The core of Milwaukee’s roster – local talent

Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Athletics

By David Go

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.

UW-Milwaukee finalized its roster for the 2024-25 season last month with one notable feature – its emphasis on local talent. Some five players on the roster are Milwaukee-area natives, most since the 2017-18 season.

That familiarity could allow the players and the program alike to thrive in the upcoming season.

“Those guys can put Milwaukee back on the map,” said head coach Bart Lundy. “We want to take care of home first… We take a lot of pride in being the city’s team.”

But local prospects aren’t always keen on spending their college years in the same town they’ve spent their entire lives.

“At first I wasn’t really sure about coming to Milwaukee,” said Learic Davis, who starred at Milwaukee’s Bradley Tech High School. “I most definitely wanted to leave Milwaukee to get the experience and be able to learn something new and see something different.”

But as social media is quick to tell you, expectations differ from reality. And for many, returning home proves the best option. Davis left the area to spend a year at Tennessee State in Nashville, where he redshirted his freshman year. Davis appeared in 33 of the Panthers’ 35 games last year.

“I actually love it here now,” said Davis.

Davis was one of three locals on the team last year – Lundy’s roster also included Simeon Murchison from Hamilton High School and Vinko Polovic, who attended Franklin. Joining the trio in Milwaukee this upcoming year are Brown Deer product John Lovelace, Jr. and Whitnall’s Danilo Jovanovich.

“The first person that called me was Jose [Winston],” said Jovanovich, speaking of his time in the transfer portal. “I was thinking of maybe going out somewhere on the West Coast… When I came on my visit it just felt like the right fit.”

Winston can relate because he once was in their same shoes.

The Panther assistant coach won three state championships as a player at Milwaukee Vincent High School, earning Wisconsin’s Mr. Basketball for the 1997-98 season. Winston was ranked as the fourth-best point guard and 42nd-best player nationally ahead of future NBA players such as Matt Barnes, Luke Walton and Udonis Haslem.

But after three years at Colorado, Winston returned to his hometown due to a family situation. Winston’s Colorado squad missed the Tournament all three years he was in a Buffalo uniform. Instead, he helped lead Bruce Pearl’s Panther team to the program’s first-ever March Madness appearance.

“When you’re having that success and your family is around you, your friends are around you,” said Winston, “it gives you a little bit more pride because this is where you’re from. You get to wear that Milwaukee across your chest. You play a little harder. It means a little bit more to you.”

Winston wound up staying in the area following his playing career, first coaching at Kenosha St. Joseph High School before transitioning to Brown Deer.

“I believe in paying it forward,” said Winston. “I’ve always wanted to teach and I’ve always wanted to coach, so I knew that when I was done playing that those would be the two things that I would want to do.”

Lovelace attended Brown Deer while Winston coached but did not play with the team due to academic restrictions. “I wasn’t able to play but still was with Coach Jose for that time,” said Lovelace, who averaged 5.4 points per game in his time at fellow Horizon League institution, Youngstown State. “We became very close during that time, where I wasn’t playing but was still like a player on his team.”

Local players may initially be hesitant to stay in the city that raised them, but the pride of representing the Cream City carries an appeal they can’t find elsewhere.

“When outside recruits come in, they come to Milwaukee and are blown away by the city,” said Lundy. “These guys being from here can put the market out into the spotlight. It is their city and they’re very proud of it.”

Wearing that black-and-gold is an experience that carries a deeper meaning than merely representing a school, but instead represents a city.

“When you’re recruiting a local guy, they have to understand what it means to wear that Milwaukee across your chest,” said Winston.

With representing their native city comes representing family. Players cherish the homecoming for the opportunity to both represent the city that raised them and be near family.

“It’s great,” said Jovanovich. “I have a huge family, so they’ll come to every game. They’re very rowdy about things, so it’ll be great to have them back. Just being around every day – I’m just able to come home, eat dinner.”

Jovanovich started five of Louisville’s 32 games last year before deciding to return home. The Miami squad he played on in 2022-23 reached the Final Four.

Murchison added that the coaching staff, which includes multiple members who hail from Milwaukee, felt like family.

“It’s a blessing to play not too far away,” said Murchison. “The coaching staff here made me feel welcome – it was great to play with that Milwaukee across my chest.”

Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Athletics

Playing for that “Milwaukee” on the jersey brings added pride for the players, but also responsibility – to build a program that garners local attention that Milwaukeeans can take pride in.

“I think giving back to the city for those [local] guys should be a point of pride,” said Lundy. “Representing your city really means something.”

Winning in a Milwaukee uniform – it’s something that has been done before but not recently. In the first two years of the Bart Lundy era, Milwaukee recorded its first back-to-back 20-win seasons in nearly two decades.

The aspirations of this team hearken back to those glory days, when Milwaukee reached three NCAA Tournaments in four seasons.

“It was awesome,” said Winston of his experience playing at Milwaukee in 2002-03. “I had an opportunity to see how important basketball is to, not just the city of Milwaukee but also the state of Wisconsin.”

Added Winston: “The alumni that this university has came out to support – it was really nice to see. Hopefully we’re starting to trend back that way. We’re starting to get a lot of people to come back into the program. We’re starting to see more people in the seats at Panther Arena. So hopefully we can continue that.”

Leading the charge to bring that Horizon League trophy back to the city are the players who have spent nearly their lives in Milwaukee’s neighborhood parks and local gymnasiums.

“We want to think of 2005, reaching the Sweet 16,” said Jovanovich. “We want to get back to that point and try to take this program to new heights.”

If Milwaukee is able to reach their aspirations, it will be led by the city’s own. “Bringing a trophy home will be amazing,” said Davis. “Especially just because we’re from here. It will be lit.”

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