and a first-round pick as part of a deal to send Dwight Howard to Los Angeles. Philadelphia received the testy Andrew Bynum and stalwart veteran Jason Richardson in return.

Misplaced optimism turned to bitterness and regret during the season, as both teams fell far short of expectations in their respective years. Milwaukee missed the playoffs as the ninth seed, and wound up dealing away their newly signed Salmons and Maggette merely a year later during a 2011 draft night trade. Bynum would never play for the Sixers in 2012 or ever, and his NBA career washed out amidst humorous bowling jokes. Philadelphia cratered in the interim, beset by injuries and an absent Bynum. They fell to 34–48, just missing the playoffs behind, who else, the Milwaukee Bucks.

The road to nowhere was nearly at a dead end, and both teams underwent changes at the top to usher in new eras behind fresh ownership. Josh Harris, a prominent investor, purchased the 76ers in 2011. Within two years, he installed Sam Hinkie, a Daryl Morey protege, who espoused grandiose designs for a “Process” by which the Sixers would accrue assets to either trade for a superstar, or find one in the draft. In 2014, longtime owner and local businessman Herb Kohl sold the Milwaukee Bucks franchise to Wes Edens and Marc Lasry, two New York hedge fund owners interested in purchasing one of the world’s most exclusive products. The reclamation projects began in earnest for the cities. In 2015, both clubs even installed a new look. Updated jerseys discarded their staid mid-aughts performances, while instead paying homage to their heydays. Modernized aesthetics and logos felt like a fresh start, born anew amid a conscious effort for growth, new direction, and merchandise dollars.

Examining both teams since their post-Millenium peak, there remain a bevy of similarities. Granted they’re not presidential assassination conspiratorial similarities, but likenesses all the same. Still, in a league where only eight out of 30 teams have won the championship these past 16 seasons, what makes the tendrils between these two teams special? What separates them today from the throes of a downtrodden Sacramento, a recently resurgent Toronto, or a mediocrity-mired Charlotte? The answer is simple: a pair of young, similarly freakish basketball savants.

Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo are products of circumstance. Borne out of happy accidents in their native countries, people discovered both players in the same incidental way they might spot a quarter on the sidewalk. Embiid stumbled into basketball due to a single move he performed at Luc Richard Mbah a Moute’s basketball camp, as profiled in this Lee Jenkins piece. Were he to not attend, or even look pedestrian — a very real possibility given his lack of exposure to the game — Embiid admits he’d be in France playing volleyball right now rather than carrying the Sixers every night. Antetokounmpo’s story remains fit for a Horatio Alger hero. Selling fruit and trinkets in the streets beneath the Acropolis to make ends-meet, Giannis often played soccer with his brothers and friends in the street. A coach happened upon him, and, noticing his alien build, invited him to play basketball. His yarn unfolded and he rose up draft boards in advance of the 2013 draft before Milwaukee chose him 15th overall.

Both are lucky to be in the NBA, relying on the good fortune of “right time, right place” and their God-given physical gifts. If their origin stories are wholly unbelievable, their on-court emergence is similarly enrapturing for a group of fans long stuck in the muck of indifference. For the first time in awhile, they had something to cheer for beyond just a playoff berth or a random January win: hope.

Embiid is a 7'2" center, graced with the fluidity of a swan and the body of a rhino. His career thus far is defined by the idea of Embiid, coupled with an occasional rankling about his work ethic. Now though, he’s taking the abstract and slowly reminding folks why he was a consensus number one pick before the 2014 draft. He flings from three suavely while pump-faking and shimmying into the lane with an ease no one his size has any right doing. Having missed two seasons with a foot injury, his physical concerns will inevitably haunt him until he’s played multiple seasons without a minutes restriction or set back. His Per-36 numbers this season are remarkable: 28 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.1 steal and 3.3 blocks. That’s a franchise player.

Giannis is Milwaukee’s own surrogate savior. He inspires deistic praise from his supporters. His boundless potential is matched only by his seemingly endless enthusiasm for the game. “Look upon my works ye mighty.” Indeed, Giannimandias wouldn’t be an out-of-place nickname for him among the basketball squalor that’s been Milwaukee. After glimpses of greatness the past few years, he’s started to put it all together this season, and is leading the Bucks team in points, assists, rebounds, steals, and blocks. That’s only been done by four players ever: Dave Cowens, Scottie Pippen, Kevin Garnett and Lebron James. That’s a franchise player.

Their ardent support and ceaseless highlights across Twitter accentuate the fervent passion with which people follow their development. As the aforementioned red-sweatered Sixers fan said on Embiid, “I think he’s gonna be the next star in this city.” Poll any Milwaukee fan, and they’re sure to say the same about Giannis.

For fanbases who’ve looked to anoint middling stars or those better served in support roles like Michael Redd, Andre Iguodala or *gulp* Brandon Jennings, Giannis and Embiid’s ascencion is like a faithful touchstone used to reinvigorate fanbases. Both teams are aiming for an eventual championship, their ownership has been emphatic in delivering that message. While they laid the groundwork far differently, their lofty hopes still rely on two genetically impossible players, who may have never even played the game of basketball were it not for happy accidents.

There are innumerable connections between NBA franchises. Coaches are fired and wind up at another job within a month. Players are traded like Pokemon cards. General Managers fail in one organization and thrive in another. An FBI investigation board into the NBA’s connections would look like an overflowing mass of spaghetti. Yet, the faint trail of disappointment that’s tied these hapless teams since their collision in the 2001 East finals is undeniable.

It’s been a sixteen year rebuilding process for Milwaukee and Philadelphia, and it remains ongoing. This is a rebirth though. The blossoming of optimism anew for long-dormant fanbases. Envisioning a reality that touches the heights of that 2000–01 season has felt like a fever dream for over a decade. Now, the symptoms are starting to wane. Blurry eyes clear, and the path forward looks less prickly and more pristine. It doesn’t take much squinting to see potential playoff clashes between the two franchises in the future.

A 7'2" basketball behemoth picks shots out of the air like they’re blackberries. Despite his minutes limit, the occasional glimpses are all Philadelphia fans need to sustain themselves. Meanwhile, in Milwaukee, a 6'11" long-armed leviathan fakes one way before euro-stepping five feet across the lane, laying the ball in soft, as if it’s a precious artifact. The ball is a pebble in the maw of his footlong mitts. Previously unthinkable feats of athleticism are commonplace now for these two. Their exploits are simultaneously redefining their positions on the court and their fanbases’ expectations. Slowly, the apathy of the previous decade is starting to recede.

When Milwaukee and Philadelphia tip off later today, they’ll play their 54th game against one another since the 2000–01 season. What’s more, the results of the prior matchups are a reflection of their conjoined inadequacy: Milwaukee leads that series 27-26. Mediocrity, it appears, doesn’t wash off so easily.