Herb Kohl reflects on Bucks ownership

Most people know that when Herb Kohl sold the Milwaukee Bucks two years ago, he pledged $100 million toward the construction of a new arena. What’s not as well known is that he gave a bonus to every member of the Bucks organization and to every worker at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

Ushers got $2,000 or more. Some longtime Bucks employees got enough to pay off their mortgages or to buy new homes. In total, Kohl gave away $10 million.

“The people who work at the Bradley Center, many of them are minimum-salaried people,” Kohl said. “To them, $2,000 was a fortune. I was happy to do it and they were deeply appreciative. It doesn’t change my life, but it changes theirs.”

Kohl soared to great heights as a businessman, as the owner of an NBA franchise and as a U.S. senator, but he never forgot his roots, never took his good fortune for granted and never outgrew his hometown.

Now 81, he still goes to work in his office on Jefferson St., still interacts daily with his circle of friends, still lives in the same downtown apartment he’s called home for more than 45 years and still cares — maybe more than ever — about Milwaukee and Wisconsin.

In a nearly 90-minute interview Monday, his first extensive interview since selling the team in April 2014, Kohl waxed nostalgic about his childhood, his family’s successful grocery business, his 29-year tenure as the Bucks’ owner and his 24 years in the Senate. He spoke passionately about the philanthropic work he is doing, particularly in the area of education.

What came through, over and over, was his deep and abiding love for his community.

“Every day I remind myself how fortunate I’ve been because so much of life is luck,” Kohl said. “I was born into a great family, had a great opportunity at Kohl’s, and on and on. I’ve had many, many great experiences and very few bad experiences. So what more can you ask for?”

He sold the Bucks for $550million to Wes Edens and Marc Lasry, but he could have gotten much more had he removed the stipulation that whoever bought the team had to pledge to keep it in Milwaukee. He said there was no amount of money he would have accepted if it meant the Bucks would be moved.

“Somebody could have offered me $5 billion and I couldn’t do that,” he said. “I couldn’t do it. How could I still live here? How could I live with myself? I never thought in any way that anybody could offer me the price that would be sufficient to say to Milwaukee and Wisconsin, ‘I’m taking a lot of money, and goodbye.'”

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This is an honest and decent man. A humble and caring man. A man who has spent his entire life striving to do the right thing, the honorable thing, and almost always behind the scenes. It is revealing that his seats all these years at the Bradley Center have been several rows up from the floor. Why not courtside?

“Not my style,” he said.

Kohl’s parents, Max and Mary Kohl, were Jewish immigrants who fled oppression in Poland and Russia, respectively. They taught their four children the importance of hard work, education, humility and service to others.

“They were very good people,” he said. “Very charitable people. Very smart people. Very kind people. Good to their kids. The smartest thing I ever did was being born into that family. If you’re lucky enough to be raised in that kind of environment it’s a blessing that you can’t even put a price on.”

As a youth, Kohl lived just down the street from Bud Selig and the two have been lifelong friends. What were the odds that a future NBA franchise owner and U.S. senator and the commissioner of Major League Baseball would grow up on the same block in Milwaukee?

And while Kohl became wealthy and moved in high circles, he always has considered himself a regular guy with regular tastes and a regular life. Anyone who has seen him in his trusty blue sports jacket and faded Bucks hat knows he wouldn’t be caught dead in an Armani suit, wearing Gucci shoes, with a diamond-encrusted Rolex on his wrist.

It’s not about false modesty. It’s about being true to himself.

“The one thing I’ve never appreciated is when I meet people who are successful and some of them think it’s all about them, that they’re the ones who made the success and they deserve all the credit,” he said. “Big egos. Dominating personalities. That’s a bad way to be. I don’t like people who are overweening in their self-esteem because they’re wrong and it doesn’t bode well for people around them. Too often, they’re also selfish and greedy. It’s a bad characteristic and I’ve always worked as hard as I can not to be suffused in that kind of thinking.”

