2021 NBA Finals

'Deer District' brings Finals excitement to the masses in Milwaukee

The gathering place outside of Fiserv Forum will be expanded to hold 65,000 fans for Game 6.

The ‘Deer District’ has been filled with thousands of Bucks fans for every game throughout Milwaukee’s playoff run.

MILWAUKEE – Fans of the Bucks and residents of this city are increasingly in awe of their favorite NBA basketball team, which happens to be one victory away from securing its first championship in a half century.

The team itself, meanwhile, is increasingly in awe of those fans.

“Just having these guys here that really believe in us and trust in us,” Bucks forward Bobby Portis said after Game 3 of the Finals, “and having 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 fans outside just going crazy and having 17,000 inside, it’s just a great time to be a Buck right now and it’s a great time for the city of Milwaukee. It’s real diverse out there. See a lot of people just mingling and being together. I think just us winning and impacting the city has brought the city together.”

“Out there” for the Bucks is getting bigger by the way, as their push to a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven championship series has spread images and words around the globe about Milwaukee, a plucky city tucked next to Lake Michigan in southeastern Wisconsin.

But the “out there” that matters most right now, that has been packed with 20,000 or more cheering and mostly happy people each night the Bucks play, is the “Deer District.” Through the team’s playoff run, game after game, home or away, vast open spaces to the east and south of Fiserv Forum, a.k.a., The House That Giannis Built, have been filled by fans eager to share what for many is a once-in-a-lifetime (so far) experience.

The last time the Bucks were in The Finals, legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson were their stars. Current coach Mike Budenholzer was only four years old. Some of the 2021 players’ parents weren’t even born yet.

Back then, the capacity of the Milwaukee Arena — the hump-backed, 1950s building where the Bucks played from the franchise’s inception in 1968-88 — was 10,938. The deepest into the playoffs Milwaukee ever got during their 30 seasons (1988-2018) playing at the replacement BMO Harris Bradley Center, was the 2001 Eastern Conference finals … which it lost in seven games to Allen Iverson and the Philadelphia 76ers. That stadium held 18,717.

But thanks to the deconstruction of the Bradley Center on the vast city block between the Bucks’ original and current homes, and the plaza to the east, at least double that many people show up for playoff games — even when their favorite team is playing almost 1,500 miles away as it was Saturday for Game 5 of The Finals.

“It’s really created a phenomenon,” Bucks president Peter Feigin told FOX Business News last week. “When we built this arena a little bit over three years ago, we built it to really be a melting pot and a destination. … I think in our wildest dreams we’d never thought we’d build a meeting place that regularly brings 15 to 20,000 people together to watch a game outside and dwarf the group that’s inside.”

Feigin was talking about the Bucks’ home games this season, but even with the team in Phoenix, Fiserv Forum was lit and open for business for an indoor watch party, distinct from the Deer District throngs outdoors.

“What a second quarter!” said Craig Rilling of Milwaukee, after the Bucks outscored Phoenix 43-24 in that period to dig out of an early 16-point hole. “We were getting ready to leave until that.”

He and his friends Dan Small and Bill Morse had paid $10 each to set in the stands and watch the game on the arena’s scoreboard video screens. The scoreboard was lowered closer to the court for better sightlines, with a capacity of about 9,000 fans seated in the lower bowl.

“We were 18, seniors in high school, the last time they went to The Finals,” Small said. “Now we’re on Medicare.”

The ABC game feed was used, with the call by announcers Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson booming through the building. Concession stands ringing the main concourse was open for business, and hip hop and dance music played over the commercials. But with fans seated, snacking, drinking and cheering, the indoor gathering lived up to Feigin’s description as “Milwaukee’s living room.”

Donnell Jackson of Milwaukee rolled his eyes when asked if he had a chance to attend any of the Bucks’ actual playoff games this year. “Not at those ticket prices,” he said. But he wanted to hit the watch party “to be a part of it,” he said. The third-shift employee at Miller Brewing could make it to Game 5 on a Saturday.

Outside, the people who showed up to stand with 25,000 or so of their new best friends watched the game on one of two large projection TVs. The weather was ideal, clear and about 70 degrees, with plenty of bars, food trucks and portable toilets on site. The crowd skewed younger than inside the arena and, in such a block party atmosphere, a little less focused on the game.

The viewing areas were so vast that, when things went the Bucks way on a given play, the cheering near the front of the crowds had a split-second head start on what followed from the rear. The loudest cheers came when ABC featured drone shots of the crowds themselves.

“Well-behaved and no incidents so far,” said an 18-year veteran officer of the Milwaukee Police, working the Deer District for the first time.

“This is more of a get-together out here,” said JaShawn Forester. He and his friend Corey Hannah, recent graduates of Hamilton High School in Milwaukee, had learned that the indoor watch party sold out, but have been regulars outside.

“We need this,” Hannah said of Bucks fans, hungry for an NBA title that could come as soon as Game 6 Tuesday (9 p.m. ET, ABC) at Fiserv Forum. The team announced on Monday that the Deer District will be expanded to accommodate 65,000 fans for Game 6.

Other than the ’71 Bucks triumph, an NCAA basketball championship by nearby Marquette University in 1977, Milwaukee has had to settle for reflected glory of the Green Bay Packers’ Super Bowl and NFL victories 120 miles or so north. Before that, it was the Milwaukee Braves winning the 1957 World Series.

So yeah, it’s been a while.

The Deer District is the next evolutionary step from the Toronto Raptors’ “Jurassic Park” crowds that sprang up spontaneously outside that team’s Scotiabank Arena home during the 2019 postseason. The area outside Fiserv Forum always has been targeted for residential and retail development, but the response to the Bucks run has the organization and the city considering festivals and concerts as other ways to attract people year-round.

As distinct as the two viewing parties were for Game 5, there was a connection and even a little competition going on Saturday night. An overhead shot of the Deer District wildly (and potentially prematurely) celebrating the Bucks’ 123-119 lead with 9.8 seconds left inspired the loudest response of the night inside.

Then it came in stereo, indoors and outdoors, up to and through the final horn: “Bucks in six! Bucks in six!” Within 20 minutes, the plaza largely had emptied out, the parties spilling to Milwaukee’s nearby taverns and clubs. Many of those who had attended hoped to return for one more — not two more — Deer District nights.

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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