To 21st century basketball fans in Kentucky, Lloyd "Pink" Gardner is remembered as the longtime boys' coach at Fairdale High School.
Before his time at the Jefferson County school ended when he stepped down in 2005, Gardner coached Fairdale to the 1994 state championship and was an assistant to Stan Hardin when the Bulldogs captured back-to-back Sweet Sixteen titles in 1990 and '91.
However, before his high school hoops coaching career, Gardner had a first act as the only team trainer the Kentucky Colonels (1967-76) ever had. In the new book The Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association: The Real Story of a Team Left Behind, Gardner and writer Gary P. West are reliving the days when the commonwealth had a high-level pro basketball team of its own.
Question: Why a book on the Colonels now, some 35 years since they went defunct at the time of the NBA-ABA merger?
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Answer: I just wanted to preserve the history of it for the state of Kentucky.
Q: When a Lexington audience thinks of the Colonels, they are going to think of ex-Kentucky Wildcats stars Louie Dampier and Dan Issel. But there were other UK ties to the Colonels, too, right?
A: There were lots of University of Kentucky (ties). Issel and Dampier and Mike Pratt and Cotton Nash (all played). Of course, Frank Ramsey coached (1970-71). (Team owners) John Y. Brown and Ellie Brown were both University of Kentucky people.
There's one great picture in the book of Pratt, Issel and Dampier all running down the floor as if to start a fast break and all three, of course, University of Kentucky players.
Q: Other than the ex-UK players, the most popular Colonel ever might have been Wendell Ladner, a swashbuckling forward who perfectly embodied the free-spirited ways of the ABA. I assume you'll tell the story of Ladner crashing through a glass water cooler (and needing 48 stitches) in a 1973 playoff game against the Carolina Cougars?
A: Probably the most brought-up thing of anything when you talk about the Kentucky Colonels around Louisville is the night Wendell went over the water cooler. If there were as many people at that game as have told me they were at that game, we would have needed to play the game in a 50,000-seat arena.
Q: Who had the best Afro in the ABA?
A: It was close. Darnell Hillman (Indiana Pacers) was voted the best when they had the 30-year (ABA) reunion up in Indianapolis. Dr. J (Julius Erving) had a huge Afro. Artis (Gilmore, the Colonels star 7-foot-2 center) had a huge Afro.
Q: After winning the ABA title in 1975, the Colonels traded Dan Issel in a cost-cutting move that did not go down well with fans. If that trade hadn't happened, would the Colonels be in the NBA now?
A: The phones rang off the hooks with people canceling season tickets because we'd gotten rid of Dan Issel. In my opinion, if we hadn't traded Dan, we would be in the NBA today.
Q: If the NBA came to Louisville now, would it work?
A: In 1975, both U of L and UK were in the Final Four and the Colonels won the (ABA) championship. So they all were surviving.
Could pro basketball survive (in Kentucky) today with the salaries? Who knows? I certainly would have liked to see it.
Q: What's at least one story in the book that people will not have heard before?
A: Jim McDaniels in 1971 was the big star at Western Kentucky when they went to the Final Four. But if you look at the records book, it says "Vacated" because Jim McDaniels got caught signing a contract with the ABA early.
What's interesting is, Mac has never, ever told the story of how he got hooked into this. That entire story is in the book.