The NBA-in-Louisville question keeps bobbing back to the surface like one of those walking dead creatures that won’t stay down.
And the arguments on both sides of the question hurt my head. On the one side: A) this is a basketball-mad metro market; B) there’s a world-class sports venue in place; and C) well, there is no C.
On the other side: A) Louisville is dominated by college basketball; B) there aren’t enough high-rollers to fill luxury boxes; C) Louisville is too small; D) it’s geographically too close to other NBA towns; D) if the NBA expands, it would probably prefer Las Vegas; E) Louisville doesn’t have the necessary deep-pockets ownership; F) while Louisville has a world-class arena, its primary commitment is to the University of Louisville; and G) Louisville had its chance in 1976, when the NBA absorbed certain ABA teams as part of the merger, but John Y. Brown wouldn’t pony up and pro basketball fled the city, never to be heard from again.
Saturday’s Courier-Journal had a detailed look at all the arguments, complete with charts, maps and bold-faced subheads. The banner Page One headline was “COULD IT HAPPEN?” The general reporting consensus was: PROBABLY NOT.
Which is baffling. Look, there’s plenty of money around here, though I don’t know how much of it is available to buy an NBA team. It hasn’t stopped the other 28 cities who have teams. But who can say for certain where, exactly, the necessary investment might come from?
Also, the KFC Yum! Center would seem to give Louisville an enormous head start toward qualifying for a pro franchise, but there are so many vested interests, conflicting goals and internal resentments that Yum! might, oddly enough, be the deal-killer all by itself.
But I can’t believe someone here couldn’t make this happen. In looking at the C-J’s map, there are three NBA teams in Texas; three in California; two in Florida; and one each in Oregon, Georgia, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Louisiana.
None of those states strikes me as a particular hotbed of basketball. Three pro basketball teams in football-mad Texas? There are only two pro football teams!
Toronto? Salt Lake City? Denver? New Orleans? Atlanta?
I lived in Atlanta for several years. The Hawks must have been somebody’s tax write-off. Even in January and February, college and pro basketball were the fourth-leading sports item in the paper, behind off-season Georgia football, NASCAR and the upcoming Masters. The basketball fortunes of the Hawks, Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets seemed to lose local interest about the time the Bradford Pear trees began to blossom in late February.
Also, at least in those days, the Braves’ upcoming season pretty much wiped all remaining basketball awareness off the Atlanta brain pan.
And yet, the NBA has resided in Atlanta for nearly 50 years, even with Charlotte, N.C., just 220 miles to the north.
Proximity to an existing NBA city. That’s a laugh. Indianapolis is about 120 miles away, roughly the distance between Chicago and Milwaukee, New York and Philadelphia, Houston and San Antonio, San Francisco and Sacramento. To say nothing of Brooklyn and Manhattan.
History tells us that Kentucky is one of the most renowned capitals of basketball in the country. Rupp and his runts, Crum and Dunkenstein, Pitino and Pitino. On the other hand, there’s Sacramento, Calif. Now there’s a basketball madhouse!
Besides, who cares anymore about distance? That’s an antiquated metric from the time when teams’ only revenues came from ticket sales — those fannies in the seats George Steinbrenner used to rhapsodize about.
What about Las Vegas, which currently seems to be tantalizing the league? There had never been a major league sports team in Las Vegas until the National Hockey League decided to go in there this year. The reason seems obvious: Shoeless Joe Jackson.
Ever since Jackson and the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series, pro sports have viewed gambling the way 14th century Europe viewed the Black Plague: as a potentially fatal infestation of rats. That’s why major league baseball keeps Pete Rose out of the Hall of Fame and never, ever publishes odds or talks about favorites.
The idea that any pro league would willingly go into Vegas, where the day’s betting odds are as prevalent on the news as the weather forecast, strikes many as dangerous. (Hockey? Who bets on hockey in the middle of the desert?)
Las Vegas as a basketball capital? Well, there were Jerry Tarkanian and the UNLV Running Rebels.
Tark the Shark. Exactly.
However, Las Vegas has a reported population of 630,000. And that, apparently, has the pro basketball elite salivating.
So, does size matter? There are many ways to measure the population size of a metro market. According to the MSA, Louisville is the 43rd largest metro area in the United States — larger than New Orleans and Salt Lake City, each of which supports a pro team.
We’re also larger than Green Bay, Wis. Can you imagine a huddle of today’s NFL executives laughing at the proposed entry of a team from Green Bay?
“The population is — what??? The weather is — what??? The ownership arrangement is — who??? The citizens of the town?!?!?”
Does size really matter, anyhow? Big old neighbor Cincinnati couldn’t keep a pro basketball team. Neither could Seattle, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, San Diego or St. Louis.
Yes, neither could Louisville. Which brings me to that specious argument: John Y. and the sell-out of 1976.
Does anyone remember the state of pro basketball in the mid-1970s? It was fairly dismal. The face of the NBA was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — aloof and media-phobic.
The two necessary media powerhouses on either coast, the Knicks and Lakers, had both slipped into hard times, and illegal drugs permeated professional locker rooms. Throughout the league, coke was the real thing.
My point is, there wasn’t much national interest in pro basketball in 1976. It wasn’t until four years later that Earvin Johnson joined the Lakers and transformed the image of the sport.
From Magic and Bird to Michael to Shaq-and-Kobe to LeBron, the NBA became the hottest game in the toybox.
In 1976, the U.S. sent Adrian Dantley, Phil Ford, Quinn Buckner, Ernie Grunfeld, Mitch Kupchak, Scott May to the Olympic games in Montreal. Respectable, sure, but I challenge anyone to name that roster without a scorecard (or Google).
By 1992, we were sending Magic, Bird, Jordan, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Clyde Drexler, John Stockton. It was the most famous basketball team in history — an NBA team — and America’s heart was stolen.
Even college basketball has been positioned as a feeder program to the NBA.
That’s the pro-basketball environment today. John Y. would have paid hundreds of millions for the franchise.
Every year, the likes of John Wall, Gorgui Dieng, Karl-Anthony Towns and the rest disperse to NBA cities around the country, and Louisvillians avidly follow their activities as if they were still playing here.
Why couldn’t they be?