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Herb Kohl, Public Servant & Bucks Savior, Dead at 88

Longtime Wisconsin senator secured team’s future after lackluster ownership tenure

Terry Stotts Press Conference Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Herb Kohl, the Milwaukee Bucks owner from 1985 to 2014, has died at age 88 after a brief illness, the Herb Kohl Foundation has announced (via the JS).

Kohl’s was a life of service, and service to the people of Wisconsin in particular. Born in Milwaukee, he would study at the University of Wisconsin—Madison before earning an MBA from Harvard. After a six year stint in the Army Reserve, Kohl would return to his home state and eventually rose to become CEO of his family’s eponymous grocery/department store chain. He would win election to the US Senate in 1988 and would go on to win three more — thanks to the gradual increase in sports franchise values, he was widely acknowledged as the most independently wealthy legislator in the nation.

In part thanks to the wealth accumulated through the company and its sale to British American Tobacco, Kohl was able to purchase the Milwaukee Bucks from Jim Fitzgerald for $18 million. The team would post a 60-22 record in 1985-86 under the aegis of coach Don Nelson before being swept by the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. Nelson would leave after the following season, Del Harris would take over, and the long interregnum of Bucks irrelevancy had more or less arrived starting in 1990.

The Bucks story from 1990 until the ownership changeover in 2014 was one of low cashflow, mediocre (or worse) front office stewardship, ownership meddling, a hockey arena-turned-NBA home, and a glimpse or two of something worthwhile beneath the habitual irrelevancy. All of this combined into the two overarching pillars of Kohl’s ownership tenure: Saving the team’s existence while watching it slowly fall to pieces on the court.

We must acknowledge how poorly the team was run for much of Kohl’s tenure: Kohl was never particularly cash-rich in comparison to new generations of owners who bought into the league after him, and the Bucks were run more like a local family operation than an organization on the cutting edge of the burgeoning sports landscape. With a tiny local TV market and bad rosters, the 90s were a lost decade and the 2000s not much better besides the brief renaissance of the 2000-2001 team led by Glenn Robinson, Ray Allen, Sam Cassell, and coached by George Karl. That team would lose in seven games to the Sixers in the Eastern Conference Finals before promptly detonating in trades that saw Robinson and Allen leave town. Milwaukee would not make it past the first round of the playoffs for 17 years.

It was into this morass that Brew Hoop was born.

It should also be acknowledged, though, that Kohl played an indispensable part in making sure we have a Bucks team to talk about at all. His purchase in 1985 was done in part to secure local ownership and to head off any ideas of relocation. Having flirted with selling the team to Michael Jordan in 2003, Kohl declined to hold on to the team to again secure a local commitment to Milwaukee. His final act as owner, the sale of the team to the triumvirate of Wes Edens, Marc Lasry, and Jamie Dinan in 2014, was also his most significant: As part of the transaction he committed $100 million of his own money and wrangled a commitment for another $100 million out of LED to build a new home for the Bucks. From the start to the end of his tenure, the paramount goal was keeping NBA basketball in Milwaukee, and in this he was a resounding success.

Kohl would be able to watch the Bucks bring championship glory back to Milwaukee seven years after his sale, and he was honored with a championship ring of his own:

It was the culmination and vindication of a lifetime spent trying to better the lives of his fellow citizens and to make sure that Milwaukee, Wisconsin continues to have its place on the map. A worthy legacy for one of the city’s most loyal sons.