Herb Kohl, former Bucks owner and U.S. Senator, dies at 88: ‘Just a bright light in Milwaukee’

Herb Kohl, former Bucks owner and U.S. Senator, dies at 88: ‘Just a bright light in Milwaukee’

Generations of Wisconsin sports fans have been able to root for the “Milwaukee” Bucks because of Herb Kohl, who prevented the NBA franchise from moving from his hometown not once, but twice.

“It’s nice to even think about the time that we spent together and what he did,” current Bucks governor Wes Edens said. “In many circumstances, whether it’s business or friendship, my dad would say, ‘Don’t pay attention to what people say, pay attention to what people do.’

“And there’s no better example that I can think of than what he did to ensure that the Milwaukee Bucks stayed in Milwaukee. That’s extraordinary.”

Kohl, former U.S. senator and Milwaukee Bucks owner, died Wednesday at the age of 88 after a brief illness, his nonprofit organization announced.

Kohl served as a United States senator from Wisconsin from 1989 to 2013.

In 1985, Kohl purchased the team for $18 million from a group led by Jim Fitzgerald, a Wisconsin native who went on to purchase a controlling interest in the Golden State Warriors one year later. At the time, Fitzgerald, who had seen his Sportsvue cable network venture fail, wanted to sell the team to someone who was committed to keeping the team in Milwaukee. But the Bucks, playing in one of the NBA’s smallest media markets, also played in the Milwaukee Arena (MECCA). The MECCA, with a capacity of 11,052, was the smallest venue in the NBA.

But thanks to Kohl, co-founder with his father and brother of Kohl’s Department Stores and Kohl’s supermarkets throughout Wisconsin, and his wealth, the Bucks were able to remain in Milwaukee. Three years after Kohl’s purchase, the Bucks moved into a new $90 million arena, the Bradley Center. Kohl owned the Bucks until 2014, when he sold the team to New York businessmen Edens and Marc Lasry for $550 million.

pic.twitter.com/RcUvbNi4lv

— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) December 28, 2023

Ultimately, Kohl’s decision to sell the team, and specifically to sell the team to Edens and Lasry, was borne out of the same motivation Kohl had for buying the team in the first place: keeping the Bucks in Milwaukee.

“After the process had started, we were invited to come out to tour the facilities and meet management, and of course, to spend time with Senator Kohl,” Edens recalled to The Athletic on Wednesday. “And we spent a couple of days with the Senator and the word that comes to mind is just authentic. He was so authentic in his love for the Bucks and his love for Milwaukee and the people in Wisconsin.

“And he really was very focused on doing everything that he could to make sure that they stayed the Bucks. And so he was just a really authentic guy. He had a lot of steel and he was a very determined person, but he was a very, very sweet man. And his love for the Bucks and the organization and the state and the city were manifest.”

It was clear that while Kohl was open to selling the team, the team needed to remain in Milwaukee.

“His goal was to make sure that if we bought the team, that the team stayed in Milwaukee. That was the requisite for us owning the team,” Lasry told The Athletic. “He cared deeply about the city, about the people and he cared deeply about the Bucks.”

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While Kohl was in the middle of a significant business deal, his character shone through as he helped the new ownership group try to understand why he felt it was absolutely necessary to make sure the Bucks remained in Milwaukee.

“He was a gentleman,” Lasry told The Athletic. “He was old school. I found him to just be a man of integrity who cared deeply about people and you knew it. He was a person who cared about the city of Milwaukee and who wanted to help and do things for the benefit of the city, whether people know it or not.”

For the Bucks to remain in Milwaukee, the Bucks needed a new home to replace the Bradley Center and that meant the new ownership group would need to find a way to convince the people of Wisconsin to build a new arena.

“During the sale process, it was said over and over that, obviously, he wanted to get a fair price for the team, but it was very important that they committed to staying in town,” Edens said. “Of course, the issue at the time was that the Bradley Center was not deemed to be an acceptable venue by the NBA, so there was a mandate that they had to build a new facility or the team couldn’t stay there. So it was a very real issue.”

Kohl ended up being essential to the process of building the new arena.

“He did a great job when we first came to town in helping us to lay out the road map for the political organizations and who the people were that he thought were most important, both locally and across the state,” Edens said. “And he introduced us to everybody, regardless of whether it was Republican or Democrat or anything else, there was no party affiliation. He just introduced us to the people that we would need to deal with and work constructively with.

“And that was incredibly helpful. I met with him many times in the coffee shop at the Pfister (Hotel). And we would catch up as we were building the arena about how things were going and what we were doing. So we had a great dialogue for it, but he was very careful to maintain distance from the team because his time had passed as steward and it was our time now. And he was very respectful of that.”

In the end, the Bucks were able to put together a plan to build a new $525 million arena, but that plan called for an extra push from Kohl to get it over the finish line.

“Just to put it in context, I mean, the $550 million we paid for the team at that time was the highest price ever paid for an NBA team,” Edens said. “And it’s one of the NBA’s smallest markets and the team had a pretty rough spell competitively. Together, we really wrestled with what the right way was to try to help us ensure that we could get the arena built.

