What’s the first thing you would do with $550 million? Travel the world? Pay off your student loans? Buy sodas for everyone? Odds are saving an NBA franchise would be near the bottom of that list. But for Senator Herb Kohl, it was a no-brainer. The man who has been at the forefront of basketball philanthropy in the state of Wisconsin for more than three decades made his latest move to ensure that the NBA stays in Milwaukee.
Kohl, the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks since 1985, announced the sale of Wisconsin’s NBA franchise last week to hedge fund billionaires Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry for $550 million.
After months of speculation about a potential sale of the Bucks, Kohl wound up selling the Milwaukee franchise for more than 30 times his initial investment of $18 million three decades ago.
But as Kohl has demonstrated during his entire tenure as the Bucks’ owner, owning the team wasn’t about the money, it’s always been about keeping basketball in Wisconsin and in the city of Milwaukee. That is why he bought the team and that is why he sold the team.
“Being part of the effort to bring the NBA franchise here originally and then keeping it here has been a big part of my adult life,” Kohl said in a press conference Wednesday at the BMO Harris Bradley Center. “I have owned the Bucks for more than 29 years and our fans, our business partners and my colleagues at the Bucks have been on my mind and in my heart everyday. So I hope you understand why this process was and is so important to me and why I was not going to make a move unless I was convinced that it was the right one.”
With first-year NBA commissioner Adam Silver threatening to move the Bucks to Seattle if plans for a new arena were not in place by 2017, Kohl felt the pressure to bring in new investors or potentially new majority owners for the franchise. He found that in Edens and Lasry. But to ensure that new era of the Bucks got off on the right foot and their roots stayed firmly planted in Milwaukee, Kohl took part of his wealth and donated $100 million to be put toward a new facility for the organization.
That’s right, after selling the franchise, the first thing the former senator did was stick $100 million right back into it. But it was for the good of basketball in the state of Wisconsin. Without it, Milwaukee’s chances at securing a new arena would be much more bleak.
Of course this isn’t the first time Kohl has made a generous donation in the name of basketball. No, it’s no coincidence that the University of Wisconsin’s basketball arena is named the Kohl Center. The Wisconsin alum donated $25 million for the construction of the basketball arena that would be named in his honor.
The difference this time is that the cost is four times as high and there won’t be a Kohl Center South, as his name will not be attached to the new arena. He won’t allow it.
“They said they wanted to name (the Kohl Center) after me; I said, ‘Fine.’ Here it’s different,” Kohl told the Milwaukee Business Journal. “I’m making a pure gift. There’s no return from it financially.”
“If they named it after me, they would be forgoing naming rights money. And I wouldn’t do that because they need that money. So, no, it’s not going to be.”
While the moves Kohl made during his time as owner to the Bucks may have left some fans scratching their heads, or worse, it cannot be denied that without Kohl the landscape of basketball in Wisconsin would much different. The Bucks may have moved to Seattle, Las Vegas or Louisville, Ky., a long time ago and the Kohl Center wouldn’t exist.
Sure, the Bucks were terrible this year, were named as the least valuable franchise in the NBA by Forbes earlier this year and were last in attendance this season. OK, it sounds a little bad when I write it all out for you, but the Bucks are important to Milwaukee and to Wisconsin. The franchise owns a rich tradition that others could only dream about. With names like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Oscar Robertson and Ray Allen once donning a Milwaukee uniform, the Bucks have and will mean a lot to this state.
So, while Kohl’s generosity may fall on deaf ears at a time when the Milwaukee Bucks’ popularity isn’t exactly skyrocketing, it doesn’t diminish what he has done for the franchise and for the state. So here’s to you, Senator Kohl, it’s been a hell of a ride.