Though it was listed on an architecture reclamation website under “gym floor,” Andy Gorzalski recognized the pallets of panels as one of the largest pieces of pop art ever created. Growing up in Wisconsin, he had watched the Milwaukee Bucks win many games on that colorful floor, which featured a controversial design created by the artist Robert Indiana.
“You should buy this for your backyard,” the friend who had emailed him the listing had joked. He called the number and put a $20,000 hold on his credit card.
He couldn’t afford it, but he knew he had to find someone who could.
Back in 1977, when the city of Milwaukee hired Indiana, an artist best known for his sculpture “Love,” to paint a basketball court for the Milwaukee Bucks’s home arena, it wasn’t an especially popular idea. The design cost $27,500, a price one op-ed contributor to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel argued should fetch “something akin to the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.”
At a time when sports were more aesthetically practical, Indiana painted the court bright yellow (“At first, I thought we had to wear sunglasses because it was so bright,” former Bucks coach Don Nelson once commented), and he featured the arena’s name, MECCA, large enough so that TV cameras couldn’t miss it. He signed the court, like a painting, on one of its baselines.
The colorful floor put Milwaukee’s Arena on the map–by one account earning placement in 48 newspapers across the country–and, as the Bucks continued a hot streak that would take them to the playoffs in 13 of 14 consecutive seasons, Indiana’s work slowly transitioned from a source of controversy to an iconic symbol of good times.
Facing the prospect of a $20,000 credit card charge, Gorzalski frantically contacted people who he knew at the Bucks’ office looking for someone who could save the floor. Eventually someone proposed the deal to Gregory Koller, the owner of a flooring company in Milwaukee, who purchased the 40,000-pound icon.
Koller passed away shortly after making the purchase. Hi son, Ben, and Gorzalski, encouraged partly by the artist himself, have recently been working to reintroduce the basketball court to the public–this time as a work of art. Their first event, on Friday, brings it back to its old home. For $10, anyone can visit the reassembled floor at what is now called the U.S. Cellular Arena.
Eventually, Gorzalski says he hopes to display Indiana’s floor panels, reassembled in a sculpture, at a public space in Milwaukee. Koller has suggested a good place would be a future arena, still in the planning stages, that will eventually house the Bucks.
When I reach Gorzalski by phone, he’s standing on the MECCA floor, which has already been assembled at the U.S. Cellular Arena. “Even as a kid, I remember it was a strange-looking floor and kind of unique, and nothing else looked like that on TV from other cities,” he says. “We had the coolest basketball floor in the league, painted by an extremely famous artist. And it didn’t happen in New York or L.A. It happened here.”
[Images Courtesy of Andrew Gorzalski]