Beer, bratwurst and winning basketball

So does finishing the season with a first-round loss in the playoffs make the season a failure?

That's what observers will be wondering about the Milwaukee Bucks.

No, you haven't missed anything. They haven't lost the series to the Pistons -- they even won a game on the road Wednesday night. But Detroit is just too good and too determined. And too healthy. It's no shame to be beaten by the conference's best team. Just bad timing.

The Bucks aren't good enough and not nearly healthy enough. No team truly came into the playoffs with less chance to win because the Pistons are playing so well since Rasheed Wallace was acquired to pair with Ben Wallace. Detroit stands the best chance of an Eastern Conference team to win the NBA championship since Michael Jordan retired in 1998 for the second time.

The Pistons also should produce the lowest TV ratings ever, especially if they play the San Antonio Spurs. That series would make the Rockets and Knicks of 1994 look like Kelly Tripucka's Pistons against Alex English's Nuggets. Yes, that old 70's show -- 70 points wins.

I'm getting ahead of myself here. That's right, go Lakers! Heck, being together two more months, Shaq and Kobe could be wrestling on the floor in timeouts. Now that's reality TV.

But back to those Bucks, who lost the final three games of the season when one win would have been good enough for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and an opening series against the postseason-novice Miami Heat. Your heart still aches, although that could be the bratwurst backing up.

In any case, if you're from Milwaukee, start feeling aglow. And not just because there's only one more month of winter.

Your Milwaukee Bucks were the story of the NBA this season, even if hardly anyone told it. Face it, everyone thinks you're somewhere near the Canadian border and no one wants to go there. When there were rumors Jason Caffey was going to be traded to Milwaukee, he said he'd rather retire. Turns out he was dealt, and he did retire, although someone ran around in his uniform for three years.

That's why the Bucks were the story of the NBA this season, and the team that made you proud to watch the NBA.

They told Caffey to go home. He didn't care much to play and didn't play hard. So what that he had two years left on his contract and the team owed him more than $7 million. Same with Anthony Mason, who also had two years left on his contract. But if he could play, it wasn't clear to anyone and he hated everyone anyway and made sure everyone knew it.

So the Bucks did what doesn't happen in pro sports, but should more often. They told Caffey and Mason to get lost. They were drains on the team, miserable to watch and bad teammates. The team would pay them, but they didn't want them around. Same with George Karl, who'd gotten into ugly disputes with just about everyone but Bango the mascot. Karl -- said to be demanding Bango change his head while he was losing his -- was making more money than either Caffey or Mason, more, in fact, than any other coach in NBA history. The Bucks told Karl to get lost, as well.

The message to the community was clear: We'll play hard for you and we'll care. You can be assured you'll get your money's worth coming to see us play.

That's something few can say around pro sports, especially in the regular season. Even with the great teams, like the Lakers. Shaquille O'Neal takes about a quarter of the season off for various ailments and anguish these days. Kobe Bryant attends court hearings. Karl Malone began to come apart. Everywhere you'd go, top players were gone. Allen Iverson and Tracy McGrady, the two leading scorers this season, took off the waning weeks of the season. Nah, I ain't playin' for that coach, with those teammates. So what if I'm making $13 million. It's about pride, man.

There wasn't a Buck who'd take off one play.

No, they weren't going to win a championship, which is usually how communities measure the worth of their teams. Heck, few imagined this Bucks team could win 25 games. After all, they traded Ray Allen late last season for Gary Payton, who said he'd resign only if Milwaukee got an ocean. Glenn Robinson already had been purged and Sam Cassell was shipped off for Joe Smith. It would be only a matter of time before they dumped Tim Thomas, who feuded with Karl and then sat out much of the first part of the season. They turned the team over to a rookie point guard, T.J. Ford. They signed some guy from Puerto Rico and Brian Skinner, who was traded for Charles Oakley and then Chris Gatling, and then still got cut. This was to be their front line. So they had a rookie point guard who couldn't shoot with a front line you wouldn't want to shoot. Oh, and to run it all, a guy who'd never been a head coach in his life, Terry Porter.

Yet, the Bucks became one of the most exciting, hard-working teams in the NBA. They ranked among the league leaders in shooting and fewest turnovers. They played hard and they played smart. They brought a smile to your lips.

As the 76ers, Hornets, Knicks and Celtics, all picked well ahead of them, faded, the Bucks continued to play hard. They won games with more effort than talent, with more daring than artistry. But there never was much room for error. It didn't seem like much when Ford went out for the season with a neck and spine injury, one which concerns the Bucks because of the narrowing of the spine condition Ford had in college. After all, how much can you miss a point guard who's shooting 38 percent? But Ford's speed gave the Bucks easy scores and opened up shots with his penetration.

They had to turn Damon Jones into a point guard, which he didn't even play when he was with the Idaho Stampede and Black Hills Posse. He'd only been waived before by nine different NBA teams. But the hard play continued. Eventually, the Bucks had to change their style somewhat, becoming more of a half-court team. Players had to go extended minutes at positions they weren't suited for. It's not like there was a deep bench. Perhaps there would have been had they retained players like Caffey or Mason.

But they made a promise to themselves and their community. They were going to play hard every moment of every game and not complain about playing time, money or teammates. They were the luckiest people in the world and they knew it. Smith was grateful to be given a chance again and beat bigger and better players to rebounds. Desmond Mason was a sight to behold on the break. Michael Redd became a big-time scorer even though he still couldn't create his own shot. Skinner hustled for rebounds and guys like Daniel Santiago and Dan Gadzuric followed suit when Skinner missed more than a month due to injury.

Sure, the Bucks lost those last three games of the season and a chance for the kind of first-round playoff matchup that could have gotten them playing a few more weeks. But they knew they weren't in the class of Indiana or Detroit. And now they'll be out of the playoffs soon, remembering nothing but losses during these last weeks of April.

But that shouldn't be the lasting memory of this Bucks team.

It was a team willing to play hard every minute of every game and give everything it had. They're all clich├ęs, but when it happens, it's wonderful to watch.

It was an organization willing to swallow hard to give the community a team they could be proud of and an effort they could admire. The Bucks never made excuses, and you didn't have to excuse yourself watching them. That's what everyone should remember about the Bucks' 2003-04 season. It didn't end with a trophy and rings. Just respect, which often is much harder to attain.

Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.