Peanut butter and jelly. Bourbon and branch. Basketball and the Bluegrass.
Some things just belong together.
Since then-owner John Y. Brown, Jr. disbanded the Kentucky Colonels during the 1976 NBA-ABA merger, the Bluegrass state has been without a professional basketball franchise. The Buffalo Braves (1977), Houston Rockets (1999), Vancouver Grizzlies (2001) and Charlotte Hornets (2001) all publicly considered relocating to Louisville but each ended up elsewhere.
It’s well past time to rectify this wrong. Former NBA Commissioner Larry O’Brien understood that basketball at the highest level belongs in Kentucky when he said, “Not having an NBA team in Kentucky makes no more sense than having a fine dinner without fine wine.”
Simply said, basketball and the Bluegrass belong together.
From the Kentucky High School Athletic Association Sweet Sixteen state basketball tournament to the powerhouse NCAA hoops programs at the Universities of Kentucky and Louisville to our fond memories of our beloved Colonels, fan support runs deep here.
The all-class prep tourney draws upwards of 20,000 fans per game with a record of 21,283 for a 1987 session. Our beloved Cats and Cards each draw 20,000+ fans per game and annually rank among the top three colleges nationally in attendance. On December 8, 2010, Louisville hosted San Francisco at the KFC Yum! Center in front of 21,049 fans; thirty minutes later and just across town, Kentucky tipped off against Notre Dame in front 17,404 fans at Freedom Hall. That’s two teams, one night, one city and two separate arenas with a total of 38,453 fans. A lotta love for the roundball in these parts!
Our local basketball heritage runs equally as deep as our basketball passion.
In the high school ranks, the single-class championship tournament has endured since its creation in 1918 and continues to produce legendary Cinderella championship teams while sending the likes of Wes Unseld, Darrell Griffith, Rex Chapman, Allan Houston and Rajon Rondo, among many others, on to the NBA. Of our 16 public high schools in Louisville, five have produced McDonald’s All-Americans with three producing multiple selections. The city itself hosted the 2007 game at venerable Freedom Hall, along with the annual Kentucky Derby Classic All-Star Game.
On the collegiate level, UK and UofL have captured 11 NCAA Division I titles from the 27 Final Four berths between them, including back-to-back in 2012 (Cats) and 2013 (Cards). Downriver in Owensboro, Kentucky Wesleyan College has captured a record eight NCAA Division II titles. In 2011, Bellarmine University in Louisville won the NCAA Division II title and the University of Pikeville brought home the NAIA title to Eastern Kentucky. Georgetown College, just outside of Lexington, has also captured two NAIA titles in five trips to the championship game. Bluegrass basketball teams win championships!
The ABA Kentucky Colonels were no different in claiming the 1975 ABA Championship over the Indiana Pacers after having finished as runners-up in both 1971 and 1973. In addition to making the playoffs all nine seasons of the team’s existence, they finished as the ABA’s all-time winningest franchise with a record of 448-296 (.602) during the regular season and 55-46 in the playoffs (.545). The 1972 squad finished the regular season at 68-16–the fifth most wins in a single season in pro hoops history behind only the ’16 Warriors, the ’96 Bulls, the ’97 Bulls and the ’72 Lakers.
The Colonels’ ‘Big Three’–Dan Issel, Artis Gilmore and Louie Dampier–are all members of the 30-man All-Time ABA Team selected in 1997; all three, along with former head coach Hubie Brown, have also been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.
Local basketball fans rewarded this success with outstanding fan support. The Colonels led the ABA in attendance in 1972 and finished second in both 1974 and 1975. When it was all said and done, the franchise finished second all-time in ABA attendance (per game average) behind only the Indiana Pacers and outdrew the other three ABA franchises that merged into the NBA (the New Jersey Nets, San Antonio Spurs and Denver Nuggets). They also outdrew franchises in Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Memphis, Miami, Minneapolis, Oakland and Salt Lake City–all of whom now have NBA teams to call their own.
Along with three ABA Championship Series, the city of Louisville also hosted two ABA All-Star Games, in 1969 and 1972 — with the second game drawing an ABA All-Star Game record 15,738 fans. This should not be surprising considering how the city and state thrive when hosting international sporting events.
While the Kentucky Derby is the state’s annual calling card onto the global sports scene with its worldwide television audience and on-track attendance of 150,000+, Louisville has also hosted eight Breeders’ Cups, the 2008 Ryder Cup, four PGA/Senior PGA Championships and six Final Fours while establishing numerous attendance records along the way.
Down the road, Lexington hosts the annual Rolex Kentucky Three Day equestrian event and hosted the World Equestrian Games in 2010, the first time that event had ever been held outside of Europe. The city was also home to the 1985 Final Four and the 2015 Breeders’ Cup.
Upriver in Northern Kentucky, the Kentucky Speedway hosts a NASCAR and IndyCar races at its 107,000-seat facility.
Kentuckians love sporting events on the biggest of stages and show up in droves!
An NBA team in the new KFC Yum! Center would produce future memories for our loyal sports fans to rival the memories already produced at our historical sporting venues such as Churchill Downs, Keeneland Racecourse, Kentucky Horse Park, Valhalla Golf Club, Rupp Arena and Freedom Hall.
With a metro population approaching 1.5 million and the absence of an NBA team anywhere between Indianapolis and Atlanta, Memphis to Charlotte, the opportunity for a successful professional basketball franchise in Metro Louisville is ripe. And just like Kentuckians show love for the Reds, Bengals, Titans, Predators and even the Colts–but never the Pacers!–, we’d love to give fans in Cincinnati, Nashville and Southern Indiana the opportunity to support an NBA team from the Bluegrass!
The state-of-art 22,090-seat KFC Yum! Center in Louisville (which Rolling Stone magazine has ranked as America’s seventh nicest arena!), a renovated 23,500-seat Rupp Arena in Lexington and the most passionate basketball fans in the world are screaming for a team to call our own. Whatever NBA franchise eventually winds up in Louisville will not be disappointed!
The city’s demographics compare favorably to other small market cities where the NBA has thrived, but don’t take our word for it. PricewaterhouseCoopers, Rascher & Rascher Sports Economics and Street & Smith’s SportsBusiness Journal have all conducted independent studies that have concluded the same. In fact, the Rascher & Rascher study determined that Louisville is the best untapped NBA market in the county–and that was before Oklahoma City landed the Thunder, which further validated smaller markets in the eyes of the NBA. We’ll just quote the 1999 PricewaterhouseCoopers study, “The data clearly show that Louisville has the population and corporate strength to support an NBA team.”
And despite our reputation as a college-loving town, local fans love their pro hoops, too. Scarborough Sports Marketing’s NBA fan avidity surveys consistently find that Louisville and Lexington both show higher interest in the NBA than many current NBA markets.
Given that this season tipped off with more than 30 alumni from five Kentucky universities on NBA rosters, fan affinity should only grow as local schools continue sending more players into the league. A Louisville-based NBA team would not diminish anything from Kentucky’s sporting tradition, only add to it.
Prep, college or pro, the Commonwealth of Kentucky loves basketball!
Perhaps no one has ever said it better than Louisville native Hunter S. Thompson, “I am more than just a serious basketball fan. I am a life-long addict. I was addicted from birth, in fact, because I was born in Kentucky.”
The game is just loved differently around these parts.
Bring back the Kentucky Colonels. Bring professional basketball back home. Bring the NBA to Louisville!
We belong together!