Ready to be floored again: Colorful MECCA court returns for one night
With a giant M flanking each side of the midcourt line, a candy-apple-red bull's-eye at center court and "MILWAUKEE" at either end, Robert Indiana's 1977 basketball floor at the old Arena once defined Milwaukee.
It may define the city again, if Ben Koller, who owns the MECCA floor, one of the largest pop-art paintings on the planet, has his way.
Piece by piece, workers this week have been placing the floor that made Milwaukee famous — seen by countless sports fans in person and on national television — back in its original home. All 7,000 square feet will be underfoot and on view for a one-night reception Friday at what is now the U.S. Cellular Arena, 400 W. Kilbourn Ave.
The homecoming is an unveiling of sorts for plans to turn the floor into a public art sculpture in Milwaukee. Koller and others will talk about those plans at the Friday event, which will be attended by retired members of the Milwaukee Bucks, elected officials, local artists and Indiana himself.
"It is one of the most iconic basketball floors in the history of the sport," said Koller, adding that it also is a symbol of Milwaukee's progressive, risk-taking and creative ways.
Long before Milwaukee took a chance on Santiago Calatrava's design for the Milwaukee Art Museum, it took a chance on a jazzy, openly gay, New York-based artist for its sports arena, Koller noted.
The decision prompted "the floor wars," with piles of front-page newspaper stories over the $27,500 price tag, the selection of a non-local artist and the fact that the design remained a tightly guarded secret until the floor's unveiling.
For Steve Marcus — chairman of Marcus Corp., and, at that time, a member of the board of the Milwaukee Exposition and Convention Center and Arena, or MECCA — it was his "lost summer." He had tapped Indiana for the job and spent a lot of time defending the project to critics and the media.
When the floor was finally unveiled in 1977, some critics complained that the crayon-bright colors were too loud and the shapes too complicated for a basketball arena. Bringing new meaning to "in the paint," it was the first floor in the history of the NBA to have every square inch covered in pigment.
But most players, coaches and fans loved it. The timing didn't hurt; Marquette had just won its first NCAA championship, and the Bucks were starting a run in which the team made the playoffs in 13 of the next 14 seasons.
"Everyone loved it," Marcus said. "It had this beautiful, golden glow to it. When you were sitting in the Arena, it felt like sunshine was being reflected on you. And, of course, a lot of games were being played in the middle of winter."
Making an impulse buy
The Bucks and Marquette abandoned the MECCA floor in 1988 when they moved to the Bradley Center across the street. Eventually, the floor was placed in storage.
In 2010, when the floor was put up for auction at an online site hawking architectural artifacts, buyers from beyond Milwaukee showed interest in buying it.
When Gregory V. Koller, who owned the ProStar flooring company in Milwaukee, found out about the auction, he quietly excused himself from a meeting at the Boys & Girls Club. When he came back, he nudged his son.
He had bought the floor.
"I said, 'Dad, I kind of understand, but what are you going to do with this floor?'" Ben Koller said Wednesday, adding that he was sure his mother would pass out worrying over how they were going to make payroll. "He smiled at me and said, 'I have no idea what I am going to do with this thing.'"
Ben, who had been happily living in Los Angeles at the time, agreed to come home for a few days to help his father recruit people in the art community who might have ideas for the floor's future. The small circle of confidants included artist Reginald Baylor, Baylor's business partner Heidi Witz, and Sarah Fierek of Radio Milwaukee, WYMS-FM (88.9).
"Here we are, a city trying to revitalize our creative community," Baylor, who remembers the Robert Indiana floor from when he was young, said Wednesday. "This is a reminder that we do and have done experimental things like this here."
After a gathering of this small group, the elder Koller made a motion of sorts, suggesting that Ben should move back home and lead the effort to find a home for the pop-art treasure. Everyone voted in favor.
"I was so upset with my dad," the younger Koller said. "He said, 'Ben, it will all work out.'"
Four days later, Gregory Koller died of a heart attack. He was 60.
After his father's death, Ben Koller went on a long road trip. While he was driving in Missouri one day, his cellphone rang. It was Robert Indiana, the famously reclusive artist who doesn't have a phone and lives on an island off the coast of Maine.
Indiana, best known for his "LOVE" paintings with the stacked letters and a tilting "O," had gone to great lengths to track him down. He invited the Kollers — Ben, his mom and sister — up to his home, where they surveyed Indiana's art, heard great stories about fellow pop artists Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, and talked about the floor, perhaps second in uniqueness in basketball to the Boston Garden's checkered parquet.
Months later, back in Los Angeles, Ben got another call from Indiana. He told the 80-something artist he was swimming at the beach and figuring his life out.
"There was a really long pause when I said that," Koller said, "and he goes, 'Ben, I need you to stop traipsing around the U.S. and get your ass back to Milwaukee. You are the owner of the MECCA floor. And I am not getting any younger. Get in your car. Call me when you get there.'"
Then Indiana hung up.
"He was acting like my father," Koller said. "He gave me a call to duty."
Email Schumacher at firstname.lastname@example.org
MECCA FOR MODERNS
Friday's night event at the U.S. Cellular Arena, 400 W. Kilbourn Ave., will include artwork by Reginald Baylor, a pop artist who uses basketball iconography in his work; live art-making by Dwellephant; historical memorabilia from the Milwaukee Bucks and Marquette Warriors; music by DJ Kid Millions; and a cash bar. Ben Koller's plans for the future of the MECCA floor also will be discussed at the event.
Admission is $10 at the door. The doors open at 7 p.m.
A prototype for how the floor might be used to create a sculpture will go on view at City Hall during Doors Open, the architectural open house held in venues across the city Sept. 21 and 22.