Outlook- Remembering the Kentucky Colonels of the ABA
It’s a piece of Sports History that almost became a footnote – The Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association. Join Outlook as we unveil the colorful history of the team that fostered basketball greats like Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel, Bobby Rascoe, and Darel Carrier. Guests include author Gary West, former players Darel Carrier, and Bobby Rascoe.
The Kentucky Colonels were a member of the American Basketball Association for all of the league’s nine years. The name is derived from the historic Kentucky colonels. The Colonels won the most games and had the highest winning percentage of any franchise in the league’s history, but the team did not join the NBA in the 1976 ABA-NBA merger. The Colonels were based in Freedom Hall for their final six seasons beginning with the 1970–71 schedule, having played the previous three seasons at the downtown Louisville Convention Center (now known as The Gardens).
Overview and background
The Louisville-based Colonels started their time in the ABA as a colorful franchise, and not just because of their bright chartreuse green uniforms. Among the things they were known for was their “mascot” Ziggy, a prize-winning Brussels Griffon dog that was owned by original team owners Joe and Mamie Gregory. Some fans of the Colonels believed Ziggy was the real owner of the club. Ziggy went to owner’s meetings and had a front row seat for games. The dog was even part of the team’s logo for their first seasons.
They were equally famous for publicity stunts, their most famous coming in 1968 when Penny Ann Early, the first licensed female horse racing jockey, was signed to appear in an ABA game (albeit for a few seconds).
The team’s performance on the court was understandably overshadowed. Perhaps it was deserved, as they were mostly an average team, but they did have a pair of good in-state talents, Kentucky Wildcat Louie Dampier and Western Kentucky University legend Darel Carrier. They were among the best long range shooters of their time, and benefitted greatly from the ABA’s three-point line. Carrier spent 5 seasons with the club, while Dampier was a Colonel for all of their years.
A jersey honoring Issel hangs in Rupp Arena
The early color of their franchise began to wane during the 1970-71 season, when they signed another Wildcat star in All-American Dan Issel. They also dropped the chartreuse green uniforms in favor of a Blue and White scheme similar to that of the Wildcats. Another abnormality to the Colonels uniform change was that the players’ last names on the back had only the first letter capitalized, as opposed to all capital letters, which are almost universally featured on the back of nearly every professional or collegiate basketball uniform which names on the back of jerseys are featured. Issel’s signing helped the Colonels become well known as a legitimate basketball team. In spite of an average record in the regular season, they made a serious run at the 1971 ABA championship. They fell just short, however, and lost to the Utah Stars in 7 games.
They proved to be even better in 1971, with the signing of ferocious big man Artis Gilmore. Gilmore’s signing would help make the Colonels a legitimate powerhouse for years to come. The Colonels won 68 games in his rookie campaign under coach Joe Mullaney; their record turned out to be best in the league’s entire history. Yet, in the playoffs, they were upset by the New York Nets in the first round. Kentucky recovered and made another championship run during the 1972–73 playoffs, but lost a physical series to the Indiana Pacers in 7 games, 4 games to 3.
After the season, the franchise was nearly moved out-of-state to Cincinnati, but was purchased by John Y. Brown, Jr., a future Kentucky governor who owned Kentucky Fried Chicken for years. Brown helped increase interest in the team, and looked to improve its on-court performance by hiring popular ABA coach Babe McCarthy. But after they were swept in the second round of the playoffs by the Nets, Brown gave McCarthy his walking papers.
Brown in 1981
For the 1974-75, Brown hired Hubie Brown (no relation), a former NBA assistant coach, to give them that championship. Unlike the past year, the Colonels would not be denied. After a torrid finish to the regular season, which saw them win 23 of 26 games, they ripped through the playoffs, and beat their nemesis, the Indiana Pacers, in a dominant 4 games to 1 victory to win the 1975 ABA championship. Gilmore scored 28 points and grabbed an amazing 31 rebounds in the final game. That same season the Golden State Warriors won the NBA Title. Colonels owner,John Y. Brown,offered the NBA Champs a million dollars to play a one game world championship. The Warriors and the NBA refused. Many believe the Colonels were the better team.
The celebration of the 1975 season ended when John Y. Brown, Jr. dealt Dan Issel to the ABA’s new Baltimore Claws franchise (which folded after a few preseason exhibition games, never taking the floor in the regular season) for financial reasons. They acquired all-star Caldwell Jones to replace him, but he never gelled with the team. Jones was dealt mid-season for young Maurice Lucas. Hubie managed to make the team competitive, but they lost in the postseason to the Denver Nuggets in 7 games.
Kentucky was one of the league’s most talented teams, and had one of its best fan bases, but during the ABA’s talks of merging with the NBA, the Colonels were not a favorite to change leagues. As a result, John Y. Brown, Jr. was forced to fold the Colonels.
Colonels players were distributed to other teams in a dispersal draft, with Artis Gilmore being drafted first by the Chicago Bulls. Maurice Lucas went on to be an all-star for the Portland Trail Blazers and Louie Dampier, who ended up being the all-time leader in points and assists, ended his career as a sixth man for the San Antonio Spurs. Coach Hubie Brown went on to coach the Atlanta Hawks for five seasons after the merger before being fired.
The Colonels won 448 games in the ABA, more than any other team or franchise. The Colonels’ overall regular season record was 448-296; their .602 winning percentage is better than that of any ABA franchise except for the Minnesota Muskies who only played one season. (If the Utah Stars‘ statistics are counted on their own, excluding their seasons as the Anaheim Amigos and the Los Angeles Stars, that team’s winning percentage, .608, is slightly better than the Colonels’.)
The Colonels’ playoff record was 55-46 (.545). Only the Indiana Pacers won more ABA playoff games (69).