Louisville could have been home to an NBA franchise, if not for Rick Pitino and Tom Jurich.
On Wednesday, Bloomberg released a long exposé on Louisville basketball and its relationship with adidas in wake of the scandal that brought down Pitino and Jurich, the head coach and athletic director, respectively, until a few months ago.
Their impact wasn’t solely felt in college basketball. According to the piece, the NBA had designs on moving the Charlotte Hornets franchise to Louisville in 2002, but was effectively blocked by Pitino and Jurich.
The Hornets wound up moving to New Orleans, and are now the New Orleans Pelicans.
Around the time Pitino arrived, a group of Louisville businessmen and politicians were making a concerted effort to land an NBA team. In part, this was a play for economic development. Louisville could see how pro football and hockey helped revitalize Nashville. But it also came just as much from a desire for respect. The city burghers even had a nonbinding agreement with the Charlotte Hornets, which wanted to relocate. The plan centered around building a downtown arena that the Hornets and the Cardinals would share.
Jurich and Pitino had other ideas. They had no intention of sharing an arena with an NBA team—they didn’t even want to share the city with an NBA team. Louisville was theirs. David Stern, who was then commissioner of the NBA, recalls thinking, “If Rick Pitino doesn’t want us there, why are we going there?” The Hornets went to New Orleans instead.
Not only did Louisville miss out on the NBA franchise, but it went forward with the proposed arena anyway. That became Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center.
Louisville city leaders decided to proceed with an arena anyway, hoping to use it as a centerpiece for downtown development. To help pay for it, the city gave the area around the arena a designation that allowed it to use property tax increases to pay bondholders. Louisville-based Yum! Brands Inc., which owns KFC, Pizza Hut, and other fast-food companies, paid $13.5 million over 10 years for the naming rights. But the arena also needed a tenant, and there was only one possibility: the Cardinals.
The arena deal turned out to be hilariously one-sided, with Louisville almost exclusively cashing in on revenue despite getting a major favorite from the city.
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