MILWAUKEE — When winter sets in, hardy locals know the routine. They shovel the snow from their driveway and walkway, and use a special rake to scrape heavy drifts off their roof. They crack the ice on their sidewalk or risk being responsible if someone slips and falls. They use a spade or shovel to chop away at large, dangerous icicles that dangle from eaves like frozen daggers.
But during his first winter in the city beer made famous, Khris Middleton had a much more fundamental concern.
“I didn’t have a winter coat, and I struggled,” said the Charleston native and current starting small forward for the Milwaukee Bucks. “I thought I had a winter coat. But that was from Charleston, and you realize quickly — that’s not a winter coat.”
That was five years ago, and how things have changed. Middleton and Milwaukee have warmed to each other like a bratwurst and a bun, with the former Porter-Gaud basketball star making a second home for himself in a place far different and far removed from the one where he grew up. Middleton is having his best NBA season, averaging 20.4 points and 5.3 rebounds, and has established himself as a potent running mate to Bucks All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo.
“He’s playing well. He’s older. He’s a seasoned vet,” Bucks center John Henson said of Middleton, 26 years old. “He knows where his shot’s going to come from. He’s playing at an all-time high right now, and we need that going into the playoffs.”
Middleton is so comfortable in Milwaukee that last year he bought a home there, and now has to worry about icicles and snow on the roof like any other local. In 2015 he signed a five-year extension with the Bucks worth $70 million. Injured much of last season, the 6-8 forward returned this year to become the No. 10 scorer in the Eastern Conference and earn a spot in the 35-man pool from which the 2020 Olympic team will be chosen.
But on All-Star weekend, Middleton was not at the game in Los Angeles but at his home on Seabrook Island. The Charleston native likes Milwaukee because the low-key city fits his personality, but thriving in a smaller market — and in the shadow of Antetokounmpo, one of the top players on the planet — has perhaps limited his name recognition outside of the Badger State.
“In the league, the players and coaches, they all know Khris and his talents and what he brings on and off the court,” said his father, James. “But the general public? No. You’d have to be a really serious, serious basketball fan to have an inclination of how productive and efficient he is.”
But Bucks fans, who have watched him score 30 or more points nine times this season, know. His friends and family members back in Charleston know. Administrators and kids with Big Brothers Big Sisters, the beneficiary of much of his charitable work, know. And so do his teammates in the Bucks' locker room at the Bradley Center, the Greek Freak chief among them.
“He’s always there to me,” Antetokounmpo said, when asked how close Middleton was to an All-Star level. “I think Kemba (Walker of Charlotte, who claimed the last position on the East roster) took his spot. But he’s a borderline All-Star.”
‘A very quiet game’
There are patches of snow on the ground outside the Bradley Center for a late-season Friday night game, but inside the old arena Middleton is heating up. He typically plays on the perimeter, where he can often exploit size matchups and free the middle for Antetokounmpo. His length allows him to pass over the top of the defense, and of course, there’s that shooting stroke — on vivid display on a night when he’ll torch the New York Knicks for 30 points.
This is Antetokounmpo’s team, arena and city, plainly evident in the ocean of green and black No. 34 jerseys visible on the Bradley Center concourse, where you can count the jerseys of other players — a few of Jabari Parker, a few of former Bucks great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — on one hand. In the fourth quarter the Bucks go again and again to Antetokounmpo, who delivers on one isolation play after another to seal the victory. As usual, the Greek Freak is the primary topic of conversation afterward, even though Middleton was the top scorer in the game.
“He’s an unsung hero in Milwaukee, in my opinion,” said Porter-Gaud head coach John Pearson. “I can remember two 30-point games that didn’t even get reported by ESPN. … I guess you can sort of gloss over his accolades sometime because of his demeanor.”
When Middleton hits a big shot, the video board at the Bradley Center flashes the word “Kha$h,” backed by images of floating dollar bills and the strains of the O’Jays’ famous “money, money, money” riff. It seems at odds with Middleton’s low-key personality, which doesn’t lend itself to showy or celebratory antics on the court.
