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How BMO Harris Bradley Center Saved Milwaukee NBA Basketball

BMO Harris Bradley Center

When the Bradley Center opened for the 1988-1989 season, it saved professional basketball in Milwaukee. Now, as the Bucks prepare to open a new arena this fall, BMO Harris Bradley Center is hosting its final events before an eventual demolition.

Drive down North Fourth Street in downtown Milwaukee and you’ll see three NBA arenas, past and present, all in a row: the new Bucks home, BMO Harris Bradley Center and the old MECCA and Milwaukee Arena, now UW–Milwaukee Panther Arena. (No, we can’t think of an instance where three past, present and future NBA arenas sat back to back to back.) The new arena and UW–Milwaukee Panther Arena will operate in the fall, but the BMO Harris Bradley Center will go away sometime soon, with an entertainment district bridging the two surviving arenas in the works.

The first event at the Bradley Center in 1988, interestingly, was an NHL exhibition game between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Edmonton Oilers. The Milwaukee sports landscape was different in the 1980s. It was clear that the MECCA needed replacing—with a capacity of only 11,000 and no suites, the MECCA’s days as an NBA venue were numbered. Plus, there was much uncertainly in the Bucks front office: Jim Fitzgerald and the team’s other stockholders were seeking to sell the Bucks after it became apparent the city was not interested in funding a new arena.

This is where different interests came together. Herb Kohl, who would go on to become a U.S. Senator, bought the team for $18 million to keep the Bucks in Milwaukee. Lloyd Pettit and Jane Bradley Pettit, who owned the minor-league Milwaukee Admirals, were interested in owning a Milwaukee NHL team. Bradley Pettit, heir to the Allen-Bradley fortune and a prominent Milwaukee philanthropist, donated $90 million for construction of the new arena.

That Milwaukee NHL team never materialized, so the arena served as home of the Bucks, Admirals and Marquette Golden Eagles basketball. When it opened in 1988, BMO Harris Bradley Center was a state-of-the-art NBA arena, seating 18,633. But what was state of the art in 1988 became passé over the years, and when it became apparent the Bucks could be relocated because of a subpar arena, plans were hatched for a new arena. Kohl sold the Bucks to Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens, with a few conditions: he would donate $100 million toward a new arena and required the new owners to do the same.

The change in attitudes toward BMO Harris Bradley Center over the years shows how arena design and fan expectations have truly changed. The concourses are definitely on the narrow side at BMO Harris Bradley Center, and there are a lack of high-end amenities found in other NBA arenas. The best days of the Bucks, arguably, came at the MECCA, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson led the Bucks to their only NBA championship in 1971, though the team’s effort to rebuild around Giannis Antetokounmpo brings a lot of hope to Milwaukee fans.

Image courtesy Visit Milwaukee.

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