By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jul 20, 2021 at 8:02 AM

Although the history of professional basketball in Milwaukee goes back exactly 100 years to the 1921 dawn of the Milwaukee Bright Spots (named for the city’s marketing slogan of the time, “Milwaukee – A Bright Spot”), the history of the Milwaukee Bucks isn’t quite that ancient. But it's the most important chapter.

After second and third pro teams – the Shooting Stars of the mid-1940s replaced the short-lived Bright Spots, a team that reappeared briefly in the late 1940s – Milwaukee got its first NBA team in 1951, when the Tri-City Blackhawks arrived in Brew City and were renamed the Milwaukee Hawks.

The floundering Hawks – who played at the Arena – didn’t remain long and moved to St. Louis in 1955. The team is now the Atlanta Hawks, a familar foe from this year's Eastern Conference Finals.

A dozen basketball-less years later, however, on Jan. 22, 1968, Milwaukee was awarded an NBA expansion franchise, and the Bucks were born, named for the state’s official animal (the white-tailed deer) in a contest that drew nearly 50,000 entries. Clearly, Cream City was more excited for the NBA than it was during the Hawks days.

And it was about to get even more so, especially thanks to the prize of a franchise-altering coin flip (more on that later).

The team was owned by Milwaukee Professional Sports and Services, Inc. (Milwaukee Pro), an group of investors led by Wesley D. Pavalon and Marvin L. Fishman, and its first coach was Larry Costello.

The 1971 Milwaukee Bucks. (PHOTO:

By the team's second season, the Bucks were already in the running for a title thanks to the team’s 1969 first-overall draft pick Lew Alcindor, a pick they were awarded after winning a coin toss that determined who would select first in the 1969 NBA Draft. Alcindor – now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – along with Oscar Robertson, Jon McGlocklin, Bob Dandridge and Lucius Allen, among others, led the Bucks to their first NBA Championship in 1971. That was the team’s third year!

The Bucks returned to the playoffs again in ‘72 and ‘73 before coming within a single game of again winning the NBA title in 1974. Not a bad start.

Other than a few disappointing seasons, the Bucks continued to make the playoffs consistently until 1991 – even after Abdul-Jabbar was traded to the Los Angeles Lakers in 1975 after he said he didn’t want to play in Milwaukee anymore.

In 1976, Don Nelson took over as head coach after the departure of Costello and would remain for 11 years.

In 1979, the legendary Sidney Moncrief made his on-court debut for Milwaukee and continued the trend of playoff basketball in Brew City. Led by Moncrief and his incredible offensive and defensive prowess, the Bucks didn't miss the playoffs once throughout the 1980s; however, Milwaukee was unable to make it back to the NBA Finals despite some phenomenal seasons in the '80s.

Sen. Herb Kohl.

Amidst the basketball success, Senator Herb Kohl bought the team in 1985 in part to help prevent out-of-state owners from stepping in and moving the Bucks elsewhere. Three years later, the team moved from the Arena to the new Bradley Center.

Bradley Center
The Bradley Center.

The move to the Bradley Center did not culminate with great team success, though. After a great decade of basketball, the 1990s were not quite as kind to the Bucks, nor were the 2000s aside from a few great seasons when the team was led by Ray Allen.

Throughout the 2000s and into the early 2010s, disappointment became the norm. Bucks fans clinged onto a few exciting players like Michael Redd, Andrew Bogut and Brandon Jennings (forever enshrined in Bucks history as the originator of the "Bucks in six" chant). Apart from some early playoff exits, this was a frustrating time to be a Bucks fan, climaxing in a 2013-14 season during which the team scraped up a mere 15 wins. 

Thankfully in 2013, the Bucks used their 15th pick to draft young Greek player Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was just 18.


The next year, Kohl – who considered, but then decided against, selling the team to Michael Jordan 11 years earlier – sold his majority ownership to Marc Lasry and Wes Edens. Two months later, the Bucks picked Jabari Parker in the draft with the second overall pick.

After fears that the NBA would move the team out of Milwaukee if the Bradley Center was not replaced, a deal was reached to build Fiserv Forum, which would be augmented with a “live block” development that would come to be called the Deer District.

The 2021 Milwaukee Bucks.

Ground was broken in 2016 and the new arena opened two years later.

And you know the rest of the story. With the Bucks in full-on postseason mode, Milwaukee flooded Deer District to cheer and support the team as it battled through its first NBA Finals since 1974, which it won in amazing fashion, in six games, beating the Phoenix Suns.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.