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Jamie Vaught: Colorful ABA’s Kentucky Colonels once rivaled Wildcats’ popularity

(Jamie Vaught Photo)

(Jamie Vaught Photo)


When I wrote a recent column about ex-American Basketball Association (and NBA) superstar Dan Issel and a possible NBA franchise in Louisville, it brought back a lot of good childhood memories.

As mentioned in that column two weeks ago, Issel played for the popular Kentucky Colonels for several years and led them to the league championship in 1975. Established in 1967, the ABA had the colorful beach ball in red, white and blue.  It had the bikini-clad ball girls in sunny Miami.  It had the cow-milking promotional contests.

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It had NBA legend Wilt Chamberlain wearing sandals on the bench, coaching the San Diego Conquistadors. It had the radical three-point field goals while NBA laughed.  It had Rick Barry, the first NBA superstar who jumped to the new league for green bucks.

It had singer Pat Boone as president of the Oakland Oaks franchise. It had high-flying Julius Erving, better known as Dr. J., before he became a household name.

It had a very young guy by the name of Bob Costas as announcer with the Spirits of St. Louis.  It had the first woman to play pro basketball in a publicity stunt and that was jockey Penny Early, who suited up with the Colonels in 1968.

It had Larry Brown, a flashy dresser with long hair, as a player and as a coach. Yes, the same Larry Brown who is coaching a college team somewhere in Dallas.

The Louisville-based Colonels were my favorite pro basketball team. And I loved them even before two UK stars — Issel and Mike Pratt — joined the Colonels in 1970.  I didn’t like the NBA very well with that ugly black ball on a black-and-white TV set.

My interest in the Colonels and ABA began when I was in the seventh grade during the late 1960s. Ex-Wildcat Louie Dampier was the star of the Colonels during the pre-Issel era, pumping those long three-pointers.

 Columnist Jim O'Brien of The Sporting News presented the ABA MVP trophy to Julius Erving (Street & Smith Basketball Yearbook Photo)

Columnist Jim O’Brien of The Sporting News presented the ABA MVP trophy to Julius Erving (Street & Smith Basketball Yearbook Photo)

While Issel was reaping All-American honors during his senior year at UK, my parents, my friend and I went to Louisville — a three-hour trip
one way — to see the Colonels, who were hosting the Miami Floridians at the 6,000-seat Convention Center.

I remember that 1969 game well because it was the first time I had seen the Colonels play in person. Before a crowd of 3,000, Kentucky defeated the Floridians 115-111 behind Gene Moore’s 28 points and 22 rebounds with Dampier getting 24 points.

I was really crazy about the Colonels.  In fact, my friend and I had my parents waiting in the car in the gym’s parking lot for about an hour after that game while we obtained autographs from several Colonels players, including Wayne Chapman, whose two-year-old baby, Rex, would be a future UK and NBA star.

Several weeks later, Issel and Pratt joined the Colonels after signing big contracts. I was a happy fan and that made my day.  The future of the Colonels looked bright and promising, and the Issel era had just arrived.

In the following season of 1970-71, we all drove up again to see them play against the New York (now Brooklyn) Nets in the spacious Freedom Hall.  Making his home debut as the Colonels’ new floor boss was former UK and NBA standout Frank Ramsey.  Everything went well as Kentucky won before 13,361 fans.

We witnessed two more Colonels games later in the campaign, including a 48-point performance by Issel. And during the 1971-72 season, Kentucky compiled a remarkable 68-16 record with the help of 7-2 Artis Gilmore. By the way, I began to lose interest in the Kentucky Wildcats during that time. Coach Adolph Rupp was near retirement and Joe B. Hall was about to take over.

From Issel’s rookie year to the day he left Louisville in a controversial 1975 transaction, I loved the Colonels much more than the Wildcats. I bought every magazine that had an article about the Colonels or the ABA, and faithfully subscribed to The Sporting News magazine.  The younger league, which struggled for publicity in many places, wasn’t on national TV very often, either.

Writing for The Sporting News was ABA columnist Jim O’Brien, who covered the league for seven years.  A noted author of many Pittsburgh sports books, O’Brien, now 72, has fond memories of the ABA.

“The ABA was the most transparent sports league of them all.  Writers were welcomed.  People wanted to talk to you,” O’Brien wrote in an e-mail this week. “The league had a lot of colorful owners, coaches and players and they were available to interview.  The league needed recognition and it was a sportswriter’s dream.

“The Kentucky Colonels and Indiana Pacers were my favorite teams to cover.  They were first class from top to bottom.  I loved coming to Freedom Hall and staying at The Executive Inn nearby.  (Kentucky coach) Babe McCarthy once said of Wendell Ladner, ‘He doesn’t know the meaning of the word fear…as well as a lot of other words.’ (I) had a lot of fun.”

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O’Brien also was the founding editor of Street & Smith’s Basketball Yearbook and The Complete Handbook of Pro Basketball.

Personally, I also have another great memory that took place in 1973 when we saw a very exciting playoff contest between the Colonels and the Larry Brown-coached Carolina Cougars in Louisville.  Sports Illustrated magazine even published a two-page spread about the game.

It was a matchup in which Kentucky’s Ladner nearly killed himself when the hustling forward crashed the glass water cooler near the bench. He had blood all over his jersey and the floor.  A crowd favorite, Ladner suffered cuts on his body that required 42 stitches.  About two days later, he was back on the floor, playing sore, in the playoffs.

And I can go on and on with the Colonels, who unfortunately didn’t join the NBA in a 1976 pro basketball merger. Needless to say, it sure was a great ride that I will never forget.

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball and a columnist for KyForward.  He is the editor of KySportsStyle360.com online magazine and a professor at Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College in Middlesboro.  Reach him via e-mail at KySportsStyle360@gmail.com.

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