Last week, Bucksketball’s Jeremy Schmidt wrote an article detailing the aspects of SaveOurBucks.com that he liked and disliked. A stream of passionate dialogue ensued in the comment section — suggesting that “Save Our Bucks” is a rather polarizing initiative among Milwaukee’s fan base. The month-old website provides an in-depth chronology of Bucks owner Herb Kohl’s tenure and calls for significant changes to the franchise. I thought it was important to provide fans with additional information on the nature of the initiative, so they can responsibly decide whether to embrace or disregard the “Save Our Bucks” movement moving forward.
I recently caught up with Paul Henning, spokesman of SaveOurBucks.com, in an effort to clear up the website’s underlying goals. Henning, 33, is a downtown Milwaukee resident who helps run MOFOCO, a Milwaukee auto parts dealer. See below for a shortened transcript of our hour-long discussion.
I read the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s article on ‘Save Our Bucks,’ and he referenced an anonymous founder of the website. Could you describe the operative structure of the initiative?
Henning: I am the spokesperson for SaveOurBucks.com. I was approached by the person who put together the website, who wishes to remain anonymous at this point for reasons that are best known to him. He put together a website and brought together a few other guys to make this thing actually happen. There’s a web developer who is actually putting the stuff up on the website. The person who started the website is writing the articles as the editor. And I’m the one who is taking the message to the public, meeting with media and helping to garner some public support for this.
Is this a RealGM message board collaborative effort, or is it limited to a few individuals?
Henning: We’ve been posting on RealGM for a while – so, yes, that’s where we originated in our Bucks fandom. I think there are a lot of people on RealGM who support this, and there are some who don’t. … I wouldn’t know where to put percentages or anything, but we have a good amount of support on RealGM.
It seems a little bit like a grassroots, bottom-up movement – in that it is trying to change the sentiment at a fan level, with the hopes that it seeps up into management thinking. What do you have in mind for it?
Henning: We’ve all seen how the Bucks have unfolded in recent history. Herb Kohl, [GM] John Hammond and the rest of the employees in upper management run things a certain way, and it has yielded unsuccessful results. What we’ve done is put together a collective of information and compile it on a website, and we’ve asked very specific questions about the way things have been done. … We do know that there is a fan base here in Milwaukee that it will support this team if it has success, if it’s built the right way and if it has players who will be here in the long term. …
We think there is a message that needs to be delivered. A lot of fans are speaking by not speaking – by just not going to games. A lot of them have given up. There is as significant amount of apathy toward the organization. There are actual negative feelings toward the organization by people who used to be huge, die-hard fans. We are trying to combat some of the apathy that is in the Milwaukee Bucks franchise, because we are in the critical stage right now to determine if the Bucks will be here in the long term. …
[Kohl] is pretty much the man holding all of the cards. We’re just a group of fans – who have been fans for a very long time – trying to express our support, but it’s kind of a ‘tough love’ situation.
You mentioned attendance. How do you convince casual fans, who are most of the people attending games, to support a long-term rebuild and – for lack of a better term – short-term tanking?
Henning: It’s pretty easy to connect with them, because most of the casual fans who are in my age demographic [remember] the 2001 season. A lot of the casual fans might say, ‘Why should we support you? Why do you think you know how to build this team the right way?’ One of the founding parts of our SaveOurBucks.com message is top-five picks, and we only have to point to Glenn Robinson and Ray Allen, who were both top-five picks. … It only takes reminding people about Allen and Robinson to understand and appreciate the value of top-five picks.
Do the Bucks need a Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson to get people in the stands, or can they still get people in the stands en route to getting those franchise players?
Henning: Well, I think the Bucks have found a very marketable star in Giannis [Antetokounmpo]. I think Hammond has done a phenomenal job drafting in the position that he’s been getting. GMs are not perfect, and they’re going to make mistakes. But the last few years – especially where they’ve been – they’ve walked away with a real player. So, the cupboard is not bare right now, but Hammond also seems to be serving two masters at the same time – never being able to fully commit to a direction. …
The Bucks basically have two goals, and Hammond has alluded to this in interviews before: You want to have young players on the team, but you also want to have veterans who are going to help you win, compete and teach the youngsters how to play. At face value, I don’t disagree with a lot of that sentiment, but we’ve just been down this road a number of times. Now they’re at this position, and I think it’s basically hit rock bottom. With the limited shelf life that we have on this franchise, the clock is ticking. And I don’t think it’s too late to turn things around – they have a phenomenal opportunity with next year’s draft and the trade deadline coming up, as well.
Were you satisfied with the response to ‘Save Our Bucks’ by John Steinmiller, executive vice president for business operations?
Henning: I thought it was very respectful. He recognized our existence. He said he valued our fandom and that although we don’t always see eye to eye on how things should be built, he still appreciates us as fans and as a part of the Bucks community. So, his response was absolutely fine.
