The facility was built as a memorial to Kentuckians who had died in World War I, World War II and the Korean War. Later, the names of all Kentuckians who died in the Vietnam War were added. Originally, it had an official capacity of 12,000, making it the largest arena in the South at the time. However, the Coliseum frequently drew crowds of over 13,000 for many UK basketball games. A major renovation, completed in 1990, reduced the seating capacity to its current total of 10,000 and added an elaborate weight training facility, new offices for the basketball and athletics programs, a players' lounge, and a team meeting room. The seating is now mostly located on the sidelines, and the men's NCAA basketball championship banners still hang on the walls. The building is known for its air of great tradition. While it was the home of the UK men's basketball team, it hosted the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament ten times, four times as a regional site (1957, 1958, 1967, 1968) and six more as a sub-regional site (1955, 1959, 1960, 1962, 1967, 1975). As home to the University of Kentucky Wildcats, it saw two NCAA men's basketball national championship teams (1951, 1958), two NCAA men's basketball runner-up teams (1966, 1975), one NIT Men's Basketball champion (1976), and 16 Southeastern Conference (SEC) Men's Basketball regular season champions. Overall, in 26 seasons (1950-51 to 1975-76), the University of Kentucky Wildcats men's basketball team posted a home record of 307–38 (.890). Memorial hosted a first-round game in the 2009 National Invitation Tournament on March 17, 2009 between the Wildcats and the UNLV Running Rebels, with the Wildcats winning 70–60. The game was held at Memorial instead of Rupp Arena due to a scheduling conflict with the KHSAA boys' high school basketball state tournament scheduled at Rupp that week.
The Coliseum was also the home of the Kentucky Boys' Sweet Sixteen State Basketball Tournament from 1951 to 1964. Since then, it has hosted numerous high school basketball tournaments over the years.
The Coliseum stands across the street from the former site of Stoll Field/McLean Stadium, the football team's home before moving to Commonwealth Stadium in 1973. Prior to the building of the Coliseum, the Kentucky basketball teams played at Alumni Gymnasium, a 2,800-seat arena built in 1924 and still standing just down the street.
^ ab"Memorial Coliseum". University of Kentucky. Retrieved 2010-03-12. "A one million dollar renovation was completed in 1990, when a state-of-the-art weight training facility, new basketball and athletics administration offices, a players' lounge, and a team meeting room were added. As a result of the renovation, the seating capacity was reduced from 12,000 to 10,000."