Milwaukee Bucks: How Marvin Fishman almost bought the Chicago Bulls

MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - NOVEMBER 16: (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
MILWAUKEE, WISCONSIN - NOVEMBER 16: (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /

One of the original Milwaukee Bucks owners, Marvin Fishman, attempted to buy the Bucks’ long-standing rival, the Chicago Bulls, back in 1972, all of which turned into a decade-long dispute and saga.

Marvin Fishman will always be synonymous with the origin of the Milwaukee Bucks.

It was Fishman and Wes Pavalon who were both awarded an expansion franchise back on Jan. 22, 1968 that helped bring professional basketball back to the city of Milwaukee and the state of Wisconsin. And in just three years, Fishman got to celebrate one of the biggest transformations for a sports franchise when the Bucks won their lone title back in the 1970-71 season.

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But in 1972, Fishman had sold his ownership share of the Bucks with his eyes set on something bigger and only a little more than 90 miles south of Milwaukee.

They were the Chicago Bulls, who already stood as the Bucks’ rival dating back to Milwaukee’s first-ever game to kick off the 1968-69 season.

The Bulls’ original ownership, helmed by founder Dick Klein, was in disarray in 1972 and it was Klein who was left in charge of looking for a new buyer for the franchise. That’s where Fishman entered the picture and thus began a decades-long saga that still left him without ownership of the Bulls franchise.

Fishman and his investment group had originally reached a tentative agreement with then-Bulls owner Elmer Rich to purchase the Bulls for $4.3 million, but there was one big problem: the Bulls, under this scenario, had no permanent home.

The Milwaukee native then approached Arthur Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Blackhawks and the Bulls’ original home, the Chicago Stadium. Fishman sought Wirtz’s inclusion and approval on a lease to the building for the Bulls to continue to calling the “Madhouse on Madison” their home under what would have been Fishman’s watch.

Wirtz spurned Fishman’s hopes to clinch a lease deal, so much so that it originally dissolved Fishman’s investment group. Fishman subsequently formed another ownership group, by the name of Illinois Basketball Inc., to continue his efforts of buying the Bulls, but members of his original investment group started to vie for purchase of the Bulls separately.

Despite that and still having no arena under lease, Fishman’s agreement was still under pending approval of the NBA, which would be determined in a Board of Governors meeting in June. Meanwhile, the competing investment group, entitled the Chicago Professional Sports Corporation (C.P.S.C. for short), successfully recruited Wirtz to join and spearhead group and they agreed to a 10-year lease for Chicago Stadium.

With Wirtz now involved, C.P.S.C. ramped up their pursuit of buying the Bulls, even in the lead up to Fishman’s agreement to buy the team being subject to league approval from the then-group of owners around the NBA. Needing 75 percent of the league’s owners to approve the sale, Fishman’s deal was blocked by seven of the NBA’s 17 teams on June 15, 1972. However, the league decided to rescind the vote and reopened voting on Fishman’s agreement for the Bulls the following month.

With the competing bid from C.P.S.C., Fishman’s continued push for the Bulls and a stadium lease was quickly falling out of favor from Wirtz and co. among league circles as C.P.S.C. continued its ascent as viable suitors for the Bulls.

The heated race culminated when the league disapproved Fishman’s deal for the Bulls for a second time after it fell short of three votes that were needed to approve the sale, all of which opened the pathway for C.P.S.C. to be approved by Bulls ownership and the NBA back in late July 1972.

In light of Wirtz’s group being awarded the Bulls, Fishman filed an antitrust lawsuit against C.P.S.C. in 1974 in which he cited a conspiracy on behalf of the group to block the sale of the Bulls to him, and illegally preventing the use of Chicago Stadium under the terms of Fishman’s original agreement.

A decade later, Fishman won his suit over Wirtz and C.P.S.C investors and was subsequently rewarded $17 million in damages by Judge Rozskowski, who presided over the case. Rozskowski called into question the consistency of Wirtz and co.’s defense and overall conduct in the lead up to the sale as quoted by the New York Times:

"”The defendants’ inconsistent positions regarding their conduct at the N.B.A. level is characteristic of their lack of credibility throughout these proceedings.” He also said that the evidence of a conspiracy to block the sale to Mr. Fishman was ”overwhelming.”"

An appeal from Wirtz and his team reduced Fishman’s damages by $4.5 million in November of 1986 and ended Fishman’s continued quest to buy the Bulls even 14 years after his original pursuit. After plenty of turmoil off the court, the Wirtz ownership group sold the Bulls to Jerry Reinsdorf for $9.2 million in 1985, who still owns the team now 35 years later.

Despite the saga and his failed attempt to buy the Bulls for well over a decade, Fishman still tried his hand at owning a sports franchise again, like when he tried to bring a Canadian Football League team to Milwaukee back in the mid-1990’s

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But it was Fishman’s original foray into the professional sports world that would have the lasting and most rewarding impact on himself and the city of Milwaukee overall.