The last time the Bucks landed the number one pick, they selected Andrew Bogut. That offseason, they re-signed Dan Gadzuric and Michael Redd to large contracts – in Redd’s case, a max contract. They signed Bobby Simmons in free agency. And they traded a future first-round pick for Jamaal Magloire. Is that a concern – that even if they tank this season, they’re going to go into this offseason with the playoffs in mind?
Henning: That’s an absolute concern. People see the record and then see the billboard – the “Winning Takes Balls” lottery balls – and say, ‘Well, you guys wasted a lot of your money. We’re already losing, and it looks like we’re going to get a high draft pick.’ Well, Chad Ford just had a chat and mentioned two teams to keep an eye on at the trade deadline that would be interested in moving their pick for help now – and he listed the Bucks as one of those teams. So, I don’t think our mission has been slowed down by the record; I think it’s only been accelerated, because the opportunity is just staring us right in the face. With some of these tidbits getting out to the media, it doesn’t make Bucks fans feel good.
Fans are interested in [the “Save Our Bucks”] message when we hear things about Omer Asik being brought in while Larry Sanders was down. Now, we hear about trading our pick. … I think that would possibly be the worst thing that could happen, because this draft is so important.
How do you keep a consistent message among the different members of ‘Save Our Bucks?’ There has been speculation about the Bucks trading Larry Sanders. Hypothetically speaking, say the Bucks trade Sanders for a protected first-round pick in next year’s draft — and you have a differing view of how it impacts Milwaukee’s future than the person who founded the website?
Henning: We really haven’t had any disagreements about what the message is, and we’ve communicated extensively, so I really don’t think that’s going to be an issue. We’ve stayed on point, we’ve communicated with each other, and we know where this is going.
How do you plan to continue the momentum of the website? You just had the ‘Winning Takes Balls’ billboard erected a couple of weeks ago, and you’ve had a lot of national coverage since.
Henning: The billboard has a limited run. It was signed for 30 days – we got a few extra days, because it went up early. We had a billboard release party a week ago. Austin Aries, who’s a Milwaukee native and TNA Impact wrestler, lent his support to get the message out. That was kind of a jumping out point for us to get together, meet with people face to face and meet some members of the media. It really helped to have a professional athlete — who’s from Milwaukee and from a different sport — to voice his support for the Bucks staying here in Milwaukee long term. He’s been around the whole country and he’s seen the differences between cities that have professional sports franchises and cities that don’t.
As far as keeping things at the forefront and keeping people interested, we’re going to be doing a pregame meet up next week Tuesday, before the Golden State Warriors play the Bucks. Andrew Bogut comes to town, and his presence actually lends a very good platform for a number of the issues that we’re facing.
We have had some jabs from people who saw us spend the money on the billboard and said, ‘Well, why don’t you guys go to games?’ Something that many people don’t really understand – because they don’t see the donor list – is that all of these people do go to games. And if they don’t, it’s because they live halfway across the world or halfway across the country. … There are a lot of season ticket holders who paid for that billboard. We want to get out from the message boards and get to the games.
One criticism I’ve heard is that ‘Save Our Bucks’ is serving more as a shrill than a concrete solution. What would you tell those people – what are the concrete goals of this movement?
Henning: The endgame is getting a new arena. And right now, there is no public support for it. We are the diehard fans for the Milwaukee Bucks, and we are the ones who are standing up and saying something about it. The concrete goal – to get this endgame accomplished – is to continue to spread public awareness and get public support for these issues, because there’s a significant amount of opposition. Politics is a game. Right now, there are people out there speaking against the Bucks. We want to be a voice for somebody speaking for the Bucks.
So, you think that in order to garner public support for a new arena, the Bucks need to build the team a new way?
Henning: There used to be a much higher level of traffic that went downtown 10 or 12 years ago, when the [Bucks’] attendance was better. If the product on the court would have been better, there would have been more support and more money. Maybe they wouldn’t be in such a dire situation. Maybe Herb Kohl would have more money and could [build an arena] all by himself. Maybe the public support would be better. If the Bucks went to the Eastern Conference Finals last year, it would be very hard to be anti-Bucks at a time when they are riding so high. If things had been managed differently, they might not be at such a dire crossroads.
At our website, Jeremy noted a few things he liked and disliked about ‘Save Our Bucks.’ He said he liked the initiative’s core belief and its accurate assessment of the Bucks’ lack of media coverage, but disliked cheering loudly for losses and some perceived arrogance. Do you think that was a fair assessment?
Henning: A couple of the things that he accused us of, he took his own bait and played off them in his own article. It’s really hard to understand why he would throw a couple of things out there, and then go out and do the exact same things he was just advocating against. …
(Response from Jeremy: Fair point. I’m trying to get better at this.)
