Here is how the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels lead to the NBA and Donald Sterling, and it isn’t pretty.


Bear with me. I’ll begin with an article that isn’t about sports, but opens with a look back at the scene almost 40 years ago when the Kentucky Colonels, owned by fried chicken magnate John Y. Brown (and his wife at the time, Ellie), won the team’s only American Basketball Association championship against its arch rival, the Indiana Pacers.

A tale of three cities: Is Louisville keeping up with its neighbors to the north and south?, by David A. Mann (Louisville Business First)

It was May 22, 1975.

Perhaps the best of times.

A crowd of 16,622 filed into Freedom Hall that evening to watch the Kentucky Colonels host the Indiana Pacers for the fifth game of the 1975 American Basketball Association championship finals.

The Colonels were ahead 3-1 in the best-of-seven series going into that Thursday night affair and were looking to close the deal. A few nights earlier the team had traveled to Indianapolis only to be dealt a 94-86 loss.

Denied again. But not for much longer …

 … That night fans in Freedom Hall celebrated feverishly after the Colonels won a 110-105 win to claim their first and only ABA championship.

Team owner Ellie Brown and then-Gov. Julian Carroll took to mid-court for a trophy presentation. And the crowd roared for players including Dan Issel, Artis Gilmore and Louie Dampier …

The ABA’s “merger” with the NBA came a year later, and the Colonels were not part of it, primarily because the wheeling, dealing sleazebag Brown had other machinations in mind. Bizarrely, there are fewer than six degrees of separation between the long-dead Kentucky Colonels and currently besieged Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling, via a man named Irv Levin … as illustrated here.

Clippers for Sale, and the Owner Who Was Desperate, by John Branch (New York Times)

 … So, between meetings, (Levin) worked out a deal with John Y. Brown, the owner of the (Buffalo) Braves.

Brown had made his fortune by buying Kentucky Fried Chicken from Harland Sanders in the 1960s, turning it into one of the country’s top fast-food chains, then selling it. He then owned the A.B.A.’s Kentucky Colonels. With Coach Hubie Brown and players like Dan Issel and Artis Gilmore, they won the 1975 A.B.A. championship.

But rather than spending several million dollars to join the N.B.A., Brown had accepted $3 million from the league to fold the Colonels. The money had helped him buy the Braves.

The Braves made the playoffs three years in a row, from 1974 to 1976, under Coach Jack Ramsay with a roster that included Bob McAdoo, Randy Smith and Ernie DiGregorio.

But by 1978, after two years of hands-on ownership by Brown, they were losing and looking to move. Dallas, Miami, Birmingham, Ala., and Minneapolis were reported as possible destinations.

Levin and Brown had a brazen plan: Swap franchises. Brown would get the Celtics. Levin would get the Braves and move them immediately to San Diego. No money would change hands. The deal was announced on June 29, 1978.

Later, Sterling bought the Clippers from Levin, promised to keep the team in San Diego, and promptly moved it to Los Angeles, where he enjoyed exactly one winning season in his first 23 years at the helm, while making money hand over fist … not unlike a slumlord.

Brown’s career as a soulless huckster, ranging from disgusting franchised fast food to inept sports management — and not to forget a thoroughly dismal term as governor of Kentucky — has always repelled me, but in the context of the preceding, deals engineered by Brown (Colonels to Braves to Celtics), Levin (he made money off the Clippers sale, after all) and Sterling (a $13 million investment now is worth close to a billion) pale in comparison with the all-time champions, Ozzie and Daniel Silna, who quite literally have made money from nothing.

255 million reasons why this is the shrewdest deal in American sports history.