In the newest ESPN 30 for 30 short “MECCA: The Floor That Made Milwaukee Famous” filmmaker Chris James Thompson has captured a unique, however unlikely, piece of Milwaukee sports and art history lore. The Mecca Arena, as it was once called, (now the U.S. Cellular Arena) was home to the Milwaukee Bucks (1970 – 88) and the Marquette Warriors (now the Marquette Golden Eagles) basketball teams as well as a venue for other events.
In 1977, the worse-for-wear arena floor was replaced, but it would be no ordinary basketball court because it just so happened that renowned Pop artist Robert Indiana was commissioned to design a new floor – a massive, utilitarian art work. That in itself, along with Indiana’s $27,500 fee, was a point of contention among many as well as a sense of fascination to others. Indiana had created the uber-famous “Love” icon which permeated 1970’s American culture, landing on hats, t-shirts and even a postage stamp. Now he was on to something else.
But until recently, that floor was languishing in a Missouri warehouse waiting to be sold off, until a few determined Milwaukee Bucks fans saved the day. Andy Gorzalski, Greg Koller, (who initiated the idea and sadly passed away) and his son Ben put themselves out on a financial limb to rescue the floor. And for one amazing summer night in 2013, that floor was reassembled to celebrate and relive a bygone era.
Chris Thompson, a venerated filmmaker whose last effort “The Jeffrey Dahmer Files,” (picked up by IFC) chillingly retold the grisly account of Milwaukee’s notorious serial killer, this time, along with a bevy of local filmmakers, portrayed a much more positive slant to the city in documenting this magical effort of recapturing the Arena‘s floor. Chris explained to me this fascinating story of the historic floor and its glorious return to form.
“What happened was Andy Gorzalski, who is a friend of mine and an avid Bucks fan here in Milwaukee…had just put his credit card down to purchase the Milwaukee Bucks basketball court from the old MECCA Arena in the 1970′s in Milwaukee for $20,000…but he didn’t actually have $20,000.”
But that little fact did not stop Andy…
Chris continued: “Even though he’s a hard working guy, he’s not a wealthy person…but he was so passionate about this floor and what it meant to him and having gone to games with his dad when he was a young boy and seeing the court and all his heroes for the Bucks playing on it. He just couldn’t imagine the court being sent away or shipped off to another country or chopped up…he really was passionate that it needed to stay in one piece and it needed to stay in Milwaukee.”
Obviously, that determination paid off and Chris realized as a filmmaker, that it was “impossible not to get on board with him and see where the story went…You know when you hear from a third party that someone bought a court for $20,000 it seems a bit ludicrous, but when you spend a few minutes with Andy it starts to make sense somehow.”
Upon his first meeting with Andy, the Arena’s history was fondly explained to Chris: Robert Indiana painting the beautiful floor, the Bucks winning the championship, Marquette winning a championship, and many great basketball players playing on the floor and other events that were happening in there, and how it was such a beloved venue, a MECCA in many senses of the word for so many people.
Yet before the intervention of Andy, Greg and Ben, it was amazing that some art aficionado didn’t snap it up first. Or was it because sports and art somehow don’t generally mix?
Chris reflected that “Robert Indiana is such a prolific artist, and the project itself was so unique: to paint every square inch of an entire basketball court had never been done before… (it could very well be) the largest pop art painting in the history of the world…There was lots of different opinions on how much it was worth…a single piece of art can be…priceless in some people’s opinions, and it could be completely worthless in other people’s opinions.”
And in reality, what could one actually do with such a massive and cantankerous proposition?
It’s an enormous floor, weighing thousands of pounds and it takes up so much space that there are very few buildings that it could actually be displayed in or even stored in safely.
“That was another part of the story, that more capital-minded art dealers, salvage people and scrap people thought…it could live on as maybe many different floors for different buildings or different rooms or even cut into table tops or even wall mounted pieces if you cut the wood small enough…which to Andy and a lot of Bucks fans just sounds like a nightmare.” Indeed.
As to the logistics of the task at hand, Chris informed me that “The floor belonged to an organization called the Wisconsin Center District which owns those buildings, the Expo Center and the MECCA…They were the ones that were trying to sell it and were the ones indirectly that Andy was purchasing the floor through, via a website called “Planet Reuse,” so once they found it that this is a local Bucks fan that was going to buy the floor and wanted it to stay as all once piece, I think they sort of worked in cooperation, realizing, hey there’s some interest here. It would be great to have a single night where we could display the floor again, and all these Bucks fans can come back and remember what this floor looked like in its original home inside the MECCA. I’m not sure financially what the agreement was, but I think they were all pretty friendly because they realized the significance of this night and how important it was to the city.”
And Chris, aided with a lot of enthusiastic Milwaukee filmmakers, helped capture the events surrounding the pilgrimage of the floor to make sure as much could be preserved of the story as possible. Along the way, such luminaries as Sidney Moncrief (Milwaukee Bucks) and Doc Rivers (Marquette) weighed in with fond memories of time spent playing on that court.
Being older than Chris, I had to enlighten him that the arena was also home to the hard rock/heavy metal concert culture in the late 70′s and the 80′s. So, a lot of people didn’t know the arena as an exclusive sports arena but as a concert venue. And I related an infamous event to Chris: “It was around 1980, or ’81, and Black Sabbath and Blue Öyster Cult were on tour and this is when Ozzy Osbourne had left Black Sabbath, and Ronnie James Dio was now their lead singer. Well anyway, a lot of fans were just so vengeful that Ozzy Osbourne wasn’t the singer – that in Milwaukee during the second or third song that Black Sabbath played – someone threw a beer bottle and it hit one of the Black Sabbath members.”
“Black Sabbath was taken off the stage and a riot ensued where they tore up the Arena seats, the sound equipment, and everything. That made headlines. That was a huge thing. The mayor I believe banned Black Sabbath from coming back to Milwaukee. Anyway, they ripped up the Arena.” Those were the days.
As for what’s next on the plate for Chris, he informed me that he‘s been “…really interested in learning about the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Also, the rendition program that the U.S. Government was operating in the early part of the 2000′s in trying to combat the war on terror. I’ve been exploring the idea of making a feature film covering some of those topics, and I’ve done some interviews and a lot of research for a few years.” Sounds like it’s back to the heavy stuff again.
As to the future of the MECCA Arena, the naming rights were just resold, so it’s a good guess that the venue will be around for some time to come even though it lives in the much larger shadow of the Bradley Center (which is now home to the Bucks). Ironically, in 2013 a new floor was installed in the Bradley Center to pay homage to the Robert Indiana floor. Not bad.
“MECCA: The Floor That Made Milwaukee Famous” premiered on Grantland.com here.