Nearly 30 years ago, Herb Kohl made an easy promise to Jim Fitzgerald, who owned the Milwaukee Bucks: as potential suitors from Minnesota tried to get "Fitz's" attention with more total dollars, Kohl vowed he would keep the NBA in Milwaukee if he was owner.
Kohl wanted to get involved with ownership when the NBA expanded into the city in January 1968, but the former Senator often joked that his father felt he needed to spend more time and effort running the family grocery stores.
So, the basketball fanatic who developed lasting friendships with Al McGuire, Hank Raymond and Rick Majerus watched from the sidelines until Fitzgerald was ready to divest himself of the team.
That torch was passed to Kohl on March 1, 1985, for $18 million.
"He stepped up to effectively save the team for Milwaukee 30 years ago," former NBA commissioner David Stern said.
Kohl remained true to his promise to Fitzgerald, and the Bucks remained in the city (also due in large part to a substantial gift from the Pettit family for the construction of the BMO Harris Bradley Center.)
"I know that one of the things that he demanded when he sold the team to the Senator was that it was to stay in Milwaukee. That was Jim Fitzgerald. And Herb Kohl honored that," said former Bucks radio play-by-play man Eddie Doucette, whose last full year on play-by-play was 1984 but continued doing games on television early in Kohl’s tenure.
"There’s no question about Herb Kohl’s commitment and passion for this city and state. He’s been masterful as far as that’s concerned. I thank him for trying to keep this whole situation afloat. He’s done that. He’s done it honorably."
It was a fact that wasn't lost on his partners in the NBA, including longtime Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor, who also served in the Senate for years with Kohl.
"I have the greatest admiration for Senator Kohl as a partner in the NBA," he wrote in an email. "But even more so, as the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks. Times have been good and bad for the small markets like Milwaukee and Minneapolis in the NBA. But, Senator Kohl’s willingness to stick with his team and continue to work within the NBA to produce a good product for our fans is to be admired. He always contributed to the process to help make not only his team but the league continue to grow brighter and brighter as we’ve seen with the many positive changes over the years."
Nearly 15 years ago, a 40-year-old tech billionaire bought into the NBA and Kohl embraced him – even if the pairing of the staid Senator and boisterous Mark Cuban would seem like an odd match to the outside world.
"I love Sen. Kohl and what he had done for the Bucks and the NBA," Cuban wrote in a email. "Back when much of the NBA was trying to shut me up or quiet me down, Senator Kohl was always very supportive.
"From a business perspective what stood out the most during my time in the NBA is that no one stood up for small markets teams (more) than Sen. Kohl. He made it his mission to do everything possible to put every team in a smaller market in a position to compete on the court and off."
Edens and Lasry paid $550 million for the franchise, and they, too have promised to keep the team in the city with a pledge of "at least" $100 million toward a new arena.
"As it became apparent that he would be wisest to exit ownership, his primary concern was to assure the continuation of the team in Wisconsin," Stern said of Kohl.
"It was always Wisconsin first. The team had some hard years, but he wasn’t afraid to spend on talent whether it was fiscally prudent or not because he very much wanted to have a winner for Milwaukee. But more than a winner, he wanted to have a team in Milwaukee as well. I think that was a very important guiding principal in terms of his desire to find the right buyer who would commit to Milwaukee and could profit from the Senator’s commitment to Milwaukee because he’s apparently willing to make yet another substantial contribution to the new building."
That contribution was a gift of $100 million toward that new arena.
"Herb was a very generous guy and he has been all his life," said Kohl’s longtime friend Steve Marcus, the chairman of the board of Marcus Corporation. "And so, this was not an unusual thing for him to do. Not at all unusual, and very much in keeping with his desire to keep the team in the community.
"So, it's magnificent what he's done. I mean, I frankly was amazed at the size of the contribution. But again, not at all surprised that Herb would do something like that."
In sports of course, the most important measurable is championships, as well as wins and losses. In Kohl's long tenure, the Bucks reached the Eastern Conference Finals twice and made the playoffs 14 times. The teams also finished with a losing record 16 times.
While he may not have always seen eye-to-eye with his employees on the court, Kohl never let that seep into his relationships off it.
"I love Herb Kohl," said former coach and general manager Don Nelson, who worked under Kohl for just two seasons. "We had our problems when I worked for him because we didn’t agree on the direction of the team, but I’ve matured a little bit since those days and look back my association with Herb Kohl very fondly. (I’m a) good friend of his. He served his country well and I’m just really happy for him."
Despite his obvious passion for the team, and the people he employed throughout the organization, Kohl was stoic when he officially announced that he letting go of the franchise he has loved since its birth.
Marcus wasn’t surprised that Kohl didn’t become overwhelmed, at least publicly, when he announced he was finally selling the team.
He recalled the pragmatic, practical man who served on four Senate committees, and at one point tried to meet every employee at his family’s stores before they were hired – and who later kept a close eye on the season ticket list and would still add that personal touch whenever necessary.
"Every time that we were a little bit slow in renewing our season tickets, and we had a bunch of season tickets, if we were at all slow I'd get a call from Herb," Marcus said with a long laugh.
"Which I think speaks to how closely he's watching what's going on with the team. It was sort of interesting that he would call me up – are you going to renew your season tickets? He was always working hard at it. It was, in a way, while it was to his benefit it was also to the benefit of the community.
"It was hard for him I'm sure, but yet he's kind of a guy who, at some point would say, you know, time to go, time for me to do something else and for something else to happen with whatever it is, in this case his basketball team. He did the same thing with regard to (retiring from) the Senate."
Kohl admitted as much.
"Well, I wasn’t going to live forever," he said with a slight smile back in April. "I’ve approached a time in my life when I’ve had to think about, how do we approach the idea of succession? And then, it was brought to a head by the need for a new building, and the fact that that’s a project over several years that doesn’t get done in a short time. And, it came to me, and was very clear, that the owners of the team over the next period of years should have the central roles in that project, not me. That site, design, construction, all the other things that are involved in getting to a new facility and, likely, they were the ones who were going to operate this facility and be responsible for the bottom line of this facility.
"So that isn’t something that I should be doing in my own mind. It’s something that new people like Wes and Marc should be doing. That’s how I came to the conclusion early on in this process with Steve Greenberg (of Allen and Co.), that maybe we should be looking for the next generation of ownership and not for some kind of a partial situation. That’s how it came to pass. And I think it makes good sense."
But, he did allow that "our fans, our business partners, and my business partners at the Bucks have been on my mind and in my heart every day."
While nearly 25 years of public service can steel a man during a speech, it wasn’t a platitude.
"He tends to be reserved, but when you get to know him his range of knowledge on so many issues is extraordinary," Stern said.
"He’s both erudite, well read, understands intellectually all the issues that are attached to running a professional basketball team. And, no matter what he was working on or no matter where he was, that I think the Bucks tugged at his heart strings and his emotions. I think this final sale will reflect that commitment and wisdom one more time."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.