The Step Back

Bucks hosts one-time celebration at former home


? Mecca’s not a state of mind or a place. Mecca is a way of life ?

For the first time in over 29 years, professional basketball will return to UW-Milwaukee Panther Arena — better known to the basketball world as The MECCA — on Thursday when early MVP favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks host the Celtics. The Bucks’ former stomping grounds will, for one night only in celebration of the franchise’s 50th year, become home again.

The MECCA (Milwaukee Exposition, Convention Center and Arena) began its life as the Milwaukee Arena in 1950. At the time, Milwaukee Arena was revolutionary for its broadcast television accommodations. The arena first hosted the Milwaukee Hawks of the NBA from 1951 to 1955 but the franchise moved to St. Louis after an uneventful 91-190 run. Despite the years of losing, Milwaukee fans were able to see the building blocks of a future NBA champion as rookie Bob Pettit burst onto the scene in 1955.

Listen: Recapping a crazy opening week in the NBA

The Milwaukee Arena was without a professional basketball team until Jan. 22, 1968 when the NBA awarded a franchise to Milwaukee Pro, an ownership group headed by Wesley Pavalon and Marvin Fishman. A fan vote was held for the new organization’s names with 40,000 Milwaukee-area fans participating in the vote. Robins was the overwhelming winner — the Robin being Wisconsin’s state bird. Thankfully, judges went with the second-most popular choice, the Bucks.

The first year — as is typical with most expansion teams — was rough for Milwaukee, but it earned them a spot in a NBA Draft coin flip with fellow expansion team, the Phoenix Suns. The flip would determine the first pick in the upcoming draft, a draft headlined by no doubt No. 1 overall pick UCLA’s Lew Alcindor.

The Bucks won the flip and a bidding war with the upstart American Basketball Association (ABA). Milwaukee basketball finally had its star.

Just two years later, they’d also have their championship. Alcindor (now Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), small forward Bob Dandridge and veteran point guard Oscar Robertson brought an NBA title to Milwaukee.

The dominant playoff run — a run in which the Bucks lost only once en route to the championship — saw the Bucks go undefeated at the Milwaukee Arena. However, three of the Bucks “home” games during this playoff run were played on the University of Wisconsin’s Madison campus, a result of the Milwaukee Arena and nearby Coliseum already being booked.

“In those days, we were kind of disgusted in that (the Arena) put an outdoor show on and completely overlooked the Bucks. I think part of it was because Marquette was so strong. So we were very happy to be welcomed into Madison and we played well.” – Milwaukee Bucks president Ray Patterson (Madison.com)

In a perfect representation of that era of pro basketball, the Bucks attendance during those three playoff games was 12,868 — well above what they were able to draw in the Arena.

Unfortunately for Milwaukee basketball fans, that 1971 championship would be the lone NBA title for the franchise. Jabbar would leave for the warm embrace of Los Angeles in 1975 and the team struggled to make much noise in the NBA’s crowded Western Conference.

The Milwaukee Arena was officially folded into the Milwaukee Exposition and Convention Center in 1974, creating The MECCA. Four years later, The MECCA receiving its defining feature, a uniquely painted basketball court.

The work of famed artist Robert Indiana — designer of Philadelphia’s infamous LOVE sculpture — the court was unlike anything in basketball or sports. Large rainbow Ms took up both half-courts and the unique coloring and lettering throughout makes it one of the most beautiful and daring basketball court designs ever.

That floor and a run of playoff appearances in the 1980s came to define the franchise. Though unable to defeat the Celtics or make the NBA Finals, the Bucks made the playoffs each and every year in the 1980s under head coaches Don Nelson and later Del Harris.

The Bucks would play their final game at The MECCA in May 6, 1988, a victory over Dominique Wilkins and the Hawks in the 1988 Eastern Conference first round. Two days later, a loss to the Hawks would end not only the Bucks season but their tenure at the famed MECCA.

The Bradley Center (now BMO Harris Bradley Center) opened the following season, but to the surprise of many, the Bucks decided not to bring the famous MECCA court to their new home.

In 2014, a Bucks fan discovered the floor being sold for scrap and worked with his friends and Indiana to bring the iconic court design back to life. Tonight’s game will feature a replica of that famous court design, described as “bright” by Antenekombo.

“It takes a little bit of time to get used to (the court) because it’s kind of bright. That’s why we practiced today here so we can get used to it, but I love it.”

While the fate of the original MECCA court is still very much undetermined, a petition is ongoing to have the court displayed publicly. The Bucks will also wear vintage uniforms for tonight’s occasion.

Tonight will very likely be the lowest attended game of the year for the Bucks — the former MECCA holds only 10,783 for basketball, almost 6,000 fewer than the NBA’s lowest capacity arena in New Orleans — but neither the franchise nor the fans will care. On this night, it will be a celebration not only of the Bucks’ 50 years but one of the NBA’s most famous arena and arena floors.

? Here to get drastic, return of the Mecca ?



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