As the leader of Washington High’s basketball team 43 years ago in East Chicago, Ind., Ulysses Lee (Junior) Bridgeman helped the Senators to a perfect 29-0 record and the Indiana state championship. His teammates included Pete Trgovich, who would win two NCAA titles at UCLA; Tim Stoddard, who went on to North Carolina State and an MLB pitching career, and Bridgeman’s brother Sam.
Fifteen years later, Washington High closed its doors for the last time. Due to declining enrollments and aging buildings there and at East Chicago’s other school, Roosevelt, the two were merged in 1986 on a new campus with a new name: Central.
The Cardinals were born. The Senators and the Roughriders were dead.
“Shot in the heart,” is how Bridgeman felt about it. “You think you’re going to take your kids there and your grandkids to see your picture, and they tear down the high school. So there’s nothing left.”
Bridgeman, a valuable swingman who spent most of his 12 NBA seasons with the Milwaukee Bucks (and still holds the franchise record for games played, 711), knows he could face the same sort of erasure to his professional basketball career if the Bucks ultimately get sold to outside interests and are relocated out of Milwaukee.
“It would almost be the same thing for me personally – it would be devastating,” he said. “Because you’re tied to the history. I’m tied to the history of the game in Milwaukee.”
Bridgeman was at the BMO Harris Bradley Center Saturday in part to make sure that does not happen. He was honored as a popular Bucks alumnus with his own bobblehead night, speaking briefly and waving to the fans during a break in the Bucks’ game against Brooklyn. The banner featuring Bridgeman’s retired No. 2 jersey hung overhead.
He was there as a familiar face and voice, too, to support the Bucks’ place in the hearts and wallets of southeastern Wisconsin sports fans. And most intriguingly, Bridgeman was in the house Saturday as a possible Bucks investor who could share some of the fiscal responsibility and provide continuity for former U.S. Senator Herb Kohl, the team’s 79-year-old principal owner.
Bridgeman, after all, is one of the NBA’s proudest, post-playing days success story. Learning and investing in the fast-food industry before his career ended in 1987, the former Louisville star and No. 8 pick in the 1975 Draft has built a business empire of more than 160 Wendy’s outlets, an estimated 100 Chili’s restaurants and several Fazoli’s locations. In 2012, Forbes estimated Bridgeman’s net worth to be more than $200 million, ranking him No. 18 among the nation’s most wealthy African-Americans.
Kohl announced earlier this season that he was seeking a majority or minority partner to keep the Bucks in Milwaukee and help realize his ambition of a new arena, publicly and privately financed to replace the Bradley Center. Bridgeman already is part of a group that bought into the Sacramento Kings last May to achieve the same results – he is friendly with Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson, a former all-NBA point guard.
That involvement required Bridgeman to disclose little Saturday about his discussions with Kohl – NBA bylaws would require him to divest himself of the Kings’ stake if he were to buy into the Bucks – but it was evident the possibilities appeal both to Bridgeman’s head and his heart.
“You always hope you make good business decisions, but obviously there’s a lot of emotion in this one,” Bridgeman said. “You just hope that doesn’t lead you to do things that aren’t prudent. I still think this is a very good situation. Over the next few years, some things have to happen but I think it’ll prove itself out.”
At 11-47, the Bucks rank last in the NBA standings, not a horrible thing given the depth and quality of talent in this year’s draft but still no fun through the 82-game regular season. At $405 million, they rank last on Forbes’ 2014 list of franchise valuations. And with an average attendance of 13,442, they rank last in that category too. Some of that is due to their arena, which opened in 1988 and lacks amenities common in newer NBA venues. Some of that is due to the Bucks’ traditions.
Milwaukee got spoiled early, landing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a lucky draft coin-flip after just one expansion season, acquiring legend Oscar Robertson and winning its only NBA championship in 1971, the end of Year 3. Bridgeman arrived three weeks after he was drafted, packaged by the Lakers in the mega-deal that brought Abdul-Jabbar to L.A.
The Bucks went from a “Green and Growing” slogan meant to instill optimism (they were 30-52 in 1976-77) to a top Eastern Conference contender through much of the 1980s. With a new coach, Don Nelson, and eventually players such as Sidney Moncrief, Marques Johnson and Bob Lanier, only some dominant Boston and Philadelphia teams stood between them and another trip to the Finals. Later, Jack Sikma, Terry Cummings, Ricky Pierce and others butted heads with Detroit and Chicago.
More recently, the Bucks made six playoff appearances in eight seasons with players such as Ray Allen, Glenn Robinson, Sam Cassell and Michael Redd. No more rings, but fans in Milwaukee got accustomed to competitive games and victory totals in the 30s, not the 20s or the teens. That’s the pledge Kohl had for his customers again in October, which makes this season’s unofficial “tanking” so unappealing at the turnstiles.
But the empty seats don’t scare Bridgeman, any more than Milwaukee’s small market size or lack of sizzle as a free agent destination.
“Nothing is permanent,” he said. “You might not like the record where it’s at. But in my mind … it’s only a matter of time before you get that upward movement.”
As a businessman, Bridgeman – the president of the NBA players association when the average player salary reached $600,000 – termed the league’s growth phenomenal (average salary now: $5.7 million). He likes what he sees in the current collective-bargaining agreement, the revenue-sharing mechanism in place and the potential for the new TV contract in 2016, in their benefit to teams of modest market size.
As a possible owner, he focuses too on standards, practices and habits that have helped him employ an estimated 11,000 workers.
“It’s just like playing,” Bridgeman said. “You have to find what’s within you to make you the best player on the floor. It’s the same way in the business world. For me, it was mopping floors, being there at close, handing bags out the window. A lot of things where people’d say, ‘Why are you doing that? You shouldn’t be doing it.’
“Well, it was the same thing playing basketball when you were out running to get in shape at 5 in the morning or shooting an extra 1,000 shots. It’s really funny how the same principles in life apply to so many different things.”
Buying into the Bucks might be the next shot Bridgeman takes.
Better that than another one to the heart, seeing a part of his history close and move away.