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“In an extraordinary gesture, he basically gave to us, towards the building of the arena, a $100 million gift. And I think it’s one of the most extraordinary acts, philanthropically sports-related that I’m aware of, maybe the most. He gave us $100 million. The city and state allocated us money and then we put up the rest and that’s how it all got cobbled together. And I think that his $100 million was really the pivotal amount at the time. And had that not happened, then it was very likely the Bucks would be in Las Vegas or Seattle or wherever else they might be. So it’s extraordinary.”

And while that gift was incredibly kind, the ever-modest Kohl did not ask for any additional credit for his contribution.

“It was very important to him for us to keep the team in Milwaukee,” Lasry said. “He ended up giving us $100 million to build a new arena. And we had said to him, ‘Is there anything you want? Should we name it the Kohl Center? Is there anything you want us to do?’ And he was like, ‘No, no, this is for the community. This isn’t about me. This is about what’s good for Milwaukee.”

In 2018, the $525 million Fiserv Forum opened across the street from the now-razed Bradley Center.

And while the sale of a sports franchise can sometimes lead to contentious relationships for the people involved, that never occurred with Kohl. After selling the team, Kohl still regularly attended Bucks games in Fiserv Forum and cheered on his hometown team, donning a well-worn Bucks cap from years of supporting the franchise.

“He was happy to be there,” Lasry said. “I think it meant a lot to him that the people of Milwaukee loved the Bucks. He loved seeing everybody and talking to people. He was a big part of the community, so I think he wanted to remain a part of the community. The Bucks were a big part of his life.”

And while Kohl never tried to tell the new ownership group what to do, he would typically make one request when he saw them.

“For me, it was actually just great seeing him when I would come to games, because every time I’d see him there (at games), I’d go over to say hello,” Lasry said. “I’d ask him if he needed anything, and he’d always say the same thing. ‘Just make sure they win tonight.’”

In 2021, the Bucks were able to do just that and won the ultimate prize, capturing the team’s first NBA championship since 1971. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton were the last two players to play for a Kohl-owned Bucks team. They were critical in bringing a title to Milwaukee for the first time in half a century. For Antetokounmpo and Middleton, Kohl represented community and family.

“I’m praying for his family,” Antetokounmpo said, “It’s a guy that took care of me when I came in and made me feel comfortable, but most importantly, he made my family feel comfortable. He helped a lot with the process of bringing my family over.

“He’s done so many things for the city of Milwaukee, so many things for the Milwaukee Bucks organization. He’s definitely going to be missed.”

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“Just a bright light in Milwaukee,” Middleton said. “He was a big part of me coming to Milwaukee and of me staying in Milwaukee, but also the team and the entire organization. I know how generous he was and how well-respected he was across the country. So rest in peace to him. I hope his family is doing well and he and his family will continue to be in my prayers.”

Senator Herb Kohl receives his ring!! pic.twitter.com/XdMc85aECp

— Milwaukee Bucks (@Bucks) October 19, 2021

“He loved the Bucks. Period,” Edens said. “And he took great joy in the success that the organization has had, especially in the last five years or so, and of course, in particular, three years ago when we won a championship. He took tremendous pleasure and pride in that.”

Following Kohl’s passing, the NBA shared a statement from Adam Silver in which the commissioner called Kohl “a dear friend and one of our very best public servants.”

“In addition to his decades of devoted service in the U.S. Senate, he set the standard for NBA team ownership as the governor of his hometown Milwaukee Bucks for nearly 30 years,” Silver said. “There was never any doubt about his extraordinary commitment to the franchise and city that he loved, and his vision and unparalleled financial contribution towards a new arena in Milwaukee will forever be remembered.”

Bucks coach Adrian Griffin, who got his start as an NBA assistant with the Bucks in 2008, remembered an owner who added a personal touch, greeting employees by name.

“Just learned after the game that Senator Kohl passed away,” Griffin said. “I just want to send our condolences on behalf of the entire Bucks family and organization. He was always generous and always kind to me. I got to work for the Bucks back in 2008, 2009 and (he was) just a humanitarian.

“It’s a big loss for our Bucks organization … the entire (city) of Milwaukee. Just a special human being. If you ever got to know Senator Kohl, he was the best.”

When asked to reflect on Kohl’s impact on the Bucks and the city of Milwaukee though, Edens made it clear that words would likely not do it justice because the Senator’s actions had already spoken volumes.

“He could have sold probably to a higher bidder,” Edens said “… There were a number of different parties interested in making the investment and all of them were focused, for the most part, on moving the Bucks. And he wanted to sell and he drove a hard bargain and we paid the highest price anyone had ever paid, but then he turned around and took $100 million out of his pocket to make sure that we built an arena and kept the Bucks in town.

“That’s actually who he was.”

And for that, Bucks fans should be forever grateful.

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(Photo: Gary Dineen / NBAE via Getty Images)