The MECCA of Milwaukee

Being largely spoken about on a first-name basis usually entails large fortunes, at least in the NBA. Of the 2000s, players like Kawhi (Leonard), Russ (Westbrook), LeBron (James), Kobe (Bryant) come to mind. While arenas, though slightly more long-winded, even get their own vouchers, a la The Garden, The Spectrum, The Forum, etc. Yes, with corporate sponsors changing like millennials with their relationships, it may be hard to establish a deep allegiance with a particular gymnasium, but there will always be a certain animism applied to those palaces of basketball adoration. There were buildings that assumed a soul, during a time at which the team stored within hit a societal apex, one that climbed beyond a local news’ sports segment.

As if wedding the past with the present wasn’t already a favorite pastime of people with fantasy teams and beaucoup sports memorabilia, Giannis Antekounmpo, another player who has been spoken about on a first-name basis, will be etched deeper into Milwaukee history, when he suits up at The MECCA. Though the venue may now be referred to as Panther Arena, the nickname being that of nearby UW-Milwaukee, on Oct. 26, as the Milwaukee Bucks take on the Boston Celtics, The MECCA’s aura will be resuscitated.

First, rewind back to 1969, when, as a brand-new team, the Bucks’ franchise was fawning. After being a part of the NBA platform for only one year, they drafted center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar first overall, out of John Wooden’s powerhouse in the Westwood Village of Los Angeles. It was Oct. 18 at Milwaukee Arena (the building would be renamed after the big man’s departure in ’74) where Abdul-Jabbar played his first game in the National Basketball Association. Against a Walt Bellamy-led Detroit Pistons squad, the newcomer, who would go on to win Rookie of the Year later that season, dropped 29 points en route to a 119-110 win. Not only did that signify a groundbreaking in Kareem’s illustrious career, but it gave more significance to the building itself, as a capital of sports, an animated entity.

Prior to that, the Beatles’ presence six years prior, which was the group’s only appearance in Milwaukee, stood as the only crowning achievement. Sure, the Milwaukee Hawks — the first installment of the Atlanta Hawks — called the arena their home from 1951 to 1955, but nothing was made of it. Now, a future Hall of Famer was manning a team that was not far away from signing Cincinnati Royal Oscar Robertson.

With one Walter Brown — the then-name of the NBA Finals trophy, which is now named after former NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien — trophy later, and multiple All-Star appearances by The Big O and Kareem, who was awarded NBA MVP three times during his time in Milwaukee, the Bucks were official. Following the 1973-74 season, Robertson retired, and Abdul-Jabbar stuck it out one more season, only to be dealt to the beaches of Tinseltown, for a packaged that included small forward Junior Bridgeman and scoring guard Brian Winters. During that ’74-’75 season, however, the name of Milwaukee Arena ceased, opening as The Milwaukee Exposition Convention Center and Arena (stylized as MECCA Arena).

The Kareem-led team found itself riddled with injuries, and grossly indebted to Robertson, as they finished 38-44 under the auspices of Larry Costello. It took the squad 13 years to fully rebound into relevance again. Coincidentally, the Celtics, who the Deer will face in their home opener this season, in commemoration of The MECCA, were taking over the league back then.

In 1977, American artist Robert Indiana, who is referenced as a seminal name in the pop art movement of the late 1950s onward, was tasked with designing the venue’s new floor. Two mammoth “M’s” were married at half court, offering a diamond between them. The simplistic center court, which looked like a red and yellow vinyl record, stood out even for the seventies, as the maple wood floor became the country’s largest canvas for pop art. After loosing its footing for a few years post-Kareem, player Marques Johnson, who was drafted by the team the same year Indiana unveiled the floor, took over as the top dog.

The Bucks continued to roll, this time with coach Don Nelson, as players like Nate “Tiny” Archibald and Bob Lanier stopped by for a season or two. Of course, this was also the time period in which a team from New England was wreaking havoc on the rest of the league. In 1988, the last time the Boston and Milwaukee faced off in the MECCA, the C’s rolled out a starting lineup composed of Danny Ainge, Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish and Dennis Johnson. Milwaukee looked bolstered, too, with former All-Stars Sidney Moncrief and Terry Cummings.

Soon after, in favor of the Bradley Center, the Bucks abandoned the building, which would change its name two more times before turning into Panther Arena, altogether. No matter how many sponsors have tried to move some branding needle by covering the stadium in their accoutrement, when people in Milwaukee still hear “The Mecca,” it’s not about a street-ball court in New York. They hear of an altar, on which Abdul-Jabbar and Moncrief, Archibald, Lanier, Bridgeman (and hordes more) once stood, a platform that would provide treacle to inspired fans, by providing pure cinema to all classes of Milwaukee. Not a platform even, but a hieroglyphic imprint forever chiseled into the coarse roots of southeastern Wisconsin.

So, at 7 p.m. on Oct. 26, when a baby-faced Kyrie Irving and his comrade Gordon Hayward hit the hardwood and perform at the 11,000-seat basketball theatre, against the likes of Antetokounmpo, Malcolm Brogdon, be sure to tally a point for historicity, for bridging old regimes to new regimes, whether in the 414 area code or beyond. A special jersey, which mimics the design of the Bucks’ inaugural 1968 jersey, has already been unveiled. Of course, these will have thick logos belonging to Nike and Harley Davidson, the latter of which will satisfy the NBA’s recommendation of ad patches.

“The Greek Freak” and the creator of the skyhook will be further entrenched in Milwaukee’s rich basketball history. Not only for being historically known on a first-name basis, but for also playing in, perhaps, the most monumental basketball building in the city. Another entity that should only be referred to on a first-name basis, the animated MECCA.


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