Early on in the Senate, he stopped taking money from special interest groups, because he saw how money corrupted so many in Washington.

Everyone knew Herb Kohl couldn’t be bought.

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“I think I was the only person in Washington that didn’t solicit money,” he said. “I stopped taking money from people because it detracted from my ability to do my job well. We need a system that gets the ugly money out of it. It’s very dirty and corrupting and creates dysfunction.”

His critics — who surely don’t know him personally because if they did they wouldn’t be his critics — will point out that the Bucks never won a championship while he owned them and too often finished far out of the playoff picture.

Not winning a title is Kohl’s biggest single regret, but it wasn’t for lack of effort or resources.

“In my 29 years, only eight teams won all the championships,” he said. “In basketball, if you have a couple superstars, you win. When we had Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar), we won. We got close to the Finals one year, 2001, but, no, we never won a championship. I’m sorry about that.

“We never tanked it. We never tried to save money on payroll. We always spent what we needed to spend. But if you don’t have those players, you’re not going to win. That’s just the way it is. There are always regrets. What about this trade, what about that trade? Every team owner in every sport can say that.”

One trade Kohl wishes he would not have signed off on was the one that sent Ray Allen to the Seattle SuperSonics midway through the 2002-’03 season.

“Well, he and (coach) George Karl got into it and it just didn’t work so we traded him,” Kohl said. “I didn’t make the trade, but I let it happen. It became very much of a personality thing and so we traded Ray. In terms of unfortunate moments, that was our most unfortunate moment, letting Ray Allen leave town.”

He also refuted the oft-repeated rumor that he was a meddlesome owner who made key basketball decisions.

“I’ve always tried to hire the best people I can find, in whatever I’ve done, and then let them do their jobs,” he said. “I never wanted them to be able to say, ‘He wouldn’t let us do our job.’ Nobody who worked for the Bucks ever said that about me. I was aware of what was going on and had my opinions. But in the final analysis I let people do their jobs.”

Kohl still attends games at the Bradley Center on a regular basis, and he’ll continue to do so when the new arena is built. But it’s not the same.

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“When you own something, you’re much more involved in it, no matter what it is,” he said. “So when I go to games now, I’m like a fan. I want to win and when we win I’m very happy.

“But if we lose I don’t go home and, like I used to, hang myself out of my window. I live on the 27th floor of my building and if we lost I used to hang myself out of the window. Fortunately, I never let go. But it was close.”

He thinks the new owners have done a good job, and although he sees them from time to time, he rarely offers advice and they rarely ask for it. True to his personality, he has faded quietly into the background.

“When I sold the team I was not interested in intruding,” he said. “Everything that has happened since then, the good stuff or the not so good, it’s their product. And they’re doing good. They’re good guys. They’re in it for the long pull. And they want to be successful here.”

Kohl, meanwhile, will continue to “be active and look for the next challenge.” He’ll also continue to give away his money to causes and organizations that are near and dear to his heart.

“My father once said, ‘Money is like manure. It’s not good unless you spread it around,'” he said. “Maybe the day I die all the money will be gone. Whatever. I’ve had a productive life. A happy life. A healthy life. And I never forget it. I’m very grateful for all the good luck I’ve had in my lifetime.”

On Saturday night, he will be honored with the Community Leadership Award during the Wisconsin Athletic Hall of Fame induction ceremony at the UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena.

When the Bucks’ new arena opens it would be fitting for the owners to honor Kohl in some fashion, too, whether it’s a bust in the atrium, a statue outside or his name on the basketball court. Because without Herb Kohl, the Bucks almost certainly would have been gone many years ago.

“It’s come up,” Kohl said. “(Peter) Feigin (the Bucks’ president) mentioned it to me a couple months ago. I suppose we’ll talk about it again. Would I want that? Whatever it turns out to be, I’m fine. I’m not a big statue guy.”

When it comes to stature, however, no one in Milwaukee is bigger.

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