Where does the Bucks loss rank in the history of crushing Wisconsin sports moments? (2023)

Yes, we have to ask. Is the Milwaukee Bucks' stunning five-game loss to the Miami Heat in the first round of the NBA playoffs the most crushing lowlight in Wisconsin sports history?

Even through the lens of recency bias, it's hard to say definitively "yes," but it certainly will take its place in the pantheon. On Wednesday, the Heat came back from 16 points down after the third quarterthe largest fourth-quarter comeback in a clinching performance in NBA playoff history. And in the process, the Bucks became the first No. 1 seed in the era of seven-game first round series to lose in five games or fewer to a No. 8.

At the very least, it's a top-10 Wisconsin sports setback, but there are certainly many options to choose from. This isn’t to say that Wisconsin sports fans are uniquely beleaguered, although it feels like it at times. The Packers’ four Super Bowl wins are occasionally overshadowed by the haunting near-misses, perhaps unfairly. The Bucks won the 2021 championship, so that maybe gives them a pass, though the Bucks and Brewers (and Milwaukee Braves before them) only account for six total trips to the championship series (World Series or NBA Finals) in 122 combined seasons, with three wins.

There are different types of heartbreak, too, like a mistake on the doorstep of playing for (or winning) a championship vs. an early-round exit after a regular season that suggested much, much bigger things. Wisconsin fans have experienced both.

Where do you rank the heartbreak on this list?

10. Fourth and 26

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The phrase itself brings heartburn to Packers fans. On Jan. 11, 2004, the Packers had all but wrapped up a win that would have put them into the NFC Championship Game, but Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb found Freddie Mitchell from the infamous down and distance with 1:12 to go and no timeouts, a 28-yard connection that enabled a game-tying field goal from David Akers and forced overtime. In the extra session, a Brett Favre interception set up another Akers field goal that put the Eagles into the next round, where they fell to the Carolina Panthers.

Why it hurts: How do you allow a 4th-and-26 conversion? The top-seeded Eagles fell the next week to third-seeded Carolina, 14-3, and the Panthers in turn lost to New England in the Super Bowl, 32-29.

Silver lining: The Packers had stunned Seattle the week before thanks to the famous Al Harris pick-six and only got into the playoffs thanks to an iconic catch by Arizona's Nate Poole to eliminate the Vikings, so perhaps they were playing with house money.

9.The Brewers in the 2018 NLCS

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There was plenty to like about this postseason run, but to finish one win shy of the franchise’s first World Series in 36years is a tough pill to swallow. Milwaukee won on Oct. 19 in Game 6 to force the seventh game, but Milwaukee could never get the bats going despite a first-inning homer by MVP Christian Yelich in Game 7.The Dodgers scored twice in the second and three more on a Yasiel Puig home run in the sixth en route to a 5-1 win.

Why it hurts: Game 7, at home, World Series on the line. So close to that elusive second franchise World Series, and yet so far away. Yelich, who was unstoppable again in 2019, suffered a late-season injury that year and couldn't play in the wild-card game (another heartbreaking loss), then wasn't able to replicate his success in subsequent years. It's a chance the Brewers might not get back for years.

Silver lining: It was still a thrilling season, Yelich won MVP and the Brewers started a run of four straight postseasons, though none ended with a series win.

8. The Bucks in the 2001 Eastern Conference finals

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The 2021 team has probably dulled this ache to some degree, but for years, this town couldn't stop talking about the 2001 team. Not only did Milwaukee lose in a seventh game of the conference finals, it did so without Scott Williams, who was having a great series but was suspended for the final game against the Philadelphia 76ers after a controversial ruling by the league office. Philly finished off the Bucks on June 3, 108-91, and Milwaukee’s spiral just continued from there, with ill-fated acquisitions of Anthony Mason and Gary Payton in the years to come. It would be 18 years before Milwaukee returned to the conference finals.

Why it hurts: Right or wrong, the feeling that greater forces conspired against the Bucks has been baked into how Milwaukee fans view all their sports and their small-market status. The Los Angeles Lakers, the team waiting in the finals, had fallen to the Bucks twice in the regular season. The Bucks also didn't win another playoff series for 18 years.

Silver lining: Were the Bucks really going to beat that Kobe and Shaq Lakers squad in the finals? It would have been nice to at least get a shot, but you could take the view that Milwaukee landed about where it should have as the No. 2 seed in the East.

