MILWAUKEE, Wisconsin — All summer long, Patrick Baldwin Jr. had been impressing his new University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers teammates. He easily shot deep 3-pointers, put the ball between his legs in midair and dunked in workouts for the Horizon League school where his father, Patrick Baldwin Sr., is head coach.
For all of Baldwin Jr.’s talent, however, Vin Baker Jr. still thought two of his teammates had trapped the 6-foot-9 five-star recruit as he dribbled up the court during a pickup game. Baker figured he’d be forced to pass the ball.
He was wrong.
“He did a double, behind-the-back move and finished the layup, pointed at both of the defenders and started to run back on defense,” said Baker, a Boston College transfer and the son of former NBA standout Vin Baker Sr. “That’s when I could really see this kid is good for sure.”
But how does a projected lottery pick — he’s No. 8 in ESPN’s 2022 NBA draft Top 100 — end up at a mid-major school without a winning tradition, over offers from Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky and other powerhouse programs?
As the Milwaukee Bucks marched toward their first NBA title in 50 years, Baldwin Jr. watched their journey on a pair of jumbo screens in the Deer District, the area outside the recently-opened Fiserv Forum. Giannis Antetokounmpo and his teammates turned Milwaukee into a basketball-loving city and validated the dreams of local hoopers when they beat the Phoenix Suns to win their first NBA championship since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar did it in 1971.
While the chance to play for his father sold Baldwin Jr. on Milwaukee, another factor emerged over the last year as he considered his options. Baldwin Jr. began to wonder if he could mimic Antetokounmpo’s success, and carry an underdog to national prominence, too.
“Just seeing him in a small market and seeing how he changed a city like this,” Baldwin Jr. said, “is something that really influenced me to come to [Milwaukee].”
Absent the familial ties, Milwaukee is a nontraditional choice for a young star forward like Baldwin Jr., who averaged 7.7 PPG and 5.0 RPB for the USA Basketball squad that won a gold medal at the FIBA Under-19 Basketball World Cup in Latvia in July. Milwaukee is 47-70 under Baldwin Sr., who hasn’t finished a season over. 500.
The Baldwins believe their pairing will be fruitful, even if it goes against the trend for five-star recruits. The Panthers have reached the postseason just once (2014) in the last 15 years. But the NBA team experienced similar challenges. When Baldwin Sr. accepted the job at Milwaukee in 2017, the Bucks had just suffered their seventh consecutive first-round exit from the playoffs.
Baldwin Jr. was a Chicago Bulls fan then. He’d spent his middle-school years in Chicago watching Derrick Rose and Jimmy Butler while his father was an assistant coach at Northwestern. After the family moved to Milwaukee, however, the Bucks grew on him — mostly because of Giannis, who arrived as a scrawny Greek prospect and evolved into a two-time MVP.
The Baldwins have drawn inspiration from Giannis and the Bucks as they’ve watched them change the narrative of their franchise. They hope they can do the same for this quaint college campus near the Lake Michigan shoreline.
“You definitely notice the transformation of what people are thinking about Milwaukee from a sports perspective,” said Baldwin Sr. “Obviously, Giannis and the Bucks have transformed it even more with winning a championship. … We hope to capture some of that.”
“He’s like a top-five prospect, right?” Milwaukee Bucks power forward Bobby Portis asked, when he heard about Baldwin Jr.
“It’s just cool to hear how he’s taking pride in where he’s from, taking pride in his city, his hometown,” Bucks center Brook Lopez said about Baldwin Jr., “and trying to help make something more out of it.”
Milwaukee (pop. 594,000) is just a giant small town, and its basketball community has always reflected that familiarity. Giannis proved as much when he went live on Instagram from a Chick-fil-A drive-thru the morning after leading the team to the NBA championship. His approachability extends a legacy of Bucks players who’ve blended with their community.
In the 1980s and 1990s, NBA players would show up for pickup games against the locals at Lincoln Park, the most vibrant playground court in the city. On Saturday mornings, former Bucks star Tim Thomas’s Bentley was often parked outside Gee’s Clippers, a popular barbershop frequented by pro athletes in town. And you might see Sam Cassell at a local high school game the night before a key NBA matchup, or bump into Ray Allen at a movie theater. Marked by an inconsistency in the decades following Abdul-Jabbar’s departure in 1975, the Bucks never developed a sense of arrogance or demanded a pedestal. They knew they hadn’t earned that.
Baldwin Jr.’s demeanor fits with the personality of this blue-collar city. He’s a subdued athlete with a confidence he only shows when he’s on the court or beating his teammates in Madden. His life is largely video games, basketball, family and more basketball. He has 34,000 followers on Instagram and only six posts, all related to basketball. When asked how he’d spend a day off, he said he’d probably work out.
With his drive and talent, Baldwin Jr. believes he can still achieve his NBA dreams, despite not playing at a powerhouse school.
“I think that just speaks to the quality of scouting in the NBA: if you’re talented, they’ll go and find you,” Baldwin Jr. said. “At the same time, I’m skeptical too because there haven’t been a lot of guys who are doing what I’m doing. That just pushes me to work even harder because the chips are stacked against me in some sense right now.”
