The Kentucky Cornels: Kentucky’s Only Professional Franchise

Posted on July 20, 2016 by Adam Flanders

For decades there has been speculation and push for an NBA team here in Louisville. Studies done by the American City Business Journal in 2014 have pointed out that Louisville is an ideal city for a current NBA team looking to relocate. Louisville has had its fair share of awful  attempts of hosting semi-pro basketball since the city’s only professional basketball team folded in 1975. These teams included the CatBirds in the 1980s, the Louisville Shooters in the early 1990’s - playing only one season, and of course the very short-lived relaunch of the famed Kentucky Cornels in the early 2000’s. The consistent rise and fall of past teams leaves a shred of hope that one day professional basketball would have a home here once again. Here is the story of Kentucky’s only professional team, the Kentucky Cornels.

 

The Kentucky Cornels began play in the American Basketball Association in 1967. In the early years, the team was known more for it’s publicity stunts than it’s play on the court. Most notably, the Cornels signed Penny Ann Early, famously known for being the first woman to be a licensed jockey in 1968. Having never played basketball before, the owners expected that she play anyway. Reluctantly, coach Gene Rhodes put her in for an inbound play against the Los Angeles Stars, and then immediately took her out. Though she only played mere seconds, she stepped off the court to a standing ovation; signing hundreds of autographs after the game.

At the beginning of the 1971 ABA season, the team signed two local Kentucky stars. Louie Dampier, a UK grad, and Darel Carrier, a WKU grad. These two were some of the best long range shooters of their time. This signified the end to publicity era. These kids meant business. The team fell short in the 1971 championship series, losing to the Utah Stars in seven games. The next season the Cornels had a good run in the playoffs, but the same result unfolded, with a seven game losing streak to the Indiana Pacers.

Despite a wild offseason that almost caused the team to relocate to Cincinnati, 1975 would be the year that the Cornels would finally break through to win an ABA title. Thanks to new owner John Y.  Brown, who also owned Kentucky Friend Chicken and was a future Kentucky governor, plus new hired coach Hubie Brown, a former NBA assistant; the team would finally beat their arch rivals the Indiana Pacers four to one in a best of seven series.

The ABA eventually merged with the NBA in 1976, leaving the Cornels out in the cold as one of two teams who were not selected to join the NBA. The legacy of the Kentucky Cornels may be one that is a bit wacky and weird, but one thing is for sure. The franchise didn't disappoint in the entertainment category. Professional basketball has been absent from the state of Kentucky for forty one years now. Rumors of the city of Louisville being a perfect relocation spot for a current franchise has been big gossip. Is it time for the Kentucky Cornels professional team to be reborn once again or are they lost in state sports history?


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