“He has a very quiet game,” said his father. “Khris’ game is very quiet, some would say smooth. He’s not very demonstrative on the court, even when he hits a big shot or is feeling good. He doesn’t draw attention to himself with his game or his actions. And playing in a smaller market is a contributing factor to that also.”
Perhaps Middleton would be a bigger name or a bigger star in a larger city, but he likes the fact that he can go out to eat or walk around Milwaukee without causing too much fuss. “Khris has always been a sleeper in everything he’s done,” said his sister Brittney, also his manager. “He’s always had to prove himself.”
That’s also been the case in the NBA. The No. 39 pick of the 2012 draft out of Texas A&M — he said Clemson didn’t actively recruit him, and he didn’t have much interest in playing so close to home at South Carolina — Middleton languished on the bench for one season with the Detroit Pistons before being traded to the Bucks in a four-player deal. Even now, with a big contract and a reputation as an explosive offensive player, that sleeper label remains.
“Definitely so,” Middleton said at the Bucks’ practice facility, across the street from where the team’s new $524 million area is being built. “I feel like I’m right there sometimes as far as my game. But I’m not going to change who I am or what I do. My teammates, they respect the hell out of me. That means more than anything. On the outside, people can say what they want. But at the end of the day, I know how my teammates feel.”
His numbers this season are certainly hard to ignore. Middleton’s scoring and rebounding averages are career-highs, as is his field-goal percentage of 48.6. He’s scored 30 or more points seven times this season, and 40 or more points twice. Only Antetokounmpo has led the Bucks in scoring this season more times than Middleton, who has stayed injury-free after missing most of last season with a torn hamstring.
“This year, I know he was highly motivated to come in and show everyone what he was worth,” Antetokounmpo said. “He’s gotten a lot better, and he’s playing great basketball.”
That much is evident against the Knicks, where Middleton has one of his typically efficient efforts, making 11 of 16 attempts from the field. He’s interviewed afterward on the big screen as player of the game, but his soft-spoken voice is hard to hear over the hubbub of the departing crowd. Afterward the bulk of the media focus is on Giannis, as usual. Just another night for the Bucks’ sleeper.
“The type of numbers he has this season are All-Star caliber numbers, and yet he’s not an All-Star,” said his sister Brittney. “He’s not a household name, I understand that. But I feel like he is at that elite level. … If he’s having good numbers this year, maybe he’ll have better numbers next year, and that’s when people will wake up and realize who Khris Middleton is.”
‘This one was different’
In Charleston, they certainly realize who Khris Middleton is. He was the kid who played every day on the half-court behind his parents’ home in the Archdale neighborhood of North Charleston. He was the youth who started at the Summerville YMCA and the North Charleston Recreation Department, playing on teams coached by his father. He was the athlete whose talent began to stand out at Oakbrook Middle School, where he attended one year before transferring to Porter-Gaud.
“He was somewhat of a natural at it, really. It came to him at an early age,” said his father. “You could see some signs at 8 years old — OK, there’s some innate stuff there I didn’t really teach him as far as passing the ball and seeing the court. But when he really started to blossom, I’d say was his middle school years. You could see he was separating himself from the talent that was in the Charleston area.”
At Porter-Gaud, it took some time for Middleton to grow into his lanky frame. Pearson, the Cyclones’ head coach, knew he had a special talent when Middleton was in ninth grade, and “he made so many phenomenal moves” at a team camp. “I was like, ‘Where did this kid get this from?’” But the real breakthrough came in the summer between Middleton’s freshman and sophomore years, when he was playing in an AAU event in Clemson.
“Somebody called me and said, ‘This kid is unreal,’” Pearson remembered. “I got in the car and drove up there. I had to see it. When I got there, that’s when I knew — this one was different. He was unbelievable. He went off the charts with the recruiting services that summer. It was like I was getting a transfer new kid. I’d had him forever, but this was different.”
