As we sat at a cafe in downtown Milwaukee, a small old man in a blazer, slacks and green Milwaukee Bucks hat approached my young daughter. He sweetly complimented her red hair and blue eyes, then asked if she wanted to hear about a good friend of his named Giannis. Well, yes she did. We had spent that first-grade year practicing how to pronounce Giannis Antetokounmpo (YAN-is-ON-tuh-tuh-KOOM-bo). Spelling it was going to be a project for second grade.
I think of that 2020 pre-pandemic encounter now, with the Milwaukee Bucks on the cusp of their first NBA championship in a half-century and the entire basketball-watching world comfortable pronouncing that seven-syllable Greek name belonging to the Bucks superhero. The sweet old man in the hat happens to be the person who, arguably, has more to do than anyone else for the Bucks’ incredible run to a championship.
Without Herb Kohl, the billionaire businessman, four-term Democratic U.S. Senator and longtime Bucks owner, children in Las Vegas or Seattle likely would have been learning the legend of Giannis, one syllable at a time.
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In 2014, when the team needed a new stadium and moving seemed more likely than staying, Kohl sold the team and, as a parting gift, donated $100 million from his fortune to ensure a deal could be worked out to keep them here. His gift was one big piece of what became a public-private partnership that brought the city a brand-new Bucks arena and kept the team from moving. Gov. Scott Walker, the Republican who helped seal the deal, called Kohl “the GOAT of saving the Bucks” in a tweet.
Things cascaded from there: the previously unknown Antetokounmpo blossomed into a two-time MVP, and the team surrounded him with a culture and teammates who have elevated the Bucks from afterthought to elite, which convinced him to stay. Last year, the league’s biggest superstar signed on to a five-year contract extension with the team in the league’s fourth-smallest market. As someone put it, he chose Schlitz over glitz.
Kohl was said to eat at that same cafe, connected to the historic Pfister Hotel, multiple times a day, like a college kid going to the refectory. A bachelor, he usually goes alone but quickly makes friends with every kid. He goes table to table, getting each kid’s name, school and favorite Bucks player. It’s charming. And it’s so Milwaukee.
The last year hit the city harder than most. The pandemic swept through Milwaukee’s poor and minority communities early, exposing the glaring disparities along wealth and race lines. Murders and nonfatal shootings spiked to all-time highs. Fiserv Forum, which employs a high percentage of city residents, sat empty for a season, taking with it all those jobs. And insult met injury when the city earned the right to host the Democratic National Convention, a rare coup for a place this small, only to see it downsized into non-existence by the pandemic. An event scheduled to bring 50,000 people here instead played out in a parking lot in Delaware.
So, we’re not going to apologize for our joy. Tonight, a crowd of up to 65,000 will be on the streets downtown. Take that, DNC. It may seem over-the-top, but it’s hard earned. We’ve been through a lot. The team we’re cheering for last won a title in 1971, before Kareem was even Kareem. And for this magical ride, we have to thank the old guy in the blazer and his good friend, Giannis.