BOZICH | NBA in Louisville a hit -- and worth another discussion
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Monty Williams coaches Russ Smith, Anthony Davis and Darius Miller for the New Orleans Pelicans. I'll get to how those three former Louisville and Kentucky players performed in their visit to town later.
But the first thing I need to share from Williams' trip to Louisville is the coach's reaction to the KFC Yum! Center. The place was stuffed with 20,074 fan for the exhibition game the Pelicans won against the Miami Heat, 98-86, Saturday night.
Williams toured the practice gym, examined the locker rooms and looked at the training facilities. Then he walked onto the main court. The last time Williams was in town for a basketball game he played for Notre Dame against Louisville in Freedom Hall. This is no Freedom Hall.
Williams had never seen the palace on Main Street. Now, he has.
“It's big,” he said. “I didn't expect the size. The locker rooms are really nice. It seems like a place where you'd have a professional basketball team. It's a great facility.”
The compliments came in stereo. Listen to what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
First, pre-game: “It looks like an NBA facility.”
Then, post-game: “What a great basketball town. Our guys enjoyed playing in front of the fans.”
Let's have some fun and fuss about the oldest and most vibrantly divisive sports topic in this town:
Should Kentuckiana get serious about pursuing an NBA team? Louisville is one of 11 Top 50 Nielsen markets without a professional team.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear. Chances are this will not get past the talking and fussing stage. It's been stuck at that point since Louisville got stiffed in the NBA-ABA merger nearly four decades ago.
Buffalo Braves. Houston Rockets. Vancouver Grizzlies. Charlotte Hornets. Have I missed anybody?
Mysterious investors from China, Russia and exotic points in between. I've heard all those stories, too – and they don't advance the cause.
The league has no current plans to expand. Seattle seems to be positioned ahead of Louisville if anything does change. There are only rumors about franchises that might be looking to move.
And the University of Louisville has formidable men's and women's basketball programs that have first call on all the best dates in the facility, the result of a wonderful contract that the school shrewdly negotiated before they moved into this building four years ago.
But we're just talking. Having fun. Trying to kick up a discussion.
What was different about this game?
Seeing Louisville and Kentucky fans cheering for the same team – the Pelicans. Davis (five points in 11 minutes) and Miller (eight points in 32 minutes) started for New Orleans.
Two minutes into the second quarter it sounded as if UK fans were joining Louisville fans in one rousing cheer:
“WE WANT RUSS … WE WANT RUSS … WE WANT RUSS!!!!”
They didn't get him until there were less than seven minutes to play in the third quarter. Smith delivered – the way he always has in this building, scoring 12 points in 13 minutes. Credit him with an assist, two steals and three rebounds, along with two turnovers.
There are many reasons why people think the NBA would work. The primary one is the growth of this market and its insatiable appetite for basketball. There's a healthy pocket of fans, difficult to measure, who hunger for a pro sports team, especially an NBA team. You can talk hoops every day in this town and nobody would complain. It's clearly the best college basketball market in America.
My unofficial count is there could be as many as 35 former UK (22 guys), U of L (6), Indiana (5) and Western Kentucky (2) players in the NBA this season.
That's a dream scenario for a marketing department with any skills. You can sell the home team -- as well as visiting players. It explains why the arena crackled with so much energy Saturday night.
But economics will drive the decision. It's business. Jonathan Blue is a Louisville businessman with an office on Main Street several blocks east of the arena. He sits courtside at University of Louisville games – and he was courtside Saturday, parked next to Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer.
Blue is always ready to talk NBA – if it's something that would be good for the city and all the numbers line up in the correct way.
“It's time to look at it again,” Blue said. “The only concern that I would have is the biggest issue now with NBA owners relocating teams is local media rights and the appetite. It's such a big component now for local media rights to sell in the market.
“It's no longer we have to find a billionaire, no longer we have to find somebody willing or no longer we have to sell suites. You also now have to be able to sell local media rights, which means selling out the local media rights portion. The small markets that we compete with have (like Oklahoma City and Memphis) done that.
“The question is, ‘Is there enough capacity to do that.' I don't have an answer to that. It's a question that if it could be answered, then we would know a lot more.”
Sounds like a fun conversation. It always is.
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