ESPN visits Milwaukee history with MECCA floor
The design of the MECCA floor. Photo: Image by Our MECCA Group
In the summer of 1977, the MECCA board that owned and operated Milwaukee's arena and convention center needed to refinish the basketball floor that the Bucks and Marquette University played on.
But rather than stay with the staid and traditional, Milwaukee thought big, bold, and different. MECCA board member Steve Marcus, now Chairman of the Marcus Corporation, convinced the rest of the board to commission world renowned pop artist Robert Indiana, best known for his "LOVE" sculpture, to paint something on the arena's basketball floor that would be uniquely Milwaukee.
The result became the world's largest pop-art painting. The only basketball floor in the world where every inch was covered by paint. A splashy, sunburst of color explosion that would instantly identify Milwaukee to national television audiences for more than a decade.
But when the Bucks and then-Warriors moved into the new Bradley Center in 1988, Indiana's working masterpiece was doomed to various storage basements only to be brought out for various women's and youth games in front of countless dozens of fans. The floor, first put into use in the 1950's when the Milwaukee (now Atlanta) Hawks played at the arena, was no longer having the best athletes in the world play on her; she was lucky to have pickup games.
After a while, few thought about whatever became of the old floor. Many had assumed it had already long been dismantled and sold for scrap.
It wasn't until 2010 when Andrew Gorzalski, a producer at a local advertising agency, was tipped off by a friend to a salvage website that listed only a "gym floor" for sale. But this was no ordinary gym floor.
Gorzalski's friend was right. The MECCA Floor was being sold off for salvage to the highest bidder. But other than the floor being unplayable because of the many decades of use and countless dead spots, what is believed to be the oldest removable basketball floor in the world was in shockingly pristine condition. But Gorzalski's fear of what might happen to such a major piece of Milwaukee history if it were sold for a pittance of its actual worth, sprung him into action.
Putting all common sense aside, Gorzalski maxed out his family's credit cards to the tune of $20,000 and held the floor until he could find a permanent and suitable steward for the priceless relic. After about a month of searching, Gorzalski found Gregory Koller, the owner of Milwaukee's ProStar flooring company. Koller had been the longtime supplier of the basketball floors for the Bucks, and had an affinity for the massive piece of local nostalgia.
Of course, Koller wasn't sure what he would actually do with the floor, plus it wasn't a great time for his business. Meeting payroll was an ongoing challenge, but that didn't deter the 60-year old gym and basketball floor executive from knowing that the MECCA Floor had to be saved and preserved.
But tragically, before Koller had the chance to do anything but take the historic relic to his company's storage facility, he suffered a massive heart attack and died on July 4, 2011. Yet again, the future of Indiana's largest work was up in the air.
That was until Koller's only son, Ben, stepped in and became the MECCA Floor's caretaker and champion. In part to honor and carry out his father's final project; in part because of a combined love of sports, art, and Milwaukee, Ben Koller set out to tell the story of how the MECCA Floor came to be.
For the next couple of years, the younger Koller and Gorzalski discovered they were kindred spirits and set out to recreate, reconstruct, and re-exhibit the floor. Fittingly, the first public display was in the arena itself - laid out in its original configuration in its original home last fall.
From there, after enlisting a team from Milwaukee's Flux Design, the floor was displayed as individual pieces at both Milwaukee City Hall and in the Bradley Center east atrium.
But the playing space that had NBA greats Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bill Russell, Bob Cousy and countless others play on was a story that needed to be told.
On June 11, ESPN's award-winning "30 for 30" documentary series will tell the story of the MECCA Floor and why it was, and still is, relevant. How did a conservative rust-belt community seek out an eccentric, openly gay artist from the Bowery to paint a basketball floor and sell it to a skeptical public as a good idea?
"Milwaukee is a city that's big enough to do great things yet small enough to get them done," Ben Koller tells WISports.com.
For Gorzalski, working with ESPN's team of editors and producers was a dream come true. "They're filmmaker-centric and so supportive," he says. "Some of Wisconsin's best filmmakers and storytellers had the opportunity to tell this unique Milwaukee story, that's something I'll always feel grateful for. I hope people love the film."
Both Gorzalski and Koller have a long-term vision for the future of the floor, which includes displaying and using it once again in a public space. Both have also been publically outspoken about the need to build a new arena to replace the aging BMO Harris Bradley Center, as NBA Commissioner Adam Silver has decreed the Bucks home unfit according to league standards.
Koller says that he hopes ESPN's "30 for 30" helps spur on other big thinkers in Milwaukee to act to preserve both the past and the future.
He says, "this film is a testament to the opportunity we all have to tell our city's story, preserving and building upon Milwaukee's great legacy of dreaming big and making it happen."