It reached the point where James would drive Khris several times a week to Atlanta, wanting his son to be tested against AAU competition stiffer than what he faced in the Charleston area. Middleton blossomed into a two-time S.C. Player of the Year at Porter-Gaud, and chose Texas A&M because he liked then-coach Mark Turgeon’s system, and had his mother’s family relatively nearby in Shreveport, La.
But even after leaving college a year early for the NBA, Middleton maintained close ties to his hometown. The foundation of his charitable initiatives is a camp he hosts every summer at Porter-Gaud to benefit Big Brothers Big Sisters. Five years ago, it started with 50 kids. Now it draws over 250 and has been split into two sessions to meet the demand. It’s raised over $10,000 for Big Brothers Big Sisters, and Middleton also provides scholarships for children in the program to attend the camp.
“Khris has been a really active and visible supporter of our organization,” said Christina Hoffecker, program manager for the Charleston branch of Big Brothers Big Sisters. “Him being a local in this community, it’s really been a big driving force in the recruitment of families and volunteers. … The kids talk about it year-round. They ask me in January, ‘When is the Khris Middleton camp?’ It leaves a lasting impact on our kids.”
Middleton chose the program, his sister Brittney said, because “he likes the message of it, the mentor-mentee relationship.” He’s also partnered with the organization’s Milwaukee branch, hosting a Thanksgiving dinner and taking 15 kids Christmas shopping at a sporting goods store. Middleton also hosts a camp in Shreveport, hometown of his mother Nichelle, with the proceeds benefiting a scholarship fund for children from underprivileged communities.
“We’re more than basketball players. People look to us,” he said. “We’re so blessed with the gifts that we get, it’s only right that we give back. When I was growing up, I had a lot of people helping me on the court, off the court, or by just talking to me. I feel like it’s my duty to do the same thing and always give back.”
His biggest gift came this past November when he pledged to donate $1 million over five years to Porter-Gaud to support scholarships for underserved and minority students in the Charleston area. The school approached Middleton with the idea, Pearson said, knowing the former Cyclones great “has a good grasp of his community and wants to help.”
To his sister, it all goes back to how they were raised. “Our parents made sure we were active in whatever sport or activity we wanted to do,” said Brittney, who organizes the Porter-Gaud camp. “I think that was important in shaping who he is today, and he wants to give that opportunity to other kids. Because those experiences are very powerful in shaping what you become.”
‘No such thing as a snow day’
Downtown Milwaukee positively sparkles in the summertime, when long days, countless festivals, plenty of German beer halls and the glistening jewel of Lake Michigan make for an enviable urban setting. Getting to summer, though, is the hard part. Last week, Milwaukee was still trying to shake highs in the 30s. In the depths of winter, it’s much worse.
“The cold is definitely tough,” Middleton said. “You wake up with aches and stiffness you’re not used to. But it’s cool to see this much snow. We had snow days when I was in middle school, and we thought it was the coolest thing. Here, there’s no such thing as a snow day unless it’s a blizzard.”
He’s found a way to adapt. It certainly helps that Middleton now has a proper winter coat and that the Bucks have attendants who get players’ cars warmed up for them after games. He’s also felt warmth from the locals, especially after his best NBA season helped the Bucks reach the playoffs for a second straight year.
“The people are great to me,” Middleton said. “They give me a whole lot of encouragement, no matter how poorly I’m doing sometimes. They love the Bucks here, which is great. They love people who want to be here. You show you want to be here and they understand that.”
After five years in Milwaukee, Middleton is a local himself now, complete with a home that needs icicles broken and snow shoveled, favorite restaurants, and his own tactics for staying out of the cold. Well, except for one thing — he’s still not a fan of cheese curds, the city’s best-known delicacy.
“Of course, I had try it,” Middleton said with a laugh. “I won’t say it’s nasty — it’s just not for me.”