With UK basketball icon Kyle Macy as coach and former UK players Bobby Perry and Ravi Moss on the roster, the owner of Lexington's new professional basketball team says he hopes that bringing in fans will be a slam dunk.
Tony Chase, owner of Lexington's American Basketball Association team, the Bluegrass Stallions, announced recently that the team will play its home games at the Kentucky Horse Park. He also recently purchased the rights to a team in Nashville, the Music City Stars, and plans to broadcast ABA games on Versus, a national cable sports network.
The staying power of Chase's newest enterprise could be key to whether minor league professional basketball in Kentucky rebounds from a troubled history.
Half a dozen minor league professional basketball teams have started up in the state in the last two years, only to fizzle:
■ Jason Smith, the owner of the Bowling Green ABA team, was convicted in March of passing bad checks and was sentenced to a jail term. His team, the Kentucky Mavericks, never played in Bowling Green. It resurfaced under different management in Owensboro and was renamed the Kentucky Bisons.
■ Teams that were planned for Murray and Corbin never played.
■ At least two Louisville ABA teams folded.
Owners of two other Kentucky teams say they are relying, in part, on the success of Lexington's team to help them out:
■ Pikeville's East Kentucky Miners team cut its season short in February when its old league, the Continental Basketball Association, collapsed.
Kevin Keathley, the current and former coach and new owner of the Miners, had his team join the ABA in July. He thinks that Chase's team will be successful and, as one of the Stallions' competitors, his team will benefit.
"If Tony's a success in Lexington, it could be an outstanding year," said Keathley.
■ In Owensboro, Jay Sills, the owner of The Kentucky Bisons, last season's ABA champions, said he was persuaded to stay in the league when Chase joined him to push for tougher standards for team owners.
By the end of last season, Sills' team was the only professional basketball team left in Kentucky. This season, his team will play the Stallions six times.
"The Stallions will be valuable to our league," Sills said. "I'm pulling for Tony to get all the UK guys that he can. That will help with our attendance."
Up until now, the ABA has been a league in which teams sometimes vanish overnight, making it difficult to field enough teams to play.
But a new team in Kentucky has an additional hurdle that doesn't exist in other states. Fans here "are already accustomed to as high a level of basketball as you can get short of the NBA," said Alan Stein, CEO of the Lexington Legends, the local minor league baseball team.
UK basketball "is always going to be king" in Lexington, in Pikeville and in Owensboro, Keathley said.
Is there room for more basketball in Kentucky? Chase thinks so.
"We've taken all the right steps to put ourselves in a position to succeed," Chase said.
Basketball as avocation
Chase, a native of Eminence, is a pharmacist who had started a hospice company that was later sold to Vencor. After the sale, he worked for Vencor as director of Home Care Services in the mid-1990s. At the time, the CEO of Vencor, a nursing home chain, was Democratic businessman Bruce Lunsford.
"Tony is the quintessential entrepreneur," said Lunsford.
Chase later founded a pharmacy, a hospice and a chain of long-term care facilities in Kentucky and Indiana. Chase says that chain — called ExtendaCare — grew to 2,000 employees and brought in $75 million in annual revenue.
Currently, Chase is CEO of a Lexington software company called Consolo Services.
He noted that he has frequently ventured into businesses where he had no experience — such as basketball.
"While health care is my vocation, my avocation has been basketball," Chase said. He said his skills will make up for his lack of experience: "I understand how to put together a business plan."
Until recently, one of the leaders of the Stallions alongside Chase was Delbert Ault, executive vice president of the organization.
Ault was twice convicted of felonies related to financial deals and once pardoned by former Gov. Brereton Jones. After a Herald-Leader reporter asked Ault about his record, he said his position with the Stallions had been changed to game operations manager and public address announcer.
On Friday, Chase called the Herald-Leader to say that Ault had resigned and would no longer be working with the Stallions.
ABA owner Joe Newman, an advertising executive in Indianapolis, makes it easy to get into the ABA, charging about $10,000. Today, there are more than 50 teams, up from about 35 last season, according to Sills.
Former and current ABA team owners contend that some of the owners didn't have the financial wherewithal to finance a season — which can cost up to $350,000 after the initial fee. Some have gone out of business after a few games.
Alexander Wolff, a writer for Sports Illustrated, said in an interview with the Herald-Leader that he took his championship Vermont team out of the ABA to switch to the Premier Basketball League after two seasons. Sixty teams were on the ABA Web site when Wolff started the first season, he said. He estimated that more than 40 percent were no longer functioning when that same season ended.
"We just wanted a more stable environment," Wolff said.
Ron Hicks, owner of the ABA's Chicago Steam, recalled traveling hundreds of miles only to find that the opposing team had no place to play.
Both Wolff and Hicks said their teams were drawing good crowds when they did play and that the Stallions had the right plan to succeed.
Newman said he has tried to give people from all walks of life the chance to own a professional basketball team and some of those owners have failed.
"I'd rather err on the side of giving a person a chance than to deny them the opportunity of a dream," he said.
However, Newman said he will insist that every team contract with a suitable home arena and create a strong staff and a marketing plan in the upcoming season.
Those teams that don't will be required to spend an additional year in development, he said.
An experienced team owner in each region will oversee the progress of other teams. In Kentucky, the regional director will be Jay Sills.
Sills took over the Bowling Green team when the former owner got into criminal trouble. With only three months before the 2008 season began, he moved that team to Owensboro, renamed it the Kentucky Bisons and increased the size of his audience from 50 to 600 at each game.
"We surprised people," he said.
"We're trying to set standards before Joe lets these teams in," Sills said. "We are only as strong as our weakest team."
Keathley, the coach and new owner of the East Kentucky Miners, said the former owners spent $1 million before the team failed.
Despite its problems, there was something about the Pikeville team that excited the crowd, said Pike County Judge Executive Wayne Rutherford: "It was the run-and-gun style of basketball."
At one point, the team drew 4,000 fans, but it couldn't maintain those numbers.
More teams to play
Keathley said he thinks the Lexington team can do nothing but help the Miners.
"We have five to six teams within four hours of Pikeville, which will help in building rivalries and cut the cost of travel significantly," Keathley said.
The Stallions' Web site shows sponsorships from several Lexington businesses, including Sun Tan City, Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers and UK HealthCare.
UK HealthCare's sponsorship will come in the form of providing trainers to attend practices and a physician for home games who will see players in the UK HealthCare Sports Medicine Clinic, said UK spokeswoman Amanda Nelson.
Chase has said the players will probably be paid between $300 and $400 for each of the 30 games that they play. He said that some will have second jobs. Five players, all of whom played college ball locally, have been named so far, and the rest of the roster should be named soon, Chase said.
Stein said that having the Kentucky Horse Park arena for home games and Macy as coach will give the team a large measure of credibility.
Macy, a former Division I coach, and a point guard for UK's 1978 national tile team, said he was excited about playing at the Horse Park. "It's a great location," he said at a recent press conference. "Things are moving along."
In a tough economy, Chase said, families will like "good low-cost entertainment with high-quality players." Tickets will range from $12 for general seating to $50 for courtside seats.
"I have no doubt in my mind that the Stallions are going to be competitive and fun to watch," said Brandon Stockton, a former UK player now playing for Owensboro's Kentucky Bisons. "People are going to be able to watch the players they loved at the college level. And the American Basketball Association is going to be a growing league in Kentucky."