As the NBA lockout nears the two week mark, players, managers and owners are no longer in talks about their franchises. For over thirty years, Louisville attorney J. Bruce Miller has been in talks to bring an NBA franchise to the city. But his latest attempt will most likely be his last. Bruce Miller’s law office is a hybrid of two of his fascinations: Greek culture and professional basketball. Behind his desk sits a model of the Parthenon. Strewn around his office he has basketball jerseys and other basketball paraphernalia. Miller has white hair and speaks with a slight southern twang. When I spoke to him, he was wearing an NBA lapel pin on his suit.
Bruce Miller’s obsession with professional basketball started when there were two pro basketball leagues—the ABA and the NBA—and Kentucky still had a professional basketball team: the Kentucky Colonels.
A year after the Colonels overcame the Indiana Pacers in the 1975 ABA Championship, the NBA absorbed the league. Miller was in talks to preserve the Colonels with the NBA’s outside counsel, David Stern, who is now NBA commissioner.
At the end of the talks, the NBA took 4 ABA teams. The Colonels were left behind.
Since then, Miller has put an enormous amount of effort and capital into bringing a team back.
“I maxed out on credit cards and lost a 13 man law firm,” Miller said. “I was spending morning, noon, and night. We lost businesses as a result of it. [I was] A million and a half dollars in debt, had spent my retirement. I was angry about it.”
Miller was closest to reaching his goal in 2001, when the Charlotte Hornets wanted to relocate. The team eventually chose New Orleans over Louisville. The team struggled and is now owned by the league. To survive, it will have to be purchased by local investors in New Orleans, or moved to another city.
Miller met with Stern in February to again discuss moving the Hornets, but says he hasn’t heard anything since because of the lockout. Miller says Stern doesn’t want conversations about the vast sums of money an NBA franchise is worth while negotiations are being made about players’ salaries.
There are a lot of people who say Miller is wasting his time. Kentucky is a state in which the red and blue of Republicans and Democrats pales in comparison to the red and blue of the Cards and Cats. Many worry an NBA team would take away from college basketball.
Another argument is that the city and state aren’t wealthy enough. That’s one University of Louisville Coach Rick Pitino has echoed at numerous press conferences.
“Louisville can’t afford it,” Pitino said at a press conference. “The NBA isn’t coming to Louisville, David Stern doesn’t want it. Before you have these wacky ideas, you have to talk to the commissioner.”
But Pitino has recently taken a step back from those views.
“The NBA would be lucky to be in Louisville. Lucky,” Pitino remarked at a press conference before a game against Rutgers. ”But this is a poor state, there’s no question about it. Think about these prices, there are few people who could afford it.”
But it’s not clear that’s the case, at least according to a study that examined the issue.
“We’re not personally putting weights on how important income is versus population, the data is doing that using current NBA franchises,” said University of San Francisco professor Dr. Daniel Rascher.
Rascher co-authored a 2004 study that assessed the viability of NBA teams in various cities. It found Louisville to be the best out of the markets that don’t have teams and better than a few that currently do.
“It’s kind of a rough scale, but it ranked ahead of Memphis,” he said.
Miller holds up that study to validate his efforts. He paints those against his plan as people who view Louisville as a college town, holding it back from becoming a player in the global economy. He sees the NBA as Louisville’s ticket to the big-time.
Miller’s detractors write him off as Louisville’s Captain Ahab, scouring the seas aimlessly for his white whale, an NBA team.
Miller says he has eager investors this time, but if the deal doesn’t happen this year or next, it probably never will — at least not with him behind it.
“I’m 70 years old, on top of it,” Miller said, looking uncharacteristically weary. “When you’re 50, there’s a lot of time to straighten out a mistake. When you’re 70, there’s a lot less time.”