ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — As a Milwaukee native, Shelby Harris grew up getting used to heartbreak in sports.
The Packers may have won one title with Brett Favre, but it was commonly felt that with that caliber of quarterback — someone who was recently named one of the 10 best quarterbacks of all time — they should have won more.
The Brewers have been to the World Series just once since their founding in 1969, and have won just two postseason series since that 1982 appearance.
And the Bucks? The last time they appeared in the NBA Finals was 1974, and their title drought stretched into a 50th year when 2021 began. The closest they'd gotten to getting back to the Finals came in 2001, when Milwaukee lost a crushing Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals to Philadelphia.
That just so happens to be the first Bucks team that Harris remembers.
"I remember the days when it was Ray Allen, Ervin Johnson — not Magic — you had Glenn Robinson, Tim Thomas," Harris said Wednesday. "I remember all these players. I remember that was the year we lost to … the 76ers in the Eastern Conference Finals in seven — that was in seven games. And I remember they went and beat the Lakers in Game 1 and then they lost the next four. But that's how far it goes back — those teams. Ray Allen, I remember we traded Ray Allen for Gary Payton. It was heartbreaking."
So when the Bucks returned to the NBA Finals after 47 years and beat the Suns to win their first title in half a century, Harris was elated.
"It was special," Harris said. "People waited their whole life for this. People have waited their whole life for this — 50 years."
He can include himself in that group, though he's just 29. And so can teammate Melvin Gordon III, the Broncos' 28-year-old running back from Kenosha, just about an hour's drive from Milwaukee.
During the magical championship run, the two had a clear bond through their vocal support for their Bucks squad.
"It's just because there's not many of us that come from Wisconsin," Harris said. "Most people don't know anything about Wisconsin, so usually when you see someone else from Wisconsin, you stick together. That's how me and Mel were. If you're from Wisconsin, you have an innate love for Wisconsin sports. And we've been around to see how bad we want it. That's the thing that makes the Bucks so much better. We've all been around when we were that bad."
So in the wake of this title, Harris couldn't help but think of the low points that evinced just how far they had come — the playoff heartbreaks or the woeful years, like the 2013-14 regular season when the Bucks had gone a league-worst 15-67.
In the same way, he remembered how far Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo had come in his path. The son of Nigerian immigrants living in Athens, Antetokounmpo did what he could as a child to help his parents make ends meet, including selling watches, bags and sunglasses at the expense of sometimes missing practice and meals. Now, at just 26 years old, Antetokounmpo is a two-time league MVP, a five-time All-Star, a five-time All-NBA selection, a one-time Defensive Player of the Year, an NBA champion and an NBA Finals MVP.
"From selling trinkets on the streets of Greece and to that, that's why I feel like he's the humble player he is," Harris said. "You've got to think about the beginnings. Him and his family had to work for everything they got. Being this great was within his grasp, and all it needed was work. And he went out there and worked. …
"To have the resume that he has at 26 — and the thing about where he was 10 years ago, it's crazy to think about it. To be that low and now to be at the top, it just shows you with hard work you really can achieve anything. Obviously genetics played a role, but the thing is this: He could have just been the lanky kid and, hell, he went out there and he put the work in and now he's an NBA champion."
Antetokounmpo's performance in the Finals was the stuff of sports legend. After hyperextending his knee in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals, there was no guarantee he'd even play, but he when he came out for the series opener, he looked somehow no worse for wear. He went on to average 35.2 points per game in the series and made the kind of plays that define careers and legacies with a last-minute block in Game 4, a game-clinching alley-oop dunk in Game 5 and a 50-point outing to secure the championship in Game 6.
"I think Giannis' performance is one of the all-time great performances in the NBA Finals' history, especially looking back coming off that knee injury," Harris said. "That was so gruesome, and nobody thought he was going to play. And to go from not going to play to putting up that performance, hats off to him."
To Harris, the magnitude of the performance and the championship can't be overstated — especially as a Milwaukee native.
"It was just a special thing to watch," Harris said. "I remember I was watching it, Game 6, on my couch and I was just so … I don't know, I just felt low key like I was playing. You feel so invested and you're so close. And for the Bucks to go out there and force their will and finish it, it was special. It was real special, and I'm so happy for the Bucks, I'm happy for the state of Wisconsin."