Longtime Milwaukee Bucks Owner Herb Kohl: A Legacy of Philanthropy and Sports


Former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, a prominent figure in both politics and sports, passed away at the age of 88. Kohl’s legacy extends beyond his political career, as he owned the Milwaukee Bucks basketball team for 29 years. In this article, we will explore the life and accomplishments of Herb Kohl, highlighting his commitment to the state of Wisconsin, his philanthropic endeavors, and his contributions to the world of sports.

Early Life and Business Ventures

Born in Milwaukee in 1935, Herb Kohl grew up in a family deeply rooted in the city’s community. His parents were Jewish immigrants who owned a small grocery store on the south side of Milwaukee. Kohl worked as a bag boy in one of their stores during his youth, gaining firsthand experience in the retail industry.

After graduating from the University of Wisconsin and serving in the U.S. Army, Kohl returned to the family business in 1959. Over the next two decades, he played a pivotal role in transforming the company into a local powerhouse, expanding from a dozen stores to over 70 locations. Kohl’s success led to the sale of an 80% share of the company to a British tobacco firm in 1972, while he remained CEO until 1979.

Entering the World of Sports

In 1985, Herb Kohl made a significant move that would forever tie his name to the Milwaukee Bucks. He purchased the basketball team from its founding owner, Jim Fitzgerald, for a then-record price of $18 million. This acquisition marked the beginning of Kohl’s long and influential tenure as the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks.

Kohl’s commitment to the city of Milwaukee and the Bucks’ future became evident soon after his purchase. Local philanthropists Jane Bradley Pettit and her husband, Lloyd Pettit, announced their plan to finance the construction of a new arena for the team. This generous gesture solidified the Bucks’ long-term presence in Milwaukee, ensuring their place in the city’s sports landscape.

Challenges and Successes on the Court

Despite the early success of the Bucks in the 1980s, tensions between Herb Kohl and head coach Don Nelson arose, leading to Nelson’s departure in 1987. Under the leadership of Del Harris, the team made consistent playoff appearances but struggled to reach the same level of success as before. It wasn’t until George Karl took over as head coach in 1999 that the Bucks experienced a resurgence.

In the 2001-2002 season, Karl led the team to within one game of the NBA Finals, reigniting excitement among Bucks fans. However, subsequent years saw the team’s performance decline, coupled with growing concerns about the need for a new arena. These factors raised questions about the future of the franchise in Milwaukee.

A Potential Sale and Kohl’s Commitment

In 2003, Herb Kohl came close to selling the team to basketball legend Michael Jordan. However, Kohl ultimately walked away from the deal because Jordan couldn’t guarantee that the Bucks would remain in Milwaukee. This decision demonstrated Kohl’s unwavering dedication to the city and his desire to ensure the team’s long-term presence.

Kohl retained ownership of the franchise for another 11 years before selling it to the current ownership group in 2014. The sale included a commitment from Kohl to contribute $100 million of the $550 million sale price towards a new arena. This pledge, combined with the new owners’ promise to keep the team in Milwaukee, paved the way for the construction of the Fiserv Forum.

The Legacy of Herb Kohl

Herb Kohl’s impact extended far beyond the realm of sports. He leaves behind an unmatched legacy of philanthropy, often carried out anonymously, through his Herb Kohl Foundation. His generous contributions have touched the lives of countless individuals and organizations, leaving a lasting imprint on the community.

In recognition of his dedication to the Milwaukee Bucks and the city, the plaza outside the Fiserv Forum was named Herb Kohl Way. This tribute serves as a reminder of Kohl’s humility, commitment, compromise, and kindness throughout his career.


Herb Kohl, a former U.S. Senator and longtime owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, left an indelible mark on both the political and sports landscapes. His commitment to the city of Milwaukee ensured the team’s continued presence and led to the construction of the state-of-the-art Fiserv Forum. Kohl’s philanthropic endeavors, often carried out anonymously through the Herb Kohl Foundation, have made a significant impact on the lives of many. As we remember Herb Kohl, we recognize his legacy of dedication, generosity, and love for Wisconsin.

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