Any athlete from Wisconsin who leaves to play elsewhere, whether in college or the pros, has to face the warped perception other athletes have about our state. When the Portland Trail Blazers drafted me in 1985, the guys on the team had no idea that Wisconsin had major cities. I'm from Milwaukee, but they asked me if I lived on a farm. They thought everyone from the state had a 20-acre spread, woke up early and milked cows, and that all anyone did besides that was eat cheese and drink beer. � I knew what people thought about basketball players from Wisconsin even before I got to the NBA. In 1984 I had just finished my junior season at Wisconsin- Stevens Point, which at that time was an NAIA school, when I got a chance to try out for the Olympic team. The people at the NAIA had pushed to get a player from one of their schools invited to the tryouts, and now I was going to see if I could compete against the players from North Carolina and Duke whom I watched on TV on the weekends.
At that time NAIA basketball wasn't even as big as it is now, but Stevens Point had made the national title game that season and I had been an NAIA All-America, so I thought the Olympic staff might know a little bit about me. Right away I learned that wasn't the case. Bobby Knight, the U.S. team's coach, told me that no one on the selection committee knew anything about me. No one had seen any film on me, and because I was from Wisconsin, they had just assumed I was a big white kid from a farm. It wasn't until the first day of practice that they learned I was black and a guard, and that I could play. There were 100 players at the trials, and I made the initial cut to 16. After another round of tryouts the team was trimmed to 12. The last four cuts were Charles Barkley, John Stockton, Maurice Martin and me.
Growing up, we always admired the people who were able to change the perception others had of Wisconsin. I think that is one of the reasons Marquette coach Al McGuire was so beloved. In the 1970s, when his teams were really successful, basketball at the University of Wisconsin was kind of a joke. The Badgers were cellar-dwellers, and no other college in the state had much of a program either. But then Al started winning at Marquette, and he owned Milwaukee.
It wasn't just that he won; it was the way he won. He brought in kids from New York and Chicago, players like Butch Lee and Dean (the Dream) Meminger and Jerome Whitehead and Bo Ellis. Before Al, Milwaukee was just a place where players made an airline connection to somewhere else. Al changed that.
His success at Marquette made basketball popular across the state. I remember those jerseys his teams wore, the ones that had MARQUETTE spelled out across the bottom, there for all to see because they were designed not to be tucked in. I couldn't afford one of those then, but years later, when I was in college, I found one in a discount bin at a sporting goods store and bought it. Even years later they were cool.
Football is always going to be the No. 1 sport in Wisconsin, but there is more basketball talent coming out of the state now, from Milwaukee in particular. Latrell Sprewell is probably the most famous player, but Caron Butler of the Miami Heat is making a name for himself too. One big reason for the increase is that there are far more places to play basketball in Wisconsin today than when I was a kid.
As the Bucks' new coach, I want our team to get back to the kind of success it had in 1971, when Milwaukee won an NBA title with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson. We can probably learn a thing or two from the example of the Packers. Growing up, the kids in my neighborhood were aware of some of the Bucks—guys like Bob Lanier, Sidney Moncrief and Marques Johnson—but we spent most of our days playing football in the snow. Getting a ticket when the Packers played in County Stadium was the big thing then. We need to build that same excitement for the Bucks.
We also need to let players from around the NBA in on our little secret: Wisconsin has a lot more to offer than cows, cheese and beer.