Herb Kohl, a former Democratic U.S. senator from Wisconsin and former owner of the Milwaukee Bucks of the National Basketball Association, has died. He was 88.
Herb Kohl Philanthropies, which did not give a cause of death but stated that he passed away after a brief illness, announced his passing on Wednesday.
Former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl dead at 88 https://t.co/SW08IPc5cv
— WCPO 9 (@WCPO) December 28, 2023
Kohl was a beloved figure in Wisconsin, having purchased the Bucks for $18 million in 1985 to protect them from leaving town and lavishing his riches on civic and educational organizations throughout the state.
“Senator Kohl was a dear friend and one of our very best public servants,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver said in a statement. “In addition to his decades of devoted service in the U.S. Senate, he set the standard for NBA team ownership as the governor of his hometown Milwaukee Bucks for nearly 30 years.
“Through his purchase of the team, Senator Kohl ensured that the Bucks would stay in Milwaukee and remain an important pillar of the community. There was never any doubt about his extraordinary commitment to the franchise and city that he loved, and his vision and unparalleled financial contribution towards a new arena in Milwaukee will forever be remembered. … He will be deeply missed by his NBA family.”
Kohl was one of the Senate’s wealthiest members and the lone owner of a professional sports franchise.
“The opportunity I was given to purchase and to keep the team here in Milwaukee is one of the most unique and fortunate experiences I’ve ever enjoyed,” Kohl once said about purchasing the Bucks.
When Kohl bought the small-market franchise, it was in the midst of its sixth consecutive winning season, and the Bucks went on to win in his first six complete seasons as owner. The team improved in the late 1990s and early 2000s after struggling through most of the 1990s.
Kohl was one of eight NBA owners who asked NBA Commissioner David Stern to establish revenue sharing in 2006. In 2014, he sold the team to New York billionaires Wes Edens and Marc Lasry. He gave $100 million to the development of Fiserv Forum, which replaced the outdated Bradley Center arena, and helped assure the team’s continued presence in Milwaukee.
The arena first opened its doors in 2018. Three years later, Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks to their first NBA title since 1971, defeating the Phoenix Suns.
“He’s done so many things for the city of Milwaukee, so many things for the Milwaukee Bucks organization,” Antetokounmpo said of Kohl following the Bucks’ win over the Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday night. “He’s going to be definitely missed.”
Kohl’s civic responsibilities stretched far beyond the preservation of professional basketball in Wisconsin. He gave the University of Wisconsin $25 million to help fund the construction of the Kohl Center, which houses the school’s basketball and hockey teams. It was the largest single private gift in university history.
Kohl was born in Milwaukee, where he was a childhood buddy of Bud Selig, who went on to become Major League Baseball’s commissioner. They roomed together at the University of Wisconsin and were friends throughout their lives.
Kohl earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Wisconsin in 1956, a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard University in 1958, and he served in the Army Reserve from 1958 to 1964. In the 1970s, he served as president of the family-owned business Kohl’s supermarket and department stores. In 1979, the corporation was sold.
Kohl entered Wisconsin politics in the 1970s, serving as the state Democratic Party’s chair from 1975 to 1977.
Following the retirement of Sen. William Proxmire, Kohl chose to run for the Senate in 1988, defeating then-state Sen. Susan Engeleiter, the Republican candidate. He was elected again in 1994, 2000, and 2006.
Kohl was an outlier in the Senate, a chamber notorious for personalities. He was modest and did not seek recognition, but he was effective on topics crucial to the state, particularly dairy policy.
“I am a person who does not believe in invective,” he once said. “I never go out and look to grab the mike or go in front of the TV camera. When I go to work every day, I check my ego at the door.“
He also used his money to fund his Senate races, allowing to him to portray himself as “nobody’s senator but yours.“
Kohl also used his own money to establish the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation, which provides scholarships and fellowships to Wisconsin students, teachers, and schools.
He never accepted a wage hike in the Senate; he received $89,500 each year, the same amount he received when he entered the Senate in 1989, and returned the balance to the Treasury Department.
“More than anything, Herb loved Milwaukee and Wisconsin, and that is where he chose to live out his days,” Kohl’s foundation said in a statement. “He touched an incalculable number of lives, and those who love him would remark that he is among the most decent people to ever walk the earth.”
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