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Former Bucks part-owner Bruce Mertz knew Milwaukee was a good basketball town

The Chicagoan and a team founder recalls its 1971 title and revels in its latest crown from a hospital bed after breaking a hip.

Chicago native Bruce Mertz (posing at a Rolling Stones exhibit in 2017) held his own against the Globetrotters in a game in 1951 at Lane Tech.
Bruce Mertz

LAS VEGAS — Bruce Mertz had been eager to see the Bucks claim their second NBA crown last Tuesday evening after having endured grueling dental surgery that afternoon.

He and his wife, Lori, dined on chicken matzo soup, steamed vegetables over quinoa and grilled salmon. A woozy Mertz left the kitchen of their condo, high atop Water Tower Place, to watch the game.

He never made it to the den.

A founding father of the Bucks’ franchise, the 88-year-old Chicago native passed out, fell and broke his right hip. His wife put a pillow between him and a wall, but he fainted again. She called 9-1-1.

‘‘It all happened so quickly,’’ Lori said. ‘‘He had been through a traumatic event at the dentist. . . . Just a really bad day.’’

The first time the Bucks had been poised to clinch an NBA title, on April 30, 1971, Mertz had a choice perch — courtside at the Baltimore Civic Center — to witness their sweep of the Bullets.

This time, he fell asleep watching Game 6 in a room at Northwestern Memorial Hospital. He didn’t learn that the Bucks had beaten the Suns until hearing the details from a bedside radio Wednesday morning.

A few hours later, he underwent hip-replacement surgery. From his hospital bed Thursday, he fondly recalled the 1971 celebrations in Milwaukee and the Wisconsin Avenue parade. His group sold the franchise in 1976, but he remains a Bucks fan.

‘‘Absolutely,’’ Mertz said faintly. ‘‘That first one was very exciting. And as great as Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] was, I think Giannis Antetokounmpo is as good as Kareem, without question. He can dribble the ball like a guard.

‘‘They played great in these playoffs. They just kept coming back. Jrue Holiday is an excellent point guard. I love this kid, Giannis. He’s fantastic. That’s a nice, young team, and they’ll continue to grow.’’

Hometown hero

Mertz grew up in Albany Park and always has enjoyed basketball. He played at Roosevelt High and upon graduating in 1951 received the invitation of a lifetime — to play against the Globetrotters.

A film released that year featured the team’s exploits. That was an era in which the Globetrotters played many games against college stars. And there was Mertz, guarding all-universe guard Marques Haynes inside a packed gym at Lane Tech.

‘‘And I stole the ball from him and made a layup!’’ Mertz said. ‘‘I was the hottest thing in the neighborhood, a hero in Albany Park. They’d say, ‘There’s the guy who stole the ball from Marques Haynes!’ Just got lucky.’’

He would befriend Wesley Pavalon, who was from nearby Rogers Park. They would play hours of pickup ball and watch the NBA Stags, from 1946-47 through 1949-50, in Chicago Stadium.

‘‘For $2.50, we’d sit way up in the balcony,’’ Mertz said.

Pavalon found success operating TV schools in Milwaukee, and Mertz invested in his Career Academy branches.

Mertz triumphed in the menswear business, first by peddling a line of sports coats and slacks all over the Midwest as a traveling salesman. He would start the Format brand of Italian ties and the influential luxury boutique Ultimo.

In Milwaukee in the mid-1960s, the pals hatched the idea of bringing an expansion NBA franchise to the city.

‘‘We felt there was a tremendous need for a basketball team in Milwaukee,’’ Mertz said. ‘‘Milwaukee is a pretty good basketball town. He knew a lot of people, and I knew a lot of people.’’

Didn’t that effort require some critical political, financial and logistical connections?

‘‘Well, we found them,’’ Mertz said. ‘‘We had some, but we found them.’’

Pretty good hoops town

On Jan. 22, 1968, NBA commissioner J. Walter Kennedy awarded expansion franchises to Milwaukee and Phoenix, and the Bucks became an incorporated entity two weeks later.

A big, bearded and outspoken maverick who had a chauffeur-driven, late-model, dark-green Cadillac limousine, Pavalon — whose business practices were considered suspect by some employees — was named president.

Marvin Fishman, a Milwaukee real-estate agent, became executive vice president. Mertz figures his stake, maybe 20% of the club, cost him $250,000.

Robins, for the Wisconsin state bird, was the favorite among the 14,000 who responded to a nickname poll. Bucks prevailed. The 45 who suggested it received cases of Coke and two tickets to the opener Oct. 16, 1968. One won a new Javelin car.

The team’s first season was horrendous, as was the Suns’ initial campaign. A coin flip, of course, determined which team would draft outstanding UCLA center Lew Alcindor. The Suns called heads; it landed tails.

Kennedy died in 1977, and a grandson is thought to possess that special 1964 half-dollar. Pavalon died at 76 in 2009.

Alcindor legally became Abdul-Jabbar the day after leading the Bucks to that 1971 title. In 1975, a year after losing the NBA Finals to the Celtics, the Bucks dealt him to the Lakers, whom he helped win five trophies.

When Mertz retired 20 years ago, he bought a condo at Turnberry Towers, near the Vegas Strip. He and his wife winter and spring there and spend summers and falls in Chicago.

He became a partner in Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Stone Crab when it opened at The Forum Shops inside Caesars in 2004.

Seems only dental instruments can sidetrack Mertz. His zeal for hoops never has abated. And Milwaukee again has proved his long-held belief that it’s a pretty good basketball town.