But it’s a fair assessment, because there are a number of people within the belief system who are out there on Twitter and might be making comments or posting pictures that [are disrespectful]. So, I absolutely agree that there are tones and negative parts of conversations that I certainly don’t like. I really don’t like that word ‘tanking’ – it gives off a huge negative vibe. And there are situations in NBA history where players have been benched with fake injuries to try and manipulate draft position, and that’s not what I’m asking [Milwaukee] to do.
There’s a fine line between arrogance and confidence. … We do feel confident in our data. We do feel confident in our historical description of the Bucks’ success – or lack thereof.
You’ve done interviews with local radio, local TV and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and have been covered by the likes of Deadspin and Sporting News. Are you satisfied with how ‘Save Our Bucks’ has been portrayed by the media?
Henning: Absolutely. It took some of the national media to pay attention to us first before some of the local media would, which I completely understand – and one of the articles we put out was talking about that very issue. This website has only been live for six weeks, so it’s a short shelf life to get this much media attention. I can’t say we’re surprised, but we’re encouraged. A lot of people reached out to us and said, ‘You guys are saying the things that traditional media aren’t saying. You guys are asking the questions that they don’t seem to be asking.’
You’ve mentioned before that, in some ways, it’s a blessing to have Kohl as an owner, because of his loyalty. But some people have argued that it’s a curse, because of the mediocrity.
Henning: As much as we want to talk about the past, I don’t really want to go over that. There’s no point. We’re trying to keep this as positive as possible, but obviously we’re going to say some things that are going to make some people in the front office unhappy.
We feel the Bucks might have just lost their way a bit. After hearing things about mandates that Kohl has given to Hammond, it’s pretty tough to keep biting your thumb. A lot of fans would like to know what Hammond could have done with autonomy. The first year that he came in, it seemed like he was doing everything that fans wanted him to do. He won Executive of the Year in his second year, with the ‘Fear the Deer’ team. And everybody really, genuinely liked the moves he was making – putting together a team with great players and a smart salary structure. It seemed like after that year, Hammond’s model was kind of thrown out the window. They started handing out big-time contracts to (John) Salmons and (Drew) Gooden. They took on (Corey) Maggette. It seemed uncharacteristic [compared] to the first couple of years of Hammond. … If you have an owner who’s willing to override his basketball people, I think that’s a pretty big problem.
You mentioned Kohl’s meddling tendencies. You can go back to his relationship with Don Nelson or the nixing of the Zach Randolph trade. He also has an interesting organizational structure below him. With that in mind, can they get to a new arena, can they be successful and can they rebuild with Herb Kohl as the owner?
Henning: I think history goes against what you’re saying. The answers to that question isn’t known. It’s hard to project whether or not it could happen. I think he does need to face a new stark reality. The tone coming out of the organization sounds hopeful. We do think that he is looking at some very hard facts right now and trying to understand how it got to this point – and how to get out of it.
So, can a full rebuild be done under Herb Kohl? History has proven that it has not been done. I do think it will take a new management and ownership team to come in here and make that complete culture change that [owner Mark] Attanasio did with the Brewers. But I do think Kohl and Hammond can certainly assist with putting down a foundation for that next ownership team.
Going off that, if the Bucks ‘sell’ at the deadline, end up with a top-five pick and responsibly approach free agency next summer, would that be enough? Or would ‘Save Our Bucks’ still see an ownership change as mandatory?
Henning: I don’t think ‘Save Our Bucks’ is done until the arena deal is done. Once there is an arena deal in place for the long term, that’s going to be success for us. Obviously, we understand our position in the totem pole of this whole thing. Herb Kohl holds all of the cards. There are a lot of business leaders, government leaders and political leaders who have way more power than we do. I don’t want to overstate our effect on this [arena] happening. But we do have a role, and I think that’s to increase the public support and get awareness out of there. There were a lot of people who didn’t even know this was a pressing issue. … It’s a dire situation; it’s an emergency situation.
Herb Kohl being the long-term owner is not a viable scenario. We’re not here to demand any sort of ownership change — the pieces are already in place for that to happen. He’s hired a firm out of New York that he used 10 years ago, when he explored a sale with a number of different investors – Michael Jordan, who wouldn’t assure that he would keep the team in Milwaukee, being the most notable one. Herb Kohl stepped up and said, ‘I’m not going to sell to you. You’re the greatest player of this generation, but you’re not getting my team and taking it to Las Vegas or wherever.’ He deserves an incredible amount of respect. He’s been an amazing figure in the history of basketball in Milwaukee.
Will the site’s focus change when new management or ownership comes in?
