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Hoops legend says NBA team would energize Kentucky

Basketball hall of famer Dan Issel knows a thing or two about not being someone’s first choice — including how to overcome that obstacle.

That perseverance makes Issel — a one-time UK All-American, former ABA/NBA player and coach and a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame inductee — the perfect person to lead the effort to beat the odds and bring professional basketball back to the Bluegrass State.

As president of the Louisville Basketball Investment and Support Group, Issel is working his way around the state, sharing some compelling data that shows NBA hoops would thrive here.

Kentucky has always been somewhat of an underdog in this endeavor, but Issel has some experience in overcoming adversity.

The 6’9” bruiser wasn’t really expected to attend college at the University of Kentucky. He had his eye on Wisconsin — for important reasons like the fact the school offered a waterskiing course and sold beer in the student union. Issel said his parents wanted him to go to Northwestern, “for a very silly reason: the fact it was one of the finest academic institutions in the country.”

Kentucky was interested in him, but exactly how much remains a running joke to this day between he and then-assistant Coach Joe B. Hall. Issel says he was actually UK’s third choice.

“I came to Kentucky on a recruiting trip and I opened up a copy of the school newspaper. They had a story quoting coach Hall about the people Kentucky was interested in signing,” Issel said. “There was a list of about 15 people and my name wasn’t even on the list.”

Eventually, Issel changed his mind about Wisconsin and the rest is Wildcat history.

Under Hall of Fame coach Adolph Rupp, Issel was a star at the University of Kentucky from 1966 to 1970. Issel set 23 school records, including most points and rebounds, and led the Wildcats to three Southeastern Conference titles. As a senior, Issel averaged 33.9 points per game in the regular season and 36 points per game in the NCAA Tournament to help Kentucky reach the Elite Eight.

“It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me, playing for this great institution. The fan base, Big Blue Nation, is just incredible,” Issel said. “It’s been almost 50 years since I played at the University of Kentucky, almost 50 years. And I can walk down the street in Lexington and Louisville and people come up and talk to me like I graduated yesterday. Being an (alumnus) and a former basketball player at Kentucky is just the best.”

He enjoyed a 15-year ABA/NBA career with the Kentucky Colonels and the Denver Nuggets and concluded his Denver career as the franchise leader in rebounds.

According to his Naismith bio, Issel is “one of the hardest working players in basketball history, … (he) played in more than 1,200 games in his professional career and in fact missed only 24 games in his pro career. Nicknamed ‘The Horse,’ Issel was the model of durability and consistency. His success was based largely on an old-fashioned, blue-collar work ethic. He had a rugged offensive game that featured strong, decisive moves in the paint and a reliable jump shot from 15 feet.”

Issel has now come full circle with this effort to bring professional basketball back to Louisville where his career began with the Colonels.

“We are fighting the perception that Louisville and Kentucky cannot support a professional basketball team,” Issel said. “We have reams of data that proves Louisville, Kentucky, can support a professional basketball team.”

He added that Louisville would have gotten the original Charlotte Hornets team before they ultimately relocated to New Orleans if it hadn’t been for opposition from the former leadership at UofL.

The group has been building its case for several years and is making a push via social media and online at nba2lou.com, arguing that it would benefit the whole Bluegrass State.

“Bringing an NBA team to Kentucky could heavily stimulate the economy across the entire commonwealth,” organizers say. “The creation of new jobs, potential to attract outside dollars and additional income tax dollars would benefit the entire state of Kentucky — not just the city in which the NBA team is hosted.”

The NBA is expected to expand in coming years and Issel wants to make sure that Louisville is ready and its name is at the top of the list.

Kentucky is synonymous with basketball. It is time to bring the NBA back to the Bluegrass and Issel is the right guy to lead us to an important victory.

Michael Caldwell is publisher of The Advocate-Messenger and Danville Living magazine. He can be reached at (859) 469-6400 or by email at mike.caldwell@centralkynews.com.