The week before the Milwaukee Bucks opened their training camp, the team invited fans to a special RSVP event to get them fired up about the coming season, and about their new look. The gala was at the stylish Milwaukee Art Museum – a perfect venue, because the new look they were unveiling wasn’t the team’s revamped roster; it was the Bucks’ redesigned court.
The floor’s design is inspired by the iconic court the team played on from 1977 to 1988. It was a brightly colored playing surface designed by the pop artist Robert Indiana, who is best known for designing the US Postal Service’s even more iconic “LOVE” stamp. Longtime Bucks broadcaster Eddie Doucette says the court was like nothing that came before, or has come along since.
It looks like whoever’s playing on that floor, night in, night out, is ready to work, and I think that’s what they wanted to portray this time.
“The Robert Indiana concept was nonpareil, in my mind,” Doucette said. “I don’t know what could have been better at the time, because we had an old building, we were trying to make it an attractive, exciting event for people, and that floor did it.”
The Robert Indiana floor came along in the middle of a rebuilding phase for the Bucks, after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar left for Los Angeles and Oscar Robertson retired. The Bucks stopped playing on it when the rebuilding went literal, and the team moved out of the arena called MECCA into the newly-built Bradley Center in 1988. The Robert Indiana floor found its way to a high school, where it was used for a few years, then put into storage. And that’s where it stayed, until three years ago, when a Milwaukeean named Andy Gorzalski got a fateful email in his inbox.
“I received an email from my friend – it’s a link to an architectural salvage site. Everyone knows I’m a huge Bucks fan, so he jokingly says, ‘Hey – you can buy the Bucks floor now and put it in your backyard and shoot around,’” Gorzalski said. “And so I click on his little joke, and lo and behold, it’s Robert Indiana’s MECCA floor on this listing. And it was sort of sad to me in a lot of ways, because it just said, ‘Used Gym Floor.’”
Gorzalski wasn’t the sort of person who could easily afford to shell out the full cost of a historic basketball court, so he sent out some feelers to others in the community. He ended up getting connected to Gregory Koller, the owner of a Milwaukee company that makes… gym floors. Koller stepped in and bought the floor – he died not long after tapping his son Ben to figure out what to do with it. Koller says the answer wasn’t immediately apparent.
“And so that was kind of like my call to duty, and that led me to moving back to Milwaukee and beginning the process of, like, what do you do with a 7,000-square-foot, 40,000-pound piece of pop art – because you can’t use it functionally, as a basketball floor anymore, so we have this big, huge painting, and where do you put it and what do you do with it?” Koller said.
At first, Koller and Gorzalski imagined reconstructing the court in its entirety, and displaying in on a floor, or an enormous wall somewhere. But then Koller approached designer Jeremy Shamrowicz, the co-founder of a Milwaukee firm called Flux Design. And the two set to figure it out.
“And we started talking about, what happens if this form – what happens if this piece is actually designed into an architecture?” Shamrowicz said. “What if we built a building out of it? It’d be a four-story building. What happens if we put an art gallery in it? Maybe a tea house. And that’s when it hit – and I kind of turned to him, and said, ‘You know what, Ben? I think I realized something. The problem that we’re having is we keep looking at this as only a floor.’”
So the newly formed Our MECCA Group laid out the floor at the old arena, one last time, for a fundraiser to bring the court back as something completely different. Now 45 panels from the floor are individually encased in steel, displayed vertically, and arrayed – in the exhibit’s first incarnation – as a giant question mark.
“We got the opportunity to go on that floor a few months ago, when it was fully assembled, and literally look at all the pieces – and really what we came up with was, why don’t we pick ones that get different pop between them?” Shamrowicz said. “Different color palettes, different shapes and forms – some of the reds and yellows and the orange, some of them have some of the letters that pop out. So we’re really getting your eye to play around. So as you move from the piece, from panel to panel, the form itself changes and it’s almost like putting a puzzle piece together.”
At ground level, people can poke their heads between pieces of the floor, and see and even touch Robert Indiana’s artistic creation in an entirely different light. The question mark arrangement is only visible from above. But the first installation is at Milwaukee City Hall, which has an eight-story atrium. Shamrowicz is still considering how the panels will be arranged at the next installation – the Bradley Center lobby.
Meanwhile, the Bucks’ current – and past – focus on art is a welcome development for one of the team’s rising stars, fourth-year center – and artist – Larry Sanders, who says the original floor set a good precedent.
“It looked like – if I was an opposing team, and I was going to that floor, I’d be, ‘Oh, man – it’s going to be a long night,’” Sanders said. “Because it looks like whoever’s playing on that floor, night in, night out, is ready to work, and I think that’s what they wanted to portray this time.”
It’s also a welcome development for fans, who are starved for good basketball, and for signs the team is trying to connect with the community.
“As a huge Bucks fan for – well, I’m 28 years old, so for 28 years — [it] has not always spoken to me that they’ve been invested, 100 percent in this community,” said Andy Nelson, who came out to the new court’s unveiling. “But the fact that they’re being genuine about it means something.”
In the end, the Bucks are hopeful history repeats itself. The incoming basketball commissioner, Adam Silver, has said he thinks the Bradley Center is not up to league standards. And so the team and Milwaukee basketball hope the new floor helps the push for a new arena. Otherwise, the Bucks could be courted by another city with aspirations of basketball artistry.