In 1977 Robert Indiana painted his own Sistine Chapel on the Milwaukee Bucks’ hardwood floor, creating a legendary court

1968 is a year known for its radical social changes. Revolutionary winds blow strong around the world and even the National Basketball Association seems ready for a new dawn, welcoming two new teams: the Phoenix Suns and the Milwaukee Bucks. Surrounded by nature, embraced by Lake Michigan and Lake Superior, Wisconsin has never been considered a basketball state. The dynamism of basketball seems to be too different from the peace of Milwaukee.

The first season is far from being exciting: the Bucks finish with one of the worst records in the NBA, with barely twenty wins. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is selected the next draft and alongside Oscar Robertson starts to form one of the most dominant pairs in the league. After only three years, the first NBA title comes: but is still not enough to be considered one of the powerhouses of American basketball. The franchise is young, it’s winning, it attracts thousands of spectators, but something is missed. Ownership is determined to send a strong signal, the Bucks must be on everyone’s lips and must become a true brand.

They decide that their home, their arena, their hardwood floor should identify their will. The project is entrusted to Robert Indiana, one of the leading exponents of New York Pop Art, famous for his sculptural poems ‘HUG’, ‘EAT’ and ‘LOVE’. Indiana, whose name refers to the craddle of U.S. basketball, accepts the commission but wants everything kept under wraps until the work is completed.

The investment, financed largely by public money, is just huge. The halo of mystery surrounding the final result combined with a very long wait starts to fuel discontent throughout the city. Some journalists are not convinced about it, declaring “with all that money we could have repainted the Sistine Chapel”. In 1977 Indiana finishes what is still considered the world’s greatest Pop Art work: an entire arena that becomes a true masterpiece. An artistic-basketball installation that can be actively enjoyed by thousands of people. The hardwood, painted entirely by Robert Indiana’s hands, is yellow, with two mirrored M’s made of lighter wood. The two areas, like the circle in the middle of the court, are red. In the center we find also the MECCA lettering, an acronym for the new Milwaukee Exposition Convention Center and Arena.

The court factor is surprising: The Bucks hit the playoffs every season, always surpassing fifty wins and reaching the finals three times. They’re defeated only by Julius Erving’s Lakers and Larry Bird’s Celtics. Marquette University is also driven by MECCA’s incredible energy and manages to shape a sensational season in 1977, winning the only NCAA title in its history.

MECCA’s maintenance costs, however, are extremely high and have a too heavy impact on the Wisconsin franchise’s financial report. In addition, the Bradley Center project is beginning to take shape. The change of facility seems to create a curse, and the team fails to qualify for the final round of the season for seven consecutive seasons. The hardwood designed by Robert Indiana is disassembled and put up for sale. But no one seems to be interested in giving new life to “the floor that made Milwaukee famous,” which thus ends up in oblivion.

In 2010, Andy Gorzalski – a Bucks fan since birth – came across an ad that was peculiar. The item is described as a simple ‘gym floor,’ but for those who have tied their sporting childhoods to the Milwaukee franchise it’s easy to understand the uniqueness of that floor. The price, $20,000, seems unaffordable, but Andy goes into debt and buys the Indiana’s work. Shortly after the purchase, Gorzalski comes into contact with the Koller family, owners of a famous sports hardwood company that has always been linked to the Bucks, and in 2017, fifty years after its unveiling, the Koller family’s ProStar Surfaces realises a perfect replica of the MECCA, attracting the attention of the media and especially the fans, who thanks to that floor are able to go back in time.

“In life, in sports… It is always important to celebrate your heritage. Milwaukee to me was an unbelievable place to play”

The importance of remembering history is a fundamental action in sports and in life, as remind the Charles Barkley’s words, who with his Sixers walked the MECCA wood several times. In 2018, the Milwaukee Bucks decided to further celebrate Robert Indiana’s MECCA by making ‘city edition’ kits inspired by the colours used by the artist. Despite the efforts of Andy and the Koller family, MECCA’s iconic floor has yet to find a buyer who can enhance it and give it new life. It’s still preserved as a true relic in a specialized warehouse, waiting for someone or some place, maybe a museum.

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Text by Filippo Vianello