Recent trends in college basketball suggest he’s probably right.
Four players from non-Power 5 schools were picked in the first round of the 2021 NBA draft. The profiles of their schools did not minimize their draft stocks. NBA insiders believe Baldwin’s choice will still give him the opportunity to be properly analyzed, too.
“We’re definitely going to see him and I’ve got two to three of us going to see him practice, and we already have games in November and December on the schedule,” one Eastern Conference executive told ESPN. “He’s in an NBA city and two hours from another one (Chicago). It’s easy to get to him.”
There are other perks of staying home. If Baldwin can lead the Panthers to their second NCAA tournament since 2006, he’ll enjoy the respect of a city that might well follow him throughout his life. Former Milwaukee star Joah Tucker, who scored 32 points against Illinois in 2005 in the program’s only Sweet 16 appearance, said folks here still ask him about that run.
“I think this influences some other kids to maybe stay home and take that step to maybe do what I did and stay in the city and really punch your ticket,” he said, about Baldwin Jr.’s choice. “The possibilities are endless. I’m a made man in Milwaukee after doing what we did and making our run. I still have conversations about it with people at the bank and people I do business with.”
Sometimes, Patrick Baldwin Sr. will stare at the picture.
In the photo, he’s holding up his newborn son at the free-throw line in a gym during his stint as an assistant coach at UW-Green Bay — one of his five stops before he came to Milwaukee.
Baldwin Sr. kept his son close to the game as his career progressed. That was their opportunity to connect. When he was an assistant coach at Loyola from 2004 to 2011, Baldwin Jr. would ask his father to pick him up, so he could dunk. During games, he would come down to the bench and get water for players.
As he grew into a talented young player, Baldwin Jr.’s father taught him the skills that have made him the versatile prospect he is today.
“He’s given me a basketball IQ to the point where there aren’t many players you can put in front of me that I can’t handle,” Baldwin Jr. said. “Someone that I can’t handle? I’ve got to work harder and get better.”
Although he made his pitch to his son early in the recruiting process, Baldwin Sr. backed off as he entered his senior season in high school. Where his son would commit was not a topic at dinner. They didn’t discuss it on walks with their dog or at family outings with his wife and three daughters. And when his son had questions about the other schools that wanted him, Baldwin Sr. played the role of a parent, not an anxious head coach.
Then, months before signing day, he received a text message: Baldwin Jr. had picked Milwaukee. But he still wasn’t convinced his son was sure about his choice.
“I didn’t know what to believe,” Baldwin Sr. said. “I also still didn’t want to press anything with him because this was a tough, tough decision for him to make, and I didn’t want it to be contentious. So I really avoided it and I avoided really talking to him about it.”
But Baldwin Jr. soon signed his letter of intent for his father, who calls his son his “best friend.”
“Pretty much anywhere my dad is coaching,” Baldwin Jr. said, “I’d want to be at.”
The player-coach relationship is new for them, and it could be a one-year experiment if Baldwin Jr. decides to turn pro after his freshman season.
But there’s already proof that their pairing has helped the team. Baldwin Sr. said he can ask his son for insight about the team now, and Baldwin Jr. said his father has already helped him become a better leader.
They are most comfortable together when basketball is involved.
Their joint love for the game has always been at the center of their relationship. Baldwin Sr. has tried to connect with his son through other avenues, but those attempts haven’t been as successful.
“There was a time when I tried something on Xbox with him and I couldn’t understand it,” he said. “I think it was the [NBA 2K] stuff. I had no idea what the controls were.”
Baldwin Jr. added, “I have the Charlotte Hornets, and this is like two years ago, and they have Kemba Walker. I’m going crazy with Kemba. And he had the all-time Lakers: Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Shaq. He had everybody. He had no excuses.”
This season, the supporters of the program might feel the same way. But Baldwin Jr.’s presence has elevated the buzz around the team.
Last year, Milwaukee’s players roamed the city unnoticed. Now, people point at them when they’re at restaurants. On campus, students stop them to tell them about their excitement for the season.
“A lot of our players will go out around the city, just going grocery shopping or just going off to get something to eat, and then they get stopped and people recognize them,” Baldwin Jr. said. “So the city is definitely already showing love.”
His teammates intend to help him substantiate that optimism with results and show the doubters that Baldwin didn’t settle for a lesser program.
“We want to show him and his family that he didn’t make the wrong decision,” said DeAndre Gholston, who averaged a team-high 16.8 PPG last season.
Patrick Baldwin Jr. believes he has the blueprint to lead this team after watching Giannis and the Bucks. The Bucks’ run also seemed unlikely a year ago.
On the collegiate landscape, a middling Horizon League school that hopes to crash the NCAA tournament and go on a run might face similar skepticism, even with Baldwin Jr.’s star power. But that doubt won’t matter to the Panthers.
They live in a city where they’ve seen dreams come true. And they now believe it could happen for them, too.
“With all due respect to the other schools that recruited me, I’ve never been a guy that’s been all about the bright lights,” Baldwin Jr. said. “I still come to play when the lights are on, but I’m not a guy that needs the hype to play well.”