First it is just the blacktop. And you are close enough to breathe it in, out there, at that age. Then you move on to grade school, and someone just got taller. A few thousand free throws later you are trying out for varsity. Letters come in from colleges, if you are lucky, and so good. Draft night is tense.
All along the way, however far you made it, dreams of playing for your hometown team. Yet a Milwaukeean has never played for the Bucks.
The state of Wisconsin has produced more than a few dozen NBA players though, including All-Stars, like Nick Van Exel, and NBA champions, like Fred Brown.
So, how does Wisconsin rate as a basketball-producing state relative to the rest of the country?
Well, the 41 Wisconsinites (defined strictly as those born in the state) to have played in the NBA makes Wisconsin the 21st (tied) most fertile NBA state. The other state with 41 natives is neighboring Minnesota. Wisconsin ranks as the 20th most populous state while Minnesota ranks 21st, so in that sense, these numbers follow logically.
New York earns its reputation as the hotbed of basketball.
The state has produced 297 NBA players, second most overall behind California (329), and more than a hundred in front of third-place Pennsylvania (171). And though New York is home to roughly six million fewer people than Texas (133), it has produced more than twice as many NBA players. Despite an almost identical population to Florida, New York (297) has produced 203 more players than Florida (94).
Meanwhile, the Pelican State stands out as one of the most impressive relative to its population. Louisiana (100) is tied for 11th in producing NBA players despite being only the 25th most populous.
No city in Wisconsin has produced more than four NBA players. Except Milwaukee, which has produced 16. Milwaukee is also proud to boast a pair of brothers, Carl Landry and Marcus Landry.
Racine ranks second among cities in Wisconsin, with four players, including Caron Butler. The only other cities to have produced multiple players are Madison (2), Kenosha (2), and Wauwatosa (2).
The cities with the smallest current population on this list are Valders, birthplace of Logan Vander Velden, and Owen, home to Brian Brunkhorst. Both cities (Valders is actually a village) are currently home to roughly 1,000 people.
Three Wisconsinites have played for the Bucks, and three only: Reece Gaines (Madison), Tony Smith (Wauwatosa), and Joe Wolf (Kohler).
Gene Englund retired before the Milwaukee Bucks existed. Almost two full decades, in fact.
On December 6, 1949, Englund became the first Wisconsinite to play in the NBA.
Born on October 21, 1917 in Kenosha, Englund split 46 games between the Celtics and Tri-City Blackhawks during the 1949-50 NBA. England is listed as a forward/center on his profile, and he is also listed at 6-5 and 205 pounds. Which is to say, Englund closely resembled in stature Doron Lamb (6-4, 210 pounds), rookie shooting guard for the Bucks. He made it work in his day, though. Englund was 32 years old by the time he made it to the NBA, as he spent the bulk of his prime years in the National Basketball League, a predecessor to the NBA. Still he lives on in state lore, particularly since he helped lead the Wisconsin Badgers to their only National Championship in 1940-41.
Bud Grant is known best as a Pro Football Hall of Fame head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. He also played defensive end and wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles. Prior to all of that however, Grant became the second Wisconsinite to play in the NBA. The multi-sport star played for the Minneapolis Lakers for two seasons and won an NBA championship as a rookie on a team that featured George Mikan.
Grant, now 85 years old, hails from Superior, Wisconsin. Not only is Grant the only Superior native to play in the NBA, he is the only player born within 135 miles of Superior. Chuck Mencel, who happens to be the third ever Wisconsinite to play in the NBA, was born in Phillips, the next most northern city in Wisconsin to produce an NBA player.
The most recent Wisconsinites to debut are Jerry Smith and Greg Stiemsma, both of whom played for the first time last season, in 2012. Smith hails from Wauwatosa while Stiemsma comes from the small village of Randolph. The two players became the first Wisconsinites to arrive in the NBA since Marcus Landry in 2010.
Sometimes, the smaller players make the bigger impressions. The top five scorers (judging by points per game during a career) from Wisconsin are all guards: Latrell Sprewell (18.3), Caron Butler (16.1), Fred Brown (14.6), Nick Van Exel (14.4), and Devin Harris (13.1). And guard Terry Porter (12.2) ranks second in point scored overall (15,586). Each of them hails from southeastern Wisconsin, with Sprewell, Brown, Harris, and Porter from Milwaukee, Butler from Racine, and Van Exel from Kenosha.
Then again, if we know anything in 2012 we know that points per game is not the only measure of success or productivity. And Wisconsin has indeed produced some impressive post players, including Carl Landry and Jim Chones.
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Then who is the best basketball player ever to rise up from Wisconsin?
Someone might answer Van Exel, quickly. Maybe it is Sprewell, the most prolific scorer, or Brown, who was both an All-Star and an NBA champion. Maybe it is the steady Porter, who played more NBA games than any other Wisconsinite, or Harris, who is still making his case.
Or maybe he is still rising. Maybe he is that kid starting second grade next week, just a few feet higher than the blacktop itself, the first Milwaukeean to play for the Bucks.