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BOZICH | As Nuggets soar, Louisville pro basketball fans left with memories, questions

Denver Nuggets
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) celebrates after Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James, center, missed a layup attempt as time expired in the second half of Game 4 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Final series Monday, May 22, 2023, in Los Angeles. Denver won 113-111 to win the series. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- When Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray sent LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers into spring vacation Monday, there was one tagline everybody mentioned about the victorious Denver Nuggets:

After 47 years, the Nuggets will make their first appearance in the NBA Finals.

Let's not forget this Nuggets' nugget: Denver is also the franchise that put the final punctuation mark on the Kentucky Colonels. Getting 40 points from David Thompson and 24 more painful points from Dan Issel, Denver beat the Colonels in Game 7 of the 1976 American Basketball Association playoff semifinals.

It was April 28, 1976. Less than two months later, the Colonels were going, going, gone.

Denver made the ultimate basketball cut list as one of four ABA franchises merged into the NBA. Louisville did not and likely never will despite a lengthy list of NBA dreams and pursuits, false starts and false hopes, secret ownership groups and other tales of pro basketball intrigue.

After about four years of working for the NBA2LOU group, Issel left that project in 2022.

In fact, he moved back to — brace yourself — Denver, where he played and coached, to be closer to his children and grandchildren, including a grandson who has already asked Issel to take him Ball Arena to watch the Nuggets in the NBA Finals.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Issel said he no longer believes the NBA has expansion as a priority and that Louisville's quest to land a team has stalled.

"I think if John Y. (Brown, the Colonels' primary owner) had the whole thing to do over again, he would have gone in a different direction and taken Louisville into the NBA, considering the value of these franchises today," Issel said.

"But that's not the way it turned out."

No, it isn't.

Brown sold Issel, the former University of Kentucky All-American, to the Baltimore Claws for $500,000 in the ABA's final season before the Claws moved him to Denver.

Brown got another $3 million for folding the franchise in 1976. No dummy, Brown later bought the Buffalo Braves for about $1.5 million, an investment that he upgraded into ownership of the Boston Celtics.

Brown won. Professional basketball fans in Louisville lost.

And the Nuggets began their 47-year climb toward what the franchise hopes to achieve over the next few weeks. But unlike the Pittsburgh Pipers, Oakland Oaks, Pacers and, of course, the Colonels, the Nuggets never won an ABA title.

In his final ABA season, Issel played for the Nuggets' team that lost to Julius Erving and the New York Nets in the 1976 ABA Finals.

"So many things go through your mind," said Lloyd Gardner, the trainer of those Colonels' teams. "So many connections between the teams, especially with Dan, especially with the other connections to what happened Monday night."

The other connection to Monday night was the 48th anniversary of the glorious night when Issel, Louie Dampier, Artis Gilmore and the Colonels defeated George McGinnis, Darnell Hillman, Billy Knight and the Pacers, 110-105, to close out the 1975 ABA Finals in five games at Freedom Hall for Kentucky's only ABA title.

Wobbling with financial issues, the ABA finished that season with six teams.

Four were welcomed into the NBA when the leagues finally merged on June 17, 1976: the San Antonio Spurs, the Nets, the Pacers and the Nuggets.

Two franchises folded: the Spirits of St. Louis and the Colonels.

On June 1, the Nuggets will become the fourth and final former ABA team to advance to the NBA Finals when they play either the Miami Heat (likely) or the Celtics (highly unlikely with their 3-0 deficit in the Eastern Conference Finals).

Nikola Jokic
Denver Nuggets center Nikola Jokic (15) acknowledges the crowd after Game 2 of the NBA basketball Western Conference Finals series against the Los Angeles Lakers, Thursday, May 18, 2023, in Denver. The Nuggets defeated the Lakers 108-103. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

"It's extremely exciting here and the people (in Denver) are as excited as you'd expect them to be," Issel said. "They had about 9,000 for a watch party (at Ball Arena) to see the Nuggets close out the Lakers.

"Any time you sweep a team in a series, you're clearly the better team. With the homecourt advantage, I think Denver will be the team to beat whether they play Miami or Boston.

"I really like their team, especially Jokic (a two-time NBA MVP). He does so many things on the basketball court to help a team win in every area."

The Nuggets will try to join the Spurs (take a bow, Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich) as the only former ABA teams to win an NBA title.

And the Colonels?

Their celebration was limited to several hours of reminiscing by Gardner, coach Hubie Brown, Gilmore and Dampier on Issel's radio show Monday morning.

Although he is based in Denver, Issel continues to host his daily talk show from 10 a.m. to noon with Louie Rabaut on ESPN 680 AM in Louisville.

"We went one direction and Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Nashville went another," Gardner said.

As did Denver. The conversation on Issel's radio show through the NBA Finals should be fascinating.

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