Posted Oct 25 2009 3:52PM
GREEN BAY, Wisc. -- The GPS unit tells you you're entering a company town before your eyes or other senses: Lombardi Avenue. Holmgren Way. Bart Starr Drive. You head north on Oneida Avenue until you see the massive Don Hutson Center rise, big as a hangar, to your right; it's the Green Bay Packers' practice facility. Go another block and there it is to your left: Lambeau Field. It looms, in all its lore and majesty and John Facenda-ness, as large over this town, relatively speaking, as that pigskin palace Cowboys owner Jerry Jones built in Dallas.
The idea of two NBA teams rolling in on buses to hoop it up in this place is as incongruous as laying an ice sheet in a cornfield in Iowa, dropping a puck and thinking that they still will come. Wrong sport, wrong spot. At least the Chicago Bulls came in low profile, without Urlachers or Cutlers, and did so on what was a "bye" week for the both the Packers and their hated NFC North rivals to the south.
Still, there is only one reason we all know Green Bay more than Stevens Point, Appleton or Rhinelander. And no, it's no longer for meatpacking. It has everything to do with the pointy, laced ball, not the pebble-grained one, and field goals that never, ever are worth just two points.
"Brett Favre,'' Bulls guard Derrick Rose said, 75 minutes before the NBA preseason game at the impressive Resch Center. Rose, injured in Chicago's first game at Indiana, has been keeping his sore left ankle in a walking boot and wasn't available Saturday, but he made the trek anyway to the vaunted "frozen tundra.'' To be fair, since this was early October, the tundra wasn't quite frozen yet. But the sled dogs were going anyway, so Rose just hopped aboard.
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"Yeah, I know he's in Minnesota now but Brett Favre, that's the honest to God truth, that's the first thing I think of here,'' Rose said. "I think about it being cold. ... It seems like it's a nice place.''
Rose said he never has followed the NFL much, though his family in Chicago is big on the Bears. With Charlie Bell, the Bucks guard who grew up in Flint, Mich., the allegiances were obviously to the Detroit Lions. Until he moved to southeastern Wisconsin. "I've spent five years here in Packerland, and it's starting to wear on me,'' Bell told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week. "My head is starting to turn into a block of cheese. I can't miss a Packer game.''
Lucky for Bell, the NBA schedule will accommodate him; the Bucks play at home on Halloween, then travel to Chicago for a Nov. 3 game. That means he can be planted at Lambeau Field on Nov. 1 for the game in which Favre returns to Green Bay for the first time to face the Packers (Favre won the adrenalized first meeting overall, leading the Minnesota Vikings to a 30-23 victory on Monday Night Football at Minneapolis' Metrodome on Oct. 5). Bell, it turns out, is friends with Green Bay wide receiver Greg Jennings from their days as high school athletes in Michigan (Jennings is from Kalamazoo).
In Green Bay and its surrounding areas, basketbal has been secondary but strong with fans who -- however hearty and outdoorsy, bundled- or brandied-up -- like to watch an occasional game without seeing their breath.
Remember the Sheboygan Red Skins? Not many do, but the Red Skins -- headquartered about 60 miles down the Lake Michigan shoreline from Green Bay -- were one of the NBA's original franchises. They joined in 1949-50 as part of the merger between the National Basketball League (seven teams) and the Basketball Association of America (10 teams) in a new affiliation dubbed the NBA. Their other claim to fame: They played in the NBA's all-time smallest market and tiniest arena.
Sheboygan had gone 250-238 in 13 years in the NBL and won that league's championship in 1943, but it didn't fare nearly as well in what would be its only NBA season; it went 22-40 for coach Ken Suesens. Still, the Red Skins started 7-2 and in January hung an 85-82 defeat on George Mikan, coach John Kundla and the rest of the mighty Minneapolis Lakers at the Sheboygan Municipal Auditorium and Armory before a standing-room-only crowd of 3,800.
A 9-27 finish, however, convinced the team's owners it was overmatched, so it jumped to the fledgling NPBL for 1950-51. That league fizzled after one season. Milwaukee got the NBA from 1951-55 when the Tri-City Blackhawks became the Milwaukee Hawks, then again when the Bucks arrived as an expansion club in 1968. But that's another 60 miles south of Sheboygan.
In 1965, the University of Wisconsin system established a campus in Green Bay and chancellor Edward Weidner enlisted the town's leading sports figure, Packers coach Vince Lombardi, as an athletics adviser. Lombardi encouraged Weidner to stick to soccer and basketball as primary sports (unlike the other schools in the state's public-university system) because of the high cost of college football and, oh yeah, because there wasn't room in Green Bay for a second notable football team. Thus were the UW-Green Bay Phoenix born, a Division I program with some proud traditions of its own.
Most of those came via coach Dick Bennett, who was hired in Green Bay after coaching former NBA All-Star Terry Porter and winning 173 games at UW-Stevens Point. Bennett led the Phoenix to their first NCAA appearance in 1991 with son Tony as point guard and sharpshooter, then went back twice more. The program's greatest moment came in the 1994 tournament when UW-Green Bay upset California in Jason Kidd's final collegiate game. Bennett later moved to Wisconsin, replacing Stan Van Gundy (now head coach of the Orlando Magic) and taking the Badgers to the Final Four in 2000. Besides Tony Bennett, who played 152 games with the Charlotte Hornets from 1992-95, UW-Green Bay produced Logan Vander Valden, a 6-foot-8 forward who spent 15 games with the Clippers in 1995-96 and Jeff Nordgaard, a 6-foot-7 forward who played 13 games for Milwaukee in 1997-98.
In other words, the Packers are the 800-lb. nose tackle among sports in Green Bay, but they aren't the only game in town. An upbeat crowd of 5,642 showed up on Saturday night for what became a 98-86 Bucks victory, sparked by Hakim Warrick's 13 points and eight rebounds and a Milwaukee defense that forced 27 turnovers while limiting the Bulls to 40 percent shooting (24-of-60). There wasn't a lot of blaze-orange or camouflage gear visible in the stands -- those are staples of the outerwear at Lambeau -- but there was plenty of green, plenty of gold and even a little purple: One fan wore a No. 4 Vikings jersey, while displaying a sign celebrating Favre's 40th birthday that night. (Favre, of course, was down in St. Louis with the rest of the Vikings on the eve of a clash with the Rams.)
"This is a good market for us,'' said John Steinmiller, the Bucks' vice president of business operations. Milwaukee used to play at the old Brown County Arena, an outdated, dome-shaped joint that sits between the Resch Center and Lambeau. But this was its first time back in a few years, Steinmiller said. "We need to come here more often.''
That's fine with coach Scott Skiles, whose team began the week with a plane-and-bus itinerary to Mankato, Minn. -- where the Vikings hold their annual training camp. "We've had two long bus rides, which is almost reminiscent of high school or the D League,'' Skiles said. "But we have a lot of new faces and we're trying to come together as a team, so just this tiny amount of -- I don't even want to call it adversity -- but this tiny amount of distraction, going somewhere to play, is something we should be able to deal with.''
Any chance, with the impressive victory, that the Bucks might have turned a few gridiron fans into hardwood faithful? Said Skiles: "I wouldn't go that far.''
Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here.
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