January 17, 2018
On Saturday, October 14, 1967, the Kentucky Colonels played their first game in the new American Basketball League (ABA), facing the Indiana Pacers at the Indiana State Fair Coliseum in Indianapolis. The Pacers won 117 to 95 and then spoiled the Colonels’ home opener 6 nights later at the Louisville Convention Center (now the Louisville Gardens).
The Colonels finished their inaugural season with 36 wins and 42 losses but still managed to make the playoffs. They would go on to win the most games in the league’s 9-year history as well as claim the best overall winning percentage.
Players like Louie Dampier, Darel Carrier, Dan Issel, and Goose Ligon thrilled fans at the Convention Center and later Freedom Hall where the team moved in 1970. The team’s most famous player, Artis Gilmore, joined the team in 1971 and helped lead the Colonels to a 68-16 record. However, a league title would not come until 1975 when the Colonels defeated their arch-rivals the Indiana Pacers 4 games to 1.
Many ABA teams were on shaky ground financially, with most moving or folding at some point in the league’s history. The Colonels, along with the Pacers, were the only ABA teams to stay put for all 9 seasons. They were also ahead of their time in advancing the role of women in professional sports, though the first attempt was more of a publicity stunt.
In 1968, Penny Ann Early, a talented jockey who had never played basketball was signed by the Colonels. She played briefly-- very briefly. In a game against the Los Angeles Stars, she was sent in for 1 play in which she inbounded the ball to Bobby Rascoe who immediately called a time-out, at which point Early exited the game and ended her pro basketball career.
In 1973, a woman took a much more active role in the team when Ellie Brown and her husband John (later Kentucky’s governor) bought the team. With an all-female board of directors, Ms. Brown greatly increased the season ticket base and doubled attendance.
Of course, the 1974/75 season ended on a high note for the team, having finally captured a title, but the league was imploding. The 1974/75 season ended with ten teams in the league. The 1975/76 season began with 8, though the San Diego Sails and Utah Stars collapsed 11 and 16 games into the season, respectively. As a merger with the NBA became imminent at the end of the season, it quickly became clear that the established league would only absorb 4 of the surviving 6 teams (the Virginia Squires having folded a month after the end of the season).
The New York Nets, Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs, and Indiana Pacers joined the NBA. The Colonels and the Spirits of St. Louis were bought out. The Brown family used the money to purchase a controlling interest in the Buffalo Braves, who today are the Los Angeles Clippers.
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