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Milwaukee's New Bucks
Herb Kohl trusts them. Now would-be saviors Mark Lasry and Wesley Edens must earn it from Milwaukee.
Soon-to-be-Bucks owner Mark Lasry introduces himself to Milwaukee, with partner Wesley Edens (far right) and longtime Bucks owner Herb Kohl looking on. (Photo by Howie Magner)

Meet the new bosses. Far from the old boss.

We don’t know much yet about Mark Lasry and Wesley Edens, the soon-to-be-official new owners of the Milwaukee Bucks. We know they know how to make money, to the tune of billions. We know they’re big basketball fans. We know Lasry is pretty tight with some Navy guy named David Robinson. And we know both Lasry and Edens convinced Herb Kohl they deserved his trust.

That last point is not one to be glossed over.

As precious as the Bucks are to herb Kohl… actually, scratch that. As precious as the Milwaukee Bucks are to Herb Kohl, ceding control of the franchise must equate to trusting them with his life. And now, Milwaukee must hope that Kohl’s read is correct.

Herb Kohl was Milwaukee’s NBA security blanket. It may not have been the fanciest or most efficient of blankets. The on-court results may have left it more than a tad tattered. And you may not have liked how the team looked while wearing it. But as long as the Bucks were Kohl’s team, you at least knew they’d be Milwaukee’s team. Make money, lose money, win, lose, packed houses, empty seats… the Bucks were staying put.

There are those who say that, because of Kohl’s political interests, he had no choice but to take that stance, and it’s a salient point. But those who know him well say Kohl’s love of the team, and his desire for its long-term future to be in Milwaukee, were not merely political showery. Moreover, he’s not a politician anymore, and he certainly didn’t have to leave a $100 million going-away present for the future arena.

Even with such a gift, Kohl didn’t exactly go broke owning the Bucks. He turned his 1985 investment of $18 million into a $550 million sale, so there’s more than pure altruism at work here. But had Kohl not mandated that the new Bucks owners keep the team in Milwaukee, he could’ve sold them for much more. Word from NBA insider Bill Simmons is that Kohl could’ve cashed $600 million-plus by selling to suitors who’d have moved the team to Seattle. But Kohl didn’t bite, so yes, there is altruism at work after all.

Even some of Kohl’s most vocal critics recognize that truth. Paul Henning is the spokesman behind the Save Our Bucks movement, a grassroots fan initiative that wants to keep the Bucks here. Collectively, Save Our Bucks has aimed several punches at Kohl’s ownership practices, and pulled very few of them.

“We’ve been very critical of Kohl,” admits Henning, who attended Wednesday’s press conference about the ownership transition. “But Herb Kohl put down his legacy today. And I think every single fan in Milwaukee, or even if you’re not a basketball fan, should appreciate that. He made Milwaukee a better place to live and a better place to run a business. He just plain made it a better place.

“Herb Kohl saved the Bucks in 1985 and he did it again today,” Henning declares, “so he’s going to be responsible for keeping basketball here for 60 years.”

Well, that’s the plan, but the puzzle isn’t quite yet complete. There’s still the matter of this new arena.

Whatever assurances Kohl had built up within the Milwaukee community do not automatically transfer over to Lasry and Edens. Yes, they may have more energy (not to mention more money) to pour into the coming arena fight, and they may have earned Kohl’s trust, but they don’t have the trust of the community. Not yet, anyway.

Right now, Milwaukee thinks of them not as the Bucks owners, but as those hedge fund billionaires from New York. And despite dropping $550 million on the team, and despite an extra $100 million pledge toward the new arena, they have plenty of work to do. Because whether or not the arena gets built in Milwaukee, they'll still have an NBA team that some city somewhere will want.

So Lasry and Edens are outsiders who must prove they’ll care as much about this city as the locals do. Because selling the community on putting public money toward a new arena is already a tough task. Doing so in a community that doesn’t trust its new owners will be an impossible task.

But others have made that transition from outsider to “one of us.” Look no further than that financial wizard who bought the Milwaukee Brewers, Mark Attanasio, and has shepherded it to heights above and beyond those reached by the previous local ownership of the Seligs.

And it has happened in politics, too.

“I’d been in Milwaukee probably 10 years and still had people thinking of me as the guy from Boston,” says Chris Abele, now thought of as that guy who’s Milwaukee county executive. “It is interesting. We have our turf.

“But you know what? I think Attanasio has had an incredible and positive reception,” Abele continues. “I don’t think anybody doubts he’s had an incredibly beneficial impact, and people seem to have embraced him. I imagine it will be the same here.”

Abele counts himself as a lifelong basketball fan. He was a regular at Celtics games in Boston. “I was at the first game that Larry Bird played as a Celtic,” he says. “I was going when [John] Havlicek was still playing. I love basketball.”

He sensed that same type of fandom upon meeting Lasry and Edens, and thinks it bodes well for their stewardship of the Bucks. “When you talk to someone else who’s that kind of fan, you know it,” Abele says. “These guys are that kind of fan. They’re lifelong fans. They’re excited about this. Obviously, they put a stake in the ground for Milwaukee. They believe in the city.”

At their introductory press conference, Lasry and Edens set the foundation for what to expect. They did so with some convincing words to go with their $650 million worth of convincing action.

“We’re committing substantial resources. It’s a tremendous amount of money that we’re spending,” Lasry said. “Part of the reason we’re doing that is we actually believe in all this. We want to build a great team. We want to build a great arena. And you’re going to find that we are going to spend a big, big chunk of our time here in trying to do that.

“I wish you guys could understand how excited we are,” Lasry continued, “and how much we really want to end up building and helping this community, and trying to build the Bucks into a phenomenal team again.”

They are heartening words, but it will take more than words to convince the locals. It will take time, and it will take having that presence here. It will take building relationships here. It will take building trust here.

Do that, and the new bosses will have edged closer to the old one. And in many ways, be poised to surpass him.

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