7. The Packers in Super Bowl XXXII

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Like the aforementioned baseball example, Packers fans may have still been pleased with recent successes, having won the previous year’s Super Bowl. But the Packers were heavily favored to defeat the Denver Broncos on Jan. 25, 1998, and it just didn’t happen. John Elway obtained the Lombardi Trophy that had eluded him, and Terrell Davis scored a go-ahead touchdown with 1:45 left to cap a 157-yard rushing performance that sent the Packers to a 31-24 defeat. It’s still arguably one of the top-five biggest Super Bowl upsets in history.

Why it hurts: A monumental upset that served as a springboard for John Elway to cap his career with back-to-back Super Bowls, perhaps a two-time honor that Packers fans believe should have belonged to Brett Favre. Green Bay didn't get back to a Super Bowl for 13 years.

Silver lining: The Packers did just win the previous Super Bowl, so Green Bay doesn't leave the era empty-handed.

6. Wisconsin in the 2015 NCAA championship game

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Those still smarting from the Packers' 2015 collapse had a new reason to ache just months later. The Wisconsin men’s basketball team reached the NCAA championship game but took a controversial loss against Duke, 68-63. A ball knocked out of bounds with 1:53 left was initially awarded to Wisconsin, then reversed to Duke after a replay review, even though video evidence suggested that the ball was indeed off Duke. Wisconsin led with 13 minutes to go by nine points. While the final was painful, it’s also fair to remember the tournament run as a successful one for Wisconsin, which knocked off undefeated Kentucky in the national semifinal.

Why it hurts: The Badgers program simply isn't one that you'd expect to routinely compete for championships, and this once-in-a-generation group had just gone to back-to-back Final Fours without that crown. Also, Justise touched it.

Silver lining: The defeat of Kentucky in the national semifinal avenged a loss to UK in the previous year's semifinal and counts as one of the bigger upsets and high-profile tournament games this century.

5. The Bucks in the 1974 NBA Finals

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Milwaukee was dominant in winning the 1971 title and it was rampaging through the playoffs in 1974, winning the first two rounds with a combined record of 8-1. Boston took a 3-2 lead in the NBA Finals with a Game 5 win at the MECCA, but Milwaukee came back home with a thrilling 102-101 win in Boston in double overtime, capped by amemorable Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sky hook with 3 seconds left. But Dave Cowens scored 28 points in Game 7 on May 12, 1974, and Boston toppled the Bucks, 102-87, to win the championship.

Why it hurts: Milwaukee had a chance to win a championship in its city for the first time (the 1957 Brewers and 1971 Bucks clinched on the road) and couldn't finish the deal. It was also the end of an era, with Oscar Robertson retiring after the season and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar playing just one more year before informing the Bucks he wanted to play elsewhere.

Silver lining: As with the Bucks this year or Packers misfires in 1997 and 2011, the franchise did have a championship in its recent past. Kareem played only six seasons in Milwaukee and reached two NBA Finals, which was probably a wealth of riches that Milwaukee fans couldn't fully appreciate, given the infancy of the franchise.

4. The Brewers in the1982 World Series

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On Oct. 17, 1982, Milwaukee’s Bob McClure worked out of a jam in the ninth inning at County Stadium, locking down a win and giving the Brewers a 3-2 lead in the World Series. For the moment, the Brewers wereone win away from their first World Series title. But three days later, that dream was over. The series shifted back to St. Louis, where the Cardinals grabbed a 13-1 win and followed up with a 6-3 win in Game 7. St. Louis scored three times in the sixth to grab a 4-3 lead and twice more in the eighth in that final battle.

Why it hurts: History seems to remember the Brewers as the better team but simply not the team that got superlative performances from unheralded players like the Cardinals did. Forty-one years later, the Brewers have still never been back.

Silver lining: Milwaukee rallied around the team anyway, famously throwing a parade and basking in the glow of the accomplishment. The team continues to have a place in the city's heart.

3. Kareem leaves

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The Bucks’ fortunes changed with the flip of a coin before the 1969 NBA Draft, when Milwaukee won a toss that gave it the first pick and a chance to draft transcendent basketball talent Lew Alcindor out of UCLA. He later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and transformed the franchise from expansion team to champion in three years, on his way to becoming the all-time leading scorer in NBA history. For six years, the Bucks could rely on their otherworldly center, but Abdul-Jabbar itched to play on a coast and ultimately expressed a desire to leave the team. Milwaukee made out well in the 1975 trade that sent Abdul-Jabbar to the Los Angeles Lakers — Junior Bridgeman and Brian Winters were among those in the return — but the Bucks simply weren’t the same.

