MILWAUKEE – The Boston Celtics hadn’t set foot inside the MECCA since March 3, 1988, but that streak came to an end Thursday morning.
The C’s returned to the historic building ahead of their 8 p.m. matchup with the Bucks tonight in Milwaukee.
The MECCA, short for the Milwaukee Exposition, Convention Center and Arena, was completed in 1950 and played home to the Bucks from 1968-88. The last time Boston visited the building, Larry Bird (31 points), Robert Parish (19 points) and Kevin McHale (16 points) combined to score 66 points during a 117-116 loss to the Bucks.
Now, nearly 30 years later, the C’s are back inside the building to play in the contest that has been titled “The Return to The MECCA” game, in celebration of the 50th anniversary season of the Bucks franchise.
“it’s special. It’s very special,” said Al Horford, whose father, Tito, joined the Bucks the season after the team moved out of the MECCA and into the Bradley Center across the street. “We’re celebrating the older players, the NBA, everything that they’ve done for us to put us in this position that we’re in today.”
Brad Stevens added, “It’s a fun game to celebrate the history of basketball here in Milwaukee and certainly in the NBA. It’s always fun to be a part of stuff like this.”
The building has been in use since the old days, and has been renamed the UW-Milwaukee Panthers Arena. Tonight, however, it will hold an old-school feel on Throwback Thursday for a league that hasn’t graced its floors in nearly three decades.
The Bucks re-created the bright and dizzying court that Robert Indiana designed in 1977 for the team to play on inside the MECCA. The court houses a red circle at half court, with a large, orange diamond outside of it that extends inside the top of the 3-point arc at both ends of the court. Inside of the diamond is green, arced lettering with black shadowing. The letters “MECCA” face toward both sidelines.
The painted area is also red. Yellow paint fills in the letter “M,” for Milwaukee, on both sides of the court. Each letter “M” begins at the baseline and ends at the half court line. The rest of the court is orange, with a blue outline.
Celtics players walked onto the court at 10:57 a.m. local time this morning with wide-, just-awoken eyes that attempted to absorb the brightness of the court. Horford whipped out his phone and snapped pictures, while others cracked jokes about the old-school and challenging colors on the floor.
Rookie Jayson Tatum said it’s probably the brightest court he has ever played on, but added, “I mean, I think it’s kinda cool.”
The Bucks organization has been planning this particular game for the better part of a year, working with the NBA to turn an 11,000-seat arena that was built nearly 70 years ago into a temporary home for two modern NBA clubs.
Interestingly, the arena appears to be in outstanding condition considering its age.
The UW-Milwaukee and Marquette basketball teams have both been playing home games inside the arena for years, as does the Milwaukee Admirals team of the American Hockey League. The consistent presence of those teams has resulted in consistent upgrades for the arena. The building just underwent a $6.3 million renovation within the last two years.
In fact, Boston’s visiting locker room tonight is of much higher quality than many of the visiting locker rooms in newer arenas throughout the NBA travel circuit. The locker room space is well laid out, with very new locker stalls for up to 22 players. The C’s have only 14 players in their current traveling party.
The arena’s seats are also plush, new and comfortable, and the concourses and hallways in the back of the arena are clean, sizable and updated.
This is all a far cry from the last time the Celtics were inside this building, when only two of its current players – Horford and Aron Baynes – had even been born.
Throwback Thursday will be especially interesting tonight in Milwaukee when the Celtics and the Bucks make their return to the MECCA. None of these players have played on a court quite like this one, but they understand that the colors are ripe with meaning and tied to some of their franchise’s greats, from Bird, McHale and Parish, to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Oscar Robertson.