Bucks fever: Eau Claire fans gear up for Game 6 of NBA Finals

·5 min read

Jul. 20—EAU CLAIRE — Isaac O'Donnell called it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Andy Salter characterized it as a chance to be part of Wisconsin sports history.

The two Eau Claire buddies were talking about their plans to attend today's pivotal Game 6 of the NBA Finals at Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee.

With the Milwaukee Bucks holding a 3-2 lead over the Phoenix Suns in the best-of-seven series, the Bucks have the potential to win the franchise's first NBA title since 1971.

"I can't wait. The whole city is going to be electric," O'Donnell said, referring to the sold-out game and the tens of thousands of fans expected to flock to the Deer District outside the Bucks' arena in hopes of celebrating the team's second world championship since the team was founded in 1968.

The Bucks announced Monday they are expanding the Deer District to accommodate up to 65,000 people, equivalent to nearly the entire population of Eau Claire.

O'Donnell and Salter, who watch every Bucks game they can on TV, bought a pair of tickets for Game 6 on Friday night — the day before the Bucks earned the opportunity to close out the series at home by defeating the Suns in Phoenix. It was the Bucks' third straight victory in the series after losing the opening two games in Phoenix.

"We knew the prices were going to skyrocket if they won, so we took a chance on them pulling it off and winning in Phoenix," said Salter, who plans to be wearing a Bucks T-shirt and hat and making plenty of noise when the game tips off at 8 tonight.

He has no regrets about the investment, calling it a huge moment for the team, the city of Milwaukee and the entire state.

"I'm pretty excited," Salter said Monday shortly after getting off work. "All I could think about when I left work today is how lucky I am to be going to the game. It's going to be a crazy atmosphere and the whole town will be going nuts."

UW-Eau Claire graduate Danny Schoen, a lifelong Bucks fan who grew up in the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield, may not have a ticket to the game, but that won't stop him from getting in on the celebration by heading to the Deer District today with friends.

"It's extremely exciting that a small market team like the Milwaukee Bucks has a chance to take home the trophy tomorrow night," Schoen, now of Eau Claire, said Monday.

Schoen said he particularly appreciates that Bucks stars Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday are community-minded and great role models on and off the court.

Seeing the Bucks win a title would be especially sweet this year, Schoen said, after some national sports announcers complained earlier about possibly having to travel to a "terrible city" such as Milwaukee.

"It's time to show them how great our city has grown and prove what awesome fans we have," he said. "I will be at the Deer District supporting, and all I have left to say is Bucks in 6!"

Salter and O'Donnell both expressed confidence the Bucks would claim the title tonight, with O'Donnell predicting a double-digit win even though the team lost the last playoff game he attended — Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals four weeks ago against the Atlanta Hawks .

"I really think they're going to win it all Tuesday night," Salter said Monday. "They have a great group of guys, and it's not always the same guy who leads them. It's going to be a really special night."

Both men said they have been avid Bucks fans for a long time, with Salter recalling listening to games on the radio as a kid in years his family didn't have cable and O'Donnell saying he watched games "even when they were bad" and many Wisconsin sports fans weren't paying attention.

The team's recent rise to prominence under the leadership of two-time MVP Antetokounmpo has been a thrill for long-suffering fans, O'Donnell said.

"It's been great to watch. It's amazing," said O'Donnell, who plans to wear his Giannis jersey and a Bucks hat to tonight's game.

O'Donnell, 32, was shopping for more Bucks gear with his girlfriend, Jamie Allen, and 5-year-old daughter, Raelynn, Monday afternoon at Scheels in Eau Claire.

The local Scheels has enjoyed strong sales of Bucks merchandise, including 2021 NBA Finals gear, as the team has made its playoff run but still has a plentiful selection of hats, shirts, jerseys and other items displaying the Bucks logo.

"We have had a ton of traffic," said Katie Solfest, pro license shop manager at Scheels. "There are just so many excited fans coming through."

After selling out of Giannis jerseys earlier, the Eau Claire Scheels was able to restock by pulling more No. 34 jerseys from other stores.

"We're just fighting to get any product with Bucks on it right now," Solfest said, noting that tentative plans call for having staff drive to Milwaukee to pick up "NBA Champs" merchandise if the Bucks win tonight instead of waiting for goods to be shipped.

Likewise, Eau Claire sports bars are riding the Bucks playoff wave as well.

"We've definitely seen a surge of people coming out to watch Bucks games since we hit the playoffs," said Mike Brun, weekend manager at The District Pub & Grill in downtown.

The District, which has 14 TVs, started putting the sound on for games once the playoffs started.

"The excitement has really ramped up. It's been pretty loud in here with people really hooting and hollering, especially Saturday night," Brun said, referring to the Bucks' last-minute victory in Game 5.

He expects a good turnout again tonight even though it's a weekday.

"If the Bucks do clinch it in six," Brun said, "I think it will be a pretty eventful evening in downtown Eau Claire."

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