Longtime Milwaukee Bucks Owner, Former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl Dies At Age 88

FILE – Milwaukee Bucks owner Herb Kohl is acknowledged by fans during the first half of an NBA … [+] basketball game against the Atlanta Hawks, Wednesday, April 16, 2014, in Milwaukee. Herb Kohl, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Wisconsin and former owner of the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team, has died, an email from his foundation said Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2023. He was 88. (AP Photo/Morry Gash, File)

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Former Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl, who owned the Milwaukee Bucks for 29 years, died Wednesday at the age of 88.

“Senator Kohl was a lifelong and proud Wisconsinite who cared deeply for his state and the city of Milwaukee. As the Bucks owner, he was steadfast in making sure the team remained in the city and his generosity led to the building of Fiserv Forum, which is on Herb Kohl Way. Even after selling the team, Senator Kohl loved the Bucks and was always seen in his team cap around town,” the Bucks said in a statement released Wednesday night.

“The Senator leaves behind an unmatched legacy in philanthropy, often anonymously, and through his incredible Herb Kohl Foundation. His impact in sports, public service, and business will also always be remembered in our state. The Bucks express our deepest condolences to the Senator’s family and friends.”

Kohl bought the Bucks in 1985 from founding owner Jim Fitzgerald for a then-record $18 million, beating out a number of other interested parties including two groups from the Minneapolis-St. Paul market, who both hoped to relocate the franchise to the Twin Cities.

Just days after Kohl and Fitzgerald announced their deal, local philanthropists Jane Bradley Pettit and her husband, former Chicago Blackhawks announcer Lloyd Pettit solidified the Bucks’ long-term future in Milwaukee when they announced that they would finance construction of a new arena that they’d gift to the city.

Despite essentially saving the franchise for Milwaukee, Kohl’s tenure as owner was not without controversy.

The Bucks were a perennial Eastern Conference powerhouse during the early 1980s. They’d won five consecutive Central Division titles with two trips to the Conference Finals along the way before Kohl took control.

Milwaukee continued its winning ways in Kohl’s first season but simmering tensions between he and longtime head coach Don Nelson reached a boiling point in May 1987 when the two-time coach of the year stepped down from his post with three years left on his contract.

Under Del Harris, the Bucks advanced to the postseason in each of the next four seasons but wouldn’t return to the playoffs until 1999 when George Karl took over. Two years later, Karl got Milwaukee within a game of its first trip to the NBA Finals since 1974 but the Bucks fell back into a state of mediocrity which, along with the burgeoning need for a new arena, lead to questions about the franchise’s future in Milwaukee.

Kohl came close to selling the team to NBA legend Michael Jordan in 2003 only to walk away from a potential deal, reportedly because Jordan wouldn’t guarantee to keep the team in Milwaukee.

He’d hold onto the franchise for another 11 years before ultimately selling to the current ownership group in 2014. As part of the agreement, Kohl pledged $100 million of the $550 million sale price toward a new Milwaukee Arena and along with a guarantee to not relocate the team, got the new owners to pledge $100 million of their own.

Construction began on the new facility two years later and when it opened in 2018, the Bucks honored their longtime owner by naming the plaza outside the facility in his honor.

“Herb Kohl Way isn’t just the name of a street in front of the Fiserv Forum,” a statement from the Herb Kohl Foundation said. “Herb Kohl Way perfectly sums up a legacy of humility, commitment, compromise, and kindness to countless people he worked with, served and helped along the way. Those values will live on through his Foundation.”

Kohl was born in Milwaukee in 1935 to Jewish immigrants who opened a small grocery store on the city’s south side in the late 1920s.

Kohl, who as a child worked as a bag boy at one of those locations, returned to the family business in 1959 after graduating from the University of Wisconsin and serving a six-month stint in the U.S. Army. By that time, there were more than a dozen Kohl’s stores in the Milwaukee area.

Over the next 20 years, Kohl helped turn the company into a local powerhouse with more than 70 stores while also expanding the business to include department stores. The rapid growth led to the company selling an 80% share of the company to a British tobacco firm in 1972 with Kohl staying on as CEO until 1979.

He spent the next six years quietly running an investment firm before fulfilling a lifelong dream by buying the Bucks. That move gave Kohl statewide name recognition, which paid off three years later when he launched a campaign for the seat of William Proxmire, who announced his retirement after representing the state since 1957.

Kohl beat out former Wisconsin Governor Tony Earl in the 1988 Democratic Primary then, in the general election, held off Republican challenger Susan Engeleiter for a five-point victory.

He’d be reelected three more times, winning each race by a landslide. In 2011, Kohl announced he would not seek another term, saying at the time “the office doesn’t belong to me, it belongs to the people of Wisconsin and there is something to be said for not staying in office too long.”

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