There was never a dull moment for the Kentucky Colonels

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There was never a dull moment for the Kentucky Colonels

Postby rlee » Sun Jan 16, 2011 7:06 pm

There was never a dull moment for the Kentucky Colonels and the ABA

By Jim Terhune
The Courier-Journal

There was, of course, Wendell Ladner, a model for beefcake posters and a destroyer of water coolers.

A Durrett High School freshman who fell from the arena's rafters to the floor during a game — and lived.

The tornado, taking the phrase “raise the roof” to new heights.

The magical May night in 1975, when long-festering frustrations ended with a championship.

And finally, the old building itself, a fine place for the jumpers of Louie Dampier and Dan Issel and the rebounds of Artis Gilmore — and for the fans, who could almost reach out and touch the players.

These were a few of the Kentucky Colonels' favorite things during the American Basketball Association team's six-year run in Freedom Hall. It ended with the dissolution of the team and the league in 1976, but by then there were enough keepsakes to fill a scrapbook.

Start with Ladner, a 6-foot-5, 220-pound package of muscle and hustle who played here only the last half of the 1972-73 season and the first half of '73-74. Still, he became such a box-office hit, especially among women, that the Colonels had a poster designed of Ladner spread out on a bench in his uniform trunks with a strategically placed basketball as a prop.

“Wendell always dressed to the hilt,” said Ellie Brown Moore, then the wife of Kentucky Fried Chicken man John Y. Brown and 51percent owner of the last three Colonels teams. “When he'd get ready to go out, he'd say, ‘Ellie, is my hair mess up?' And I'd say, ‘Wendell, one thing you'll never have to worry about is how you look. Trust me on this.'”

On April 21, 1973, with 3:09 left in Kentucky's 119-100 victory over Carolina in a second-round playoff series at the Hall, Ladner intercepted a pass and saved the ball to a teammate as his momentum sent him roaring through the Cougars' bench and into a water cooler. The glass cooler shattered, and Ladner needed 48 stitches, including 25 in his left arm and 12 in his lower back.

“I helped him to the locker room, and Dr. (Rudy) Ellis and I wrapped him up,” recalled Lloyd Gardner, the Colonels' trainer. “He wanted to go back out and play. Dr. Ellis said no. We took him to the hospital and stitched him up. The next day he practiced. Also, the next day, and all the days after, they had plastic water coolers.”

th Three days later, when Ladner played again, fans noticed blood on his legs. The stitches were fine; he refused to change his blood-stained socks until the playoffs ended.

‘No way he could survive'

With the Colonels leading the San Antonio Spurs on March 15, 1976, a timeout was called. Coach Hubie Brown remembered “a blur to my right.” Gardner said he saw a figure trying to grab a large flag hanging on a nearby wall. Dampier saw police running toward the Colonels' bench and wondered “if I should crawl under a table. Is there a sniper? What's happening?”

According to reports at the time, Marty Smith, 14, and two friends had descended to a catwalk in the rafters from an opening in the roof. Marty slipped and fell 65 feet to the concrete floor between the end-zone bleachers and the back entrance.

“It was shocking, just a terrible thing,” Hubie Brown said.

“Very emotional for all of us,” Gilmore said. “My first thought was, there's no way he could survive that.”

But he did. He had a broken arm, smashed wrist, torn liver, fractured pelvis and a spleen that had to be removed. He was in the hospital nine weeks. The Colonels did not recover. The Spurs rallied to win 118-105.

‘I heard a great rumble'

The Colonels were due to play Carolina in Game 2 of the first-round playoffs on April 3, 1974. Gardner was in the locker room in the afternoon, getting Carolina uniforms out of the laundry for the ball boys to distribute and making other preparations. It was about 2:30.

“I heard a great rumble,” Gardner said. “Then what sounded like a train coming down the hallway. I told the boys to get under a table. I ran down the hallway toward the back entrance to shut the door. Stuff was flying everywhere — chairs, ceiling tiles, pieces of roof — in swirling dust.”

A few miles away off Brownsboro Road, Gilmore was into his mental preparation for the game. “Everything came to a sudden still halt,” he recalled. “There was devastation on the other side of the street. I remember my brother-in-law bursting into the house, breathing hard, eyes escalated, saying, ‘I was only two steps ahead of that.'”

A tornado had torn a hole in the Freedom Hall roof and cut a horrendous swath through Cherokee Park and eastern Louisville on its way to the Ohio River and Indiana.

“I don't mind rain, lightning or thunder now,” Gardner said, “but when the wind gets up it's a whole different deal.”

The Colonels won the next two games in North Carolina, then finished off a series sweep on April 8 — in Lexington. They returned to a patched-up Freedom Hall on April 17 for Game 3 of the next series against the New York Nets.

‘The total package'

The Colonels made the playoffs each year they were in the ABA. The first two times they made the finals, they took the series to seven games before losing. In 1971-72 they finished the regular season 68-16, winning their division by 23 games, but bowed in the first round.

