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Copyright 2013 Journal Sentinel Inc.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (Wisconsin)
September 18, 2013 Wednesday
Final Edition
A News; Pg. 6
1010 words
The art of sport
MARY LOUISE SCHUMACHER, Journal Sentinel art critic, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


Journal Sentinel art critic

After countless fast breaks and hard fouls, the Milwaukee Bucks have pounded their floor into submission. So they've designed a new one with a throwback touch: It borrows elements from Pop artist Robert Indiana's much-heralded 1977 MECCA floor. The Bucks want to play hoops on a work of art again.

The design will be unveiled at the Milwaukee Art Museum Tuesdayand will be on the court in time for some preseason games in October.

Indiana's floor, with a giant M flanking each side of the midcourt line, made headlines and captured national attention. The new floor draws enough elements from Indiana's original design that the team sought his blessing (but more on that later).

The new floor will position Milwaukee as a city "that cares as much about art as it does about sport," says Theodore Loehrke, senior vice president for the Bucks.

"It matches up so well with the progressive thinking about our city," he said. "It's about honoring the past and reaching out to our future."

Getting a unique, art-infused floor design for the Bucks was a different ball game this time around. It involved months of wrangling with the NBA, setting aside the idea of working with a local artist, and a drive through the night to get the permissionof an aging and reclusive artist.

The idea surfaced when the old MECCA floor did.

The old floor, which the Bucks and Marquette abandoned in 1988 when they moved to the then-new Bradley Center, was put up for auction in 2010. Gregory V. Koller, who owned the ProStar flooring company in Milwaukee, bought it. Ben Koller inherited it from his dad when his father died.

Since then, Ben Koller has formed a group, Our Mecca, which has been celebrating the floor, working on having it transformed into a modular public artwork and advocating for integrating it into any new basketball arena built here.

This is when the Bucks took notice, Loehrke said.

"The original court was so original, so Milwaukee...such a breakthrough," Loehrke said. The idea of doing something like the original MECCA floor was floated early on in the brainstorming process among the design and marketing teams for the Bucks.

With NBA games televised internationally today, the NBA has become pretty fussy about what these floors look like, Loehrke said. There are "layers and layers" of scrutiny, he said.

In the end, the Bucks came up with something that is inspired by and that pays homage to Indiana's floor. But that introduced another hurdle -- they needed the artist's approval.

"That was huge for us," Loehrke said. "If he wasn't comfortable with what we were doing... we had to get his blessing."

At this point, the clock was running down. They'd need to finalize the order for the $100,000, state-of-the art floor in a matter of days to have it ready for the new season. And Indiana is famously reclusive, living on an island without a phone and preparing for a career-defining retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He's also been ill recently.

Would Indiana like it? Would he think the team was ripping off his ideas?

A road trip

At one point, Koller had hoped that the Bucks would consider commissioning a new artist-designed floor by a Milwaukee artist. His group pitched a design by Reginald Baylor, a well known Milwaukee artist who works in the Pop art tradition and who's incorporated basketball iconography into his work for many years.

"The Bucks were really, really floored," Koller said about Baylor's approach, which had a painted wood grain and a North Woods feel. But even though the team loved it, it decided the league would find Baylor's design too radical.

"In today's NBA, I don't know that a Robert Indiana floor or something even more groundbreaking than that would work," said Loehrke. "At the same time, we still want art to be a part of this."

So, to woo Indiana, the artist famous for his "LOVE" artwork, the Bucks enlisted the help of Koller, who has developed a rare friendship with Indiana. Koller had already visited the island before to talk to Indiana about creating a new life for the old floor.

Koller set off with a friend and drove through the night to the coast of Maine, where he took a 90-minute ferry ride through choppy waters to Vinalhaven Island and then walked a half mile in pouring rain to Indiana's house. He knocked on the door unannounced one morning a few weeks ago.

"He was like, 'Ben, I wish you wouldn't have come,'" Koller says, adding that Indiana's health seemed fragile. "So I just walked into his living room like he didn't say that."

Koller told him the story and laid out the designs. "I won't say that he jumped for joy," Koller said. "The first thing he said to me, was, 'What do you think?'"

Koller told Indiana, no, it's not the MECCA floor or an original work of art by an artist, but it's a fitting homage, too. Officially, the new floor was designed by the Bucks' design team in consultation with the NBA.

"He said, 'OK Ben, I'm cool with it,' and he gave us his blessing," Koller said.

As for Baylor, he said, "I am not hurt at all. I'll make a canvas of that floor design. You just won't be able to play basketball on it."

The Bucks will unveil the Indiana-inspired design on Tuesday at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Drive. The event, which runs 6 to 8 p.m., will include appearances by Bucks Hall of Fame announcer Eddie Doucette, Bucks players Larry Sanders and John Henson and other luminaries. A limited number of free tickets are available to the public at

A temporary public artwork created from the MECCA floor will be unveiled at City Hall as part of Doors Open Milwaukee, a citywide architectural open house, on Saturday.

To see one of Reginald Baylor's designs for the court and pictures of Ben Koller and Robert Indiana in Maine, go to the Art City blog:

Copyright 2013, Journal Sentinel Inc. All rights reserved. (Note: This notice does not apply to those news items already copyrighted and received through wire services or other media.)

September 18, 2013


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