Why it hurts: It tapped into a pretty significant Wisconsin sports-fan dread — that superstar players don’t want to play here (perhaps assuaged since when Giannis Antetokounmpo signed the supermax extension in late 2020). The Bucks also went 47 years between NBA Finals appearances.

Silver lining: At least Abdul-Jabbar was up front about his intentions and let Milwaukee make the best out of a bad situation, even if it didn't lead to any rings. Kareem and the city seem to be on good terms these days, and the 2021 championship surely erased some of the lingering despair.

2. The Packers in the 2014 NFC Championship

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What is it about 16-point advantages disappearing late?

If we’re talking a single playoff outcome, there is simply nothing that compares to the incredible heartbreak of this game on Jan. 18, 2015. The botched onside kick is the visual everyone carries away from the game, but there is so much blame to go around:Ha Ha Clinton-Dix getting lost on a 2-point conversion, Julius Peppers telling Morgan Burnett to take a knee after what could have been a game-clinching interception return, a Seahawks third-and-19 conversion in the third quarter, a fake punt turning into a touchdown and two 35-yard completions in overtime that gave Seattle the 28-22 win. The Packers, who led 16-0 at half and 19-7 early in the fourth quarter, looked ticketed for the Super Bowl and were stunningly left short.

Why it hurts: If you play the fourth quarter over again, do the Packers win 80% of the time? 90%?

Silver lining: Probably not much, other than it prepped Packers fans for the heartbreak of three more conference title-game losses in the years since. You could point to a Super Bowl just four years earlier as some measure of comfort, but this one still crosses Packers' fans minds a lot.

1. The Braves move to Atlanta

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For 13 years, the Braves never had a losing season during their time in Milwaukee, with two trips to the World Series, a championship and a roster full of future Hall of Famers like Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron and Warren Spahn (and in shorter stays, Phil Niekro, Red Schoendienst and Enos Slaughter). But the 1965 season was surely one of the saddest moments in the city’s history, when the club had already reached an agreement to relocate to Atlanta despite the efforts of Bud Selig and others to keep them. Four summers followed with no baseball in town, a demoralizing dormancy that rippled through the community for years (and perhaps still does).

Why it hurts: You thought Kareem leaving was tough for the city's psyche, what about an entire franchise? The Braves, at their best, were the toast of the league. But even when Milwaukee baseball returned, it took nearly a decade to achieve competitiveness, and in 54 seasons, the franchise has been to one World Series (the Braves went back-to-back during their 13-year stay in Milwaukee).

Silver lining: It's been a while now and a new franchise has been in place since 1970, so perhaps time has healed the wound for those who remember it. And maybe it played a small role in early enthusiasm for the Milwaukee Bucks.


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There are more Wisconsin sports downers that belong in the conversation:

  • The abrupt playoff exit for the 15-1 Packers in early 2012.
  • The Brewers' nightmarish eighth inning in a loss during the 2019 wild-card game in Washington.
  • The tragic crane collapse during construction of Miller Park.
  • The Milwaukee Braves’ loss in the 1958 World Series.
  • The Milwaukee Bucks losing a 2-0 series lead against the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals.
  • Brett Favre’s acrimonious departure from the Green Bay Packers.
  • The 2017 Big Ten Championship game loss for Wisconsin that kept the undefeated Badgers out of the College Football Playoff.
  • The NFC Championship loss in overtime to the New York Giants on Jan. 20, 2008, at Lambeau Field.
  • Another NFC Championship loss at Lambeau to Tampa Bay on Jan. 24, 2021, 31-26.
  • The infamous “Fail Mary” loss to Seattle on Sept. 24, 2012.
  • The Brewers’ loss in the 2011 NLCS.
  • Terrell Owens' catch as the San Francisco 49ers defeated the Packers in the 1998playoffs.
  • The Marquette men's basketball team losing in the 1974 NCAA championship game to North Carolina State.

What else makes your list? JR Radcliffe can be reached at (262) 361-9141 or jradcliffe@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JRRadcliffe. Note: many elements of this story first appeared in 2019.

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