The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Milwaukee can’t stop talking about the Bucks. The team hopes to create a dialogue about race.

The Bucks donated the floor to Gee's Clippers in Milwaukee, a black-owned barbershop that is playing a role in the team's discussions around race in the city. (Lauren Justice for The Washington Post)

MILWAUKEE — There’s a Jewish man getting a haircut in a black-owned barbershop in the nation’s most segregated metropolitan city.

He’s Peter Feigin, president of the NBA’s Milwaukee Bucks, and in the nearly five years of living in the city he has come to Gee’s Clippers so that Gaulien Smith, a black man, can tame his head of thick, brown hair. It’s a small act but part of Feigin’s mission to be an ally to the African American community.

Feigin knows that 36 percent of the black residents here live in poverty. He knows that by the time a black man in Milwaukee reaches his mid-30s, he’s more likely to have gone to prison than to college. Feigin and the Bucks organization also know of the long history of racism in the Milwaukee police force.

In January 2018, this was seen in a visceral way in the arrest of Sterling Brown, who plays for the Bucks. Brown was confronted by Milwaukee officers for parking in a handicap spot at 2 a.m. The interaction escalated, and officers used a Taser on Brown and arrested him. In police body camera footage, one officer was seen stepping on Brown’s ankle.

“I think with Sterling specifically,” Feigin said, “we wanted to support him and empower him to tell his story and kind of put the weight of the entire organization behind the call for more accountability.”

The Bucks have ascended to the top of the Eastern Conference behind MVP favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo, but in a league hailed for its attention to social matters, the Bucks also have emerged as one of the NBA’s most “woke” franchises. After the Brown incident, the team issued a statement in which it condemned the officers’ treatment of their player as “abuse” and described the incident as “shameful” and “inexcusable.” In February, the Bucks held a day-long summit that addressed police-community relations, “Team Up for Change,” co-hosted with the Sacramento Kings.

“We actually feel there’s a responsibility to bring the community together,” Feigin said. “We’ve got this unbelievable advantage to really having a significant cultural brand in an NBA team, and we leverage that to shine the awareness.”

‘The black male is not welcomed’

Whenever he’s in Smith’s chair, Feigin stands out. His laugh carries through the cavernous parlor where sports debates rage and the talk rarely ventures into religion or politics. There’s another reason Feigin’s so noticeable.

“He’s a white dude in a black barbershop,” said Smith, laughing at the obvious. “He talks to damn near the whole space. . . . Everyone knows him.”

Feigin feels as comfortable in a shop where barbers play dominoes during breaks as he would be a mile away inside the offices of Fiserv Forum, the team’s new $524 million arena. That could be because Gee’s is as much a black barbershop mecca on the north side as it is a shrine to the Bucks. Smith, the owner and self-proclaimed biggest Milwaukee homer, designed it that way.

Inside, the hardwood floor resembles the Fiserv Forum court, a gift from the team. When patrons walk in for a $15 haircut — nobody really calls ahead; appointments cost $5 more — they stroll over the cream and green logo, past the glass-encased jerseys on the walls bearing the names DANDRIDGE, REDD and ROBINSON and wait their turn on grimy folding chairs from Bradley Center, which housed the Bucks from 1988 to 2018.

“Anyone who knows me knows I put on for my city,” said Smith, the barber emeritus of the team who estimates he has lined up 500 NBA players. “I’m probably one of the biggest Bucks fans in the city of Milwaukee.”

Gee’s is a refuge for Bucks fans of all hair textures — dense and wavy like Feigin’s or those who favor the smooth and tapered look like Charles McCoy, a regular who is black. But outside its doors, life can be challenging for a person of color in Milwaukee.

"The black male is not welcomed,” said McCoy, a 29-year-old lifelong Milwaukee resident. “He’s not always met with a friendly face.”

According to statistics from a Brookings Institution report, Milwaukee has the “highest black-white segregation” of all metro areas in the nation. A 2013 study by the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee also found that the city owned the highest incarceration rates for black men in America. The ones who escaped the cycle of poverty and imprisonment still face a staggering amount of racism.

For several Bucks players, fame and million-dollar contracts have not shielded them from ugly incidents. In 2015, John Henson, a seven-year veteran with the Bucks, was racially profiled by jewelry store employees in the suburbs outside of Milwaukee. After the employees locked the door on Henson, a 6-foot-11 black man, they called the police.

