The Colonels, the Cardinals and Freedom Hall

One of the first–and biggest–objections pro-NBA to Louisville supporters encounter is the fear that a Louisville NBA team would negatively impact the University of Louisville basketball program’s performance.  This is a very legitimate concern but before the pros and cons can be argued, clear historical benchmarks need to be established.

From the 1970-71 basketball season through 1975-76 season, the Kentucky Colonels and Louisville Cardinals were co-tenants at the 16,664-seat Freedom Hall.  And how did each do?  Looking back at the data, both did pretty damned well.

Freedom Hall

The Kentucky Colonels played their first three seasons at the 5900-seat old Louisville Convention Center (current Louisville Gardens) before joining UofL at Freedom Hall for the 1970-71 season.  During their three seasons at their inaugural home, the Colonels averaged 3225, 4157 and 3834 fans per game.  Immediately upon moving to Freedom Hall, they almost doubled their previous season’s attendance to 7375 per game.  The next year, during their legendary 68-16 regular season, the Colonels established a new attendance record with a league-leading 8811 per game, which would stand as their all-time season record.  All told, over the course of six seasons, the Colonels averaged 7860 fans per game, good for second in the ABA over that time period behind only the Indiana Pacers, who averaged 8127 per game, and more than the San Antonio Spurs, Denver Nuggets, New York Nets and Utah Stars–all ABA cities that eventually became NBA cities.  Over that same period, the overall ABA average was 5858.  Only once over those six seasons did the Colonels draw fewer fans per game than the ABA average (6935 per game versus 7264 in ’75-76, their final season in Louisville and after they traded franchise icon Dan Issel).

As an aside, the overall NBA average during that time was 8684 per game.  To add context, the NBA did not average more than 10,000 fans per game until 1975-76 and did not average more than 15,000 fans per game until 1988-89.  Last season, the NBA averaged 17,274 fans per game league-wide.

On the court, the Colonels were equally successful.  In addition to establishing attendance records during their first two seasons at Freedom Hall, they advanced to the ABA playoffs in all six of their Freedom Hall seasons, won division titles in 1972 and ’75 and advanced to the ABA Finals in ’71, ’73 and ’75, finally bringing home the championship on their third try.  Although flopping in the playoffs, the ’71-72 team won more basketball games than any professional team in history aside from the ’71-72 Los Angeles Lakers, the ’95-96 Chicago Bulls and the ’96-97 Chicago Bulls.  Once the Colonels moved to Freedom Hall, it’s obvious that they thrived.

Kentucky Colonels
Year Attendance Record Postseason
1970-71 7375 / #3 44-40/.524/2nd Lost ABA Finals
1971-72 8811 / #1 68-16/.819/1st Lost 1st Rd
1972-73 7113 / #3 56-28/.667/2nd Lost ABA Finals
1973-74 8201 / #2 53-31/.631/2nd Lost Div Finals
1974-75 8727 / #2 58-26/.691/1st Won ABA Finals
1975-76 6935 / #5 46-38/.548/4th Lost Div Finals

During this same time period, UofL established itself as one of the preeminent college programs in America.  Like the Colonels, during their six-year shared run at Freedom Hall, the Cardinals twice broke their home attendance record (1971-72 and again in ’74-75, the latter of which ranked sixth nationally in the NCAA that season).  They also advanced to the postseason all six seasons, including three times to the NCAA tournament when the tourney was much smaller (during this time period, the NCAA tournament included anywhere from 22-32 teams per season and the NIT was still considered a relatively prestigious tournament).  The Cards also claimed four conference titles, set the single-season school record for winning percentage (.903 in ’74-75) and advanced to two Final Fours.  As with the Colonels, it’s clear that the Cardinals thrived during these six seasons and actually outdrew the Colonels, averaging 10,602 fans per game.

Louisville Cardinals
Year Attendance Record Postseason
1970-71 9807 20-9/.690/Conf NIT 1st Rd
1971-72 11,162 26-5/.839/Conf Final Four
1972-73 9617 23-7/.767 NIT Elite 8
1973-74 10,872 21-7/.750/Conf NCAA Sweet 16
1974-75 13,674 / #6 28-3/.903/Conf Final Four
1975-76 10,872 20-8/.714 NIT Elite 8

While it would be a stretch to draw any cause-and-effect conclusions regarding the benefits of sharing an arena based on these six seasons, it certainly proved that a successful professional franchise can co-exist with an elite college program.  A more likely explanation for all of this basketball success can be attributed to talent.  The Colonels’ big three of Artis Gilmore, Dan Issel and Louie Dampier were perennial ABA All-Stars.  From the UofL side, Head Coaches Peck Hickman and John Dromo had already built UofL into an established national program by the 1960s, but the arrival of future Hall-of-Famer Denny Crum, who promptly took his first UofL team to the Final Four in 1972, catapulted the Cardinals’ program into the elite.  His ability to recruit and suit up All-Americans like Junior Bridgeman, Allen Murphy and Phil Bond provided Louisvillians with the opportunity to watch some the best professional and collegiate basketball players in the country on any given night during the early and mid-’70s.

And let’s not forget the high school ranks.  The late 1960s through the late ’70s was arguably the golden era of basketball in Louisville when you throw in high school basketball.  This period saw Louisville Male, Central and Ballard suit up some of the most dominant teams the city has ever produced and the ’73 and ’74 state championship games were all-Louisville affairs with Shawnee topping Male in’73 and Central following suit in’74.  At least one Louisville public school appeared in every state championship game during the Colonels’ presence in Louisville (’68-’76), except ’72 and ’76 (though 1972 saw our close neighbor Elizabethtown finish as runner-up).  After the Colonels left town, Ballard and nearby Shelby County claimed the state championships in ’77 and ’78, respectively.  All told, from 1968-78, Louisville-area schools claimed eight state titles.  In the 34 years since, Louisville-area schools have claimed a total of 10 state titles, including Trinity this past spring.

This was indeed a golden era of basketball in Louisville–at every level.

Granted, the economic landscapes of both professional and collegiate basketball–and to a degree high school–have been altered dramatically over the past 35 years, but that needs to be tackled in a whole ‘nother post.

In Louisville’s small sample, when the Colonels were in town, not only did they thrive but UofL and local high school basketball did as well.  The Colonels and Cardinals set attendance records, set records for winning percentages and advanced far into the postseason.  And Freedom Hall seemed to have no trouble finding enough dates for both the Colonels and Cards, all while managing to host the KHSAA Sweet Sixteen each of those years, too.

It somehow all worked, but don’t take my word for it.  “We have our fans, they have theirs, and we share some.  I don’t see any problems over dates either.  That can all be worked out, “  Denny Crum told the Louisville Times in November 1975.  He continued, “We’ve been exploring the possibilities of a new arena ever since I’ve been here, and we’ve talked to John Y. about them (the Kentucky Colonels) using it.  I’m 100 percent in favor of it.  I can’t imagine anything nicer than a professional organization like the Colonels coming in to share it with us.  I’m in favor of anything that’s in the best interest of basketball, and anything that keeps the Colonels here and keeps John Y. Brown in the game is in the best interest of basketball.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself, Coach Crum.