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Lumber for NCAA court came from Menominee tribe

When the basketball squads from the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville tip off in New Orleans this afternoon, they’ll be playing on thousands of years of Wisconsin history. The Final Four floor, it turns out, began a couple miles southwest of Neopit in the dense, carefully managed forest of the Menominee Indians. There, this past winter, sugar maples – probably a dozen or more – were felled, hauled to the tribe’s sawmill and cut into long, straight planks that others trimmed, sanded, painted and fashioned into a court that has been installed in the Superdome for today’s semifinals and the national championship on Monday. For the Menominee, it’s a source of pride that the games will be played on lumber cut in their mill from trees harvested from their forest. "It’s the heart and soul of the tribe," Larry Waukau, president of Menominee Tribal Enterprises, said of the more-than-200,000 acres of thick woodlands north of Shawano. The forest is a planetary landmark, visible from space, and a direct connection to land the Menominee believe their ancestors walked 10,000 years ago. And it’s treated respectfully. Menominee Tribal Enterprises, which manages the forest and runs the sawmill, is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as an environmentally responsible producer. The tribe has taken lots of timber here – an estimated 2.5 billion board feet since it began logging in the 1850s, said Marshall Pecore, head forester. Yet, he said, the cutting has been so selective that the forest today contains more lumber than it did 160 years ago. "And it still has the appearance of a pristine forest . . . so something’s happening in the right direction," he said. CBS Sports Network evidently thinks so. The cable channel produced a documentary, "Court of Champions," on the making of the championship floor. It is scheduled to be shown at 8 p.m. Sunday, and it includes a segment filmed on the Menominee Reservation. That’s satisfying to the workers in the mill and forest, and particularly to sales rep Joe Besaw. Last summer, he was talking with Conrad Stromberg of Connor Sports Flooring, a longtime customer of Menominee Tribal Enterprises. In a factory just outside the tiny Upper Peninsula town of Amasa, about 25 miles north of the Brule River border dividing Wisconsin and Michigan, Connor makes some 700 basketball courts a year. They’re used by amateurs and professionals all over the world, and in some very high-profile venues. The last several NCAA championship floors, for example, came from Connor. So did the famous, red-oak parquet in Boston’s TD Garden. As Besaw recounts it, he and Stromberg discussed the possibility of Connor building a court using wood not from multiple suppliers but strictly from the Menominee Reservation. Besaw thought it would be good marketing to be able to point to a specific floor. He didn’t, however, know exactly where the lumber might end up. Late last fall he found out that the Menominee, so to speak, were headed to the Final Four. "I was going crazy with excitement," Besaw said of his reaction. "It was just, ‘Oh, man, this is good.’ " He’s gotten previews of the documentary, in which, amid images of the icy Wolf River and towering pines, he tells how his family has worked in the Menominee logging and milling operations for five generations. "I think they did a terrific job," he said of the CBS Sports Network crew. Only one thing could have made the Final Four weekend better. "I was pulling for Wisconsin and Marquette," Besaw said. "And obviously that didn’t happen, so right now my team is Louisville."

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