Mark Story

Why Dan Issel says all of Kentucky should get behind drive to bring NBA to Louisville

Dan Issel spent the end of this past week in Springfield, Mass. The Kentucky Wildcats basketball icon traveled north to see his former Denver Nuggets teammate, Bobby Jones, inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

While hobnobbing with fellow hoops Hall of Famers, Issel planned to do some lobbying designed to bring attention to the effort he heads to bring an NBA expansion franchise to the city of Louisville.

“I plan to talk to everybody I can about NBA to Lou,” Issel said Friday. “I’ve really been encouraged in my two days in Springfield (by) how many people around professional basketball know about our efforts to bring a team (to Louisville).”

In February of 2018, Issel, the all-time leading scorer in University of Kentucky men’s basketball history and one of the stars of the Kentucky Colonels 1974-75 ABA Championship team, was named president of the Louisville Basketball Investment and Support Group.

A limited liability corporation, the group exists to fund and promote the long-elusive goal of luring the NBA to the commonwealth.

I called Issel on Friday for an update on how he believes that project is going.

When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver was asked in a May news conference about adding teams, he said “we are just not in expansion mode at this time … I’m sure inevitably at some point we’ll turn back to expansion, but it is not on the agenda at this time.”

Issel, 70, said the uncertainty over when/if the NBA will add teams is “a little frustrating in the fact we don’t have a timetable. We think the NBA is going to expand. We think there are a couple of reasons why they will. But we don’t have a timetable to work with.”

Exclusive access for NBA owners to a large pool of money is the primary factor that will eventually compel the league to add teams, Issel said.

“The owners have to split all of the Basketball Related Income, the BRI, which is ticket sales, television (rights fees), all of that stuff, 50-50 with the players,” Issel said, referencing the league’s collective-bargaining agreement. “Expansion fees are not BRI, so the expansion fees the owners would collect would go directly to the owners’ pocketbooks.”

Dan Issel and Cliff Hagan
Former Kentucky Wildcats basketball greats Cliff Hagan, left, and Dan Issel signed Maker’s Mark bottles at Keeneland in 2015. Charles Bertram Herald-Leader

When Issel was first announced as the leader of the NBA to Louisville effort, he said his biggest worry was finding a billionaire willing to put forward the big bucks necessary to procure an expansion team if one becomes available.

He now said that is no longer his chief concern.

“We have seven different groups under NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) talking about owning a franchise in Louisville,” Issel said. “This sounds laughable because it is so much money, but I think we can find that person pretty readily.”

Potential NBA expansion cities

An article on in February said the “NBA has been quietly but aggressively exploring the possibility of international expansion.” Mexico City and London are non-U.S. cities often mentioned as potential candidates for new pro hoops teams.

“I think international expansion will come, but I think that is farther away (than the next expansion),” Issel said. “To justify flying teams to Europe, I think you would have to have a couple of teams over there, not just one in London.”

Even without foreign options, the competition for an NBA expansion team would be rugged.

Seattle, which lost the SuperSonics to Oklahoma City in 2008, has long been considered first up for any new NBA team.

Given the success of the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights and the increasing comfort by pro leagues with sports gambling, Las Vegas is the current “hot market” in pro basketball expansion speculation.

Kansas City, San Diego, Pittsburgh and Hampton Roads/Virginia often get mentioned, too.

“I’m not naive, there will be a lot of competition for any domestic expansion,” Issel said. “I think Louisville can make a very compelling argument.”

Dan Issel Colonels program
A game program from the old Kentucky Colonels of the ABA with Dan Issel on the cover. Issel now serves as the president of the Louisville Basketball Investment and Support Group, whose mission is to get an NBA franchise for Kentucky’s largest city. Herald-Leader file photo

For Issel, that pitch starts with “Kentucky’s love for basketball.”

“A new franchise anywhere is sure to be wildly supported. The question is, two or three years after that newness wears off, even if you do not have a championship-caliber team, is the community going to support that franchise and want to come to the games?” Issel said. “With Kentuckians’ love for basketball, I think Louisville absolutely would.”

The drive to bring an NBA franchise to Louisville, Issel said, is an issue of statewide import.

“What I’d like people to focus on is how much this means to the commonwealth,” Issel said. “With the bourbon branding, the remodeled convention center in Louisville, all of the new hotel rooms, the investment being made here, I think the state of Kentucky is about to explode (economically). A professional sports team would just take the state to a whole other level.”

Mark Story has worked in the Lexington Herald-Leader sports department since Aug. 27, 1990, and has been a Herald-Leader sports columnist since 2001. I have covered every Kentucky-Louisville football game since 1994, every UK-U of L basketball game but three since 1996-97 and every Kentucky Derby since 1994.