Louisville basketball and the NBA can operate congruently; Here’s how

A general view outside the KFC Yum! Center (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images)
A general view outside the KFC Yum! Center (Photo by Lance King/Getty Images) /

NBA2Lou President Dan Issel had some interesting comments on the NBA & Louisville basketball.

For years there has been questions about whether or not it was possible for both the Louisville basketball program and an National Basketball Association franchise co-existing in the city of Louisville and the state of Kentucky.

Since the 1990s there has been talk about Louisville being on the short-list for the NBA should they expand, even courting one NBA franchise on two separate occasions.

Despite the efforts from the city and some of it’s business leaders, the powers that be at the University of Louisville did as  much as they could to prevent any team from taking the spotlight away from them in a college dominated town.

In my new podcast series titled “Life In Basketball,” I got the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with someone who not only believes that the NBA belongs in the city of Louisville but has been apart of winning basketball championships at the professional level.

Dan Issel spent nine seasons playing basketball at the highest level in Kentucky, starting his collegiate career at the University of Kentucky before going on to play for the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels.

Since the ABA/NBA merger, which saw the Colonels fold despite winning the 1975 Championship, Louisville has been without a professional basketball team. But since the year 2000, Louisville has reportedly been in line to receive a franchise on three different occasions.

Recently named as President of NBA2Lou, Issel is the man who is being charged by the city to get everything in a row should the league decide to expand in the future.

NBA commissioner, Adam Silver has said on multiple occasions including as recently as last summer that the NBA is currently “not in expansion mode” but that isn’t stopping Issel and his team of volunteers to do everything possible to prepare for when that day comes.

Louisville is no stranger to talk about the NBA as they’ve on three separate occasions appeared to be a signature away from bringing an NBA team to the city. The city was close to landing the Vancouver Grizzlies during their relocation in 2000 only to have things fall out from under them to which NBA2Lou Chairman Steve Higdon said “We fumbled on the one-yard line.” That Grizzlies team ended up in Memphis.

Just one year later, Louisville was once again in talks to bring a relocated franchise to town only to see the Charlotte Hornets end up in New Orleans. But wait, there’s more! Just a few years later following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast, the New Orleans Hornets would be forced to look for a new home for the 2005 season.

As you might guess, Louisville was once again viewed as a top destination and talks got far enough to even consider renovations being made to the arena the Hornets could call home; Freedom Hall.

That obviously never happened as the Hornets would play in Oklahoma City for the 2005 season, which would lead to the city eventually landing the Seattle Supersonics back in 2008.

So why wasn’t the city able to get it done? The easy answer – Tom Jurich and Rick Pitino. The long answer – the political, business, and education leaders of the city.

A quote from a 2017 article from Bloomberg gives us insight into the why behind then Louisville basketball head coach Pitino and Athletic Director Jurich being involved in a much larger way in the cities decision to bring in an NBA. The quote from

"“Around the time Pitino arrived, a group of Louisville businessmen and politicians were making a concerted effort to land an NBA team. In part, this was a play for economic development. Louisville could see how pro football and hockey helped revitalize Nashville. But it also came just as much from a desire for respect. The city burghers even had a nonbinding agreement with the Charlotte Hornets, which wanted to relocate. The plan centered around building a downtown arena that the Hornets and the Cardinals would share.Jurich and Pitino had other ideas. They had no intention of sharing an arena with an NBA team—they didn’t even want to share the city with an NBA team. Louisville was theirs. David Stern, who was then commissioner of the NBA, recalls thinking, “If Rick Pitino doesn’t want us there, why are we going there?” The Hornets went to New Orleans instead.”"

Representative John Yarmuth hammered home that point further in Bloomberg’s article, saying “nobody in Louisville planned a dinner party or a charitable event without checking the basketball calendar. Otherwise there wouldn’t be a lot of people there.”

That mentality ultimately sealed the deal for Louisville and those three franchises; all of whom have since settled in cities that been much more accepting. Meanwhile, the University of Louisville ended up with a state of the art arena, the KFC Yum! Center, all by themselves.

I asked Dan about that exact quote and whether or not there were active forces inside the city keeping the NBA away, and his answer was fascinating. He said:

"“There was a time when Louisville was the same size or larger than Cincinnati, Indianapolis, St. Louis and Nashville, and for some reason, mostly our business leadership and politicians, have always taken the view that ‘we can’t do that.’ There’s no way Louisville can do that. These cities are expanding and becoming great metropolitan areas and Louisville has lagged way behind and we have reams of data that Kentucky and Louisville can support an NBA basketball and not impact UofL, UK, or Western at all. I’d encourage Kentuckians to say ‘we can do that, we can be a major league city’ because we aren’t that far away from it.”"

The impact on other programs has always been the number one excuse or reason why the NBA shouldn’t consider Louisville. Yet, as expansion talks have continued to heat up more and more over the years, the city continues to be a major player thanks to the expanding economy and facilities already available.

There’s reason for that.

Over the last ten-plus years, Louisville has been the number one television market for the NBA Draft on multiple occasions and has hosted multiple preseason games at both Freedom Hall and the KFC Yum! Center with good fan turnout.

No matter how you slice it, Issel and many others (including myself) believe that there is 100 percent enough demand for the NBA in Louisville and an ability to build a successful franchise that puts a damn good product on the floor and keeps fans in the seats.

Issel sites the emotion he still feels from his 1975 Kentucky Colonels championship and the memories so many have shared with him over the years about their experiences watching a professional team play in their city as why he’s passionate about bringing the NBA to Louisville.

He also sees the incredible opportunity for the city and state to rally around a team that could potentially put multiple players who played their college ball for Louisville basketball or UK on the court to the delight of so many Cardinal and Wildcat fans.

“As you said, Mr. Jurich and Mr. Pitino didn’t want anything to do with the pros, they wanted the city to themselves,” said Issel. “If we had a pro team here it would be the competition to make everyone better. How much fun would it be to have a team here in Louisville with Donovan Mitchell and Anthony Davis being apart of it?”

The reality is there are still a lot of powerful people who are skeptical about the state and city being able to financially support a team – especially coming out of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Issel and his team have heard the need for an affordable experience and if it’s up to them, that’s exactly what fans would get should a team come to Louisville:

“If you want to sit courtside, you want to sit in a box, it’s going to be expensive,” said Issel. “But our financial model is based  off of an average ticket price of 46 dollars. I know we’ll always have people that say it can’t be done, but it won’t happen if we don’t try.”

The NBA could be looking for a quick and effective revenue generator following missing four months of action and not being able to host fans for the restart playoffs and one potential answer could be relocation.

$300 million-plus is the going rate for an expansion franchise, last paid by the Charlotte Bobcats back in the mid 2000s, and should the league add multiple teams you could be talking upwards of $600 to $800 million back in their pockets.

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Louisville is likely behind cities like Seattle and Las Vegas, who have already proven to be able to host pro teams, but should the NBA come calling the city will be ready thanks to Issel.