Tom Miller: Remember when Janesville 'ran' the Bucks?

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Tom Miller
Thursday, April 17, 2014

It probably wasn't a coincidence that the sale of the Milwaukee Bucks was announced Wednesday afternoon.

On Wednesday night, the team concluded one of the most miserable seasons any NBA team has ever put up.

The prospect of billionaire owners, a new arena and possibly the No. 1 pick of the entire draft covers up nicely the mess these Bucks dumped on us during the past six months.

The fact that the Brewers have more road wins in two weeks (6) than the Bucks had in six months (5) sums up the state of the team.

What a new generation of fans might not realize is that Herb Kohl bought the Bucks from a group headed by Janesville's Jim Fitzgerald in 1985.

As it turned out, the move effectively ended a golden era for the NBA franchise.

Fitzgerald's group, which included members of the Cullen and Ryan families in Janesville, became the sole owner of the Bucks on April 30, 1971, after a yearlong battle to acquire 361,230 shares of stock, according to a Milwaukee Sentinel article on the sale. Fitzgerald headed Basketball Associated Inc., a group that acquired 144,475 shares of the team in late 1975.

The sale of the 361,230 shares at $8 apiece (over the then-market value of $5.50) involved a bit more drama than Wednesday's transaction.

At the time, Fitzgerald wanted to fire Bucks coach Larry Costello, a move that the players favored, but the fans and some of the existing owners did not, according to the Sentinel. Fitzgerald agreed to giving Costello a two-year extension, and the other owners agreed to sell Fitzgerald's group the remaining stock.

But Costello knew he was on thin ice, and when the Bucks went 3-15 to start the 1976-77 season, he was fired. Assistant Don Nelson was handed the job.

I was a sophomore at UW-Whitewater at that time. As part of a sports journalism class, we just happened to be scheduled as guests of the Bucks at Nelson's first game as head coach against the Lakers.

Our small group was on a tour of the Milwaukee Arena with a Bucks public relations staff member when Nelson happened to walk past in the concourse. The PR person introduced us.

“Nervous?” we asked.

“Had to change my underwear three times,” Nelson said, smiling, but only half-kidding.

“Nervous Nellie” went on to become the most popular coach the Bucks have ever had.

Brian Fitzgerald, Jim's son, remembers those nine years fondly.

“It was so different,” Brian said Wednesday afternoon. “We were also in the middle of a huge expansion with our cable company, Total TV. It was crazy, crazy.”

Brian said Jim, who died in June 2012, allowed Nelson to handle players' contracts and trades.

In 10 seasons with Nelson as coach, the Bucks won 50 or more games seven times.

“If you look back then, the Brewers were not doing well, the Packers were not doing well and the Badgers weren't doing well,” Brian said. “We were the only shining star in Wisconsin sports under Nelson.”

How times change.

In the early 1980s, the Fitzgerald-led group faced the same problem Kohl has faced the past few seasons. The owners needed a new arena. The MECCA had the smallest seating capacity in the NBA.

“Dad had a heart attack (in 1981) and some of the partners were older than he was and expressed a desire to get out,” Brian said. “In addition, like Herb, we needed a new arena and the city refused to help.”

So the sale to Kohl began. When negotiations were nearly completed, Jane Bradley Pettit and Lloyd Pettit, in memory of Jane's late father, Harry Lynde Bradley of the Allen-Bradley Company, offered to donate $90 million to build what is now the BMO Harris Bradley Center.

The Fitzgerald group couldn't back out.

“We were too far along at that point,” Brian said.

In the nine seasons the Fitzgerald group owned the Bucks, the team went 436-302, a 59.1 winning percentage.

The group sold the Bucks to Kohl for $18 million. It had spent $3.5 million to acquire the team.

Six months later, Jim Fitzgerald received a phone call from NBA Commissioner David Stern.

“He told Dad that Franklin Mieuli (owner of the Golden State Warriors) needed help, and that it probably would be worth a trip out there,” Brian said.

Jim, who owned a house in Palm Springs, met with Mieuli. In 1986, Fitzgerald and Dan Finnane purchased the Warriors from Mieuli for $18 million—the same amount Kohl paid for the Bucks.

In 1988, Nelson became coach and vice president of the team.

They sold the team in 1995 for $142 million.

In 29 seasons with Kohl as the owner, the Bucks went 1,084-1,269.

On Wednesday, Kohl sold the Bucks, a team that needs a new arena and won just 15 of 82 games this season, for $550 million, with the provision that the team remains in Milwaukee.

Kohl is a decent man who always wanted good for the state and the Bucks, as his $100 million donation toward a new arena shows. While Kohl was not a successful NBA owner, he proved again he is one heckuva businessman.

Tom Miller is a page designer/sports writer for The Gazette.

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