It was like the last days of Rome…if the empire’s decline featured a t-shirt bazooka, a senior citizen dance squad, and Dippin’ Dots kiosks.
After a brutal 81-game stretch that already ensured the team would finish the season with the worst record in the NBA while also guaranteeing the worst single-season record in franchise history, the rudderless Milwaukee Bucks organization finally found a new sense of direction yesterday—a direction that wasn’t a slow downward spiral for a change.
Suddenly, the woes of the long-maligned franchise that employed seven different head coaches this century; a team with the league’s worst attendance that plays its games in, arguably, the worst arena in all of professional sports; a 45-year-old piece of Milwaukee whose fate and location was alarmingly dependent on the health and whims of its well-intentioned but elderly ex-senator owner were no more. The Milwaukee Bucks had been sold.
For the staggering sum of $550M and the promise to keep the team in Milwaukee, billionaire hedge fund managers Wesley Edens and Marc Lasry relieved Herb Kohl of his ownership duties, a title he’d held since buying the team for $18M in 1985. Both Kohl and the new guard each pledged to put $100M of their own funds to help finance a new arena. Combine that with a lottery pick that, at worst, will net Milwaukee the fourth overall pick in an exceptionally strong draft this summer, and the future seems bright for Milwaukee basketball.
The night of April 16 was the bridge nestled between the worst season in Milwaukee Bucks history and the promise of great things to come. An era ended when hands shook and ownership was transferred yesterday morning, and a promising new period begins today. Yet before the deer could cross that bridge into better days (because they can’t get much worse), there was still the matter of the meaningless season finale that stitched the fabric of these two divergent universes together.
A patchwork crowd—nowhere close to the 13,111 listed in attendance—dotted the archaic arena to watch all eight Bucks who suited up partake in the 82nd and last game, against the Atlanta Hawks. Not long into the first quarter, Herb Kohl, adorned in a Bucks cap and a hunter green suit that looked like it was from ’85, was thanked for his role in keeping basketball in Milwaukee and, more so, for knowing when to walk away, and doing so in the best way imaginable.
Despite being without Larry Sanders, who was serving his five-game herb suspension, the Bucks started strong with 39 first quarter points. Brandon Knight had 11 of those, and John Henson added eight points off the bench. Knight led the Bucks second quarter scoring attack, too, with seven more to give Milwaukee a 63-58 edge over Atlanta at the midway point. The highlight of the half, though, was when David Gruber walked up near our section on the way to the concourse.
The star power continued when some ripped dude in leather shorts spun on his head atop a massive metallic cube. Your move, Coolio! Kohl wasn’t the only Bucks mascot moving on. Kevin Vanderkolk, who has been the longtime Bango, is retiring. He left on a sweet note, though: With his kids dressed in Bango Junior costumes, they reprised his famed dunk off a 20-foot ladder—on smaller ladders, of course. He was also honored with a jersey and a jumbotron slide show.
The second half brought familiar sights for Bucks fans of late. In two quarters, Milwaukee managed a mere 40 second-half points to Atlanta’s 53. Knight had 13 more points in the half, finishing with a game-high 31. Henson had 19 in all, and Giannis Antetokounmpo chipped in 10 of his own in 26 minutes. Between quarters, the Badgers men’s basketball team was honored for its recent Final Four appearance, to possibly the loudest cheers of the night.
As the seconds ticked away on yet another Bucks loss (the team’s 67th of the 2013-14 campaign), a small undercurrent within the already small assemblage of remaining fans started a “Thank you, Herb” chant, which the fading figurehead acknowledged with gracious waves in each direction of the arena he was instrumental in (at least partially) filling each NBA season.
Someday in the not so distant future, the Milwaukee Bucks will be playing in a new arena—ready those partial-public funding soapboxes now!—with an almost completely overhauled roster being issued paychecks from a new ownership group. After so many years as a laughing stock or, worse, forgotten franchise, people will be excited about the Bucks again. Wednesday’s 111-103 loss was an oddly-fitting end to one epoch, and a perfect beginning to another.