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Wait, Northern Kentucky Almost Had an NBA Team?

An interesting chain of events nearly landed a National Basketball Association team in Northern Kentucky.

The year was 1989 and the NBA's Seattle Supersonics were fed up with their facility, then known as the Seattle Center Coliseum. Team owner Barry Ackerman said that he wanted to keep the team in Seattle, but that he needed a new arena. City officials were not all the way on board with such a proposal, so the rumors began about relocating the team.

In the hills of Kentucky, a Lexington developer named Dudley Webb became extremely interested in the prospects of returning pro basketball to the Bluegrass State. Webb identified Northern Kentucky as the desired destination of the Sonics and moved aggressively to get the ball rolling in that direction.

Webb was widely quoted in publications across the county about his efforts to court a team to Cincinnati, possibly basing it in Northern Kentucky.

Cincinnati sports-radio host Andy Furman has been an outspoken advocate for having an NBA team in the area for decades. In the late 1980's, Furman had rallied a group of investors and politicians to seriously examine the possibilities of landing a team.

A preseason exhibition game was held that year at what was then the Coliseum in Cincinnati and local organizers brought in Florida businessman Les Alexander, who was interested in purchasing an NBA team, to tour the facility. It was reported that the Coliseum's owners were open to expanding the facility should an NBA team play there, but Alexander was unimpressed with the arena, and even called it a dump, according to Furman.

Alexander went on to buy the Houston Rockets in 1993.

Meanwhile, representatives from Northern Kentucky University had been in Frankfort trying to secure state funding for a new arena for the school and the region as a whole. That's when Furman caught wind of the arena plans, and began banging the drum about a team in Northern Kentucky. The arena could have been either 10,000 seats to accommodate the school, or 19,000 seats for both the school and a professional basketball team.

“Andy, on his sports talk show, started to muse his opinion that the Coliseum wasn't the right fit for an NBA team, but if Northern Kentucky got this supposed arena funded then maybe an NBA team could play in the new arena in Northern Kentucky,” said Rick Meyers, former Vice President of Communications for NKU.

“It started the impetus, I really believe, to get the Bank of Kentucky Center built,” Furman said.

After the Coliseum had been ruled out, reports of the new arena in Northern Kentucky began to surface, one that could have been shared between NKU and possibly the Supersonics or another NBA team. It came down to a decision by the Kentucky General Assembly which apparently had some political gamesmanship involved in ruling of the arena.

“Of course, Northern Kentucky had the arena in the budget,” said Rick Meyers. “But the Northern Kentucky legislators voted against (the Kentucky Education Reform Act), which was the big educational legislature in that particular session, which force-funded poor school districts at the expense of large school districts and the Northern Kentucky people voted against it. When they did that, the governor and the legislature at the time said, Okay if you're not going to vote for it, we're going to take the arena away from you.”

An arena would not open at Northern Kentucky University until 2007 when the Bank of Kentucky Center began hosting Norse sporting events just before the school transitioned to NCAA Division I athletics.

“They decided to go with a 9,000-seat arena, which they have right now, so that's not any good for an NBA team,” said Furman. “I mean, you have to have at least 17,000, 18,000. So there was talk of expansion if it would have happened, but I'm happy NKU got the arena and it's going to be used solely for NKU.”

Now twenty-five years later, Furman says he is still working on getting the NBA to the Bluegrass State but with a group of organizers in Louisville instead. The group hopes to bring a team there which has the NBA-ready KFC Yum! Center that seats over 22,000.

“The NBA TV contract runs out 2015-16, and it looks like the NBA is going to expand to two more teams. They're talking about Seattle and one other team and I figure that other team may be Louisville,” Furman said.

As for any NBA in Northern Kentucky, there are certainly no plans in the works to build a big enough facility to lure a team to the area any time soon, especially with other cities in the same state in line that are better equipped to handle a pro team. Perhaps in the next 25 years that will have changed, but for now, the Northern Kentucky Supersonics remains in the "what-if" category. 

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Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor