I’m going to be lengthy, but bear with me, as I am someone who loves Panther basketball with Packer fan intensity.
I’ll never forget the day I decided to become a Milwaukee Panther. I submitted my application for admission on Tuesday, March 2, 2010. That night, I attended my first Panthers home game, at what was then “The Cell.” It was a first round Horizon League Tournament game against UIC. Ricky Franklin and “Big Lumber” James Eayrs’ final home game as Panthers. Jimmy Collins’ final game as UIC coach. The Panthers won. Ricky Franklin would carry the Panthers later that week to 3 minutes short of an upset of Butler in the Horizon League semis at Hinkle Fieldhouse. Butler would go on to lose the National Championship by 2 to Duke. I’ve only missed 2 Panther home games since.
Former Packers Linebacker, George Koonce, was our Athletic Director that day. We’ve had 4 Athletic Directors since. That kind of volatility in the Athletic Department can torpedo a successful program in a hurry. Luckily, we’ve had the privilege of having the steady hand of Rob Jeter guiding the basketball program. I call it a privilege because he could have walked away several times. He hasn’t.
The 2010-11 season was a wild, fun ride. On the strength of Kaylon Williams and Anthony Hill & Co., the Panthers won the tiebreaker in a 3-way tie for the Horizon League Regular Season Championship, which brought the Conference Tournament to The Cell. After beating Butler twice in the regular season, the Bulldogs came back to bite in the Championship game, only to become National Runner-Up once again. The Panthers would make their second-ever appearance in the NIT, losing at Northwestern in the first round. That was my first road trip game. Little did I know how many miles I would put on for Panther basketball following that trip…
The 2011-2012 season was a successful, with 20 wins for the Panthers on paper. However, the season drew to a close leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, as the Panthers finished up by getting blown out by Butler in the Quarterfinals of the Horizon League Tournament, along with a poor showing at TCU in the College Basketball Invitational tournament. This would prove to be the beginning of an abrupt, long fall from grace.
Rick Costello was dismissed as Athletic Director not long after basketball season in spring 2012. That brought us Andy Geiger, the former Ohio State Athletic Director. His arrival coincided with the expiration of UWM’s lease at the U.S. Cellular Arena. Without negotiating with the Wisconsin Center District, and without setting foot in the Klotsche Center arena, he declared, “College sports belong on college campuses,” and brought men’s basketball back to the Klotsche.
The 2012-13 season may as well have been over before it started. It started out exciting enough, with a home win over perennial NCAA qualifier Davidson (Stephen Curry’s alma mater). The Panthers also took South Carolina into OT on national TV on the road, but then the wheels came off. I’d rather not re-hash any of it. The seeds of this year’s postseason ban were also planted during the 2012-13 season. Panther fans had very little hope for the future.
Then, seemingly overnight, it became cool to be a Panther again. Shortly after the season, senior forward Demetrius Harris went back to his football roots and signed with the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent, becoming the first Milwaukee Panther to go to the NFL since Mike Reinfeldt in 1972. Back when we had a football team, that is.
Shortly thereafter, Amanda Braun replaced Geiger as AD. Shortly after that, The Cell was our basketball home again, with a fresh 5 year lease. When basketball season came around, the fun would really start. A run to the NCAA Tournament was completely unexpected, but man, wasn’t it sweet? I can’t thank Jordan Aaron, Matt Tiby and company enough for the memories.
My buddies in the student section and I would always daydream about how cool it would be if the university bought the naming rights to The Cell, putting our logo on a landmark building in downtown Milwaukee. With everything that had gone on in our Panther careers, however, there was no reason to think it would ever happen. Much of a surprise to everyone, our daydream came true.
I cannot describe with words the pride I have in my university when I drive by or walk into the Panther Arena. Our Panthers have a LEGITIMATE home for Division I men’s basketball that is perfectly sized for what our program currently strives to be: a perennial mid-major powerhouse. So you’ll have to excuse me for being more than a little angry that a few short months later, a couple New York billionaires are wanting to take away what Coach Jeter, the players, and Panther fans have been wanting from the university for so long.
Make no mistake, I want the Bucks to have their new arena, and I hope it’s a palace like Miller Park is for the Brewers. I think most of us at UWM feel that way. I understand the cultural importance of being a “major league” city. However, I see no reason why we have to sacrifice OUR house, when THEIR house is the obsolete dump. There is plenty of space, vacant or near-vacant housing and buildings, where the Bucks can build. Shame on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for manipulating public opinion and the site-finding process because they stand to gain millions in a real estate deal. Objective reporting? I think not!
I encourage everyone to come down to Panther Arena for the pre-game demonstration tonight, and thank SA president Ryan Sorenson for rallying the troops. We don’t need to be angry or combative, just supportive of our team and protective of our house. Maybe you aren’t all as big a fan of Panther basketball as I am, but that’s okay. We are all Panthers though, so come down and hang out in the best interests of our school, because that is what is REALLY at stake.