GREEN BAY, Wis. – Welcome to Wisconsin, the land of beer, cheese and sports fans whose souls have been crushed.
The latest dumping of salt into a decade-old wound came on Tuesday. With the Milwaukee Bucks leading their Eastern Conference Finals series, 2-1 over the Atlanta Hawks and with the Hawks’ best player, Trae Young, out with an ankle injury, the Bucks were knocking on the door to their long-awaited return to the NBA Finals. Instead, they threw up all over themselves. Then, to add injury to insult, two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo injured his left knee. While he avoided a torn ACL, his season – and the Bucks’ hopes of winning their first championship in 50 years – is probably over.
For Wisconsin sports fans, it’s a new, painful ending to the same old, rotten story. Year after year, one of the state’s major sports team flirts with winning a championship. Year after year, the sporting gods play the role of Lucy and move the ball on poor Charlie Brown.
In football, Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers have played in four NFC Championship Games since winning their last Super Bowl in 2010. In basketball, the Bucks’ one and only NBA championship came in 1971. Arriving in Milwaukee in 1970, the Brewers never have won the World Series. The University of Wisconsin has been a perennial power for almost three decades but never won a national championship. The Wisconsin basketball team hasn’t won a national championship since 1941.
The last decade has been especially cruel. Every year, there are rainbows. At the end of each, rather than a pot of gold, it’s a thunderstorm, pit of rattlesnakes or another spam call about your car’s warranty.
In 2011, the Brewers reached the National League Championship Series. Tied 2-2 against the St. Louis Cardinals, the Brewers were routed in Game 5 and Game 6.
The Wisconsin football team reached the Rose Bowl in 2010, 2011 and 2012 – and lost them all by a combined 15 points.
The Wisconsin basketball team made two unlikely runs to the Final Four. The 2013-14 team lost 74-73 to Kentucky in an epic semifinal clash. Aaron Harrison beat the Badgers with a late 3-pointer.
The Badgers got to the national championship game the following season. They avenged the loss to Kentucky in the semifinals but lost 68-63 to Duke in the championship game. With a 48-39 lead with about 13 minutes to go, Wisconsin appeared on the verge of winning its first national title in more than seven decades but was outscored by 14 points the rest of the way.
Behind Rodgers and a suddenly stingy defense, the 2014 Packers roared into the NFC Championship Game at Seattle. Green Bay led 16-0 at halftime but managed only six points on four first-half takeaways. That set the stage for perhaps the most infamous finish in sports history. Seattle got back into the game by scoring a touchdown on a fake field goal. Then, with Green Bay nursing a 19-14 lead, Brandon Bostick botched the onside kick and Seattle scored the go-ahead touchdown. Rodgers rallied the Packers to overtime but never got the ball in the extra session, with Seattle advancing to the Super Bowl on Russell Wilson’s 35-yard touchdown pass to Jermaine Kearse.
In 2016, the Packers started 4-6 but ran the table to get to the playoffs. However, in the wild-card rout of the Giants, star receiver Jordy Nelson suffered broken ribs. Green Bay limped into the NFC Championship Game at Atlanta and got stomped.
The 2017 Wisconsin football team, powered by star running back Jonathan Taylor and a stingy defense, was on the precipice of making it to the College Football Playoffs. But the undefeated and third-ranked Badgers lost 27-21 to Ohio State in the Big Ten title game.
In 2018, the Brewers were back in the NLCS against the Los Angeles Rodgers. They forced a Game 7 in Milwaukee but Yasiel Puig’s three-run homer off Jeremy Jeffress crushed the Brewers’ chances.
The 2018-19 Bucks not only reached the Eastern Conference Finals but took a 2-0 series lead over the Toronto Raptors. The Raptors, however, swept the next four games en route to winning the NBA Championship.
In 2019, behind first-year coach Matt LaFleur, the Packers made a surprise run to the NFC Championship Game but were embarrassed at the San Francisco 49ers.
The 2019-20 Bucks dominated the NBA until COVID struck. When the season resumed in the Orlando “bubble,” the Bucks couldn’t find their magic. They were routed 4-1 by Miami in the conference semifinals.
In 2020, the Packers rolled to another NFC Championship Game as Rodgers won MVP honors and the team finished No. 1 in the league in scoring to earn home-field advantage for their showdown against Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In a brutal sequence just before halftime, Rodgers threw an interception and Brady found Scotty Miller sprinting away from Kevin King for a touchdown and a 21-10 lead. When Aaron Jones fumbled at the start of the second half, the Packers were staring at a 28-10 hole. Green Bay turned the first of three interceptions by Brady into a touchdown to trail 28-23 but punted on the next two takeaways. Trailing 31-23, LaFleur infamously kicked a field goal rather than keep Rodgers on the field for a fourth-and-goal late in the game. The decision backfired and the Buccaneers ran out the clock.
Afterward, Rodgers said he was “gutted,” acknowledged his uncertain future with the team and thanked reporters in a foreshadowing of the drama that was to come. Meanwhile, two weeks later, Brady won his seventh Super Bowl. Rodgers has been stuck on one for more than a decade.
Recently, Wisconsin has been blessed with three league MVPs. Late last season, Brewers star Christian Yelich fouled a ball off his knee, the fractured kneecap dooming the team’s championship hopes. Worse, after winning NL batting championships and hitting a total of 80 homers in 2018 and 2019, the $188 Million Man is batting .247 with five homers this year. Two-time MVP Antetokounmpo went down in a heap in Tuesday’s Game 4. And three-time MVP Rodgers may or may not be the Packers’ quarterback in 2021.
Somewhere, the sporting gods are enjoying a cold beer and a good laugh at Wisconsinites’ expense. The Bucks, their series tied 2-2, still have a chance against the Hawks. The Brewers, fresh off a sweep of the rival Chicago Cubs, lead the NL Central by six games at the season’s midpoint. So long as Rodgers is on the roster, the Packers are legit contenders.
Yeah, right. For Wisconsin sports fans, every locust is a plague. Every beer is flat. And every ice cube is a Titanic-killing iceberg ready to turn championship hopes into frosty tears.