Jabari Parker, who spent the first three years of his career in Milwaukee, recalled being pulled over too many times to count. Parker, now with the Washington Wizards, remembered one incident in which he parked his convertible in a suburban Wisconsin neighborhood so he could adjust his music, and was later pulled over by an officer who explained she had received a report of suspicious activity.

"But that’s just how it goes, right?” Parker said of the warnings and tickets he received following the traffic stops. “I already draw a lot of attention just because of who I am as a black man in the community where I lived at. Those things don’t align to a lot of people’s beliefs.”

In 2016, the Milwaukee Common Council approved a $5 million payout to settle civil lawsuits brought by 74 African American residents who claimed they were forced to take part in illegal body cavity and strip searches by police officers. That same year, riots broke out in the Sherman Park neighborhood following the fatal police shooting of 23-year-old Sylville Smith.

“I’ve had a lot of people, a ton of people, show me love from the city of Milwaukee. From all walks of life: black, white, Hispanic,” said Brown, the Bucks player who was Tasered and a son of a police officer. “And I’ve had the share of hate come as well.”

Creating a dialogue

Feigin, who became the team’s president in 2014, only knows inclusion.

He was born and raised in the nation’s racial and cultural melting pot, New York City. Every year, Feigin and his twin brother, along with some lifelong friends, play pickup basketball in the Bucks’ practice facility to celebrate the brothers’ birthday. So many nationalities are represented that the game resembles a U.N. summit.

Feigin displayed this perspective as he stood in front of a rotary club in 2016, defending why millions of dollars of taxpayer money was necessary to build a new basketball arena with the hope of bridging the communities.

“Very bluntly, Milwaukee is the most segregated, racist place I’ve ever experienced in my life,” Feigin said of his adopted city, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. “It just is a place that is antiquated. It is in desperate need of repair and has happened for a long, long time.”

Although Feigin’s comments attracted national attention, he now says he did not intend to disparage the city but to advance a dialogue, which may be uncomfortable for some. The Bucks, however, have not been shy in taking responsibility for healing Milwaukee.

After Brown’s arrest, team executives including Feigin worked with new Milwaukee Police Chief Alfonso Morales ahead of the release of the body cam video. Months later, three officers were disciplined for their roles and one was fired for making inappropriate social media posts about the arrest.

“Some of these things happen not under our command,” Morales said. “Yes, we have to fix them. Yes, we’re going to own them. Yes, we’re going to take responsibility for them. But we’re moving forward to really engage with our city.”

Also, following the August 2016 riots in Sherman Park, members of the Bucks’ senior executive staff visited the area while the team held a back-to-school clothing and supplies drive and refurbished an outdoor basketball court in the neighborhood.

“We want to help address social inequalities,” Feigin said. “We’re pretty outspoken about that.”

These conversations have continued during the team’s “Barber Shop Mondays.” Brown, as well as fellow players Malcolm Brogdon and Parker, have taken part in the events held inside local barber shops where African American boys gather for free haircuts and to talk about issues. One of these summits happened in the shop where Feigin gets a taper from the Bucks’ biggest fan.

A source of pride

Smith is brandishing a razor and bragging about his hometown team. As he shaves the head of a longtime client, the man in the chair compares Antetokounmpo’s work ethic and impact on the Bucks to that of a young Michael Jordan. In Gee’s, hyperbole about the Bucks is as common as haircuts.

“I think we’re going to the Finals,” Smith boasted, one-upping his client’s excitement.

The Bucks have become a source of civic pride. After sweeping the Detroit Pistons in the first round of the playoffs — Milwaukee’s first series win since 2001 — Antetokounmpo and his teammates are set for a rematch with the team that eliminated them from last year’s postseason, the Boston Celtics. The Bucks could make the NBA Finals for the first time since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s team lost in 1974. A title would be the franchise’s first since 1971 and second overall. Cream and green have united Milwaukee sports fans, even as many African Americans in Milwaukee have to counter this affection for the hometown team with inner conflicts about their hometown.

“Here is now greatness over here, where we can all still come,” McCoy, a Gee’s client, said of Fiserv Forum. “Even though Milwaukee is segregated, we’re going to all support the Bucks. We’re going to all come to see that new stadium. The Bucks are doing great right now, and I just feel that has overshadowed [the racism].”

Hearing this would delight the loud white guy who comes to Gee’s every three weeks or so.

Every time Feigin walks into the barbershop on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, he’s doing more than getting a cut or promoting the Bucks’ brand. Feigin is stepping over the dividing lines in the city. He hopes all of Milwaukee will follow.

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