The NBA Playoffs are in full gear. This is the time everyone calls, “the REAL season.” Rotations are shortened. The game slows down and gets tougher. Players flip a switch and find that extra gear, all for the chance to be the ones to raise the trophy in the end.
The Playoffs are also the time when fans are more engaged. Fans also bring their A-games. Whether it’s through analysis, memes or straight-up fanaticism, there’s always something to see outside the game.
That’s why SLAM PH is telling the stories of several playoff teams through the lens of some of their loyal Filipino fans. Distance, background and nationality don’t matter when it comes to NBA Playoff basketball. These Pinoy fans speak up and give their honest outlook for their respective teams in this year’s Playoffs.
During the 2017 NBA Playoffs, Franco Luna hadn’t been a hardcore fan of any NBA team yet. He found the Splash Brothers entertaining, but his liking for them was just casual. He was just like most casual NBA fans. He’d roam on Twitter when there were games, while watching the occasional livestream when he had time.
On April 16, Franco suddenly found himself with some time. It was the start of the first round series between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Toronto Raptors, with the Raptors holding home court. He didn’t come into the game with much expectations. At that point, all he wanted was to kill some time and watch two teams from the East slug it out.
“I went into that game knowing nothing about them,” said Franco when asked about Milwaukee then. All they were was just another NBA team who happened to be playing in the postseason. 24 minutes later, that all changed.
“I watched that game, and by the second half, I was a fan,” said Franco.
The Bucks ultimately upset the Raptors in that game 97-83 with Giannis Antetokounmpo putting up 28 big points to lead the underdogs. For NBA Twitter, this was an exciting development that tickled their interests, like seeing a girl at a party and finding her attractive enough to be her crush.
For Franco, however, the Bucks didn’t emerge as just some crush he’d giggle over with friends. He thought this was it, the one true love he lacked with his NBA fandom.
Given that win, and the circumstance they were in, it was easy to fall for Milwaukee. It started with Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was starting to realize the sheer potential of his powers and in the process captured the imagination of basketball fans. Mix in this potentially transcendental talent with a decent supporting cast and one could see a clear, linear direction towards success.
It was easy to call Franco a prisoner of the moment then, but he had all the reason to fall for this team.
More than sheer basketball potential, however, what pulls fans towards particular entities are values. What Franco saw in the Bucks was something we’ve been used to hearing. “In those first two games, they showed so much heart,” said Franco.
The Bucks ended up losing Game 2 by just six points against the Raptors, but their defiance as a group was evident. Were they inexperienced? Yes. Were the odds they were facing against them? Absolutely. But the Bucks didn’t care. From Game 1 to getting bounced out of the first round during Game 6, they were defiant.
The Bucks’ defiance can be perfectly captured in a hashtag: #BucksInSix.
It was first coined by Brandon Jennings during the 2013 NBA Playoffs, as they were set to face the LeBron James-led Miami Heat in the first round of the playoffs. “I’m real confident,” Jennings said. “I’m sure everybody is writing us off but but I see us winning the series in six.”
They ended up getting swept, but it was a statement that lived on in the hearts of Milwaukee residents. It may have been brash, ridiculous, maybe even crazy, but it was the perfect statement that captured their dreams as a fandom.
But then, that linear direction Franco and the rest of NBA Twitter saw during the 2017 Playoffs vanished. The Bucks struggled during the 2018 season, failing to build off what they achieved the previous year. It was like that moment where after months of liking this crush, you suddenly realize, teka, ito lang yun?
He expected more than just excitement and thrill. He wanted more, but it looked like the Bucks didn’t have what it took to satisfy that desire. It was easy to understand if Franco let go there and then. Instead, he went against the grain, like how the Bucks have.
“There were enough ups to keep me interested,” recalled Franco. He continued to rave about Giannis’ growth from spelling bee question to legitimate MVP candidate. As criticized as they were, Franco believed Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Eric Bledsoe, and even DJ Wilson were pieces made for championship glory.
“I think it’s their character. They were built to win,” Franco said. No one would have thought this team of this way then, as they fired Jason Kidd and elevated Joe Prunty as the team’s head coach midseason. But Franco remained defiant. This wasn’t just some crush anymore. #BucksInSix was fully ingrained in his heart.
It was so ingrained, in fact, that the team helped him out with his personal life. “They’re the team that got me over a break-up,” recalled Franco. “Seeing them win, the happiness that it brought me, it gave me a certain boost. It brought me motivation. Motivation in a sense that it gave me something to look forward to.” For fans, those little bits and pieces of success from the Bucks didn’t say much about who they were. For Franco, however, it was everything. On and off the court.
Finally, it seemed like the Bucks were back on the linear direction they were in after the 2017 NBA Playoffs. On May 17, 2018, they hired Mike Budenholzer as their new head coach, whose system gave birth to promise once again within Bucks fandom. This was another bit of hope fueled Franco’s interest. Little did he know, it would be the leap he’s dreamt of ever since day 1.
From the get go, the Bucks emerged as a championship level team. Antetokounmpo looked primed to win an MVP. Middleton and Bledose finally looked worthy of the hype that was being attached to their name. Splash Mountain Brook Lopez found the perfect home for him. They finished the season with a league-best 60 wins and had home court advantage clinched throughout the playoffs, Franco could confidently say, “The Bucks are for real.”
However, some casual fans still don’t feel the same way, citing inexperience and lack of a proven finisher in the clutch as the team’s primary problems. The Greek Freak has been terrific, but critics slammed his lack of shooting as reason to be skeptics of his ability to deliver when the game is on the line. For fans, Giannis was the Bucks. This clearly frustrated Franco as a fan. “They’re a small market team. Coverage of them is pretty ass,” he said. “The best team in the league, and the people only know about Giannis.”
Yet, despite his strong feelings, he knows the lack of attention and doubt on the team is part of who they are. “I think the Bucks are a very humble team. That’s one thing I appreciate about them. They know where they came from,” said Franco.
Honestly speaking, where they came from was confusing, painful, and even quite dark. There was struggle. It was messy. For fnas, letting go and giving up seemed like better options. Yet, the fandom didn’t let go. Franco didn’t let go. The mantra they’ve put to heart for so long now, #BucksInSix, was always there to fuel them when the going got tough.
In all things, the Bucks always had “A belief that they can win, that they’re special,” according to Franco. The tools were there, it was only a matter of it materializing to actual results. The time is now. The Bucks are a 60 win team, moving past the first round for the first time since 2001.
Coming into the Bucks’ second round clash with Boston, I ask Franco about their chances. Afterwards, I ask him about potentially facing Philadelphia or Toronto. Of course, the elephant in the room is a potential duel with the Golden State Warriors.
His belief, just like the Bucks themselves as a team, remain unchanged. He expects a championship, and he says that without laughing. He’s dead serious.
“I expect nothing less,” said Franco. “Bucks in six, always.”
Photos from the author and Getty Images