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Jamie Vaught: Former UK star Issel believes new NBA franchise would work in Louisville

In recent years, there have been some movements or discussions as well as media stories about bringing an NBA franchise to the city of Louisville.

And there is also an active Facebook page, titled “Bring the NBA to Louisville,” a grassroots movement by the fans.

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As you may recall, the Derby City was once the home of the popular Kentucky Colonels of the now-defunct American Basketball Association. The team had a big statewide following and was among the league’s leaders in home attendance, which was often higher than several teams in the more-established NBA.

The Colonels, who featured former UK superstars like Louie Dampier and Dan Issel, played nine years (1967 to 1976) before ABA disbanded and sent four teams to the NBA in a merger. Even though the Colonels, along with the Indiana Pacers, had best fan support in the ABA, Kentucky, unfortunately, was not one of the teams to join the older league.

Issel, the former Denver Nuggets head coach and player who still lives in the Denver area, said last week that he would love to see pro basketball returning to Kentucky.

“I think it would be great to have a new NBA team, the Kentucky Colonels, in Louisville,” said Issel, a two-time All-American who is the UK men’s all-time leading scorer with 2,138 points and averaged nearly 34 points during his senior year.

“I don’t know if they could play in the (KFC) Yum Center. It’s my understanding that U of L has that facility pretty much under control and you know they would fight an NBA team coming to town. (The new team could play) maybe in a renovated Freedom Hall.”

Dan Issel, who starred on the ABA's Kentucky Colonels team, believes the state would support a new NBA franchise (Jamie Vaught Photo)

Dan Issel, who starred on the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels team, believes the state would support a new NBA franchise (Jamie Vaught Photo)

Nicknamed “The Horse,” Issel added Louisville and the state can support pro basketball. The franchise would be attractive especially if it has several players from UK, U of L and other area universities on the roster.

“I definitely think Kentucky would support an NBA team if that team was competitive,” he said. “With all the great college players in Kentucky playing only a year or two in school, the franchise could be built around those players. That would give Kentuckians a chance to see their favorite players continue their careers.”

Last October, the city of Louisville had an NBA exhibition game between the New Orleans Pelicans and the Miami Heat, drawing a very good crowd of over 20,000 at the KFC Yum Center.

Issel, a 6-9, 245-pound forward, played five memorable years with the Colonels, including a stunning 68-16 campaign in 1971-72, before he was shipped to the Baltimore Claws (formerly the Memphis Sounds) in October 1975, creating a huge firestorm of controversy in Kentucky. A short time later, Issel was sent to Denver and the Claws eventually folded without playing a single regular season game.

What was Issel’s favorite memory with the Colonels?

“Winning the ABA Championship in 1975,” said Issel, a seven-time All-Star Game selection, including once in the NBA. “In 25 years of playing basketball, it was the only championship I was a part of. I’m still closer with Louie Dampier and (Hall of Famer) Artis Gilmore than any of my teammates in the NBA.”

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While at UK and coached by legendary Adolph Rupp, Issel was a key member of arguably the greatest Kentucky squad which didn’t capture an NCAA title. In the 1970 NCAA Mideast Regional finals, the top-ranked Wildcats — who had four players fouled out, including Issel — dropped to Artis Gilmore and the Jacksonville Dolphins by a score of 106-100 in Columbus, Ohio.

During Issel’s three-year varsity career at UK, the Wildcats never did reach the Final Four, but compiled a rather impressive overall mark of 71-12, a winning percentage of nearly 86, with three SEC regular season titles.  As you know, Issel also had teammates like Mike Pratt and Mike Casey who were stars as well.

A member of Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Issel was asked about UK’s current team. Does he think the Wildcats will go unbeaten this winter?

“I suppose the current UK team could go undefeated, but I don’t care much about that,” said Issel, who is scheduled to appear at a Feb. 14 signing next month in Lexington (Your Frame of Mind Galleries) along with UK men’s other 2,000-point scorers Kenny Walker and Jack Givens.  They will sign Cheri Issel’s new “Wildcat” print that she painted recently.

“I’m more concerned with them winning the NCAA championship. Winning championships is why you play the game. When they raise the banner in Rupp, it won’t matter what the record was.”

Jamie H. Vaught, a longtime columnist in Kentucky, is the author of four books about UK basketball.  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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