If you believe that divisiveness and polarizing leadership have been hampering the decades-long effort to bring an NBA franchise to the state of Kentucky, then Thursday was a good day.
The Louisville Basketball Investment and Support Group — an LLC formed last year to help bring the NBA to the commonwealth — announced that Dan Issel will serve as its president. The group also announced it has raised $750,000 in seed money to fund its activities.
In a phone interview Thursday, Issel, 69, joked that he had been trying to work his way back to Louisville since the controversial 1975 trade that sent him from the reigning ABA champion Colonels to the Baltimore Claws.
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Issel was so popular back then, many believe his trade, made as a cost-cutting move, essentially doomed the Colonels franchise. When the NBA agreed to accept four ABA teams as part of a merger the following year, the Issel-less Colonels folded.
So it is nice symmetry that it is Issel — who went on to become a star player, head coach and executive with the Denver Nuggets in the NBA — now serving as the front man in the effort to bring pro basketball back to Louisville.
“When they called me, I was in Lexington,” Issel said. “I drove up to talk to them and I was really impressed with the people who have stepped up to get behind this effort.”
Issel says he called Silver to inform the commissioner of his new role in trying to bring the NBA to Louisville.
The NBA commissioner’s message, Issel says, was that the league “would be flattered that Louisville wants an NBA franchise, but it has no current plans to expand.”
Issel says he expects the NBA, which currently has 30 franchises, to hold that line publicly “right up until it makes the decision (to expand).”
The role of the group Issel is now leading “is to make sure, when that time comes, that we have Louisville in position where its (expansion) application would go on the top of the pile (of candidates),” he said.
To get there, Issel says the first task is to come up with a viable team ownership that would be ready to step up if the chance to bring NBA basketball to Kentucky arises.
“We don’t know for sure what a (future) NBA team will cost, but the figure we are working with is $1.4 billion,” Issel said. “That’s a pretty big figure, but you’d be surprised how many billionaires there are out there who are interested in owning a pro sports franchise.”
Prior attempts to bring the NBA to the commonwealth have faced sharp opposition from interests aligned with University of Louisville sports. As popular as Issel was in Louisville in his Colonels days, he is still a “UK guy.”
Can Issel rally die-hard U of L fans — including that faction that remains loyal to Tom Jurich, the deposed former U of L athletics director who was a staunch foe of pro hoops in Louisville — to the cause of bringing the NBA to The Ville?
“All our research shows this market can support University of Louisville basketball, both men’s and the women’s programs, and a pro franchise,” Issel says.
The number one selling point for bringing pro basketball to Louisville, Issel says, is the passion that exists in Kentucky for the sport. As an example, he points to Dec. 8, 2010.
That night, the Kentucky Wildcats played Notre Dame in Louisville’s Freedom Hall and drew 17,404 fans.
At the very same time, some 6.4 miles away, the Louisville Cardinals played San Francisco in the KFC Yum Center and drew 21,049.
“That definitely caught the NBA’s eye,” Issel says. “They know what basketball passion there is here.”