But on May 22, 1975, in Hubie Brown's first year and Ellie Brown's second, the Colonels put the whispers of “choke” ‘ into the grave. They beat the Indiana Pacers 110-105, ending a streak in which they knocked off three straight playoff opponents four games to one.

Hubie Brown remembered fans rushing out of the stands, picking Ellie Brown up and parading her around the court. She remembered somebody telling her she was wanted in the locker room — where she was tossed into the shower.

“I appreciated being included in that ritual,” she said.

Hubie Brown insists to this day the '74-75 Colonels were the best of his 13 teams, 11 of them in the NBA. “They could play both ends of the floor, had a fast-break game, had a half-court game and had excellent three-point shooting,” he said. “The total package.”

Hearing that a few years ago at a reunion, John Y. Brown, the man maligned for folding the franchise, said, “Hubie, thank you.”

‘They cheered with a smile'

The Colonels were one of the original ABA entries. They were in the league nine seasons, the first three at the 5,900-seat Convention Center (now the Gardens of Louisville) and the last six at Freedom Hall, which then seated 16,613.

Dampier was a Colonel from beginning to end. He holds 10 ABA career records, including most points and most assists.

“Freedom Hall was a great place to shoot in,” he said. “Butler Fieldhouse was my favorite and Freedom Hall my second favorite.” (As a high school star in Southport, Ind., he played several times at Butler — now Hinkle — Fieldhouse).

Many talk about Freedom Hall's “soft” rims. Were they?

“It was more the background, the lighting, seeing the ball,” Dampier said.

All of which helped a shooter's confidence?

“I guess I had more confidence in a place where you were more comfortable shooting in,” he said. “But confidence came and went.”

Fan support and fan connection were also gifts.

“We had unbelievable fans, vocal and loud but never anything truly negative,” Gilmore said. “They cheered with a smile.”

Adolph Rupp joined the Colonels' staff in 1974-75 as a good-will ambassador. The University of Kentucky icon would sit in the lower level across from the bench. One time, needing a restroom break, he arose from his seat. The fans stood, too, and applauded. “Adolph's the only guy in the world who can get a standing ovation for going to the bathroom,” Gardner remembered Hubie Brown saying.

The Colonels passed on in 1976 when John Y. Brown failed to get the financial help needed to pay the team's way into the NBA.

“It didn't make economic sense,” he said recently. “We lost $750,000 our championship season.”

After becoming governor and after the University of Louisville won the 1980 NCAA title, Brown led a $13.2million Freedom Hall renovation. “I remember Denny (Crum, UofL's former coach) saying this is the finest arena in the country when it was redone,” Brown said. “Freedom Hall had been sort of a cow palace, although I don't say that disrespectfully.”

Ellie Brown Moore would respectfully disagree.

“A normal working person could go the games,” she said. “At our reunion (in 2005) people showed up with all sorts of things they had hung onto and collected. Freedom Hall was a fabulous facility, by far the best in the league. Ideal, too. Another team would come in, stay at the hotel there, the arena was right there, everything was comfortable, easy to get around and parking was more than available. And some nights were electric, just amazing.

“The first time I was invited to go into one of those glass things (luxury boxes, part of the remodeling), I thought, ‘You can't hear players. You can't hear things. This is not going to a basketball game.'”

Hubie Brown chuckled.

“It's a grand old building, one that housed so much great basketball at the pro and college levels,” he said. “And that's where, for the first time, I ever saw one of those damn big trucks. Unbelievable.”

Yes. Wendell, Louie, Dan, Artis, a variety of Browns, a red-white-and-blue basketball. And monster trucks, too.

All-time Freedom Hall ABA team

Artis Gilmore, Colonels — five seasons, 22.3 points and 17.1 rebounds a game, 40 rebounds vs. Nets in '74.

Dan Issel, Colonels/Denver — six seasons, 25.6 points and 10.9 rebounds a game, six all-star teams.

Louie Dampier, Colonels — nine seasons, ABA all-time leader in points and assists, made 57 straight free throws in '71, 18 assists in one playoff game.

Julius Erving, Virginia/NewYork — five seasons, 28.7 points, 12.1 rebounds a game.

Mel Daniels, Minnesota/Indiana/Memphis — eight seasons, 18.7 points, 15.1 rebounds a game, one of the keys to three Pacers titles.

Roger Brown, Indiana/Memphis/Utah — nine seasons, eight with Pacers, 17.4 ppg, once made 21 straight shots over three games

Rick Barry, Oakland/Washington/New York — four seasons, first to jump from NBA to ABA, 30.5 ppg.

George Gervin, Virginia/SanAntonio — five seasons, 21.9 ppg.

Zelmo Beaty, Utah — four seasons, jumped from Atlanta Hawks to Stars, 19.1 points, 11.6 rebounds a game.

George McGinnis, Indiana — four seasons, 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds a game.

The team was chosen by Jim Terhune, with input from retired broadcaster Van Vance, retired coach Lloyd Gardner and Al Benninger, who worked on the UofL stats crew for 46 years, 35 as crew chief.
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