Henning: Yes. Things always evolve and change on a day-to-day basis. Right now, we’re focusing on the product on the floor and why it’s led to the current state of where the Bucks are at. But this is a larger issue, and we hope to help foster more discussion regarding the arena issue.
Do you think Save Our Bucks has influenced the Bucks’ line of thinking in any way so far?
Henning: The offseason moves were made with a playoff team in mind. There have been a significant number of injuries to this roster – Larry Sanders, most notably, breaking his thumb. Nobody could have ever seen that coming. Nobody could have seen (Luke) Ridnour getting scratched before the first game or Brandon Knight straining his hamstring two minutes into the game. Ersan (Ilyasova) having ankle issues, Caron Butler having problems, Gary Neal having problems. I think the Bucks have assessed the situation in that they don’t really have any other options in [whom] to play. It’s hard to tell if anything has changed. … The Bucks are playing the youngsters because that’s the situation right now.
So, have we directly affected anything? I really don’t know.
As you mentioned, it seems like the young guys are playing right now as a result of luck more than design. What credit do you give the Bucks for the situation they are in right now – featuring young players and heading toward the lottery?
Henning: What other choice did they have besides playing the youngsters? I think it’s the coach’s job to play the players who give him the best chance to win on any given night. I think [head coach] Larry Drew is a very smart basketball mind. He’s evaluated the talent on this team and found a rotation that is to his liking. …
I’ve always encouraged the Bucks to play the young guys and let the chips fall where they may. And I think that’s what we’re starting to see, and it’s very encouraging. A quote I keep repeating is, ‘It’s easier to sell hope than it is to sell expectations.’ That’s something [former Bucks broadcaster] Eddie Doucette said at the new court unveiling. That line just kind of stuck with me. The Bucks have been selling everyone expectations that they’re going to be competitive, that they’re going to compete for the playoffs and that Herb Kohl has done everything possible to put a quality product on the floor. But short-sighted goals end up hurting you in the long run.
It seemed like the Bucks were looking at the Pacers model this summer, especially with the hiring of assistant general manager David Morway. That is, build around Sanders, Henson and Giannis, shoot for the playoffs and then ‘luck’ into a Paul George or Roy Hibbert later in the draft. That obviously hasn’t gone as planned this season, but how does that compete with a full rebuild?
Henning: As far as that strategy, I will say this: They sure spent more money than I think they should have toward that goal. Their salary structure isn’t that bad, but they also made some really head-scratching moves that really didn’t seem to make any sense at face value this offseason. The number one head scratcher was Carlos Delfino. Nobody really understood why they gave out that contract in the amount and when they did. They went after a number of veterans who eventually spurned them. … The Bucks just kept going on down the line in free agency, and that’s really not the philosophy that we think is going to work out best. Free agency has not been kind to the Milwaukee Bucks.
Why are you so invested into the Bucks that you would take the time to be involved with this?
Henning: My dad was a season ticketholder in the first season that the Bucks existed. He held the season tickets for more than 10 years. He sat second row behind the basket for a lot of the glory years. He saw first hand the success and the fun and the excitement that a great basketball team in Milwaukee can create. He passed that passion down to me. I ended up going to games ever since I was young.
I graduated from high school, went to college in Eau Claire for a couple of years, and made my way back to Milwaukee right during the middle of the 2001 season. The city was just in a complete buzz. Every single person you talked to that had any interest in sports was going down to Bucks games or organizing parties to watch games. It was really something special to be part of. It was a really exciting time, and it’s something I think other people should be able to experience.
Being a passionate basketball fan is part of my core – it’s who I am. I’ve seen the highs; I’ve seen the lows. I think we can get back there. I want to see this team stay here for the long haul. I’ve been heavily invested for a long time, and I was presented an opportunity to do something about it. I don’t know how much of an impact I can have, but I feel like I need to stand up and do something. … If we lose our team five years down the line and I did everything I could, I’ll still feel good about myself, because I cared enough about my community – I cared enough about my team to spend the time and effort. If we are able to keep our team in five years and I’m standing in the new arena downtown that’s hosting another Eastern Conference finals, I’m just going to have a big smile on my face.
If you had the opportunity to sit down with Herb Kohl today, what would you tell him?
Henning: I would tell him that, number one, I respect him for everything he’s done for the city of Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin. I would tell him that he is the reason the Milwaukee Bucks are still here – he knows that; I want him to know that we know that. We feel this is his chance to leave a lasting legacy on the city of Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin for years to come – long after he is gone. He is critical for how the sale is handled moving forward, and we believe in him and his efforts – and his commitment to keeping the team in Milwaukee.
Much like Bud Selig found his time to step away from the Milwaukee Brewers while finding a new management team and ownership group and getting an arena deal done, we hope he can follow Bud Selig’s footprints and leave this team in Milwaukee for the long term with a blueprint for success.